Translated from the German by Michael Hamburger and Christopher Middleton
This selection first published 1972
But keep yes and no unsplit
I make no claims. I am not so presumptuous as to give an impression of having telescoped like a Galileo into Paul Celan’s poetic cosmos, his crumbling stars and dug up black holes, and a breathing, foaming spirit of life that is indestructible in the face of annihilation.
So all I will do here is hang on to that stony oppression bearing down on my soul by the ferocious power of his verse; what I will do here is convey something of the havoc wrought in me through a medium as lamentably limited as words on a computer screen.
It is not easy. Not many who have seen pain, misery, and death so up close are able to generate an intellectual distance that enables them to turn their harrowing experience into a language of poetry that purifies the misfortunes of existence in such a way as to transform them into a song – a song of death.
As I charted his poetic journey I discovered a person who was trying to unlive his experience by removing himself – the I – from his writings by subjecting the dialectic of suffering to meticulous, pristine forms that elevated his words far above the confines of ‘the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart’.
Here is Celan’s most well-known poem Fugue of Death which fits the epithet of terrible beauty to a tee. He captures his direct experience of a Jewish captive in Nazi death camps by turning it into ‘black milk’. (I am quoting first few lines with a link to the complete poem)
Black milk of daybreak we drink it at nightfall
we drink it at noon in the morning we drink it at night
drink it and drink it
we are digging a grave in the sky it is ample to lie there
A man in the house he plays with the serpents he writes
he writes when the night falls to Germany your golden
he writes it and walks from the house the stars glitter
he whistles his dogs up
he whistles his Jews out and orders a grave to be dug in
he commands us strike up for the dance
Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink in the mornings at noon we drink you at
drink you and drink you
“Thinner you grow, less knowable, finer”
Strangely, Paul Celan renounced Fugue of Death in his later years for being ‘too direct’ and hindered its republication, without success. His desire for writing absolute poetry, under the influence of French surrealism, led him to search for a more refined mode of expression. For this reason it becomes very difficult to interpret his later work with any degree of certainty. What he did was weave an intricate web of cryptic allusions and variegated images into which we – the readers – interpose our own bone-and-blood in order to make some sense of what is being conveyed. His later poems may be seen as prototypes of poetry, sort of a template that sets the limits of what can be known about human perversion, which we – the readers – are welcome to sully by interjecting our own plebeian suffering into it. For instance:
Speak, You Also
Speak, you also,
speak as the last,
have your say.
But keep yes and no unsplit,
And give your say this meaning:
give it the shade.
Give it shade enough,
give it as much
as you know has been dealt out between
midday and midday and midnight,
look how it all leaps alive –
where death is! Alive!
He speaks truly who speaks the shade.
But now shrinks the place where you stand:
Where now, stripped by shade, will you go?
Upward. Grope your way up.
Thinner you grow, less knowable, finer.
Finer: a thread by which
it wants to be lowered, the star:
to float further down, down below
where it sees itself gutter: on sand dunes
of wandering words.
Here is another poem that marks his new style.
The stone in the air, which I followed.
Your eye, as blind as the stone.
we baled the darkness empty, we found
the word that ascended summer:
Flower – a blind man’s word.
Your eye and mine:
Heart wall upon heart wall
adds petals to it.
One more word like this word, and the hammers
will swing over open ground.
One fascinating aspect of his illusive language is to deploy one word wonders which turn the reading of the preceding lines on its head and force us to readjust our perspective, and re-read it.
In Below, notice the ‘awakening’.
Led home into oblivion
the sociable talk of
our slow eyes.
Led home, syllable after syllable, shared
out among the dayblind dice, for which
the playing hand reaches out, large,
And the too much of my speaking:
heaped up round the little
crystal dressed in the style of your silence.
And look at these spine-tingling lines, a heartrending image of a captive who looks up but, instead of gazing in despair at the ceiling, feels the nearness of sky. From Language Mesh
Eye’s roundness between the bars.
Vibratile monad eyelid
propels itself upward,
releases a glance.
Iris, swimmer, dreamless and dreary:
the sky, heart-grey, must be near.
And, towards the end of the poem, he sees two puddles made by rain which, though within distance of a kiss, are like crippled mouths – beautiful image, simply brilliant!
The flagstones. On them,
close to each other, the two
mouthsfull of silence.