Restless Messengers: Poetry In Review

Paul Celan, Memory Rose into Threshold Speech: The Collected Early Poetry - A Bilingual Edition
Farrar Straus Giroux, 2020, $45.00
Translated and edited by Pierre Joris

Review by Timothy Quinn

How to write about a poet for whom language decays into silence? A poet writing in German, a language both alien and his own, the language of his mother and of his mother’s murderers? The task defied even his friend Edmond Jabès, who claimed in La memoire des mots: Comment je lis Paul Celan (Paris: Fourbis, 1990) that he had never spoken about Paul Celan. To read Celan is to be confronted by a language both direct and oblique, both ambiguous and of crystalline precision. Pierre Joris has dedicated the greater portion of his professional life seeking to translate and explain Celan’s poetry and prose in a way that preserves what we might call “the precision of its ambiguities.” Joris’ collection of Celan’s later poems, Breathturn into Timestead: The Collected Later Poetry, includes Celan’s final five books. The new volume, Memory Rose into Threshold Speech, brings Joris’ effort to translate the entire body of Celan’s work to a close, collecting the first five books of Celan’s poetry: Sand from the Urn (1948); Poppy and Memory (1952); Threshold to Threshold (1955); Speechwicket (1959); and No One’s Rose (1963). Joris’ lucid translations, along with his introductory comments and explanatory notes, make it possible now to inhabit the world of Celan’s poetry—not in order to speak about his poems, but through them and along with them. Adorno famously observed in 1949 that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Thanks to Joris’ heroic efforts, it is clear that Celan gives the lie to that judgment, proving instead how necessary, if not inevitable, poetry has become in the face of the Holocaust.

To begin, a brief biography. Paul Celan (1920-1970), an anagram for his given name, Ancel, began writing poems around 1938, the year of his first trip to Paris in pursuit of medical studies. Returning to his home, Czernowitz, at the outbreak of war, he began writing in earnest, studying Romance literature at the local university. In 1940 Czernowitz was occupied by Soviet troops; in 1941, the Nazis and their Romanian allies entered. Celan was sent to a forced labor camp, while his parents were deported to a different camp, where they were eventually murdered. In 1944, Celan returned to Czernowitz after the dissolution of his Arbeitslager, where, with the assistance of his friend, Ruth Kraft (née Lackner), he published his first collection of poems. (The original version of this collection was so marred by printer’s errors that Celan withdrew the book from publication. Joris has not included poems from this volume in the present collection.) At war’s end, Celan moved first to Bucharest and then to Vienna, before returning to Paris in 1948; it is in Bucharest that he composed what has become perhaps his most celebrated poem, “Todesfugue.” It is also in Bucharest that he changed his name from Ancel to Celan. In Paris, he taught German literature and language at L’École Normale Supériore, working at the same time as a translator of poems by Marianne Moore, Emily Dickinson, Rimbaud, Artaud, and Baudelaire. Celan married in 1952; one year later, his first child, François, died shortly after childbirth. His son is born in 1955. In his final decade Celan found himself subject to a variety of torments. An episode from 1949—accusations of plagiarism by the widow of the poet Yvan Goll (which Celan aggressively denied) resurfaced in 1960 and persecuted him for the remainder of his life. Over time, the trauma of the Shoah, and especially of the death of his mother, combined with the pain of the “Goll Affair” to shatter him. In 1970 he succumbed to suicide.

These brief biographical details inform the mood of Celan’s poetry, his struggle for a place, for presence. Especially for readers more familiar with his later poetry, these early volumes reveal a Celan who, while recognizable, may not be entirely familiar, one still engaged with more conventional poetic forms and figures. One notices, to begin, Celan’s use of rhyme in a few of his early poems. For example, the first poem, “A Song in the Desert” (4) consists of three stanzas of four lines each, rhymed ABAB in each of the stanzas (Akra / Degen / Akra / entgegen // Akra / gingen / Akra / Ringen, etc). The second poem employs end rhymes as well (Joris’s translations do not attempt to duplicate these rhyme schemes, which would be extremely difficult to manage without mangling the meaning). One of his most lyrical poems is Breton Beach, from Schwelle zu Schwelle / Threshold to Threshold:

Gathered is what we saw,
from your and my leave-taking:
the sea that beached nights for us,
the sand that flew through them with us,
the rust-red heather above,
wherein the world happened for us. (105)

Joris’ translation intimates but does not capture the lyricism of the German, with its internal rhymes (Land / Sand) and metered lines. 

Another feature of these early poems is their narrative quality; Celan’s later allusive and elusive wordplay arrives only with the last volumes in this collection, Sprachgitter / Speechgrille and especially Niemandsrose / NoOnesRose. Consequently, the poetic line in the early poems tends to be longer than in the later poems, appropriate for their more narrative aspect. The narratives themselves are shaped and propelled by metaphors; at this early point, Celan is still writing under the spell of an aesthetic shaped by his reading of Rilke and of French surrealist poetry. Take, for example, the poem “Eternity,” from Poppy and Memory:

Rind of the nighttree, rustborn knives
whisper the names, time, and hearts to you.
A word that slept, when we heard it,
slips under the foliage:
autumn will be eloquent,
more eloquent, the hand, that gathers it,
fresh like the poppy of forgetting, the mouth that kisses it. (69)

These poems speak of an “I, a “we,” a “you,” familiars (lovers, friends?), not anonymous others. Thus, “From Darkness to Darkness” (Threshold to Threshold): “you opened your eyes—I see my darkness live” (101). The poet’s darkness lives in the darkness of the eyes into which he gazes; that darkness is his darkness, “there too it’s mine, and lives.” Or “Where There’s Ice,” from the same collection: “Where there’s ice, it’s cool for two / For two: so I let you come” (99). The remainder of this poem plays on the “two,” which becomes a “double name,” both the poet and his addressee, the poet seeing himself within his addressee, while remaining apart. Hence the final admonition:

Take this word—my eye spoke it to yours!
Take it, repeat it after me,
repeat it after me, say it slowly,
say it slowly, draw it out,
and your eye—keep it open the while! (101)

Often enough, the “you” addressed in the poems is Celan’s mother, who appears at times by name, at times in metaphor—hair, crystal, stone. “Aspen Tree” recalls the place of her imprisonment and death:

Aspen tree, your leaves gaze white into the dark.
My mother’s hair ne’er turned white.

Dandelion, so green is the Ukraine.
My fair-haired mother did not come home. (15)

The contrast between white and dark in the first stanza reminds us that Celan’s mother was murdered before she could grow old; her hair is a symbol for all that Celan lost. Women’s hair, in fact, is an image that Celan employs with notable frequency in these early poems; it is both metaphor and product of the Holocaust (as a visit to any Holocaust museum will remind us). Thus, “She combs her hair as one combs that of the dead: / she carries the blue shard under her shirt…You are the image the shard shows to her / when in contemplation she leans over this life” (73). 

Indeed, the trauma Celan suffered as a Holocaust survivor permeates these early poems, most famously in “Deathfugue”:

Black milk of morning we drink you evenings
we drink you at noon and mornings we drink you at night
we drink and we drink
We dig a grave in the air there one lies at ease
A man lives in the house he plays with the snakes he writes
he writes when it darkens to Deutschland your golden haired Margarete
he writes and steps in front of his house and the stars glisten and he whistles his
              dogs to come
he whistles his jews to appear let a grave be dug in the earth
he commands us play up for the dance (43)

Much has been written about this poem; allow but a few observations. Once again, the image of women’s hair appears (“your golden hair Margarete / Your ashen hair Shulamit”); Margarete, the heroine of Goethe’s Faust, and Shulamith, the beloved from Song of Songs, contrast Germans and Jews. At the same time, there is a wretchedly familiar association achieved through the assonantal rhyming of dogs, Rüden, and Jews, Jüden. There are, too, other pairings, some oxymoronic: “black milk of morning” drunk at evening; a grave dug in air and in earth. Each of these suggests a fracture, as does the fugal form itself. A fugue involves contrapuntal composition juxtaposing equal parts that nuance the main theme, section by section, typically consisting of about five sections. The five sections of “Deathfugue” follow a pattern similar to (but not slavishly mimicking) that of the classical fugue: a theme is stated, nuanced, broken, and restated in a way that confronts the broken version of itself. Each line in each stanza ends without punctuation; each line trails off and at the same time rushes headlong into the next, resting only with the repetition of the theme (“black milk of morning”) at the beginning of the following stanza. Celan revisited the structural complexities of the fugue again, in a poem of 1958, “Engführung” / “Stretto,” the name given the third section of a fugue. Stretto means “narrow” or “tight”; the third stretto portion of a fugue imitates the subject of the fugue in such a way that the answer offered in the second section enters before the subject is completed. The theme is squeezed and contracted. In “Stretto,” the stanzas collide, the final line of each recapitulated with a slight difference in the first line of the following stanza. As Joris’ notes indicate, Celan referred to “Stretto” (in a letter to Walter Höllerer) as a poem about “atomic death.” Between 1945 and 1958, the shape of death shifted for Celan, but not its immanence. 

Other, later poems revisit the Holocaust, often obliquely: by way of metaphor (for example, “black earth,” in Russian, evokes Czernowitz), allusions to Jewish mysticism and to Yiddish culture (the lovely “Havdalah” and “Benedicta” stand out), or to verses of Hölderlin’s (whom Heidegger had transfigured into an icon of German nationalist Geist, and who haunted Celan’s poetry). A particularly interesting theme to trace is Celan’s devotion to the Russian-Jewish poet Osip Mandelstam, to whom Celan dedicated the final work in this volume, Niemandsrose / NoOnesRose. Mandlestam was his spiritual brother; in 1959 Celan translated a selection of his poetry. To Celan, Mandelstam and he shared a similar fate, a Jewish fate (for Mandelstam, death in a Stalinist gulag, for Celan, near death in a Nazi labor camp)—and a poet’s fate. In fact, as Joris points out in his Introduction, Celan first coined an early version in his allusive compound word “NoOnesRose” (as Joris renders it) in a fragment of a poem about his kinship with Mandelstam. 

As was mentioned, a turning point in Celan’s poetry arrives with the final two volumes in this collection, Sprachgitter / Speechgrille and Niemandsrose / NoOnesRose. Here the reader starts to encounter the complex wordplay that would shape his later aesthetic. The turning point, occurring around 1958 (illustrated especially by his reworking of “Deathfugue” in the poem “Stretto”) is marked by his Bremen address. Speaking in German to a German audience about the German language, Celan writes:

It, language, remains, in fact, despite everything, unlost. But it had to pass through its own unanswered, pass through the thousand eclipses of fatal speech…. In this language, in those years and in the years after, I have sought to write poetry: in order to speak, in order to orient myself, in order to explore where I found myself and where I was going, to design reality for myself (translation mine).

For Celan, it was critical that he remain, not with his mother tongue, but with his mother’s tongue, and therefore with a constant reminder that “the poppy of forgetting” could not drug. But for the language to reemerge, redeemed from its former, “fatal speech,” Celan needed to disfigure it, to make it new by estranging it. Poetry, under the influence of Celan’s new aesthetic, became dialogic, “a form for the appearance of language…a message in a bottle.” Metaphor and narrative start to recede from Celan’s poetry, or are submerged beneath a semantic play at once familiar to his readers yet still uncanny. German lends itself especially well to this sort of disfiguration and refiguration, given the ease with which compounds can be formed. For Celan, the novel compound words juxtapose, violate familiar associations. The multiple allusions they contain are often extraordinarily complex. Joris, for example, spends nearly three pages of his introduction tracing the allusions evoked by Celan’s compound word Niemandsrose, the title of the final book in the collection, as they weave through the Jewish scripture, Ernst Bloch, Rilke, Mandelstam, and Kafka. Here are others: “Atemwegen / breathroutes,” “Atemmünze / breathcoin” (two-word constructs anticipating “Atemwende,” of the later poetry), “Sprachgitter” / “speechgrille,” “Windgerecht” / “windtrue.” 

Faced with such a fraught and freighted vocabulary, the translator would seem to have a near impossible task. Hitherto, the task had been undertaken with graceful results by John Felstiner (Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan, 2001) and by Michael Hamburger (Poems of Paul Celan, 1988). Above, I sampled the first stanza of Joris’ translation of Death Fugue; here are Felstiner’s and Hamburger’s versions:

Black milk of daybreak we drink it at evening
We drink it at midday and morning we drink it at night
We drink and we drink
We shovel a grave in the air there you won’t lie too cramped
A man lives in the house he plays with his vipers he writes
He writes when it grows dark to Deutschland your golden hair Marguerite
He writes it and steps out of doors and the stars are all sparkling
He whistles his hounds to come close
He whistles his Jews into rows has them shovel a grave in the ground
He orders us strike up and play for the dance. (Felstiner)

Now, Hamburger:

Black milk of daybreak we drink it at sundown
we drink it at noon in the morning we drink it at night
we drink and we drink it
we dig a grave in the breezes there one lies unconfined
A man lives in the house he plays with the serpents he writes
he writes when dusk falls to Germany your golden hair Margarete
he writes it and steps out of doors and the stars are flashing he whistles his pack
              out
he whistles his Jews out in earth has them dig for a grave
he commands us strike up for the dance.

There are things to appreciate in each of these versions. In the fourth line, both Hamburger and Joris translate the word schaufeln as “dig,” while Felstiner employs “shovels,” a word both more graphic and more akin to the sound of the German. For Lüften, Joris and Felstiner use “air,” while Hamburger uses “breezes”—appropriate, since the German is plural, and the English word “airs” harbors the wrong connotations. Felstiner’s translation of the final three lines of the first verse is again more graphic; the image of Jewish bands marching out slave laborers at Auschwitz comes more rapidly to mind than in either Joris’ or Hambuger’s versions. All three, then, offer various advantages and disadvantages; as was mentioned, Joris’ overall emphasis in his translations is on meaning, rather than the music of Celan’s verse, or the graphic force of his imagery. Where Joris’ book excels, however, is in his profound understanding of the poems themselves: their composition, their allusions, their sources and their intersections with other poems and other poets. Joris’ notes on the individual poems, as well as his excellent introduction, are a marvel of scholarship and analysis. Joris is especially well-suited for offering these elucidations; Joris’ translation of Celan’s principal statement concerning poetics, the Meridian lecture of 1960, demonstrates his mastery over the entire ambit of Celan’s thought and writing. Memory Rose into Threshold Speech, together with its companion volume of Celan’s later poems, is therefore an indispensable book for anyone wishing to be involved with Celan’s verse.

Post by Timothy Quinn on 6/19/2021 at 12:00 PM

Timothy Sean Quinn is a professor of philosophy at Xavier University, Cincinnati. He is the author of Apiqoros: The Last Essays of Salomon Maimon (Hebrew Union College Press, 2021) and has translated Ernst Jünger's correspondence with Martin Heidegger (Rowman and Littlefield, 2016).