Channelling Paul Celan (2012)

Rabbit 5 The RARE Issue (September 2012)

Channelling Paul Celan

Jean Daive: Under the Dome (2009)

I’ve just finished reading a curious little book called Under the Dome: Walks with Paul Celan, by a Belgian poet called Jean Daive. Daive got to know Celan in the last days of his life, when he was separated from his wife Gisèle and living at a loose end in Paris, trying to avoid yet another incarceration in the mental hospital.

One irritating aspect of Daive’s book – part of a larger autobiographical / essayistic project called La Condition d'infini [Condition of the infinite] – is the lack of exact information it actually gives us about Celan. Daive was in his twenties at the time, and rather self-obsessed (it was, after all, the late 1960s – the days of rage). He was clearly flattered by the older poet’s attentions, but has a tendency to concentrate his narrative on the matters that interest him most: Celan’s proposal to translate his first book Décimale blanche [White Decimal] into German, for instance.

At times one begins to question whether Daive really ever met Celan at all. The Celan in his pages is always going on about Kafka, Rilke, Tsvetayeva, like a walking signifier of the idea “Poet.” This brief exchange after Daive has been to visit him in the hospital, for instance:
When I leave Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois that I too experience as a prison house, a feeling of freedom washes over me. Between the road and the hospital, a peaceful space, a meadow slopes towards an absence of walls. When I point this out to him:
– No more need for walls, no more need for barbed wire as in the concentration camps. The incarceration is chemical. The prisoner is chemical: he cannot take two steps on his own. But he can look at the outside. He can talk, right…. [sic. – for “write”?] (Daive, 24)

I suppose the suspicion is unjustified. Celan did, after all, end up translating that book of Daive’s: so much is on the historical record. They must have walked and talked together. Nor is it really Daive’s fault that our obsession with Paul Celan has grown so great that this one section of a larger work has been translated into English independently of the rest, and is now being presented solely as a contribution to Celan studies.

It doesn’t help that the entire book is composed of short, disjointed aphorisms and paragraphs, divorced from context or chronology, giving the sense of a great many conversations, a great many walks, but not really committing itself to how many, or exactly when they took place.

One can’t really ignore Daive’s book, then, but nor can one entirely trust it. Too much of it seems composed long after the fact – fudged up from the known facts and experiences of Celan’s life. This account of a translation session, for example:
Paul Celan signals refusal, distance, perhaps rejection. He remains deliberately absent. I sit at the table; he, at a slant, both hands on the table top. His lips move. Then his right hand and thumb hold his left wrist. Time passes. He counts the time. His lips move, I gather that Paul Celan is taking his pulse and counting. Episode of a translation.
– For it is said, thou shalt translate on the seventh day.
– In which passage of the Bible is this written?
– A passage in my head.
– Ah.
– The seventh day is the day of language in pure suspense.
– And what does language do during the six preceding days?
– It gives in to duplication.
– You mean speaking doubles the world?
– Speaking doubles the world ... yes. (Daive, 114–15)

I’d like to believe all this, but could anyone remember so much dialogue, so precisely, after a gap of twenty-five years? (Sous la coupole [Under the Dome] first appeared in 1996). Perhaps he kept a journal.

I never met Paul Celan. I was seven years old when he committed suicide by drowning himself in the Seine in 1970. Nor did I really start to notice him as a poet till I’d spent years poring over Kafka and Rilke – my favourites among the modern German writers.

It was, in fact, on or about the 27th of July, 1990, that I first started to read Paul Celan more attentively (beyond the obvious “Death Fugue”). How can I be so precise? Well, that is one of the benefits of dating your books as you buy them – something Celan himself knew very well: he was quite obsessive about noting the place and time of every draft of every one of his poems. So I can feel fairly sure that I was living in Edinburgh at the time, and that buying a copy of Michael Hamburger’s translation of Celan’s Selected Poems must have constituted some kind of victory lap on the completion of my Doctoral thesis on Latin-American literature …

I loved the poems immediately. Or, rather, I loved what I could make out of them through the medium of Hamburger’s version, which still seems to me one of the musical and deft attempts at a Celan in English. It didn’t hurt that Hamburger is himself a poet, and had served a long apprenticeship on many other German authors before committing himself to this work.

It’s strange. As I leaf through the book now, I find some little inserted pages of extra poems. I must have taken one of the later editions of Hamburger’s work out of the library and copied them. I have no memory at all of having done so, but perhaps that’s because my growing Celan obsession did not stand still at Hamburger. No, not at all.

The next exhibit on my shelves is the original 1983 five-volume standard edition of Celan’s complete works in German (in a paperback reprint). It was, I see, bought by me in Vienna on the 24th of August 1990. And what was I doing there? I was, in fact, on my honeymoon. My PhD thesis was being read back in the UK, but I’d just got married to a half-English, half-Belgian girl I’d met at Edinburgh University.

You’d think that we’d have had better things to do than hunt all over Vienna for a copy of Paul Celan – I still remember climbing off a bus tour of the city halfway through and cutting across town to the bookshop where we’d ordered it the day before. But it seemed very important at the time. It was nice to leaf through the first three volumes, which gave all his published works in poetry and prose. What really surprised and intrigued me, though, were the last two volumes, devoted (respectively) to dual-text versions of all his translations from French (volume 4: 885 pages), and other languages (volume 5: 665 pages).

The languages on display included English, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian and Russian. There were even a few translations from Hebrew. It wasn’t so much his linguistic erudition that struck me, though, as the extent of his commitment to the craft of translation. Looking through his versions of Rimbaud’s “Bateau ivre” or Marianne Moore’s “Poetry,” one had the sense of a poet whose technical command of both languages was almost unbounded. Give him the task of creating a facsimile of a pre-existing poem, whether it be by Guillaume Apollinaire, Osip Mandelstam or Emily Dickinson, and you could be sure of an air-tight, elegant, almost ego-less job.

Ten years went by. My wife returned home to Belgium from New Zealand. Shortly afterwards, we got divorced. I bought a copy of John Felstiner’s 1995 biography Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew on (I see) 20th October 2000.

By then, though, I’d started to lose my awe at the mere idea of the man. The immense tragedy of being Paul Celan, the vehicle of all that Holocaust mystique, the living refutation of Theodor Adorno’s famous aphorism at the impossibility (or is it immorality?) of writing lyric poetry after Auschwitz, began to shade off into the lineaments of an actual human being.

One help in that process was reading Israel Chalfen’s charming 1979 book Paul Celan: A Biography of His Youth. The examples Chalfen gives of early, Heine-esque lyrics by a young Romanian dreamer called Paul Antschel (“Celan,” his pseudonym, came later, after the war) allowed me to glimpse the shadow of a quite different writer: a rather predictable lyricist in the classic German mode, with a bent towards nostalgia.

“Paul Celan’s” later tormented, tortured experiments in syntax seem to have been not so much inspired by his experiences as a workcamp inmate on the Eastern front, as forced on him by his desire to avoid the slickness of official German: a monster language easily adaptable to monstrous realities. But it might not have been so at all. His life could have been so very different.

It sounds absurdly frivolous, but I began to wonder what sorts of people he’d really have liked to have spent time with, had things panned out differently. I thought of that Nic Roeg film Insignificance, where Marilyn Monroe, Albert Einstein, Senator McCarthy and Joe DiMaggio all meet in a New York hotel in 1954. I thought of Ken Russell’s Lisztomania, with the hapless Liszt being parachuted into Germany to wow his adoring fans.

The result was a sequence of poems called The Britney Suite, written in late 2000. You have to remember how golden Britney Spears looked then, having just released her second album, with that memorable video of the pyramids of Mars splitting open to reveal a red cat-suited Britney bopping to “Oops, I did it again …”

Her published utterances, too, were so fascinatingly empty, so full of Zen inscrutability: “Watching TV … or just staring at the wall is fun,” or “You can be a good person and still be sexy” (Katz, 6-7). Anyway, all of a sudden it seemed like a brilliant idea to bring the two of them, Britney and Paul, together – not physically, as in the play Nic Roeg based his film on, but in the virtual space of a random modern city.

I’d already worked on a couple of collaborations with film-maker and photographer Gabriel White, so we came up with the idea of a screenplay which would combine translations from Paul Celan’s bleak last book of poems Schneepart [Snow part], published posthumously in 1971, with similarly disturbing apparitions from popular culture.

Strangely enough – or not so strangely, in retrospect – our applications for funding for this opus were ignored, so instead I put out the poems as a tiny, limited-edition (and so now exceedingly rare) chapbook, with the five Celan translations I’d completed for the project being published separately in the magazine Percutio in 2006.

The first intimation I got that anyone else could be taking an interest in my own private games with Paul Celan – besides my friend Gabriel, that is – came when I decided to post the whole sequence online, on my blog The Imaginary Museum, in March 2007.

I included a short presentation I’d done as an introduction to the poems at a conference called “The Poetics of Exile” in July 2003. The paper, called “Meeting Paul Celan,” elicited the following comment:
Pierre Joris said...

Asked to contribute to an anthology called "My poem is my knife," Celan wrote back to the editor suggesting that for him, Celan, the poem "was a handshake" — i.e. an encounter. Which buttresses your sense of the importance of the encounter in Celan's work.
Maybe I have spent too much time these last 40 years thinking about Celan & translating his work, & maybe Celan's work has been too essential for my own writing for me to have a detached view on this, but the association of PC with Britney Spears makes me shudder ...

I have to say that it still gives me a bit of a shock to think of Pierre Joris, doyen of Celan scholars, bothering to leave a comment on a humble little blog run by some amateur Celanien in New Zealand. Nothing if not opinionated, though. I promptly replied in my best toplofty manner:
Jack Ross said...

I guess, in a way, that was the point I was trying to make. What ontological manoeuvrings could ever reconcile the universe of Celan with that of Britney Spears?
It would be a completely idle question if it didn't happen to be the universe I find myself living in every time I turn on the television or the computer ... I know it seems almost blasphemous to those who revere the memory of Celan – an attitude I sympathise with very much – but, as a writer, I guess I also have a duty to report the world I see around me. If it weren't jarring, it wouldn't make its point.

Shades of Jean Daive! The impudence of situating myself side by side with Celan as fellow “writers” … The really astonishing thing about it all, though, was the way at least one other reader came to my defence:
Kake said...

This is interesting. I don’t know anything about German or Paul Celan, but these versions obviously breathe without life-support and "Meeting Paul Celan" is a really useful introduction to them.
If Celan’s poetry articulates linguistic exile, then translation could be its ideal manifestation. Relying on a non-existent equivalence, translation tends to generate its own incidental ‘acts of non-communication’. Translating Celan must be like walking on a tightrope when you are constantly swatting the wire with your own balancing pole. Example: the word 'both-handed' only works because it sounds incompletely rendered into English. ‘Ambidextrous’ would have set completely the wrong tone and (I imagine) would have been incorrect anyway because some level of dissonance/ambiguity is the point.
I particularly like the choice of ‘Manukau’ for ‘Moldau’ – the geographical swap simultaneously directs and disorients the reader, and draws attention to the translation as an alteration.
Only just noticed the Star of David around Britney’s neck in the keith partridge y yo post.

And there the matter rested. For a while, at any rate.

I recently (September 3, 2011) put up another post on my blog called “Collecting Paul Celan.” It was an attempt to give a kind of annotated reading list for all the material about the poet I’d found useful to date. A good many of the books I included were bought by me in Melbourne when I was there last year giving yet another Celan paper (“The Twenty-Year Masterclass: Paul Celan’s Correspondence with Gisèle Celan-Lestrange, 1951-1970”) at yet another conference. This one, held at Monash University from 11-12 July, was called Literature and Translation.

There are (for example) at least three books of Celan’s letters now available in English (his correspondences with, respectively, the Nobel-prize-winning Holocaust poet Nelly Sachs; Ingeborg Bachmann, his lover in the 1940s in Vienna, before he moved to France; and Ilana Shmueli, a woman he knew as a child in Romania before the war, then met again in Israel in the 1960s.

Five of his eight books of poems have now been translated in their entirety: one of them, Fadensonnen (1968) in two separate versions. There are also volumes of selections from Celan by John Felstiner and Pierre Joris as well as Michael Hamburger. There’s even a translation of some early prose poems he wrote in Romanian in the late 1940s (perhaps in an attempt to sidestep German as his only possible literary language).

For more information, you can look at the post yourselves (details are included in “Works cited” at the end of this essay). In any case, I included a lot of pictures of the various books, together with a few editorial remarks. What was my surprise, then, to receive the following comment:
Pierre Joris said...

looking forward to hear what you have to say about the big MERIDIAN book (took me 7 years to translate it...). Glad to have your selection of Celaniana to send people to. & thanks for the good words re my translations. Wish you could be at the performance presentation “Paul Celan —Pierre Joris: Celebrating 45 Years of Translation & Reflection” I'll be giving at harvard in November, backed by Nicole Peyrafitte's audio-visual collages.

It’s true that I had said that “Joris has a good claim to be considered the most subtle living interpreter of Celan's poetry and thought,” when introducing his trilogy of versions of Celan’s three last books, as well as praising his one-volume selected works, but it was nice to know that I had – at least to some extent – repaired my gaffe with regards to Britney Spears.

I haven’t yet followed up with a post on Joris’s book-length translation of the drafts for Celan’s 1960 “Meridian” speech – the central statement on his aesthetics. One obstacle has been my lack of familiarity with nineteenth-century German dramatist Georg Büchner. Celan’s speech was made on the occasion of receiving the prestigious Büchner prize, and he was careful to couch his ideas almost entirely in terms taken from Büchner’s own work: his play Danton’s Death, his short story “Lenz,” and his somewhat better-known posthumous play Woyzeck (subject of a memorable film version by Werner Herzog, with Klaus Kinski playing the eponymous soldier-murderer).

More to the point, though, I have just completed a somewhat larger project: a complete translation of all the 90-odd poems included in the French edition of Celan’s letters to his wife – a kind of anthology of his work from first to last, but embellished by the vocabulary notes and (on occasion) complete literal French versions he made for her benefit. They’ll be appearing later this year, in a limited edition from Pania Press, together with a number of pictures by artist Emma Smith, and a preface by art historian Bronwyn Lloyd.

It’s taken me more than two years to put this set of translations together, and it seems to me at the moment the furthest extent of my involvement with any foreign-language poet. The strangest thing about it, though, is that having finished work on these versions, I still don’t feel much closer to a real knowledge of Paul Celan – the man or his poems.

The more books I read about him, the more time I spend on reading his work, the farther he seems to recede from me. I guess, in a sense, that’s why I enjoyed Jean Daive’s book so much. Daive (of course) has an incomparably better claim than I do to talk to us about his friend. But one can see in the fragmentary nature of his text how little all those snippets of conversation, those remembered meetings really added up to in the end:
There is no color in Paul's books (he also never wears colors). But there are all the nuances of white, black, gray.
– Pigeon gray – Paris gray, he says. [p.24]

What is that supposed to mean? Snow, whiteness, black marks on the snow, these are all potent images in Celan’s work (associated, we’re told, with his mother’s death in a Nazi concentration camp in the Ukraine). The colour red does come up quite often, though:
The trace
you witness here
was hammered in
redder than red

for instance, in the poem beginning “Dunstbänder-, Spruchbänder-Aufstand” [Banners of fog, of stencil, rise] from Atemwende [Breathturn] (Weidemann, 212) [my translation]. Or:
– I was in a hotel room in London when I saw God under my door: a ray, a streak of light. (Daive, 69)

Celan refers quite frequently to this event elsewhere. So did he actually repeat it to Daive, or did the latter simply add it into the mix from his own later reading? Who can know?

I suppose the point of these twenty years of reading Paul Celan, these ten years of struggling to interpret and translate his texts, is hard to sum up in a phrase. There are things about him which still puzzle and perturb me – reaches of experience almost unimaginable to someone as sheltered as me: as most of us, in fact. But I don’t find his thought, his fractured diction, particularly alienating. He seems, on the contrary, to speak to me directly.

I acknowledge how allusive he is – how necessary annotations and marginal comments can be to a deeper understanding of his work. The same is true of most poets, after all. There’s a tone, an ambience which surrounds him, though – what Jorge Luis Borges (speaking of aesthetics in general) called “this imminence of a revelation that does not occur” (Borges, 223).

I don’t how else to explain it than by trying to show it to you in action: in that early, much-translated poem “Matiére de Bretagne” [Matter of Britain], where the props of the Tristan story (the blood-red sail, the two Iseults) are deployed to produce an almost literal sense of haunting: the ghost of a life that might have been, of a world that might not have split from top to bottom, of a man who might not have had to drown in the icy waves of the Seine:
Gorselight, yellow, slopes
against the skyThorn
disinfects your woundsRing
out, it’s eveningNothing
crosses the sea to pray
The bloodred sheet sets sail for you

Arid, dried-out, bed
behind youScar-
embossedmilky inlets
in the vaseDate
stones underneath, furred blue
tufts of forgetfulness
your memory

(Do you know me
hands? I went
by the forked route you showed
me, my mouth spat pebbles, I walked
through snowdrifts, shadow – do you know me?)

Hands, the thorn-
burnt wound rings out
Hands, nothing, the sea
Hands, in the gorse-light
the bloody sheet
sets sail for you

you teach
your teach your hands
you teach your hands, you teach
you teach your hands
to sleep

Works cited:
  • Borges, Jorge Luis, “The Wall and the Books.” In Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings. Ed. Donald A. Yates & James E. Irby. Preface by André Maurois. 1964. Penguin Classics. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2000. 221-23.
  • Celan, Paul. Gesammelte Werke. 5 vols. Ed. Beda Allemann & Stefan Reichert. 1983. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Taschenbuch Verlag, 1986.
  • Celan, Paul. Selected Poems. Trans. Michael Hamburger. 1988. Penguin International Poets. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1990.
  • Daive, Jean. Under the Dome: Walks With Paul Celan. 1996. Trans. Rosmarie Waldrop. Série d'écriture, 22. Anyart, Providence: Burning Deck Press, 2009.
  • Katz, Marcelle. “Oops, she did it again …: An Interview with Britney Spears.” TV Guide (NZ) (October 13, 2000): 6-7.
  • Ross, Jack, Paul Celan, & Wendy Nu. The Britney Suite. Auckland: Perdrix Press, 2001. [Available at:]
  • Ross, Jack. “Paul Celan: Poems from Schneepart: Translations into English.” Percutio 1 (2006): 60-62. [Available at:]
  • Ross, Jack. “Meeting Paul Celan: A Paper presented at the Poetics of Exile conference, Auckland University (July 2003).” The Imaginary Museum (March 23, 2007). [Available at:]
  • Ross, Jack. “Celanie: 5 Versions from Paul Celan.” brief 41 (2010): 54-59.
  • Ross, Jack. “The Twenty-Year Masterclass: Paul Celan’s Correspondence with Gisèle Celan-Lestrange (1951-1970)." Literature and Translation conference, Monash University, Melbourne (11-12 July 2011). [Abstract available at:]
  • Ross, Jack. “Collecting Paul Celan.” The Imaginary Museum (September 3, 2011). [Available at:]
  • Weidemann, Barbara, ed. Paul Celan. Die Gedichte: Kommentierte Gesamtausgabe in einem Band. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2003.


Rabbit 5: The RARE Issue (Winter 2012): 118-31.

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Rabbit 5 (2012)

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