Paul Celan once wrote,
“There is nothing in the world for which a poet will give up writing, not even when he is a Jew and the language of his poems is German.”
Your Hand full of Hours, you came to me – and I said:
‘Your Hair is not brown.’
So you lifted it, lightly, onto the Balance of Grief, it was
Heavier than I…
They come to you on Ships, make it their load, then place it
on sale in the Markets of Lust –
You smile at me from the Depths, I weep at you from the
Scale that’s still light.I weep: Your hair is not brown, they offer Salt-Waves
of the Sea, and you give them spume.
You whisper: ‘They’re filling the World with me now, and for you
I’m still a Hollow-Way in the Heart!
You say: ‘Lay the Leaf-Work of Years beside you, it’s Time that you
came here and kissed me!
The Leaf-Work of Years is brown: your Hair is not brown.
The first impression that comes to my mind, regarding Celan’s work, is the word or concept of “holy.” What do I mean by that? I suppose I mean a revolutionary sort of purity, a wholeness which has emerged after/in spite of annihilation. For one cannot read Celan without pausing to remember the Holocaust, without realizing that his poems are candles which remain burning even after the houses of prayer have disappeared, and the poet himself has fallen silent.
But it would be a mistake to affix one label or category onto the writing of Celan. His writing does not fit into a tidy file box. No. It breaks open, like the shell of a seed; it refuses to be confined. It carves out a world unto itself.
There is something in Celan’s pithy, condensed phrases (not a word wasted) that reminds me a little of Emily Dickinson. His writing exhibits a strength that verges on the implosive. And yet, he is able to express himself with less restraint than she. His poems are wrenchingly sensual, and vulnerable.
No-man kneads us again out of earth and loam,
no-man spirits our Dust.
Praise to you, No-man.
For love of you
we will flower.
we were, we are, we shall
be still, flowering:
the Nothing-, the
With our Pistil soul-bright,
our Stamen heaven-torn,
our Corolla red
with the Violet-Word that we sang
over, O over
After reading the third poem below, I had this sudden vision of mid-20th century Europe as a great stone shelf with a scattering of chaotic, bloodied manuscripts and books, while on each end, standing erect like the pillars of Hercules, abide the tomes of Celan and Mandelstam.
Afternoon Of Circus And Citadel
In Brest, before the Fire-Hoops burning,
In the Tent, where Tigers sprang,
there I heard you, Finite, singing,
there I saw you, Mandelstam.
The Sky hung over the Roadstead,
the Gull, hung over the Crane.
The Finite sang there, the Constant –
you, the Gunboat, Baobab.
I hailed the Tricolor
with a Russian Word –
the Lost was Un-Lost,
the Heart Anchored there.
All translations in this post are from this source, attributed to A.S. Kline.
Celan works several wonders in my head. For now, I’ll only give my general impression, or rather a subsidiary thought. The poetry that is real and marvelous for me appears to be written by real and marvelous people. They are impressive souls, large souls. Poems complaining or yammering about merely this and that would be alien gibberish to those other ones, the impressive large souls. The poems of the real poets are concerned with forms of life and being beneath or above the merely tangible and the boring psychological. Something akin to the artistic spiritual floods through their poems, saturates phenomena with a quality of holy dreaming. Poems that don’t aspire to be the highest art — that don’t attempt to speak the Beethovian profound — are just words-as-transient-hobby. Celan’s poems speak a deep and wondrous spell of being.