poetry as metanoia

It is possible for words to fail us. We may arrive at a fork in the road, to a place on the map of our lives that the language crafted patiently by generations has not prepared us for.

Here, we realize, is a zone where silence is the most eloquent and appropriate expression. Here, the voices of the waters, the signs of the changing clouds, the signals of birds, the symbols unspoken by the delicate and clinging spiral of a leafy vine might be the only verbiage we can bear.

At this point, most forms of communication could tend make us nauseous, until we discover that a fellow-traveler has taken language into an inner forge, and imbued it with the heat of a private inferno, as did Paul Celan:

bolts of light:

A painting by Anselm Kiefer

dusk has 
the swimming word.

◊   ◊   ◊

THE CORDON OF DOVES cut through,
the blasted powers of blossoms,

charged with misdeed
the sought-for thing, soul.

◊   ◊   ◊

Paul Celan performed a necessary procedure of decimation upon the tongue. He wrote,

YOU ARE THROWING gold after me
I am drowning:
perhaps a fish can be

Such a poem does not leave room for compromise: after reading it, the reader and the language find themselves in a changed space, reaching, fumbling for an impossible response, like the narrator in Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane:

“I couldn’t get you to the ocean, but there was nothing stopping me bringing the ocean to you.”

Rolf Jacobsen, a Norwegian, found himself on the opposite side of the equation during the second World War. Because he he had published documents in support of the German occupiers, he was convicted of treason, and served several years of hard labor.  In his poems, I find the signs of the struggle with the compromising role that words had played in his past. I find even a strange kinship to the works of Celan.



Colors are words’ little sisters. They can’t become soldiers.
I’ve loved them secretly for a long time.
They have to stay home and hang up the sheer curtains
in our ordinary bedroom, kitchen and alcove.

I’m very close to young Crimson, and brown Sienna
but even closer to thoughtful Cobalt with her distant eyes and
un-trampled spirit.
We walk in dew.
The night sky and the southern oceans
are her possessions
and a tear-shaped pendant on her forehead:
the pearls of Cassiopeia.
We walk in dew on late nights.

But the others.
Meet them on a June morning at four o’clock
when they come rushing toward you,
on your way to a morning swim in the green cove’s spray.
Then you can sunbathe with them on the smooth rocks.
–Which one will you make yours?

–Rolf Jacobsen

Anselm Kiefer – After Oscar Wilde

Let us leave the last word to Celan:

to unstable things:

two fingers are snapping
in the abyss, a 
world is stirring
in the scratch-sheets, it all depends
on you.

–Paul Celan

The poems by Paul Celan were translated by Katharine Washburn and Margret Guillemin.

Posted by Jillian Parker


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