KR Reviews

“In Front of Strangers I Sing”: The Strange Intimacy of Paul Celan

Paul Celan. Memory Rose Into Threshold Speech. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020. 592 pages. $45.00.

The completion of Pierre Joris’s decades-spanning project of translating all of Paul Celan’s books—first with the later works in Breathturn into Timestead (2014) and now with Memory Rose into Threshold Speech (2020)—is an important event. More than almost any poet, Celan’s work profits from being read across collections. Reading the work across the decades, one is struck by Celan’s relentless devotion to the themes, motifs, and obsessions that he returns to again and again as he pushes his language further into a singularly beautiful intensity. Many US critics and poets have suggested that Celan is untranslatable because of the radical way he deforms and reforms the German language. This deformational aesthetic, as others (such as Anne Carson) have pointed out, creates a sense that the poems are already “translated” in the original. While this idea that poetry is “lost in translation” is pervasive in US poetry, it is antithetical to reading Celan’s work. Reading through all his books, it becomes clear that the translation-like deformations are at the core of Celan’s poetry. It is both the method and the subject matter of his poems of strange intimacy.

The tension between the apostrophic urge to make contact with a “you”—whether that is the reader or a person in the poet’s life—and feeling like this contact has to be made through—not despite—strangeness is at the heart of Celan’s poetics. Celan did not believe in an easy “accessibility” of simple language about conventional emotions. In his canonical “Meridian Speech,” Celan famously called for a poetry of “the counter word,” the word that resists expediency: “a word against the grain, the word which cuts the ‘string,’ which does not bow to the ‘bystanders and old warhorses of history.’ It is an act of freedom. It is a step.” Along the same lines, in another oft-quoted statement, Celan argued that “Reality is not simply there. It has to be searched for and won.” The way Celan “searched for” and “won” this “reality” was through the intricate and violent twists and turns of his poetry, which cuts and joins words together in startling neologisms, enjambs and interrupts, samples and rewrites. This strangeness is in many ways a kind of noisiness and distortion.

At the same time as Celan espoused this counter poetics, he always insisted that his poetry was not—as so frequently charged—hermetic. He famously responded to this charge by insisting that his poetry was no different from a “handshake.” This response may be a bit more complex than it first may appear when we consider how dense with metonymic “hands” his poems are: they signal an intensive intimacy. Celan further enacts this intimacy through hihs use of apostrophe—almost all of his poems are at some point addressed to or yearning for a “you.” As Jonathan Culler notes in his essay “Apostrophe,” apostrophe is a method of “intensification” that establishes the illusion of presence of an addressee, as well as credentials the poet as a kind of conjurer of presences, someone capable of speaking to the inanimate (for example, the “Western Wind”) or (importantly in Celan’s case) the dead. Apostrophe is a poetic tool used to create an impossible intimacy between poet and reader. Celan’s poems absorb us into a close relationship in which our fascination leaves us unguarded, vulnerable, but also utterly present.

Over and over in his work, Celan uses apostrophe to create an encounter and bring a distant—or dead—“you” into presence in the poem, though the exact identity of the “you” is almost always impossible to pin down. This is true from Celan’s first, extremely beautiful, surrealist book Poppy and Memory. Here is a brief sample of opening lines from this collection:

At night your body’s brown from God’s fever

For naught you draw hearts on the window

Your hair lacks lilacs, your face is mirror glass.

The hand full of hours, so did you come to me

Your hair hovers above the sea with the golden juniper

Many of these poems appear to be love poems (and scholars tend to see many of them as addresses to his lover Ingeborg Bachmann), but others appear to address his mother, and often the two seem blended through the repeated focus on hair. I would advise readers to follow Culler’s general advice (though he is writing about Percy Shelley) not to limit the identity of the apostrophic you, as doing so “reduces the strangeness” of apostrophe.[1] This becomes especially important in Celan’s poetry, since his poetry is both about and of this volatile strangeness. Through apostrophe, he stages his explorations of loss and presence.

In a book written in the aftermath of—and a response to—the Holocaust (wherein Celan’s mother and father were murdered), and one that contains the most canonical poem of the Holocaust, “Death Fugue” (which gets its own section in the first book), these poems take place against a devastating backdrop, inescapable no matter the poems’ other apparent aims. Celan often troubles the  relationship between “I” and “you.” The gorgeous “Nightbeam” (or “Night Ray” as it has often been translated) in particular predicts Celan’s entire oeuvre in its complex use of apostrophic presence. The poem begins with “The hair of my evening beloved burned most brightly. / To her I sent the coffin of made of the lightest wood.” The beloved is dead and absent and the speaker of the poem spends the next few lines travelling toward her.

Not until five lines from the end does the beloved become present in the poem as an apostrophic “you.” However, almost instantly the “you” is again allied with death and absence: “Now you are as young as a dead bird in March snow.” The “now” in that line is crucial. Culler argues that one key feature of the apostrophic poem is that, contrary to narrative, it always takes place in the illusion of presence and nowness. When the beloved becomes “you,” she is accompanied by “now” because the poem has gone from narrative to a lyrical-apostrophic now. We might read Celan’s apostrophic poetry as bringing the “you” into the “now.” Two lines later we find out that “you sleep.” With that,  the “you” disappears, making way for the beautiful but devastating ending: “I am lighter: I sing before strangers.”

This searching out of a volatile nowness becomes increasingly important to Celan’s work, particularly in the poems in the late collection Breathturn. Breathturn, as Joris notes in his introduction, was originally inspired by the work of his wife, Gisèle Celan-Lestrange, an etcher. The source of the book is their collaboration on a short book, Atemkristall, which featured his poems next to her etchings. In a letter to her, Celan writes: “In your etchings I recognize my poems: they go through them and are there still.” What he sees as a connection between the two artforms is the way they go “through”—a kind of violence that is perhaps more apparent in etchings, since the very act of etching is a kind of violent translation. In the second poem of Breathturn, the “undreamt” is indeed “etched”:

By the undreamt etched,
the sleeplessly wandered-through breadland
casts up the life mountain.

From its crumb
you knead a new our names

probe for
a place, through which I
can wake myself toward you,
the bright
hungercandle in mouth

The poem “kneads” and probes to awaken the speaker—and thus the apostrophic “you”—in a brightness. The commas and enjambed lines, which seem more like etchings than “crumbs,” abrupt and sharp, create the feeling of a violent, arduous struggle to “wake myself toward you,” to light the “hungercandle” in the mouth. The fact that the waking takes place “toward” the addressee is another hallmark of late Celan: anything can be made into a struggle, even waking up. Prepositions become more important than in any other poet’s work, a constant “countering” of the words.

To translate a poetry that is already translated in the original, already “lost” before the translator even gets started, is both liberating and difficult. Throughout these two volumes, Joris maintains a very definite approach: he privileges the semantic deformations of Celan’s work (over, for example, sonic qualities or lyricism). Some may argue that doing so makes the poetry needlessly confusing; others may say that Joris not only translates Celan from an (illusory) neutral position but that his translational method is itself influenced by Celan’s language-distortions. Joris brings the German deformations into noisy contact with the English language, calling attention to—rather than trying to smoothen out—Celan’s radical use of neologism (“undreamt,” “breadland,” “hungercandle”) and the complex syntax (“I / can wake myself toward you”). Joris’s work as a translator thus echoes Celan’s own poetic method: a kind of “waking” himself toward the English/American reader, not by ignoring but by activating the strangeness. This intimacy is not the result of any illusion of “translatability” or “accessibility” but instead through the deformations. The movement of translation—transgressing linguistic and cultural boundaries—is at the heart of Celan’s work and allows readers to enter this deformation zone, a place of strange intimacy.


[1] Culler 5