on Breathturn Into Timestead: Collected Later Poetry of Paul Celan, trans. by Pierre Joris (Farrar Straus & Giroux)

“Paul Celan more than any other poet poised the word against its affiliations,” said Heather McHugh, one of several Anglophone translators of Celan’s poetry. Reading his work, one may also wonder if his words are poised against translators. In her introduction to Glottal Stops: 100 Poems, McHugh and co-translator Nikolai Popov wrote, “No one can reproduce in a language other than German Celan’s tragic relation to the language which was his instrument and life, a language that had remained silent through the horror.”

CelanB.jpgCelan was born Paul Antschel to Jewish German-speaking parents. The horror was their deaths after deportation from Czernowitz through orders of a Romanian governor to a work camp located 400 kilometers to the south. One account tells that on the night of June 27, 1942, having failed to convince his parents to leave their house and hide, Celan took shelter in a cosmetics factory. Returning to the house, he found it sealed, his parents gone. The father died of typhus later that fall; the mother was shot as unfit for work. “His heaviest guilt was a betrayal,” one of Celan’s later friends recalled.

The Czernowitz of his youth was host to several languages and cultures, but as Michael Hamburger, another of Celan’s translators, has pointed out, the city was “a German-speaking enclave that had been destroyed by the Germans. His German could not and must not be the German of his destroyers. That is one reason why he had to make a new language for himself, a language at once probing and groping, critical and innovative; and why the richer his verbal and formal resources grew, the more strictly he confined them to the orbit of his most urgent concerns.”

CelanCover.jpgDuring his own nineteen-month internment in a forced labor camp, Celan devised translations of Verlaine, Housman, Éluard and Shakespearean sonnets. He also learned Yiddish from fellow inmates – perhaps the source of his earliest insight into the reutilization of German. He returned to Czernowitz in 1944 (he either escaped or was released) with at least 75 original poems, not long before the Soviets occupied Romania. For two years, he lived in Bucharest where he wrote his most famous poem “Todesfugue” (“Death-fugue”); it was translated into Romanian and published in 1947 in a magazine called “Tango of Death.” There he became Paul “Celan,” an anagram of Ançel, the alternate spelling of Antschel. In July 1948, he arrived in Paris and lived there until his death by self-drowning in the Seine in 1970.

Celan’s first major collection of poems, Mohn und Gedächtnis, (Poppy and Memory) was published in 1948 by a German publisher. Although he became a French citizen in 1955 and circulated among writers and intellectuals there, no collection of his work in French translation appeared until after his death. But these early poems established his reputation among German readers and he was awarded the Bremen Literature Prize in 1958 and the Georg Büchner Prize in 1960. Academic critics and theorists tend to treat Celan hagiographically, but John Felstiner reminds us in his Paul Celan (1995) that “Celan was alert to Germany’s reception of his work and France’s neglect”:

“He once said to Yves Bonnefoy, ‘You are at home within your language, your reference points, among the books, the works you love. As for me, I am on the outside.’ Coming from a homeland that hardly existed anymore, writing for a German audience that he did not live among or trust, residing in France yet unvalued there, Paul Antschel-Celan’s native tongue itself was the only nation he could claim.”

CelanD.jpgIn the early 1960’s, Celan’s work advanced to its second and final stage. Pierre Joris has been the eminent translator of this period’s work, having published Breathturn in 1995 through Sun and Moon Press. (His first versions of these translations were included in his undergraduate thesis at Bard College in 1969.) Now, Joris returns with Breathturn Into Timestead, a magisterial accomplishment comprising the translations in Breathturn as well as the addition of Celan’s four final collections. In his introduction, Joris comments on the shift in Celan’s writings:

“His poems, which had always been highly complex but rather lush, with an abundance of near-surrealistic imagery and sometimes labyrinthine metaphoricity – though he vehemently denied the critics’ suggestion that his was a ‘hermetic’ poetry – were pared down, the syntax grew tighter and more spiny, and his trademark neologisms and telescoping of words increased, while the overall composition of the work become much more serial in nature.”

In 1958, Celan indicated that changes were pending in a reply to a questionnaire: “German poetry is going in a very different direction from French poetry … it can no longer speak the language which many willing ears seem to expect … it is a ‘greyer’ language, a language which wants to locate even its ‘musicality’ in such a way that it has nothing in common with ‘euphony’ which more or less blithely continued to sound alongside the greatest horrors.”

Where am I

The dangers, all,
with their appliance,
hickishly gamey,

the heavensfallow hoisted,

the losses, chalkmouthed – you
upright mouths, you tables! –
in the disangled town,
harnessed to glimmerhackneys,

goldtrace, counterheaved
goldtrace! --,

the bridges, overjoyed by the stream,

love, up there in the branch,
niggling at the coming-escaping,

the Great Light,
elevated to a spark,
on the right of the rings
and all gain.

To encounter Breathturn Into Timestead is inevitably to inquire after the profession of translation. “Radically dispossessed of any other reality, Celan had set out to create his own language,” writes Joris, “a language as absolutely exiled as he was himself. To try to translate it as if it was current, commonly spoken or available German – that is, to find a similarly current English of American Umgangssprache, or vernacular – would be to miss an essential aspect of the poetry, that of a linguistic undermining and displacement creating a multiperspectival mirroring that reticulates the polysemous meanings of the work.”

CelanC_0.jpgTranslation provided a significant part of Celan’s income – but it was also an essential, salvaging act, as his labor camp efforts suggest. His own name is a transmutation. He created renditions of work by Robert Frost and Marianne Moore, Apollinaire and Artaud, Mandelstam and Blok, Donne and Marvell, Dickinson and Ungaretti, Cioran and Pessoa, Michaux and Char, Picasso and Breton. The first German translations of several Simenon mysteries were his.

But among the first of his self-assignments was the translation of some poetry by Yvan Goll (1891-1950), the Alsatian Jewish poet then in poor health in Paris. Felstiner says this was “his first major undertaking as a translator of poetry” – and it did not turn out well. In 1953, Goll’s widow accused Celan of plagiarism, stating that lines in Celan’s first collection were lifted from Goll’s German works. Celan’s antagonists in Germany continued to revive this unsubstantiated charge through the 1960’s. Most hurtful to Celan was the attribution of a certain phrase, “the mills of death,” to Goll, as if Celan were incapable of coming up with his own grim metaphors for what and who murdered his parents.

“Mills of death” is hardly a complex trope (it refers to Auschwitz) – and I’ve long wondered if Celan’s more extensive, ultimate usage of neologisms and exploded context has something to do with the agony Goll’s widow put him through. The poems that followed after the shift around 1960 could be only his own creations. In any event, his mental health suffered for years in part because of the accusation and the unchanging biases of his enemies. As Felstiner tells it, “1964 brought another mishap, on the occasion of North Rhine-Westphalia’s awarding Celan its Art Prize. At the ceremony, spotting someone on the podium who had taken part in Claire Goll’s plagiarism campaign, ‘Paul jumped up with his face flushed, ran from the hall and declared he would not accept the prize.’”

With us, the
tossed about, yet

the one
not usurpable,

Joris’ exemplary translations -- supplemented by 200 pages of illuminating commentary and notes -- allow us to consider Celan’s wounded but many-sided psyche. The ambition to radically alter German poetry – to wrench it away from what “willing ears seem to expect” -- was streaked with hapless retribution. A “counterspell, stronger,” as Celan put it, but doomed. These are poems filled with ruptures, half-destroyed allusions, shrieking and enforced calm, stammering and strange assertion. Joris has persevered for decades alongside the ghost, shadow by shadow. Felstiner explains: “To uproot and rewrite Celan in translation runs the risk of alienating an already alien voice. Yet this voice needs translating because of its very obscurity.”

[Published December 2, 2014. 654 pages with bilingual versions. Includes 200 pages of commentary/notes. $40.00 hardcover]

Celan & avant garde

Pretty clear that PC wrote out of agonizing personal circumstance. Strange that he's adopted as hero by some of the supposed avant garde ie., those who dismiss personhood out of hand.

On Avant Derriere Etc

In the case of Celan, unless I'm mistaken, his special quality (much like Pessoa's) is informed by the breadth of his engagement with processing time. In such a fluid system many personhoods come and go. We read them on a river raft. We even watch them floating past. But it could just be that we didn't read the same avant-gardistes, or at least the ones that I read never convinced me all that much that they were really dismissing all forms of personhood. (Maybe just the forms they couldn't abide.) Crickey, hatred of the art...it's one thing to write theory; it's quite another to write a novel or a poem.

On Paul Celan

For so long thought
merely a poet of pain
usurped by his exile
so much of memory
escape and near-escape
(and he was right)
the Seine took him
and delivered him to the sea