Paul Celan, Breathturn into Timestead: The Collected Later Poetry.
If the Romanian-born poet Paul Celan were a compass point, he would be north. He has long represented a kind of absolute of what poetry is capable of, and stands as an exemplary figure for other poets, many of whom have incorporated aspects of his work into their own. In the postwar years until his suicide in 1970, he extended conceptions of what poetry could be and do, drawing radical conclusions as to what it meant to continue the tradition of the German lyric even though he was using the language of those who had murdered his mother and father and attempted to eradicate his people entirely. It is often assumed that this amounted to a dismantling of German, a way of writing it that worked against its natural proclivities and patterns, but in fact it is at least as accurate to say that Celan worked with and in German, revealing expressive seams and veins that had hitherto lain neglected.
Around 1960 Paul Celan began making notes for a lecture on the "darkness or obscurity of the poetic," which was soon superseded by his being awarded the 1960 Biichner Prize, Germany's main literary award, which he accepted. This necessitated a speech, and several of the assembled thoughts and formulations for the lecture were adapted into what became his most important statement on his poetics and on his life as a poet. But the core idea of the darkness (Dunkelheit) of poetry wasri t really developed in the Biichner Prize address, better known under its title, The Meridian. Possibly the original idea had been to explore a particular aspect of (his) poetry, which then got subsumed in the larger statement or exploration; possibly one should regard the abandonment of the theme as an indication that he wished to pursue it no further; but the idea of poetry, and particularly Celan s poetry, bearing or concealing an intrinsic darkness, something that inhabits it that cannot be elucidated or dispersed, something without which it would not be what it is, still seems a useful way of approaching Celan's work. This is not of course to say that nothing about it can be elucidated--as Pierre Joris's new translation and edition shows, that is far from the case--but that it brings with it an essential darkness or obscurity that will always have to remain part of any interpretation. The sources and allusions that a commentary can point to are part of the darkness into which the poems enter (and which we enter as we read), but which they also hold.
Celan's insistence on the darkness of lyric can be read through his quarrel and fascination with Heidegger, whose thinking about poetry and being makes much of the term Lichtunga. "clearing," which more prominently than English carries with it the word for "light." Poetry for Heidegger takes us toward a "clearing," a light place that only exists because of the darkness of the woods around it, threaded by paths, some of which lead into the clearing and some of which peter out at woodcutters' piles. The term implies transfiguration and reconciliation, in the broadest sense an emergence from the "dark wood" into a place of openness where "being" can enter into itself, where it can dwell. Celan is suspicious of these implications even as he is interested in them, and so prefers to emphasize the intrinsic darkness of the poem; but that is not to say that clarity and a preoccupation with light are absent. Several of the poems even seem to lead toward a lightness or clarity, such as the wellknown poem "Eroded" ("Weggebeizt"), which arrives at
a breathcrystal, your unalterable testimony
or "Slickensides" ("Harnischstriemen"), which ends "Northtrue. Southbright" ("Nordwahr. Sudhell"), both of these from the volume Atemwende (Breathturn, 1967). But the word Lichtzwang (which Joris gives as "lightduress"), first used in the poem "We already lay" ("Wir lagen") and then as the title for Celan's last authorized volume (prepared before his death in 1970 and published a few months later), makes light seem less desirable, and in the poem it ends appears to prevent a positive "darkening" movement of recovery or sympathy:
But we could not darken over toward you: there reigned lightduress.
This large and handsome book of Celan's "later" poetry gathers all the published work from Breathturn onwards, that is, five substantial collections, plus a cycle--Eingedunkelt (1968), rather questionably translated by Joris as Tenebrae'd, though he does indicate that a "more obvious" possibility would be Endarkened--which Celan published separately. This is work written from late 1963 onwards, and Joris presents it as constituting a turn away from the earlier work, the most obvious signs of which are shorter lines, shorter poems, and a "through-composed" style where the poems form (usually chronologically arranged) cycles rather than standing on their own with separate titles. The volume that preceded Breathturn, Die Niemandsrose (Nobody's Rose, 1963), is generally made up of much longer poems, richer in texture and more literary in their allusions--a significant aspect of the collection is a dialogue with Osip Mandelstam, and Celan's French context--from 1948 he made his home in Paris--is also very apparent. From Breathturn onwards, references and allusions are essentially of a private or at least far less obvious nature: Celan's reading is still a large component of the poems, but it is not of a sort that anyone can be expected to notice immediately; the sources are too various and multiple. Favored sources of words are geological handbooks and newspapers. Many of these have been painstakingly identified--especially by Barbara Wiedemann, whose complete edition of the poems Joris rightly makes liberal use of--but it is axiomatic for a reading of Celan that to trace a word back to its origin is not to determine its meaning in the new location in the poem. Celan was always on the lookout for new words, and what look like neologisms are often in fact, strictly speaking, not at all, even if in their new context they effectively function as if they were. In "Eroded" the words "Biifierschnee" ("penitent's snow"), "Gletscherstuben" ("glacierparlors") and "Gletschertischen" ("glacier-tables") are, as Joris points out, all bona fide geological terms. Joris complements this practice in his translations: the word "slickenside," while also geological in origin, doesn't correspond to the German term exactly, but it is "more interesting."
Breathturn into Timestead is a culmination of Joris's long engagement with Celan's poetry--he tells us that it has accompanied him "for some fifty years," and that he began translating Atemwende when it first appeared in 1967. It is evident that many years of work have gone into this book, which provides us not only with scrupulous and attentive English versions of all the poems, but extensive notes on matters such as dates, sources, and explications of uncommon words or combinations. Altogether this makes for an invaluable compendium of Celan lore, as well as giving insight into his working methods and his manner, especially in his later work, of alighting on words and using them as starting points for poems. Joris has made available to the English reader a significant part of the considerable help that was available to the reader of Celan in German, as well as adding insights of his own.
For all this help, however, reading Celan requires no less attention and has become no easier. The extra material is fascinating, but it almost needs to be forgotten again if one is to make one's way into the poems. Celan once quoted Malebranche, via Walter Benjamin, to the effect that "attention is the natural prayer of the soul," and certainly the attentiveness he demands of his readers is total. His advice to the reader was simply to "read and reread," whereupon understanding would "come of its own accord." In the idiom of the poems, we could take the imperative that closes one of the last to be written: "hor dich ein / mit dem Mund" ("listen your way in / with the mouth," as Joris faithfully has it). Reading these poems, like any others, is not a matter of figuring out the difficulties, elucidating the obscurities, resolving their questions, smoothing their rubs. It is more importantly one of taking part in them, finding your way into them, an intent listening to their silent hints and murmurings. To listen with the mouth is to voice what lies unspoken in the words, to feel your way through their textures and echoes. This is also what the work of translation entails, and it is, of course, in the translations that Joris's and our attention is most strongly focused.
The difficulties are very great: the title Fadensonnen, which Joris gives as Threadsuns, was translated by Ian Fairley as Fathomsuns, and there are hundreds of less prominent examples of possible divergences where the options presented by a German word cannot with any certainty be narrowed down. Perhaps one of the chief problems is how to deal with composite words, especially if they are also, or have the appearance of, neologisms. German is naturally rich in such words--many common words are made up of two elements that have clear and separate existences on their own. So Flugzeug means aeroplane, but literally "flight-thing"; Herzkammer means ventricle, but literally "heart-chamber." German carries its etymological roots much closer to the surface than most languages: many medical and scientific terms are made out of common elements where in English we tend to use a term from Latin or Greek. So when Celan invents a word such as "Pfeilschrift" (if indeed it is an invention), he is doing something very much within the domain of how German operates. Joris's way of handling these varies a bit, but on the whole he takes the Joycean route and gives us unhyphenated English equivalents, such as "arrowscript" for the last word quoted. The general effect of this is to make Celan appear odder than in fact he is: "lifetrees" is far stranger than "Lebensbaume," which could just be "trees of life"; and "screemace," for "Gerollkeule," seems barely legible. Perhaps it can be argued that one reads one's way into this too, and learns to negotiate a Celanian idiom, but I think there is a danger in making Celan seem more estranged and less in sympathy with the rhythms and laws of German than he is. In a few places, Joris even seems to want to out-Celan Celan, as when he takes the word "Schlafenzange," which as he comments in a note is an "immediately obvious" neologism deriving from the word for obstetric forceps, and turns it into "templeclamps." At another point, Joris winningly admits he "may be overplaying [his] hand," and his notes are useful also for the generous glimpses they give of the decisions involved in the processes of translation.
Altogether this is a fine and necessary volume, a labor of love and knowledge, and pretty much essential for anyone wanting to get to grips with late Celan. The poems here are moments of clarity, of in some ways Petrarchan "dark light," extracted from what Celan in late 1969 referred to as "the debris of my existence." They are often minute forms of words creating renewed possibilities, new holds on life, precise etchings of feeling, inquiries into the intelligence of language. With tact and surefootedness Joris has "listened in" and sent us reports from a terrain that often seems inaccessible or even uninhabitable but in fact can offer dwelling places, however temporary.