In 1970 Paul Celan revealed a single line in the Paris journal L’Ephémère: “La poésie ne s’impose plus, elle s’expose” — Poetry not imposes itself, it exposes itself. Exposure resonates all through Celan’s work: the remoted self, scarified by the horrific forces of historical past, exposes its wounds to the world in eloquent, gnarled, and deeply troubled word-shards. Celan is the central European poet of his second, for his work most searchingly registers the malign pressure of that black gap at the 2oth century’s middle — the Holocaust.

2020 marked the 100th anniversary of Celan’s beginning, to a German-speaking Jewish household in Bukovina (then half of Romania, now Ukraine). It additionally marked the 50th anniversary of his suicide in the Seine in Paris, the place he taught at the École normale supérieur. His truest homeland, paradoxically, was not a spot however fairly the German language — the language of the Nazis who had saved him in a compelled labor camp for 2 and a half years, who had murdered his dad and mom.

From 1967’s Atemwende (Breathturn) on, Celan’s later work is so deeply rooted in German — its capability for limitless agglutination, obscure technical and scientific vocabularies, archaic usages, etymological puns — that it appears to defy translation. Michael Hamburger, who produced high-quality English variations of Celan’s earlier verse, confessed that he discovered many of the late poems to be untranslatable, not merely as a result of of their polysemy and wordplay but in addition an “uncertainty as to what the poem is about that would have made translation little more than guesswork.” He felt that he wanted a sure mastery, a transparent understanding of the poem at hand, earlier than rendering it into English. 

No quantity of etymological information or background analysis, nonetheless, will make late Celan lucid or potential to grasp: the poems’ darkness, their obscurity of utterance is a component of their very nature. As literary critic George Steiner noticed in his essay “On Difficulty,” these poems confront us with “blank questions about the nature of human speech, about the status of significance, about the necessity and purpose of the construct which we have, with more or less rough and ready consensus, come to perceive as a poem.”

It’s by a species of Keatsian “negative capability” — which he defines as “when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason” — that the Luxembourg-American poet Pierre Joris, at house in avant-garde idioms the place readability and direct “meaning” are much less central than in Hamburger’s English custom, was in a position to translate the entire of Celan’s later poetry oeuvre. Joris’s translations, gathered in 2014 as Breathturn Into Timestead: The Collected Later Poetry (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), are English variations that purpose to breed all of the rebarbative strangeness of the German originals. 

What’s key to translating Celan, Joris acknowledges, isn’t a mastery of the poem’s that means, however a replica of the expertise the poem affords its reader — an emotional and sensory expertise that features a component of purely mental bafflement or frustration. “I cannot see any basic difference,” Celan wrote in 1960, “between a handshake and a poem.” A handshake is an expertise of shared human contact, of mutuality — however not primarily, and even essentially, of understanding or clear communication.

Joris has introduced his many years of Celan labor to an in depth with Microliths They Are, Little Stones: Posthumous Prose (Contra Mundum Press) and Memory Rose Into Threshold Speech (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), a translation of Celan’s earlier books of poetry. The centerpiece of any assortment of early Celan is, for higher or worse, “Deathfugue” (“Todesfuge”), written in 1945 and picked up in the 1952 quantity Poppy and Memory (Mohn und Gedächtnis). It is a bravura, nightmarish tour-de-force, a labor-camp scene in which a blue-eyed slavedriver orders his Jews to play music, to dig a grave in the air:

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night time
we drink you at midday we drink you evenings
we drink you and drink
a person lives in the home your golden hair Margarete
your ashen hair Shulamit he performs with the snakes
He calls out play dying extra sweetly dying is a grasp from Deutschland
he calls scrape these fiddles extra darkly then as smoke you’ll rise in the air
you then’ll have a grave in the clouds there you’ll lie comfortable

“Deathfugue”’s emphatic triple-meter underscores the fugal recombination of its grim parts: the black milk, the snakes, the digging. It is maybe the most stunning poetic confrontation of the Holocaust in the instant postwar years, driving house the proven fact that “death” is exactly German (as Joris factors out, that is the solely incidence of the phrase “Deutschland” in Celan’s poetry). 

“Deathfugue” grew to become a really well-known poem, included in anthologies and on syllabi. Without outright repudiating it, Celan got here to distance himself from it as he felt it represented a extra easy, even didactic idiom which he had outgrown. The final assortment in Memory Rose into Threshold Speech, 1963’s NoOnesRose (Die Niemandsrose), reveals Celan starting to discover the impacted, laconic mode of his later works:

WHERE the phrase, that was immortal, fell for me:
into the heaven’s ravine behind the brow,
that is the place goes, led by spittle and litter,
the sevensisters’ starflower that lives with me.

Celan’s early voice is not any much less troubled than his later, however it’s extra voluble, extra expansive. The poems have clear antecedents in Georg Trakl’s tense expressionism and even in some points of Surrealist poetry, however in addition they chime surprisingly usually with Rilke’s and Yeats’s symbolism. (Indeed, one may examine Celan’s limitless recycling of a restricted palette of pictures — eyes, eyelids, candles, hair, stones, lips, almonds — with the early Yeats’s reiterated roses, reeds, and “dim hair.”)

Paul Celan, Microliths They Are, Little Stones: Posthumous Prose, translated and with a preface by Pierre Joris, 2020 (picture courtesy Contra Mundum Press)

Joris as translator is extra snug with Celan’s later than his earlier poems. While the translations of Memory Rose Into Threshold Speech are lexically sound, Joris solely intermittently evokes the patterns of meter and rhyme to which Celan usually turns. The poems’ lyricism is blunted; early Celan finally ends up sounding stranger and extra angular in English than in German. Such cavils are swept away, nonetheless, by the richness of the presentation, which incorporates over 150 pages of detailed commentary: a guidebook to the poems and a sort of thumbnail mental biography of Celan himself. Perhaps the biggest benefit of the quantity, for a reader of English, is having all of Celan’s earlier work gathered collectively. This gives a possibility to hint the development and metamorphosis of his idiom in the voice of a single translator.

Celan’s Collected Prose, translated by Rosmarie Waldrop in 1986, barely breaks 60 sparsely printed pages. Almost each one of these pages is effective, nonetheless, particularly the two speeches he gave when receiving prizes — one in 1958, from the Free Hanseatic City of Bremen, the different (“The Meridian”) in 1968, on receiving the Büchner Prize. “The Meridian” is an indispensable textual content in 20th-century poetics. In 2011 Stanford University Press revealed Joris’s translation as The Meridian: Final Version—Drafts—Materials, a sprawling assortment of several-hundred pages of notes and drafts that had been boiled down into this 18-page lecture.

If one is hoping for such riches in Microliths, some 200 pages of posthumously assembled prose, one might be each upset and rewarded. There are draft passages for narrative works (none of them get very far); some nearly Beckettian dialogues from unfinished performs; and a good assortment of aphoristic passages, in which one will get flashes of a humorous Celan, as in this squib (“The Hegelbahn”) geared toward Theodor Adorno:

A author and trapper, with a head like a Reich- and university-apple sunned to baldness below Californian knowledge-trees, took himself — the Far-West Prussian does certainly exist — for nobody lower than Hegel.

A extra pointed jab, echoing Adorno’s well-known assertion “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” is Celan’s “Whoever mystifies after Auschwitz, shrouds all human misery.”

Richer is a considerable assortment of “poetological” jottings, amongst which one stumbles on suggestive, illuminating fragments:

True poetry is anti-biographical. The poet’s homeland is his poem and modifications from one poem to the subsequent.

Poems are porous constructs: right here life flows and seeps in and out, incalculably strong-headed, recognizable, and in the most overseas form.

Poems most likely don’t change the world, however they alter the being-in-the-world. 

Most tantalizing are some 20 pages of notes for an undelivered lecture “On the Darkness of the Poem,” which might have dealt immediately with the challenge of “obscurity” in up to date poetry — and, by implication, in Celan’s personal work:

There exists, on the close to and on the far facet of all esotericism, hermeticism, and such like, a darkness of the poem. Even the most exoteric, the most open poem … has its darkness, has it qua poem, comes, as a result of it’s a poem, into the world darkish. A congenital, constitutive darkness, then, that belongs to the poem in the present day.

The notes right here on the “Goll Affair” are painful studying. Celan had recognized the Alsatian poet Yvan Goll for a number of months earlier than his dying in 1950. Three years later, after Poppy and Memory introduced Celan important recognition, Goll’s widow accused Celan of plagiarizing her husband’s work. These baseless accusations had been extensively circulated in literary and educational circles, and brought about Celan — whose work was based mostly not in literature however in private trauma — immeasurable ache. The paranoia they exacerbated is clear all through the letters and private statements he wrote on the “Goll Affair”; they clearly contributed to the rising psychic unrest that led to Celan’s intermittent institutionalization and his two suicide makes an attempt — the latter profitable.

Celan was fond of Osip Mandelstam’s notion of the poem as a message in a bottle, despatched out in the faint hope of reaching some sympathetic reader. In the half-century since his dying, his poems have discovered innumerable readers — even throughout the barbed-wire boundaries of language, because of such heroic translators as Pierre Joris. The obscurity of his bottle-messages is “congenital, constitutive”: the disquiet they provoke is a vibration of the broken, traumatized soul of the century from which they come up.

Memory Rose Into Threshold Speech: The Collected Earlier Poetry, A Bilingual Edition by Paul Celan, translated by Pierre Joris and with commentary by Pierre Joris and Barbara Wiedemann, is revealed by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2020).

Microliths They Are, Little Stones: Posthumous Prose by Paul Celan, translated and with a preface by Pierre Joris, is revealed by Contra Mundum Press (2020). Both can be found on-line and in bookstores.

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