“Breathturn Into Timestead: The Collected Later Poetry, A Bilingual Edition” by Paul Celan, translated and with commentary by Pierre Joris (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 736 pages, $40)
How do you make language say what it cannot? How do you bear witness to the atrocities of the Holocaust without standing alone in defeated silence? These questions haunt the poetry of Paul Celan, one of the great stylists of the German language in the 20th century, a writer who revolutionized the way we think about poetic diction, taking it to levels it had never reached before, re-inventing it from the recalcitrant, overarching darkness around him.
Born Paul Antschel in Czernowitz, Bukovina (a region of northern Romania), in 1920, he was raised in a Jewish family that stressed the value of a secular education and its Jewish roots. Celan’s mother in particular loved the German language and culture, a passion she passed on to her son.
Barely an adult, Celan headed to Tours, France, in 1938 to study medicine but spent more time on literary matters than medical ones and promptly returned to Czernowitz. Four years later, at the height of World War II, he was deported to a Nazi forced-labor camp. In the fall of that year, he learned that his parents had been shot in concentration camps. He would never recover from the desolation of the killings.
Indeed, as Celan’s translator, Pierre Joris, tells us in his introduction to this marvelous, vast compendium of Celan’s later poetry, the poet’s life is inseparable from the Shoah, from the constant bearing witness to the horrors of the Holocaust.
over and above you,
a letter touches
your still un-
the shining forehead
and beds itself in
Released from the labor camp in February 1944, Celan – who rearranged the letters of his last name from the Romanian spelling of “Ancel” – left his hometown for good in 1945, settling in Paris in 1948. By then, German poetry, in his mind, lay exhausted at the feet of history. Given the “sinister events in its memory,” the language of poetry had only one way to recover: It must grow “more sober, more factual ... grayer.”
Poetry could no longer invoke its former “euphony, which sounded alongside the greatest horrors.” After the Holocaust, what was needed was a re-created, purified diction that “does not transfigure and render ‘poetical’; it names, it posits, it tries to measure the area of the given, and the possible.” Thus the poet had to dismantle and displace the old linguistic order so he could reconstruct it, bringing it to new life.
out beyond you
lies your fate,
white-eyed, escaped from
a dream, something joins it,
with the tongueuprooting,
even at noon, outside.
And so Celan erected in place of his earlier lush, lyric work a verse structure in which singular words carried the entire weight of the poem. Breathturn. Timestead. Threadsuns.
This meant a stripped-down syntax and telescoping of words. This meant the organization of poetic lines by syllable and breath. This meant individual poems as “reading stations.” This meant neologisms, to prove that words were not inadequate to the task at hand, the only task that mattered: Reflecting the real.
“Reality is not simply there; it must be searched for and won,” Celan wrote.
That struggle is exemplified in “Breathturn Into Timestead,” brilliantly translated by Joris into an English that preserves the abrupt estrangement of Celan’s German from the traditional metrics of his mother tongue. It is an indispensable, invaluable volume for discerning the history of 20th-century verse.
above the grayblack wastes.
grasps the light-tone: there are
still songs to sing beyond
For Celan, the German language remained rooted in the realm of the dead, the once-beloved legacy of his murdered mother. It was a language that had passed “through the thousand darknesses of deathbringing speech.”
This heritage left him in the peculiar position of being alienated from his writing lexicon. As a result, he felt compelled to create his own language, one as exiled as he was, immersed in the dense rhythmic movements of his mature poems, with their mind-bending strain on words; their complex, multiple perspectives; their heightened emotional intensity; their “semantic wrenchings,” as Joris puts it.
Celan’s new poetics cut his ties to the motherland once and for all, in what he called a Wende, a radical turn from the past.
In 1955, he made the break official, becoming a naturalized citizen of France and spending the rest of his life in Paris as a teacher of German language and literature at the Ecole Normale Superieure. His situation would seem to be a success to almost any poet, but despairing of making an art equal to his memory, he drowned himself in the Seine River in April 1970.
“Sometimes the genius goes dark and drowns in the bitter well of the heart,” he wrote. And sometimes the genius creates a feral beauty beyond good and evil.
Celan left us a brave new world of poetry, the great gray matter of the real: “the darkness of the poem today ... a language fragment ... freighted with world.” For his vision and invention, for his mastery of diction, for his courage of witness, we stand forever in his debt.
Arlice Davenport is Books editor for The Eagle. Reach him at 316-268-6256 or firstname.lastname@example.org.