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Guest Review: Brinton On Celan

Ian Brinton reviews
by Paul Celan
translated by Pierre Joris

In his autobiographical work, Errata, An Examined Life, George Steiner talks about language and music:

Trapped within its measureless limitations, inside the fruitful immensity of its final failures—‘Word, word that I lack,’ cries out Schoenberg’s Moses in the face of the unspeakable—language posits negatively but overpoweringly the pressure, the ‘thereness’ of what lies beyond it. As mystics insist, as daily experience so often confirms, the falling short of language makes absence substantive.

Pierre Joris’s translation of Paul Celan’s late work, Breathturn (Atamwende) is probably the most attractively produced and welcoming introduction available to this complex poet of post-war Germany. Steiner referred to Celan’s late work as an attempt at reinventing a language which lies ‘north of the future’, taking his image from an early poem in Breathturn:

IN THE RIVERS north of the future
I cast the net, which you
hesitantly weight
with shadow stones

This late poetry published in 1967 moves away from the lush complexities of Celan’s earlier work and, as Joris puts it in his introduction, "the syntax grew tighter and more spiny, his trademark neologisms and telescoping of words increased, while the overall composition of the work became much more serial in nature, i.e. rather than insisting on individual, titled poems, he moved towards a method of composition by cycles and volumes."

The title of the sequence, "Breathturn (Atemwende)", first appears in the Meridian speech which Celan gave in 1960 having received the Georg Büchner prize in Darmatadt. The speech itself is probably the poet’s most extended statement on poetics and it includes the following suggestions, dominated by the questioning, ‘perhaps’:

Poetry is perhaps this: an Atemwende, a turning of our breath. Who knows, perhaps poetry goes its way—the way of art—for the sake of just such a turn? And since the strange, the abyss and Medusa’s head, the abyss and the automaton, all seem to lie in the same direction—is it perhaps this turn, this Atemwende, which can sort out the strange from the strange? It is perhaps here, in this one brief moment, that Medusa’s head shrivels and the automatons run down? Perhaps, along with the I, estranged and freed here, in this manner, some other thing is also set free?

Perhaps after this, the poem can be itself…can in this now artless, art-free manner go other ways, including the ways of art, time and again?


As if consciously turning his back upon the luxurious and crowded associations of language, its taint, Celan now writes

the beamwind of your speech
the gaudy chatter of the pseudo-
experienced—my hundred-
tongued perjury-
poem, the noem.

the path through the men-
shaped snow,
the penitent’s snow, to
the hospitable
glacier-parlors and –tables.

in the timecrevasse,
in the
waits a breathcrystal,
your unalterable

One section of Joris’s introduction deals with the question of translation and, understandably, raises the point about how is it possible to render Celan’s much vaunted linguistic and hermeneutic difficulties into another language. Answering his own question, Joris states something central to the world of any translator:

Questioning the possibility of translation means to question the very possibility of literature, of writing, of language, which is always already a translation, i.e. is both an act of translation and the result of such an act. In my years spent in the practice of poetry, both writing and translating it, a sense has gropingly emerged suggesting that a poem is not only the one version printed in a book or magazine, but is also all its other (possible) printed versions, plus all the possible oral and/or visual performances as well as the totality of translations it allows. The printed poem thus functions only as a score for all subsequent readings (private or public) and performative transformations, be they through music, dance, painting or linguistic translation. Such a view is bound to destabilize a concept of the poem as fixed, absolute artefact, readable (understandable, interpretable) once and for all.

Or, as Celan himself said in his Meridian speech, "The absolute poem—no, it certainly does not, cannot exist."

An example of the interesting challenge to the translator comes with the poem "Harnischstriemen" where the German reads as follows:

dein Gelände.

An beiden Polen
der Kluftrose, lesbar:
dein geächtetes Wort.
Nordwahr. Südhell.

Joris translates this as

SLICKENSIDES, fold-axes,
your terrain.

On both poles
of the cleftrose, legible:
your outlawed word.
Northtrue. Sunbright.

Here the opening words used by Celan are geological terms with the first referring to striations on rock surfaces that are visible where monolithic blocks have been scraped against each other during large-scale volcanic upheavals. Joris replaces this term, ‘Harnischstriemen’ with a corresponding geological term, ‘Slickensides’ which has a definition of fine parallel scratches or grooves on a fault surface that have been produced by the movement of the rocks on either side of the fault. This is a poetry to negate the ‘I’; it is a poetry that has associations with the movement of the world: "some other thing is also set free"?

In 1971, a year after Paul Celan drowned himself in the Seine, Jeremy Prynne published a poem dedicated to him, "Es Lebe Der König", in the Ferry Press volume, Brass. Its bitterly ironic title (‘The King Lives’) not only recalls that Meridian speech in which Celan addressed the question of art in the work of Georg Büchner, defining Lucile’s final exclamation ‘Long live the King’ as an act of freedom, but also directs the reader towards the prevailing darkness of our contemporary linguistic scene:

It is not possible to
drink this again, the beloved enters the small house.
The house becomes technical, the pool has
Copper sides, evaporating by the grassy slopes.

In a fine essay on Prynne’s work in Sagetrieb, volume 10, number 3, 1991, Andrés Rodríguez notes the matter of suggestiveness of language here ‘that the technical house, in a poem for Paul Celan, reminds us of the Nazi terror at Auschwitz’. Prynne’s bitter irony is compounded by our inability to do more than ‘stand/just long enough to see you’

we hear your
fearful groan and choose not to think of it.

In a reference Celan used at that Meridian speech, Buchner goes further than the statement of ‘Long live the king’, he goes to a world of terrifying silence which ‘takes his—and our—breath and words away’. These Breathturns, rendered so poignantly and mysteriously by Pierre Joris set us close to a song that ‘leads us home to where we have not yet been’ (Steiner).

Ian Brinton is a critic and schoolteacher based at Dulwich College. His latest book, Contemporary Poetry: Poets and Poetry since 1990: (Cambridge Contexts in Literature) is out autumn 2008. He is Chair of the English Association's secondary schools committee in the UK and the Editor of The Use of English for The English Association.
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