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Selected Poems
(translated by John Felstiner) Paul Celan ( 1920-70), originally Paul Anczel, was born in Cernauti, then in Romania; previously it was known as Czernowitz, the capital of the Bukovina province of the Austrian Empire; it is now Chernovtsy in Ukraine. His parent were German-speaking Orthodox Jews for whom German was the supreme language of culture. Like many others, they suffered the hideous irony of being deported by the German forces in 1942 to a concentration camp across the River Dniester, where they died. Paul survived by luck, doing forced labour until the Soviets occupied his home town in 1943. After the war he lived in Bucharest, translating from Russian into Romanian, but in 1947, to avoid the Communists, he went first to Vienna, then in 1948 to Paris, where in 1952 he married the artist Gisèle Lestrange ( 1927-91) and lived as a translator and language teacher, later a lecturer at the Ecole Normale Supérieur, until his suicide. Celan is now recognized as the greatest German poet since Rilke. Yet he was sharply conscious of the problems, not only of writing poetry after the Holocaust, but of writing it in the language employed and arguably tainted in the administration of mass murder. The long, surging, dactylic lines of his early poems soon became compressed into concise, emotionally restrained, mostly rhymeless verse, fragmentary in syntax, tentative and questioning in tone. 'The poem today tends towards silence,' he said in 1960; 'the poem survives on the edge of itself.' He called the poem a 'crystal' from which all clichés, 'the garish talk of rubbed-off experience', have been 'etched away'. But he also described his poems as 'messages in bottles, dispatched in the hope that they will be washed up on land, somewhere and some time'. Despite their obscurity, they are dialogic poems, in which the pronoun 'you', addressed to the reader, to God, or to the poet himself, occurs much more often than the familiar lyric 'I'. His few prose writings include the story 'Conversation in the Mountains' ( 1959), a dialogue between two Jewish voices, and his speech 'The Meridian', acknowledging the award of the distinguished Büchner Prize in 1960. The poems here were selected, and the translations made, by the Celan scholar John Felstiner. Most have already appeared in his book Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew ( 1995), but some have undergone slight revisions, and two, which were only partially translated in his book, are given here complete. The annotations also depend heavily on Felstiner's book, to which the reader is referred for an exploration of the net of associations - not reducible to any cut-anddried interpretation - that the poems evoke. The first poem, 'Black Flakes', dates from 1943, when Celan learnt that his mother had been found unfit for work and shot. It was originally entitled 'Mother'. 'Deathfugue', Celan's first published poem, returns on a more universal plane to the experience of the death-camp inmates. It is a fugue-like composition in which the same recurring phrases are varied and interwoven. Felstiner's translation adds to the texture by gradually introducing German phrases, thus suggesting, as he puts it, 'the darkness of deathbringing speech', and bringing home the paradox that Celan felt obliged to write poetry commemorating the death-camps in the language of the perpetrators, which was also that of Goethe and Heine. The poem was first published in Romanian as 'Tango of Death', apparently alluding to the fact that at a camp in Galicia an SS lieutenant ordered Jewish violinists to accompany marches, gravedigging, and executions with a tango. This allusion survives in the phrase 'play on for the dancing'.

The 'purpleword' and the 'thorn' suggest the crown of thorns and purple robe which accompanied Christ's crucifixion. whose title alludes to the captivity of the Hebrews in the land of the Pharaohs. 'Mandorla' indicates Celan's increasing interest in Jewish mysticism. Thebeing addressed is the Golem. Osip Mandelstam ( 1891-1938?).∣ blooming crowns'. and Celan mutates it into 'Machandelbaum'. Francois Villon. "'Zurich. Legend often depicts him as a dangerous figure who gets out of control. a small town near Celan's birthplace Czernowitz (the poem reverses their usual relations). "'Psalm'" is an anti-psalm. Matrix'" returns to the Bible. a Jewish legend is evoked in 'To one who stood before the door'. 26 May 1960. a member of the underworld. negating in its first line the act of creation by which God 'formed man of the dust of the ground' ( Genesis 2:7). Like "'Psalm'". The book is dedicated to the memory of another Jewish poet. Celan translated many of his poems from Russian into German. but the word here seems to be the poetic word of man set against the creative and destructive word of God. for 'almond-tree' is the literal meaning of "'Mandelstam'". recalling the motif of kingship and the rose of the earlier poem. . which is the literal meaning of the Italian mandorla. almond). Psalm 24). written in March 1957. but ends with the hope of communication and a suggestion of fidelity in the shared ring 'on our finger'. and implying an immense scepticism with the phrase 'open and void'. defiant hope: the way down may lead to 'one of the wild. who perished in the Gulag. and associates himself with the medieval poet of low-life Paris. recalls the forced labour of "'Deathfugue'" and the reproachful tone of "'Tenebrae'". a kind of inverted psalm which stubbornly refuses to praise the Lord. But the low is also the high: Sadagora.After moving to France in 1948. by analogy with 'noman's-land'). Similarly. The poem continues into word-play which is more meaningful than it looks at first sight. 'German'). celan evoked biblical exile with 'In Egypt'. and records her gentle and enigmatic rejoinder. at the Stork'" reports that in his conversation with Nelly Sacjs on Ascension Day. and opposing God with the defiantly humanistic and vitalist rose. and with the traditional view of Yiddish as a secret Language used by thieves. but also incorporating into this history Celan's own family and addressing his mother as 'you'. supported by an aural Hebrew pun on ayin meaning both 'nothing' and 'eye'. "'Tenebrae'". he had moved on from reading Buber to studying Scholem. When he wrote it. but here he is the object of prayer. Finally. written early in 1961. the title of one of the Grimms' fairy-tales. Celan displays his versatility which the ballad 'A Rogues' and Gonifs' Ditty. a poem which sets Jewish memory against the devastation wrought by German barbarism. also evokes Mandelstam again (German Mandel. begun on the same day that Celan wrote 'Mandorla'.g. was the seat of a famous dynasty of hasidic rabbis. Satirically adopting the supposed view of anti-Semites. described as a 'brother' and a 'chittering manikin'. Hence the stress on 'Nothing'. asking how the prophecy that the descendants of Abraham would bring forth the Messiah can be related to the mass murder of the Jews. who will end up on the gallows. The 'almond'. Sachs is also the 'sister' addressed in 'The Sluice'. the translator has ingeniously substituted 'Allemandtree' (from French allemand. he casts himself as a hooknosed Jew. It is here that celan explores his Jewish heritage most extensively. alluding both to the tortured body on the cross and to the body received in the Eucharist. The remaining poems come from the 1963 collection Die Niemandsrose ( "'The No One's Rose'" or "'The No-Man's-Rose'". who evokes not fear but pitty..'. introducing aggressively phallic imagery. while the 'King' suggests the royal title so often used in the Bible (e.. the speechless man made out of clay by the sixteenth-century rabbi Löw of Prague to defend the Jews. "'Radix. addressing God in a tone of restrained reproach. 'juniper-tree'. associates the suffering of the Jews in the Holocaust with that of Christ on the Cross. The untitled poem beginning 'There was earth inside them'. Celan 'spoke against' the God in whom Sachs believed. it ends with strange.

it's winter here too. I found--oh the summer's breath. so I have by my side.. now you're learning to weep. my child... Deathfugue Black milk of daybreak we drink it at evening we drink it at midday and morning we drink it at night we drink and we drink we shovel a grave in the air there you won't lie too cramped A man lives in the house he plays with his vipers he writes he writes when it grows dark to Deutschland your golden hair Margareta* he writes it and steps out of doors and the stars are all sparkling he whistles his hounds to come close he whistles his Jews into rows has them shovel a grave in the ground he commands us play up for the dance Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night we drink you at morning and midday we drink you at evening we drink and we drink A man lives in the house he plays with his vipers he writes he writes when it grows dark to Deutschland your golden hair Margareta Your ashen hair Shulamith* we shovel a grave in the air there you won't lie too cramped .. Oh ice of unearthly red--their Hetman* wades with all his troop into darkening suns. since autumn in its monkish cowl brought tidings my way. Mother. when snowdrift sifts your father's bones. snow burned me through: I sought out my heart so it might weep. A shawl. to wrap myself when it's flashing with helmets. for the thousandth time now in the land where the broadest torrent flows: Ya'akov's* heavenly blood. this hard world that will never turn green.. for your child!' Autumn bled all away. Then came my tears. a leaf from Ukrainian slopes: 'Remember. A month has gone by now or two. when the rosy floe bursts. I wove the shawl. just a thin little shawl. blessed by axes.. Oh for a cloth. child. hooves crushing the Song of the Cedar*. with no light.Black Flakes Snow has fallen. it was like you.

Thou shah say to the stranger: Behold. Thou shalt seek in the stranger's eye those thou knowest are in the water. I slept with them! Tenebrae* . Thou shalt call them up from the water: Ruth! Naomi! Miriam!* Thou shalt adorn them when thou liest with the stranger. Thou shalt adorn her with sorrow for Ruth. Thou shalt say to Ruth and Miriam and Naomi: Behold. I sleep with her! Thou shalt most beautifully adorn the woman stranger near thee. for Miriam and Naomi.He shouts jab this earth deeper you lot there you others sing up and play he grabs for the rod in his belt he swings it his eyes they are blue jab your spades deeper you lot there you others play on for the dancing Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night we drink you at midday and morning we drink you at evening we drink and we drink A man lives in the house your goldenes Haar Margareta your aschenes Haar Shulamith he plays with his vipers He shouts play death more sweetly this Death is a master from Deutschland he shouts scrape your strings darker you'll rise then as smoke to the sky you'll have a grave then in the clouds there you won't lie too cramped Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night we drink you at midday Death is a master aus Deutschland we drink you at evening and morning we drink and we drink this Death is ein Meister aus Deutschland his eye it is blue he shoots you with shot made of lead shoots you level and true a man lives in the house your goldenes Haar Margarete he looses his hounds on us grants us a grave in the air he plays with his vipers and daydreams der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland dein goidenes Haar Margarete dein aschenes Haar Sulamith In Egypt Thou shalt say to the eye of the woman stranger: Be the water. Thou shalt adorn them with the stranger's cloud-hair.

they did not grow wise. so they heard. went there. we are near. Lord. Lord. THERE WAS EARTH INSIDE THEM. Lord. We have drunk. Lord. Lord. It was blood. They dug and heard nothing more. And they did not praise God. It cast your image into our eyes. pray to us. invented no song. Went to the water-trough. so they heard. Pray. Lord. Wind-skewed we went there. witnessed all this. Lord. to bend over pit and crater.* who. Lord. Lord. and so their day went past. Pray. their night. They dug and dug. Eyes and mouth stand so open and void. devised for themselves no sort of language. clawed into each other. It shone. near and graspable. and they dug. who.* as if each of our bodies were your body. Lord. The blood and the image that was in the blood.Near are we. We are near. . wanted all this.* Lord. Grasped already. They dug. it was what you shed.

of Jewishness. and the ring on our finger awakens. The Sluice . o you. looked away. it came with some gold across the water. and I dig through to you. you dig. I spoke against him. Where did it go. o none. at the Stork For Nelly Sachs Our talk was of Too Much. and the worm also digs. I dig. all of the oceans came.There came then a stillness. Of-that. On the day of an ascension. Our talk was of your God. I heard: We really don't know. death-rattled. and the singing there says: They dig. o no one. we really don't know what counts. you know. Zurich. your mouth spoke toward the eye. of clouding through brightness. his wrangling word-Your eye looked at me. I let the heart that I had hope: for his highest. there came also storm. O one. Of Thou and Yet-Thou. of Too Little. when it went nowhere at all? O you dig and I dig. of your God. the Minster stood over there.

.... to salvage the word back into and out of and across the salt flood: Yizkor. our stamen heaven-waste. No One.* Through the sluice I had to go. To polygoddedness* I lost a word that sought me: Kaddish..* Psalm No one kneads us again out of earth and clay. are now. A Nothing we were. In thy sight would we bloom. blooming: the Nothing-. our corolla red from the purpleword we sang . the No-One's-Rose. . To a mouth for which it was a thousandword..Over all this grief of yours: no second heaven. Blessèd art thou.. and ever shall be.. With our pistil soul-bright. no one incants our dust No one.* lost-I lost a word that was left to me: Sister. In thy spite..

where's my Jew-patch. so goes my nose. then--right? --they had an On High. For the almond tree was blossoming. . "to Edom')* Back then. but it rears up. ( HEINRICH HEINE.over. Almonddream.* where's my beard that you pluck? Crooked. Aum. Crooked. Taimundree. It. And the Allemandtree too. Wind. A ROGUES' AND GONIFS'* DITTY SUNG AT PARIS EMPRÈS PONTOISE* BY PAUL CELAN FROM CZERNOWITZ NEAR SADAGORA Now and then only. Hey-ho. for yes it was straight. there we would have. O over the thorn.* that tree. Envoi* But. it too stands against the Plague. Almondtree. when they still had gallows. yes. where's my beard got to. in dark times. Dralmondream.* Hey-ho.* There we would have. the path I took was crooked. Lemandtree. Nose. And we made for Friuli.

when I wasn't there. Root of Abraham. Root of Jesse. as one speaks to the stone. so it is with what's here: even this spore bed splits.Radix. as you thrust with my hands there and into Nothingness. as you. alone:* Who. you in Yet-Night encountered. . you. this Downward is one of the wildblooming crowns. that murdered one. Matrix* As one speaks to stone. you Yet-You--: Back then.* No One's root--O ours. back then. that one standing black into heaven: rod and testis--? (Root. uphurled. who was it. that stock.) Yes. from a homeland consanguined. to me from the abyss. you of old to me. you to me in the nix of a night. Mandorla* In the almond--what stands in the almond? The Nothing. when you paced along the field.

Human curls. Rabbi.. In the Nothing--who stands there? The King.. Your eye. To ONE WHO STOOD BEFORE THE DOOR. toward the halfbaked brother born in a doughboy's dung-caked boot.The Nothing stands in the almond.. And your eye--whereto stands your eye? Your eye stands opposite the almond. It stands behind the King.... Slam the evening door* shut. no grey for you. For this one. So it stands and stands. the chittering manikin.. There he stands and stands.. Jewish curls. Empty almond. There stands the King.. the Nothing it stands opposite. no grey for you... royal blue. for this one scribe the living Nothing on his soul. . the King... one evening: to him I opened my word--: toward the clod I saw him trot. for this one spread your two cripplefingers in the halemaking prayer. I gnashed. ..... . There it stands and stands. Rabbi Löw:* For this one circumcise his word. Rabbi.. him with his godlike loins all bloody.

Ra-- .Fling the morning door open.

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