Posts Tagged ‘Paul Celan’

Paul Celan, John Felstiner, and the soul of beauty

Sunday, October 21st, 2012
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Some weeks ago, we discussed Simone Weil‘s comment that “distance is the soul of beauty.” At that time, Andrew Shields wrote to the Book Haven:

Back in the spring of 1988, several students and I (already graduated but still hanging around) spent several evenings at [author and translator] John Felstiners house, reading, translating, and discussing [Paul] Celan poems. The most memorable discussion was about “The Vintagers,” in which we discovered ourselves, as it were, as readers of the poem. Our experience of the poem (a “beautiful” experience) was connected to our distance from it, which we found characterized in the poem as the distance between those who make tears into wine and those who later drink it. That seemed like a figure of Celan the poet as wine-maker and ourselves as reader/drinkers.

I wrote to John, asking if we could republish his translation of “Die Winzer” – so many know little of the German-language poet’s work besides his “Todesfuge.” In his 1995 literary biography, Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew, John says the 1953 elegy “asks even more attentiveness than usual” in Celan’s oeuvre.  The poem, he says, “ingrains autumn into itself: an elegy and at the same time a meditation on poetic process, impelled by rhythmic repetition.”

Here it is:

The Vintagers

They harvest the wine of their eyes,
they crush out all of the weeping, this also:
this willed by the night,
the night, which they’re leaning against, the wall,
thus forced by the stone,
the stone, over which their crook-stick speaks into
the silence of answers –
their crook-stick, which just once,
just once in fall,
when the year swells to death, swollen grapes,
which just once will speak right through muteness
down into the mineshaft of musings.

They harvest, they crush out the wine,
they press down on time like their eye,
they cellar the seepings, the weepings,
in a sun grave they make ready
with night-toughened hands:
so that a mouth might thirst for this, later –
a latemouth, like their own:
bent toward blindness and lamed –
a mouth to which the draught from the depth foams upward, meantime
heaven descends into waxen seas, and
far off, as a candle-end, glistens,
at last when the lip comes to moisten.

Scholars John and Mary Felstiner (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

According to John, who is studying “creative resistance” during the Holocaust: “Despite this ever present ‘they’ in Celan, critics who are sure that ‘Die Winzer’ concerns the poetic process itself identify those who ‘harvest the wine of their eyes’ as poets taking on our pain and transforming it. Perhaps, but this disregards the people who first found voice in ‘Todesfuge,’ whose wartime suffering sifted through European earth. It’s they, a buried people, who are leaning against night in ‘Die Winzer,’ against the shooting wall, and who speak ‘into/the silence of answers.’ To say that ‘they’ are poets is off by a generation.”

Noting that an earlier draft of the poem was called “Die Menschen” (roughly, “The Humans”), John writes (and these excerpts don’t nearly do justice to the Felstiner’s expert biography), “The change from ‘The Humans’ to ‘The Vintagers’ added a pastoral irony, since in German Romantic poetry the Winzer figures as a rejoicing worker. In Hölderlin, ‘The vintager’s brave joyous cry/Rings pure on sun-warmed vineyard slopes.’ Closer to Celan is Isaiah‘s prophecy: ‘upon thy harvest the battle shout is fallen. … And in the vineyards there shall be no singing … no treader shall tread out wine in the presses’ (16:9-10). Desolation threatens the harvest and the song alike. …

She said it first.

“And shortly before writing ‘The Vintagers,’ Celan had read Heidegger on Hölderlin’s 1801 elegy ‘Bread and Wine,’ in which Dionysus goes between humankind (die Menschen) and ‘they,’ the gods. Celan marked Heidegger’s phrase, ‘poet in a destitute time: singing on the trace of the departed gods.’

“The Vintagers” corresponds in a score of words to “Bread and Wine” and still refutes it. The later poet does not invoke gods or the mystery of water being turned into wine or wine into the blood of redemption. When, in Celan, ‘they cellar the seepings, the weepings,/in a sun grave they make ready/with night-toughened hands,’ we are to think not of Dionysus’s priests or Jesus’ disciples but of people forced to dig their own graves.”

 

Nelly Sachs. Ever hear of her? Nobel poet finds new recognition.

Friday, March 16th, 2012
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Ever hear of Nelly Sachs? I hadn’t, either.

Sachs is one of the more neglected Nobel prizewinners (she was awarded in 1966), so I was glad for the opportunity to familiarize myself with her life and work at an event last week in the Stanford Libraries’ elegant Bender Room.  That, and a few new books (including the collection at left, published last year by Green Integer), should spur at least a small revival of her name. But perhaps, as is so often the case, the revival is already underway and I am confusing cause with effect.

The Berlin-born Jewish poet (1891-1970) fled with her mother after the Nazis took power, and sought refuge in Sweden, with the help of her friend (and eventually fellow Nobelist) Selma Lagerlöf.  Always of fragile health, her life was marked by breakdown, paranoia, hallucinations.  Her name as a poet pretty much began at 50, with her emigration. She supported herself and her mother with her translations.

Her biographer

The Bender Room event with champagne celebrated the publication of Aris Fioretos‘s Nelly Sachs, Flight and Metamorphosis: An Illustrated Biography. The Swedish writer Fioretos described Nelly Sachs, in the postwar years, looking up at the crossing vapor trails in the sky and seeing first scissors, then a swastika; she was sure the airplanes were spying on her.  He suggested a bit of aural wordplay – “Sachs,” or “sax,” is Swedish for scissors.  She continued to write even while in a mental institution.

Axel Englund of Stockholm University said she revered Friedrich Hölderlin. He quoted her line “our bodies still sound with their mutilated music” – pretty much prefiguring  Adam Zagajewskis “Let Us Praise the Mutilated World,” no?

Someone read these lines of hers:

We stars, we stars
We wandering, glistening, singing dust –
Earth, our sister, has gone blind
Among the constellations of heaven –

He read excerpts from the letters.

The actor/director Andrew Utter, founder of L.A.’s Uranium Madhouse Theater read from her letters.  After his reading, he kindly gave me the xeroxed pages he had read. But several days later he faxed me this one, somehow overlooked in the handful he had given me.  On the page was this 1958 letter to her “Dear poet and dear person Paul Celan“:

For me it is joy enough to have a few friends, but you understand me, dear poet – I still wanted something else. I still have to accustom myself to joy, too, after so much suffering, and when the Swedish poets awarded me their newly endowed poetry prize, I couldn’t take anything in and became quite confused, that I, a foreign-language refugee, should be given so much honor.

There is and was in me, and it’s there with every breath I draw, the belief in transcendence through suffusion with pain, in the inspiritment of dust, as a vocation to which we are called. I believe in an invisible universe in which we mark out our dark accomplishment. …”

There the fading text on the faxed page disappeared in to the following, unsent page. I wonder what the rest of the letter said.

Celan replied to her of course, with his own poem, “Zürich, Zum Storchen” [Zurich, at the Stork Inn]. Here is a bit of it, in John Felstiner‘s translation:

Our talk was of your God, I spoke
against him, I let the heart
I had
hope:
for
his highest, death-rattled, his
wrangling word –

Your eye looked at me, looked away,
your mouth
spoke toward the eye, I heard:

We
really don’t know, you know,
we
really don’t know
what
counts.