Friday, May 20, 2016

Paul Celan: What is remembered and what is known

"Reality is not simply there; it must be searched for and won"
Paul Celan

"A poem can be a message in a bottle, sent out in the–not always hopeful–belief that, somewhere and sometime, it could wash up on land.”
Paul Celan

Paul Celan, 
A LEAF, treeless for Bertolt Brecht:
(trans by Michael Hamburger)

"What times are these
when a conversation
is almost a crime
because it includes
so much made explicit?'

To a Brother in Asia
Paul Celan

the self- transfigured
travel skyward,

bombers yawn, 

a rapid fire blossoms
just surely as peace,

a handful of rice
dies away as your friend.

Amanda Joy's generous gift of the book Romanian Poems by Paul Celan translated by Nina Cassian has sent me searching deeper into the life and work of Paul Celan.

Paul Celan (1920-1970) was a Romanian born German speaking poet and translator, considered one of the great German language poets, along with Rainer Marie Rilke

Born Paul Antschel- Paul Celan was the pseudonym he wrote under- he was born into a German speaking Jewish family in Czenowitz, Bukovina in Romania. He began writing poetry as  a teenager, when he was active in Jewish socialist organisations. In 1938, after finishing school he went to Paris to study medicine but because of Jewish quotas in Universities, he returned to Romania before the outbreak of war.

During WW2 he was forced into the Romanian ghetto where he translated Shakespeare and continued to write poetry. In 1942, the Nazis  rounded up ghetto inhabitants and sent them to concentration camps. His parents were deported to a concentration camp where his mother was shot and his father most likely died of typhus. Celan worked in a Nazi labor camp for 18 months before escaping when the Red Army advanced into Romania. An uncle died in Birkenau Concentration camp.

After the war he lived in Bucharest between 1945-47 and fled to Vienna after the Russian occupation of Romania and establishment of the Communist regime. His first collection of poetry was published in Vienna. He moved to Paris in 1948, where he lived until his death. He became a French citizen in 1955.

His poetry began to gain recognition after 1952. Celan's early pre-war poetry was lyrical and complex, however  he shifted dramatically in the post war years embracing more sober, factual and practical language.

Celan is best known for his post war poem Death Fugue, a poem set in a the death camp. 

Black milk of morning
we drink you at dusktime we drink you at noontime and dawntime we drink you at night 
we drink and drink
we scoop out a grave in the sky where it’s roomy to lie

 There’s a man in this house who cultivates snakes and who writes who
when it’s nightfall nach Deutschland your golden
hair Margareta
he writes it and walks from the house and the stars all start
flashing he whistles his
 dogs to draw near
whistles his Jews to appear starts us scooping a grave out of
he commands us to play for the dance
extract from Death Fugue by Paul Celan 
© 2005 by Paul Celan and Jerome Rothenberg

His poetry speaks of the tyranny and horror of the war and postwar years. While much of his poetry speaks profoundly of the Holocaust and the death of his parents and family members, Celan was not just a Holocaust poet.

Celan wrote poetry in German, registering in their own language the horror the Nazi's created. Of language after Auschwitz, Celan wrote:

"Only one thing remained readable close and secure amid all losses: language. Yes language. In spite of everything, it remained secure against loss. But it had to go through its own lack of answers, through terrifying silence, through the thousand darknesses of murderous speech. It went through. It gave me no words for what was happening, but went through it. Went through and could re-surface 'enriched' by it all."

Celan took his own life in April 1970 in the Seine River in Paris.

John McGregor who produced an ABC radio feature on Paul Celan wrote of  Paul Celan's poetry:

'But the surprise, the discovery, was reading the poetry of Paul Celan. It was a shattering experience, its impact upon me difficult to encompass in a bland sentence or two. Celan's vision is at once one of immense grief - the grief of exile, of bearing witness to the Holocaust, of facing history and personal loss in the one moment - and also a vision of what can only be called 'a terrible beauty'. Reading his work I found myself frequently breathless, at other times in tears, or astounded by the beauty he conveyed in startling images, suffused through with arcane and complex allusions."

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