Poetry’s role in public life has remained a question at least since Plato expelled the poets from his Republic. The possible historical-ethical weight of poetic utterance continually comes up against its inherent inventiveness, its status as artifice. Poetry, as the activity of the productive imagination, draws us from the world. In times of crisis this struggle, poetry’s legitimation of itself, is exacerbated: cataclysm pushes us toward silence, threatening to render language null and void. There is perhaps no poet of the last century who took up this struggle as intensively as Paul Celan (1920-1970). The 2020 centenary of Celan’s birth (and fiftieth anniversary of his death) occasioned the publication of two translations by Pierre Joris: Memory Rose into Threshold Speech and Microliths They Are, Little Stones. The former is a compendium of Celan’s first four books of poetry and the latter a collection of posthumous prose. Together they mark the completion of Joris’ decades-long project of rendering Celan’s major work into English, and constitute an important event in the translation of European poetry.
Born Paul Antschel in 1920, Celan was raised in Czernowitz, formerly part of the Habsburg empire, then belonging to Romania (later to be annexed by Soviet expansion). His parents were deported by the Nazis to an internment camp on June 21, 1942. Celan, by chance, was not at home at the time. News of their deaths reached Celan sometime later: his father most likely died of typhus, his mother, exhausted from forced labour, shot in the snow. Biographical exegesis has a tendency to over-determine responses to Celan. As a Jew and Survivor who wrote primarily in German, the language of the perpetrators, such tendencies are partly inevitable. However, these temptations can also smother and dilute. The best of the short, devotional poems that surface throughout his oeuvre display a tenderness and compaction delivered with crystalline lightness. This is ‘A Hand’ (Memory Rose,204-5) taken from Speechgrille [Sprachgitter, 1959]:
The table, from hourwood, with
the rice dish and the wine.
silence, eating, drinking.
A hand that I kissed,
lights the way for the mouths.
The neologism ‘hourwood’ conveys the hardening of time, of the unavoidable materiality of the present, the hanging ‘with’ [mit] the sense of an absent other. In this way, it creates a relation between meal and memory. The hand previously kissed is the nourishment of the present. Hand and mouth are the sites of love, of meeting, and poetic activity. The knotting of love and time in poetry pulls away from the present whilst simultaneously giving it light.
Memory Rose presents the poems with extensive (and welcomely unobtrusive) commentary, both Joris’ own and that of Barbara Wiedemann translated from the Gesammelte Werke. The chronological arrangement shows the development of Celan’s fractured style that would dominate the later work: a rejection of Romantic euphony and the transformative capacities of metaphor, language tools tainted by their complicity in atrocity. ‘The poem today,’ Celan writes, ‘knows that sheer poetry is no longer possible’;for that there is ‘too much Strontium 90 in the world’ (Microliths, 142).
Both books provide invaluable insight into Celan’s search for a new poetic idiom, a ‘greyer’, more technical language. Though a somewhat uneven mixture of fragments and texts, several aphorisms in Microliths are as rich as anything in Celan’s speeches, evidencing the depth and high stakes of his ‘intolerable wrestle’; though, as one might expect, the finest demonstrations come in the poems themselves. Works like ‘There was earth inside them’ or the horrifying ‘Alchemical’, to name just two, put language and history, creation and testimony, at the root of extraordinary, enduring poetry and Joris’ versions seem particularly attuned to their torsion and stratified resonances. The final three stanzas of ‘Alchemical’ (Memory Rose 262-3) run:
(Isn’t it true, us too
this clock did release?
good, how your word died past here.)
Silence, cooked like gold, in
Finger, smoke-thin. Like crowns, aircrowns
Great. Grey. Trace-
The ‘gold’ being ‘cooked’ is the silence of murder. The word Joris renders as ‘Re-gal’ is Königliche, literally kingly or king-like. The German suffix -lich or -liche used to indicate resemblance is homophonic with Leiche, corpse. The pure transformation of alchemy is explicitly tied to Nazi extermination. This is a vital paradox: the enriching voice of poetry cannot simply continue as before, yet both speech and silence are implicated in tyranny. Celan’s recalcitrance is neither recondite nor some form of insensibility that might numb the aching of old wounds but a resistance to this dual force of recuperation.
There seems little doubt that Joris’s translations will become the standard scholarly editions for English speakers. Aside from the inclusion of the commentaries, the translations are a remarkable achievement by any measure, and in large part constitute the best English versions available. Joris’ granular, word-by-word approach does sometimes sacrifice the music/rhythm of the German to maintain density and texture. Occasional word choices are also puzzling: the shifting of Verbracht across the long and difficult poem ‘Stretto’ from ‘Displaced’ to ‘Discarried’, de-emphasising the poem’s repetitive circularity, being one noticeable example. Minor quibbles aside, Joris’ reasoning for maintaining the difficulty of the poems, giving precedence to those ‘fault lines’ of language which Celan viewed as central, is a sound one and makes for some exceptional translations, particularly in the later books. More than anything, the two books demonstrate that the problems Celan approaches in his work have not dwindled in the intervening fifty years since 1970, nor has the apocalyptic star of his poetry. Moreover, they serve as a reminder that poetry’s duty to ‘grapple with reality...to make reality visible’ (Microliths, 194), must occur on a questioning, unstable terrain.