Thursday, August 17, 2006


[photograph by Simon Creasey]

Hello Jack - I had a great tutorial on Wednesday, I read them Celan's 'Corona' and we spent about 30 mins discussing your own poem, coming up with ideas, me talking a little about dialectics and poetry referencing poetry.

Afterwards the students requested I ask you to provide your own reading of your poem, and i thought this would be a good idea, so, if you get time before next week could you send me a few lines on the poem? The main query was: who is the 'she' saying 'it's time the asphalt bled'? - '5-fingered sky' brought up some interesting comments: fingers of light coming through clouds and some discussion on the sky as a hand, or were there five clouds?...

Matt Harris and I are teaching the Massey-@- Albany Stage One Creative Writing paper together this semester. In each tutorial we discuss work by the students, but also pieces from the course anthology. It includes the following poem by me - first published in Poetry NZ 28 (2004): 9:


Es ist Zeit, daß es Zeit wird
– Paul Celan, ‘Corona’

bird stalks by
5-fingered sky

in the rearview mirror
Autumn gnaws my hands
we’re friends

van reversing
past the

check out those jeans
swap spit
talk shit

don’t stare at

time she said
it’s time the asphalt

it’s time

I guess I should preface any discussion of it by saying that it's the first (and so far only) time that I've published a poem which began as a class exercise. A few years ago I was teaching a session for a Masters course in Creative Writing, and I decided to get the students to compose a poem based on a picture I gave them and a literal translation of a poem in a foreign language (rather similar to the Workshop exercise we did at Bluff 06 this year).

The pictures were all landscape photographs taken by my friend Simon Creasey, whose (then) girlfriend Kika was very keen on hillsides and cloudscapes. The photos he took to send to her were accordingly mostly bare of human beings, buildings, and other obvious distinguishing features. The one I've included above was the sole exception, and it's the one I used myself to write my own version of the exercise.

I attempted to combine it with the Paul Celan poem "Corona":


Aus der Hand frißt der Herbst mir sein Blatt: wir sind Freunde.
Out of my hand Autumn eats its leaf: we are friends.
Wir schälen die Zeit aus den Nüssen und lehren sie gehn:
We shell time out of nuts and teach it to go:
die Zeit kehrt zurück in die Schale.
time returns into the shell.

Im Speigel ist Sonntag,
In the mirror is Sunday,
im Traum wird geschlafen,
in dreams is sleeping,
der Mund redet wahr.
the mouth speaks true.

Mein Aug steigt hinab zum Geschlecht der Geliebten:
My eye descends to the sex of the beloved:
wir sehen uns an,
we look at each other,
wir sagen uns Dunkles,
we tell each other dark things,
wir lieben einander wie Mohn und Gedächtnis,
we love each other like poppy and memory,
wir schlafen wie Wein in den Muscheln,
we sleep like wine in mussels [conches],
wie das Meer im Blutstrahl des Mondes.
Like the sea in the blood-beam of the moon.

Wir stehen umschlungen im Fenster, sie sehen uns zu von der Straße:
We stand embracing in the window, they look up at us from the street:

es ist Zeit, daß Man weiß!
It is time that one knew!
Es ist Zeit, daß der Stein sich zu blühen bequemt,
It is time, that the stone condescended to blossom,
daß der Unrast ein Herz schlägt.
That restlessness beat a heart.
Es ist Zeit, daß es Zeit wird,
It is time that it should be time.

Es ist Zeit.
It is time.

l.15. bequemen (v.t) – to accommodate oneself to, conform with, comply with, put up with.

[Inspired by the literal version in The Penguin Book of Twentieth-Century German Verse, ed. Patrick Bridgwater, 1963 (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1968) 268]

I guess it's obvious that I took a lot of images from the Celan poem. I also tried to emulate its atmosphere of a doomed love story ... at least I read it as doomed. Celan scholars might disagree with me there.

I tried to combine that with the sense of desolation and emptiness in Simon's photo of the main street of Coromandel. The van comes from there, as does the 5-fingered sky, which I think was meant to evoke the five fingers of cloud which seem to be reaching out towards the viewer in the photograph.

I think my lovers (the guy driving into town at the beginning, the girl in the jeans) are trying to get out of town. I think they may not succeed. I think the asphalt is hungry for them. My friend Stu Bagby told me he thought I meant to imply that they'd robbed the pharmacy first. I hadn't thought of it, but maybe they did. Certainly they seem to be on the run from something at the end: fate?

I wanted to pare down my language to what my two characters might actually say to one another, but also to echo the kind of prophetic Biblical tone which Celan is so adept at. The poem is (obviously) meant to be suggestive of a story rather than filling in all the blanks, but I think in that it's fairly true to human experience. Mine, at any rate.


Richard Taylor said...

The problem with Celan is his inherent near total impenatrability of his work that relies on -almost one being German (and maybe such recondite knowledge as that of of Freud and Lacan and Heidegger I suppose etc etc etc) to understand them or get the many puns and so on and even then a lot is lost in translation. (A lot is conveyed, however, by your method of combining the German and English versions). One needs a good translater and even an interpreter/exegeter - Pierre Jorris has done some good work ( and, obviously ther has been a lot written on Celan) - I find most of Celan's poetry near impenetratable. ("So near impenetrable we may have to eat our way through") Of course, he committed suicide - his parents died in the Holocaust - and he had this hate/love thing with the German language - (however) even in the German only something comes through - and indeed his poetry is dark. (dark doesn't imply bad necessarily though).

Your poem/entry is good Jack -an interesting explication of a poem. But don't ask me what *my* poems mean... even if you are interested.

How is Stu getting on?

Jack Ross said...

I like your idea of eating (or perhaps gnawing) through to an explanation -- the best analogy I've come across, actually.

Stu's good -- doing good work, too, from what I've seen.

Liv said...

I think it works well.

Of course I thought by 5-fingered you meant Puahou.

Jack Ross said...

I doubt my botanical erudition would have extended to that, but it's a fascinating thought ... I find it strangely confining to have to define "5-fingered" (especially). I remember working it over a lot, and feeling that was the right word at the end, but I'd really rather have other people tell me what they think it means -- what, in fact, it *does* mean (to them).

Matt Harris said...

Thanks for the notes Jack. I liked Stu’s Bonnie & Clyde type reading. Both tutorials agreed seemed to agree with me that there's an urgency and impatience to the characters. If it's a doomed love story, it's doomed through exigency and want: everything appears hungry or deprived: the bird stalking, the grabbing fingers, autumn gnawing…The impatience I think comes not just from the repetition of 'it's time' but tonally as well - the brevity of the lines, perhaps – but certainly in the sound of ‘swap spit, talk shit’.

The asphalt ‘bleeding’ suggested heat and molten tar to most of us and we spent some time arguing over the season, although Autumn won through in the end. Much laughter when I suggested Autumn was the name of the girl, but I argued then it did make sense to say ’We’re friends,’ after she’d had his finger in her mouth…

I’ll forward these notes on to the students.

Liv said...

I'm reminded of how, when I was in high school, everyone liked to do their art projects on this one particular NZ artist because he always told students they could say whatever they wanted about his work and he would back them up.

Meanwhile, Peggy Phelan has an interesting description of Derrida lecturing on Celan, and "plunging into the bloody tongue of his own desire to hear"...

Richard Taylor said...

Celan doesn't always succeed - (or maybe I mean poems I have seen -tha is given that my German is very limited)I think some of his shorter poems are better and for me his Todefuge - somehow it doesn't quite work - even though I also use the Penguin edition (it was once mentioned at Brief meeting how good the French and German and others of that Penguin series were - with often a prose translation) is very good - as are and other books -eg Pierre Jorris's translations and Hamburger's etc.

It's not clear in Corona what Celan is on about - not problematic if you know my poetry or any modern/ or postmodern work - but a lot of his poetry is trying to "say so much" (he has real cause - but then it might be debated we all have that "cause" - who of us has not had some tragedy? Of course the Holocaust is the big one (one can understand suicide - perhaps Celan needed to talk to Heidegger (for example) - get angry with him?!?? - and in the intensity of (his torment, his memories) it (them) he misses - but not always - I think he does with Corona. In contrast I find that most of Georg Trakl's poems work for me -both men were tormented - I am not saying Celan didn't write some great poems but the very intensity and compression led him into some weakneses - too many abstractions. But it works with some of his later shorter poems.

Jack's poem on it's own does work - even if I didn't know what it was "about" - and what is very interesting is the combine of Celan's poem (which I don't think is just about doomed love -in a sense all C's poems are about doomed love between human beings) - but Jack's captures the essence of everything -when one reads his work slowly and carefuly - at first I wasn't impresed -it seemed too slight - and as I say it is especialy interesting in that the poem -in totum - can be seen to be a composite or something that is virtualy endless - one moves from the picture of Coromandel to Celan's poem - to the German and to Jack's poem then back to the English of Celan and (one might then go to the internet and or a book or books to look for other translations of Corona) -and then one is back to Jack's commentary which has become part of the whole thing - and then one is perhps diverted to Heidegger or Derrida (not that I have read any Derrida - but the option is there!) perhaps via Liv and then to the creative writing class and then back to the picture and then perhaps one looks up this photographer and maybe one even goes out to Coromandel - and so our commentary (even our lives - we readers) is (are) also part of the poem "in totum" except that there is no "in totum"... and -it is thus an Infinite Poem!!

"I look up the answers to my poems after I've writen them " (Richard Taylor)

Richard Taylor said...

I might have been a bit 'heavy' on Celan.