Richard Taylor (2011)
My friend Richard Taylor, author of three books of poems, most recently Conversation with a Stone (Auckland: Titus Books, 2007), who blogs at EYELIGHT and Richard, You MUST try to be more focused -, has sent me the following hitherto unpublished review of Celanie. It was originally intended to appear in Bill Direen's journal of international writing Percutio, but grew beyond the bounds of the issue.
I'm pleased to be able to print it here instead, although it contains some brickbats as well as bouquets. Anyone who's met him knows that Richard is better read in poetry than almost anyone one could name: he does suffer from that unfortunate (and unusual) condition called honesty, however. Anyway, here it is:
Paul Celan (1920-1970)
CELANIE: Poems and Drawings after Paul Celan
(Pania Press 2012)
Belated review of Celanie by Jack Ross and Emma Smith.
Celanie was published in December of 2012, so some time has elapsed. This book is a book of translations by Jack Ross from the German to English of many of Paul Celan’s poems sent to his wife at the time in the late 60s and 70s. She was a French artist, so it is perhaps appropriate that another woman artist has added a number of works, semi-abstract that attempt to ‘capture’ the essence of a number of the poems so translated.
After mulling over this book for some time, and wondering how I would approach a review or ‘appreciation’ of the book and some discussion of Celan himself (and losing my notes I made some time ago) I have broken my ‘block’ and am now launching into what will be only the first of some literary essays, reviews, and other aspects of EYELIGHT which I will ‘place’ in this Blog, which I call my ‘control Blog’.
I also want to consider, in time, books by writers I myself have read (not necessarily recent), or by such as Ted Jenner (‘Gold Leaves’) and comment on various events personal and other. I want to emphasise again that this, all of this is still really part of my larger ‘poem’ or art-lit text called EYELIGHT, but that is for the ‘technically minded’!
So Celan. Firstly the launch. It was a hot day and Michele Leggott, one of NZ’s most outstanding poets, gave a speech endorsing the book. Her emphasis was on the intensity of Celan’s poetry [and I will ‘cheat’ here, as I have it from the NZEPC] that her, and perhaps Jack’s ‘take’ on these poems, which were sent with letters to Celan’s wife, was that that intensity derives not only from the well known factors of Celan’s life and poetics but that in fact they were essentially ‘love poems’.
His wife, to whom the letters (in French) and poems (in German) were sent, was Gisele Celan-Lestrange. Due to Celan’s deteriorating mental condition (or so it seems) and some violence, they were separated, but perhaps still in love and these were seen as poems of love. Also, if one agrees with J. M. Coetzee, they are poems to God, and they are poems to the Third Reich.
But Michele saw them as great poems to which she – and one would expect this of a poet of her genius – responded with great emotion and acuity. It took me a long time to come to any such appreciation or view of these poems but, and I will get to this later, I have always struggled to get, poetically or psychically one might say, as much from Celan as say, poets such as (for me) the great poet John Berryman (who also was tormented all his life by a family tragedy and also committed suicide by jumping off a bridge). I have also, of course, been deeply moved by works by Primo Levi (not a poet), and Anne Frank. The first survived Auschwitz but not the second, and it might be argued that Celan also failed to survive the deaths of his parents by the Nazis.
Coetzee, in the essay "“Paul Celan and his Translators,” from his book of criticism Inner Workings: Literary Essays 2000 – 2005 (2007), if we take him literally, might “disagree” with Leggott and others, but he has a point, for in many of these poems, and others I have seen (such as those in Breathturn by Pierre Joris) it seems always that Celan is struggling, not only to encapsulate, more and more complexly and riddlingly (and ingeniously if one can read German which unfortunately I cannot, but this has been reported by those who can): more and more desperately it seems his ‘messages in bottles’ (as Scott Hamilton, when he first ‘introduced me’ to Celan, said someone had said of his works) are complex cries for some kind of redeeming meaning in the world that, with the loss of his parents, and millions of fellow Jewish people, and the fact of his tragic love-hate of the language that, for him and his parents had been, not only their main spoken language, but a language of a great culture of Goethe, Rilke, Mann and such as Richard Strauss, and earlier, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven (and yes, Nietzsche and Wagner) and so much else (including maybe my own favourite pre-war German poet Georg Trakl).
These, or some of these artists and writers, were only some of those that Celan’s parents had loved. But they had been murdered by Germans.
This left Celan to reinvent himself and attempt to continue, alone, without parents, and unable for probably deep psychological reasons (and because of a gathering storm of conflict in his own mind as a creative writer, torn between his intense need to write), to avoid writing in German. It was the main language he had used already to write poetry prior to the horrors of WW2. And he was primarily a poet, but a man, aggrieved, and thus deeply conflicted. In my own opinion he thus began a long conversation with himself and God, or to whatever and whoever one feels is 'out there'. However, this is from a relatively limited study of Celan on my part, as well as the aforementioned view of Coetzee.
Celan’s early poem, the famous "Todesfuge" [Deathfuge], is hauntingly powerful and an indictment of Nazi Germany, and was a cry of protest to Germans and others. However it was perhaps so strange, or read too soon after the war (at poetry gatherings) that it wasn’t understood in many cases, and Celan was accused of ‘sounding like Goebbels’. But it is not. It is simply a great poem and goes for the jugular.
However, Celan was not only a ‘political poet’, he wanted to write poetry of language and meaning. He did so, and became one of the greatest modernist poets. His poetry (mostly in German) has been deeply analysed. Someone, reviewing Jack and Emma’s book, felt that there needed to be more explanation of the complexity inherent in that original German. That Ross could have pointed out that the word ‘Farben’ means colour but refers to the company that made the gas that killed the Jews.
Perhaps, and indeed a larger book may have had some such discussion and analysis, but that we have this translation here means that a reader, regardless of their knowledge of German, or what Celan was ‘about’ has the means to gain some (possibly further) insight into the (admittedly difficult and sometimes perhaps too prolix or ‘tortured’ – although that ‘tortured’ or ‘burnt’ nature tells us something about the poems and the poet, so perhaps not ‘too’) strange poetry of Celan. The critic might have mentioned the word ‘Mandel’ which means ‘almond’ and also refers (probably) to the Russian poet Mandelstam and to the scent of the gas, which was, apparently, like that of almonds.
And the gas killed at least 6 million Jews. Mandelstam and many other intellectuals faced a similar if stranger holocaust in Stalin's Dictatorship of the USSR.
Celan’s parents and the Jewish people dig their grave in the air in the early "Todesfuge":
a man lives in the house your golden hair Margarete
your ashen hair Sulamith he plays with the serpents
He calls out more sweetly play death death is a master
he calls out more darkly now stroke your strings then
as smoke you will rise into air
then a grave you will have in the clouds there one
Emma Smith: Drawings from Celanie (2012)
However, Jack Ross and Emma Smith’s book has his later, more complex, but concentrated poems, and includes Smith's haunting images of what are abstracts or semi-abstracts modeled on a sheep’s skull. These make it seem almost as if we are looking into the soul of Celan: this book seems to me to do much.
Not all the poems are so good, and as far as I can tell, the German translations veer (as often with Jack Ross’s deceptive methods) to the quotidian. Yet the simplicity, or apparent simplicity that sometimes results, is not only an (possibly inevitable) effect of such a translation from the German. And, indeed, even in the earlier poems of Celan, there was an increasing move away and toward complexity and simplicity and an urge toward the almost knot-like seethe of language messages and codes which we see in Celanie. And these poems or 'messages in bottles' are speaking to the reader, as if the writer was talking to the reader but looking past into the distance.
And, as he said to his wife, who, it seemed, had great difficulty with his poems, these poems will become clear as time passes. The analogy is perhaps with Picasso’s statement about his portrait of Gertrude Stein (another great poet of some linguistic complexity and innovation), when she said it didn't look like her, that that was so: “But it will become to look like you”! Dorian Grayish! Indeed, will become. Celan insisted that his poems would come to be understood.
But many remain obscure, and perhaps can only be fully appreciated in the original German. In this respect I have far less trouble appreciating the poetry of Rilke (especially of the extraordinary superb Duino Elegies) or Georg Trakl, another tortured being who committed suicide, dismayed at the terrible suffering he witnessed as a doctor in WW1 (for which see further here).
Trakl is more ‘expressionist’ and perhaps slightly less inner driven (he was lumped with the so-called Hermetic school, although that perhaps oversimplifies his work, especially as it is not too clear if such a unified ‘movement’ or school ever existed.) Rilke too is more expansive.
But none of these writers benefited from reading Laforgue, great poet, but saved also by his clever satire, although influenced somewhat by Whitman. Thus many of the contemporaries of T. S. Eliot, who did discover Laforgue, as perhaps in his own way, Auden of The Orators was to use the writing of Stein. But neither of these was so close to blood: to war, to the Holocaust, the terrible Shoah.
Were Trakl and Celan too close to these events? The Italian poet Ungaretti, also like Trakl in WW1, wrote poems of great and moving intensity and beauty that are perhaps closer to those of Keith Douglas than Wilfred Owen or even David Jones. But each man or woman caught in the weave of these historic events experiences them in different ways and sees through different eyes.
Celan was not a ‘war poet’ but the effects of the Holocaust and the war are clear. His own reaction was to drive inwards into himself so that it seems to me that John Berryman, who also struggled for his own self’s survival through his art (and terrible alcoholism in his case), is a closer tragic parallel. Both writers, while stylistically rather different, but struggling in similar ways, were deeply read in literature. Celan knew of Rilke, Holderlin, Mandelstam and many of the other great poets. He had married and had a child, and there seemed some hope, but perhaps like Primo Levi, the trauma, the loss, were ultimately all too much.
It must be noted that Ross has included an excellent and revealing introduction showing how he came to translate these poems and the importance that these poems were to Celan, sent with letters to the woman he loved.
Jack Ross and Emma Smith have created a singular book in Celanie which also refers to that area of Paris that Celan lived in, the places he moved to. Also working here is the concept of translating these poems that accompanied personal letters, that in fact were written at a time when Celan was struggling with a deep disorder in himself, and was to take his life not too long after the last of these were written, has brought another valuable addition to the culture. By culture I mean not only that of NZ, but the world, and to literature everywhere Celanie can reach.
That these are not always ‘great’ translations, is perhaps real, but, in reading Breathturn (by Pierrre Joris who is German-English speaking and spent some years working on that book), I didn’t find all those poems (or translations of poems) to move me in many cases (some did) is much the same as I find with Ross’s work. Perhaps one misses the German. It seems good to see the German (or the original language) beside the translated text even if one has little knowledge of that language. And perhaps more of the letters. Perhaps. But I feel the criticisms were a little too severe. I also find that perhaps only 20 of the 100 or so poems affected me strongly. But of Breathturn there was perhaps a similar ratio.
What is the difficulty? Perhaps it is the ‘failure’ of translators. It is true that Ross combines an attempt to render the ‘urgency’ or Celan’s lines with an almost casual, almost idiomatic style that might upset purists, but there is merit in that, by this method, the reader’s attention is shifted from any fixation on autobiography. And many will see this as the central fact of Celan, which might move them too much from the poems themselves. His life and experiences count for a lot, that is obvious, but what we see here is a struggle, not only with the self and history, but for love and for art. Art was his legacy: a sometimes infuriatingly in-spiraling vortex of reforged suffering. But it was more than that. It was a unique art of language, and even of play, the play of light against shade.
But more likely than any supposed failure (all translations of any work will be different, so failure is not the term): it is perhaps simply the difficulty of translating a poet who, not in all cases, but many, uses a complex of double or triple meanings, obscure references, ambiguities and other Modernist devices, such as sound, and neologisms, often in the form of compound words. Such things can be nearly impossible to render into another language. It is at least a hard task. But this is the nature also of the writer, as his difficulty, his coding of complex linguistic references and sound puns etc, was that of an innovative poet, who, like Stein, was struggling to create something new. His brief was not only to record history or his own anguish (although that is there), but history and a unique art. The art of his poetry, some permanence. His way of surviving as a Jew and a human being.
It seems to me, that while I struggle with Celan, this is not a new thing, and Celanie is a book I am glad to possess.
The art of Emma Smith is a great addition to it and the work is rightly the work of Emma Smith and Jack Ross together. Art and language interact.
Emma Smith (2011)