Issue 18 – Spring 2010 – John Felstiner on Paul Celan (Essay)

John Felstiner


“Deep in the time-crevasse”:

Celan’s Outward and Inward Landscape


“I have come to you in Israel because I needed to,” he begins by saying. “I think I have a notion of what Jewish loneliness can be, and I recognize as well, among so many things, a thankful pride in every green thing planted here that stands ready to refresh anyone who comes by; just as I take joy in every newly earned, self-discovered, fulfilled word that rushes up to strengthen those who turn toward it.” These sentences from the German-speaking Jewish survivor Paul Celan (1920-1970), spoken in 1969 to Hebrew writers and to compatriots of his onetime European homeland, have a peculiar grip. An exile living in “this cold city Paris,” writing in German, and now seeing Israel for the first time, Celan finds the land together with its language telling him something necessary. “I find here, in this outward and inward landscape, much of the force for truth…found in great poetry.”

Born in Bukovina, a province of the Austrian Empire caught between Hungary, Poland, Russia, and Romania and now vanished from the map, Celan in 1944 came home from 19 months at forced labor to find his front door sealed and everything lost: family, culture, religion, possessions. Yet “there remained in the midst of the losses this one thing: language,” die Sprache, which had “passed through frightful muting, through the thousand darknesses of deathbringing speech.” From then on he gave his life’s work to speaking the truth in the only homeland left to him: a mother tongue that overnight had turned into his mother’s murderers’ tongue.

For most poets their language, their words do more than refer us to some already existing thing or thought, more than simply mediate between us and reality. But few poets can have charged their words with such immediate, primary truth claims as did Celan. “In a poem, what’s real happens!,” he urged a German highschool teacher who’d written asking whether it was enough to skim his poems for the meaning. So much was lost, so little left except a poet and his language, at once “stricken by and seeking reality.”

Fierce, uncompromising, needful, Celan forged his German mother tongue afresh, into “breathturn,” “breathcrystal,” “brightword,” “threadsuns,” and “sun-grave” too, “snow-comfort,” “time-crevasse,” “No-One’s-Rose,” “stonewritten shadows,” “winterhard syllables,” “voices from the nettle path.” More and more he chipped away at any lyric faith that the natural world offers easy succor. “After Auschwitz,” Theodor Adorno said in 1949, “to write a poem is barbaric.” But that was too exclusive—a new sort of poem would have to emerge. Even before the war’s end, Celan at 23 could write about the woven cloth of poetry:

Touch it and snow falls in the bramble bed.
Wave it and you will hear the eagle scream.

Nothing’s left here of Coleridge’s “Joy, wedding Nature to us.”

As a boy, in a popular guide called The LittleFlowerbook, Celan liked to add the flowers’ names in Romanian, Greek, Hebrew, and he loved walking nearby hills and woods. An acute awareness, a reach and touch for naming the natural world, would later serve him as the history of his world turned intolerable.

When war first threatened, instinctively Celan marked this with disruptive images. Thorns and briars tear at a dead man in a 1940 lyric, and “poppies scrape blood from his face.” In 1943, suspecting the worst for his deported parents in a Ukrainian winter, he titles a poem “Mother,” then estranges that to “Black Flakes.” Here she cries to him, “this world will never turn green, my child!” Later, knowing she’s dead, he turns to Romanian folk elegy, which typically couples despair to some plant or tree. Here’s a traditional doină:

Green leaf of the plantain,
My heart is stalked by pain.
Pale leaf of blue lilac,
Mother does not come back.

So Celan begins “Aspen Tree” (1945):

Aspen tree, your leaves glance white into the dark.
My mother’s hair never turned white.
Dandelion, so green is the Ukraine.
My fair-haired mother did not come home.

A surreal energy has skewed the universe, a “grinding of hobnailed boots in the cherry tree.”

No poem tests the bind (or double bind) between nature and history so stringently as Celan’s 1953 “With a Changing Key,” asking himself and us how to re-enter “that which happened,” as he called what we call Holocaust.

With a changing key
you unlock the house where
the snow of what’s silenced drifts.
Bound by the blood that bursts from
your eye or mouth or ear,
so your key changes.

Changing your key changes the word
that may drift with the flakes.
Bound by the wind that rebuffs you,
packed round your word is the snow.

In an empty house the winter that silenced his parents now threatens him. A key moment for translation, lines four and nine begin Je nach, “According to.” At first, holding to the rhythm, I made that “Just like.” But it’s not mere analogy Celan means here. Something binds his voice even closer to the trauma, to the “black flakes” he’d imagined ten years earlier.

Looking and listening again:

Je nach dem Wind, der dich fortstösst, 
ballt um das Wort sich der Schnee.

Bound by the wind that rebuffs you,
packed round your word is the snow.

That brutal Wind of history may well be a metaphor. But for Celan Schnee is not, even so much as in Emily Dickinson’s mortal vision: “As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow – / First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go —” Celan knew not likeness but sameness, because the very snow that buried his parents in Ukraine threatens his word, his Wort suffocating within “packed…snow.”

Can words re-enter an unspeakable place-in-time, represent it, make it present again? Opening Celan’s longest, most challenging poem “Stretto” (1958), we’ve already reached a landscape, been

Taken off into
the terrain
with the unmistakable trace.

We, or this poem’s words, are pushing back grass that has overgrown something:

Grass, written asunder. The stones, white,
with the grassblades’ shadows.

And right away, in case we think this terrain, grass, stone, and shadows are just figures of speech:

Read no more—look!
Look no more—go!

Words on a page or in a voice can do this, jolting us into real time, into psychic place and event.

Grass: Whitman loved it. In Song of Myself, grass is one with his voice: “I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass. / My tongue…” Even his “beautiful uncut hair of graves” brings some comfort, as do Psalms: “My days are like a shadow that declineth, and I am withered like grass.” But Celan has a more drastic agenda. He’d recently translated the first Auschwitz documentary, Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog (1955), for German audiences. The film opens on present-day color footage of une drôle d’herbe, “a strange grass that has sprouted and covered the earth worn down by prisoners’ trampling.” At the end, a hand-held camera having retraced the place and time of atrocity, we’re reminded that since 1945, “the grass has resettled again.” Likewise in Celan’s “Stretto,” the act of writing actually penetrates to things obscured: “Grass, written asunder.”

The time-crevasse, the caesura that cut off so much humankind from the world they had known, cut Celan off from his language as well. In a German that coined terms for genocide—judenrein (Jew-free), Sonderbehandlung(special treatment), Endlösung (final solution)—how could he now fashion lyric poems? After the war, friends asked why wouldn’t he write in Romanian, his school and street language, or in French, which he’d lovingly mastered. “Only in the mother tongue can one speak one’s own truth,” he replied. “In a foreign tongue the poet lies.”

The task was a radical one: to purge an atrociously abused language, finding ways of speech that chipped and burned through to cleanness. For Celan, the realm of nature gave him that chance. “Conversation in the Mountains” (1959), a humorous, ominous, Yiddishly inflected prose fiction, sets two urban Jews to gabbing about their exile even from nature: “So it was quiet, quiet, up there in the mountains. It wasn’t quiet for long, because when one Jew comes along and meets another, then it’s goodbye silence, even in the mountains. Because the Jew and Nature, that’s two very different things, as always, even today, even here.” Yet the common and scientific names of alpine flowers grace this dialogue: “Turk’s-cap in bloom, blooming wild, blooming like nowhere, and on the right, there’s some rampion, and Dianthus superbus, the superb pink, growing not far off.” One Jew complains of “a language not for you and not for me—because I’m asking, who is it meant for then, the earth…” Yet “after all here I am, here, on this road which they say is beautiful, well I’m near the Turk’s-cap and the rampion, and a hundred yards further, over there, where I can go, the larch climbs up to the stone-pine.” That much, at least, they have: a pristine wild terrain, and the names. Names matter, because Jews were despoiled of theirs and because Nazi-Deutsch must not contaminate the identities of the physical world Celan loved.

The years 1959 and 1960 turned agonizing for him: wounding German reviews, recrudescent new-Nazism, and a vicious plagiarism charge—against him, who’d staked everything on his own “true-stammered mouth.” In response, Celan’s poem “Psalm” seems to annul the Creation in Eden:

No one kneads us again out of earth and clay,
no one incants our dust.
No one.

Blessèd art thou, No One.

But it ends by matching suffering with the regenerative organs of a “No-One’s-Rose”:

our pistil soul-bright,
our stamen heaven-waste,
our corona red
from the purpleword we sang
over, O over
the thorn.

Since the German for “pistil,” Griffel, also means a stylus, this rose takes on writerly energy, the only way Celan knew: “over / the thorn.”

Calling his next book Atemwende signaled a decisive “Breathturn,” as in these terse lines from 1963, on his wife Gisèle’s austere black-and-white lithographs and etchings:

IN RIVERS north of the future
I cast the net you
haltingly weight
with stonewritten 

A poem about “Wandering-through-Names” centers on a Findling—a foundling, much like Celan, while this word also denotes stray rockmass, displaced by glaciers. Another poem on Gisèle’s art again traces the bleak arctic path of his poetry:

a path through human-
shaped snow,
through penitent cowl-ice, to
the glacier’s
welcoming chambers and tables.

Cowl-ice plus those chambers and tables all exist in glacial geology. Chilling, hardening, purifying his vision, Celan speaks as a poet whose credo will not budge or dissolve:

in the time-crevasse,
honeycomb ice
there waits, a Breathcrystal,
your unannullable

Honeycomb ice: there is such a thing, remote, untouched by human vicissitude, yet sweet, with six points like the Star of David.

Geology, mineralogy, botany, ornithology, all gave Celan’s more and more anguished psyche some recourse to primal nature with its unspoiled names. At times he needed more than nature’s neutral indifference, and we feel him “pressing back against the pressure of reality,” as Wallace Stevens defined imagination: “It is a violence from within that protects us from a violence without.” Translating Shakespeare in 1964 for the 400 th anniversary, he turns an already harsh sonnet on youth’s transience into a vision of nature destructive and destroyed. The Bard’s quatrain in sonnet five,

For never-resting time leads summer on
To hideous winter and confounds him there,
Sap check’d with frost, and lusty leaves quite gone,
Beauty o’ersnowed and bareness everywhere,

suffers torsion and fracture in Celan’s German version (here reverted to English):

[‘Tis summer? Summer was—Time too soon led
through many winters into darkenings.
Leaf greened, sap rose…In time past. Oversnowed
is beauty. And a bareness on all things.]

Making Shakespeare’s present irrevocably past, his winter plural and dark, his steady chronicle a jagged dispute, Celan infuses nature and poetry alike with his own wintry loss. What’s more, he steps up the work of Time’s fell hand by forcing snow before the line break, “Beauty” itself being voided by what happened in mid-century Europe.

Meditating profoundly about German language and poetry, yet implicated in what happened, the philosopher Martin Heidegger fascinated (and admired) Celan. They finally met in July 1967 when the poet read in Freiburg to over a thousand people, ending his recital with “time-crevasse,” “honeycomb ice,” and “unannullable witness.” Next day Heidegger brought him up to his mountain “hut” at Todtnauberg in the Black Forest. Then a week later, with sharp misgivings about the great thinker’s wartime acquiescence in Nazism and especially his subsequent silence, Celan wrote a poem on this visit.

“Arnica, Eyebright,” it begins, noting wildflowers from their walk that he’d also known in childhood as healing herbs. Then comes a line he’d written into the guestbook, about “a hope, today, / for a thinker’s / coming / word / in the heart.” Finally, the Todtnauberg landscape appears as “log-paths on high moorland”—an innocent enough description, echoing Heidegger’s book Holzwege (Woodland Paths), about poetry underway toward truth. The trouble is, in an explosive wordplay Celan’s “log,” Knüppel, also means “bludgeon.” Translating Night and Fog he’d used that word for deathcamp prisoners “bludgeoned awake” at 5 a.m. The philosopher’s heartfelt word, as we know, never came.

“Heidegger told me,” says his disciple Hans-Georg Gadamer, “that in the Black Forest, Celan was better informed on plants and animals than he himself was.” The famed mountain hut stood for rootedness in the fatherland’s native soil, whereas Celan…

IN THE AIR, that’s where your root is, there,
in the air.

In his monumental wartime ballad, “Deathfugue,” Jewish prisoners chant a refrain, “we shovel a grave in the air.” In language, in the mother tongue, that’s where his root was, which makes Celan’s words about exilic loneliness, upon arriving in Israel in 1969, all the more charged: his “thankful pride in every green thing planted here,” and in “every newly earned word.”

Why it happened is not perfectly known, but at some point Paul Celan’s stone-written shadows and winterhard syllables gave way to too much mental anguish. During the night of 19 April 1970, aged 49, living alone near the Seine River, he jumped or fell from Pont Mirabeau and though a strong swimmer, drowned unseen. Years before he’d written a brief lyric of terrifying premonition.

At night in crumbling rockmass.

In trouble’s rubble and scree,
in slowest tumult,
the wisdom-pit named Never.

Water needles
stitch up the split
shadow—it fights its way
deeper down,

Or, since “shadow” is masculine in German—though still we don’t sound the depth of the poem’s final word:

Water needles
stitch up the split
shadow—he fights his way
deeper down,


This essay was first published in Parthenon West Review.



John Felstiner wrote The Lies of Art: Max Beerbohm’s Parody and Caricature, Translating Neruda: The Way to Macchu Picchu, and Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew. He edited and translated Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan, and co-edited the Norton anthology Jewish American Literature. A Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, he has been at Stanford since 1965, and taught at the University of Chile, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Yale. Can Poetry Save the Earth? / A Field Guide to Nature Poems is coming out in paperback this Fall.