Thursday, August 14, 2008


by Paul Celen

Translated from the German by Pierre Joris

A word, before I get started, on the wonderful format of the Pierre Joris translation of “Breathturn” published by Green Integer Press. A couple weeks back, Ron Silliman mentioned on his blog how he wishes to see a copy of William Carlos Williams’ “Spring & All” available “…as a small book that just about fits into your pocket.” Green Integer is one of the presses that he mentions in relation to such a venture, and I’d have to agree about the ideal formatting of Green Integer’s titles. I love collected editions of a poet’s work, despite what a fellow like Charles Simic might have to say on the matter, but I also have to acknowledge the pleasure of just such a compact volume as Celan’s “Breathturn.”

The format also suits Celan in a manner not provided by the various selected editions of his work available. Now, many of the present compilations are fantastic, but the series of translations Joris made, starting with “Breathturn,” of the German poet’s challenging late work illuminates a facet of the work that would be lost in a selected works. “Breathturn” must be understood as a serial work. A proper comparison to readers of progressive American poetry might be Charles Olson. Both poets are concerned with the motion that accrues through serialism. Sometimes this movement is plainly indicated through the content, see: “IN THE SERPENTCOACH, past/ the white cypress,/ through the flood/ they drove you.” These poems are short, spiny and compact, and such rapid motion, from “IN” to “past” to “through” and then “drove,” accelerates the flow. It is almost as if the pacing advises the reader to spurn their tendency to linger on a particular poem until they have experienced the totality of the poem-cycle. Celan writes of “WORDACCRETION, volcanic,/ drowned out by searoar.” Language accumulates as a geographic surge from a submerged level, moving through the ground continually upward.

Language is involved in a syntactic thrust outward and beyond. The poems of “Breathturn” occur “On the vertical/ breathrope…” The line is given particular attention in these poems, but not as a qualified entity of beauty – the line is not the implement of totality or beauty in and of itself. Instead, the line is the primary tool through which language is dissolved and solved. Check out how lineation deconstructs the Classical primacy of the line, while qualifying the word as the fundamental increment: “...script salvaged and dis-/ solved into the count-/ less to-be-/ named un-/ pronounceable/ names.” On one hand, this deconstruction of the word favors the line, but I would argue that through such severe lineation, word gains preeminence of attention. The movement of the poems is, as I said above, vertical instead of horizontal. Look at one of the few poems in the collection where horizontal movement is favored: “(I KNOW YOU, you are the deeply bowed,/ I, the transpierced, am subject to you./ Where flames a word, would testify for us both?/ You- all, all real. I - all delusion.) It’s a wonderful poem, short, succinct and conceivable as an individual entity. It makes sense, then, that this is a poem written for Celan’s wife, Gisele, almost placing the poem in the more conventional mode of the lyric. The poem also nicely contextualizes issues of subject and object, image, and reality through the recognizable trope of the lover and the beloved.

Still, it is the poems that focus on their vertical construction, and on their placement within a cycle that captivated me personally. Certain words are given apparent focus as “stress words,” in a manner similar to the method I’ve previously discussed in relation to Artaud (see my entry on Artaud Anthology for further discussion concerning stress words - Look at how Celan refers to “…the cleftrose, legible:/ your outlawed word.” As Joris points out in annotations to the text, “The rose, flower/image/metaphor is a central concept throughout much of Celan’s work…It becomes rarer in the later volumes and appears only three times…from “Breathturn” on.” The “stress words” of Celan’s early work give way to the loci of “snow,” “shadow,” “image,” and “sleep.” The intransitive has internalized itself in Celan’s work and one of the primary concerns is with these fundamental concerns of ontology. That is not to say that Celan entirely abandons the image as is – the totality of the image has shifted from the increment of the sentence to that of the word. Each word contains its own utility. I would compare it, imperfectly, to “the New Sentence,” as each word here has the ability to pivot and react to those that precede and follow. The image is not so much abandoned, as subverted.

This subversion of the poetic, immersive “image” reminds me of Charles Olson. Another through-line from Celan to Olson is the attention lavished over sound and syllable. As abstract, as difficult, as Celan gets in “Breathturn,” he does not sever the intrinsic poetic tether to body and voice. “Deep/ in the timecrevasse,/ in the/ honeycomb-ice,/ waits a breathcrystal,/ your unalterable/ testimony.” Here we see the paradox of the solidification of spoken word to written word. The issue that I discussed in my previous entry on Plato and “Phaedrus” continues up to the 20th Century and beyond! And it isn’t going away. It isn’t going to. Celan maintains poetry’s integrity of sound and voice not through the regurgitation of archaic metrics, beautiful yes, but belonging to an alien context, but instead through a progressive revaluation of song in the face of “a/ silence-millennium.” A stanza such as “Yonder, the shore’s/ slope swells toward us,/ a dark/ thousand-brightness- the/ resurrected houses!-/ sings.” This could just as easily be a description of Maximus considering Gloucester from “The Maximus Poems,” as a stanza from “Breathturn.”

Song remains an anchor for the troubled reader through “Breathturn.” My first reading of these poems was admittedly frustrating. The density and the deliberate compression confounded me, but I found that through recitation of the poems, meaning or at least impression was illuminated. Note that I wrote “poems” as plural. The music of these poems is in their serialism. There is a pace, there is a flow, in Celan. Song provides a recognizable departure. Song allows for dance, and here we see the dance of words, the dance of intellect regarding the intellect, “…what took you out of/ language with a gesture/ that you let happen like/ the dance of two words of just/ autumn and silk and nothingness.” Yes! Dance, even the dance of words, is contingent upon physicality. Celan’s poems highlight the physicality of language. I suggest scanning the original German that Joris provides alongside his English translations. The thorniness is not so much a hurdle, as a tool to help the reader through these poems. These are poems of body, poems of mind. That is, poems of a totality in dance.

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