Poetry is the meeting point of parallel lines—in infinity, but also in the here and now. It is where the patent and incontrovertible intersects with the ineffable and incommensurable. It can be as complicated as Mallarmé or Paul Celan, or as simple as Heine or Verlaine, but something about it, however strongly it is felt, surpasses comprehension. It is what, when thought of, made A. E. Housman’s face bristle, and his razor inoperative; it is what made Emily Dickinson’s whole body so cold no fire could ever warm her.

There is a wonderful story I. A. Richards used to tell that I remember only imperfectly. It seems that word got back to the University of Chicago that young David Oppenheimer, who had been given a grant to pursue his scientific studies in—Vienna, was it?—was writing poetry instead. So a great scientist, his mentor (I forget his name, alas), was deputized to restore him to his senses. Poetry or science, the disciple remonstrated, it’s really all the same. Not so, rejoined the master: science is saying in language that everyone can understand things nobody knew before; poetry is saying what everyone knew all along in language that nobody can understand. At this point, Ivor Richards would draw himself up and sound and look even more vatic than usual, and declaim: “He was absolutely right: poetry is saying something everyone always knew in language that passes all understanding.”

The great modern poets, starting with Rimbaud and Mallarmé, were striving to push utterance to its limits, to where it approached or attained the unutterable.

The great modern poets, starting with Rimbaud and Mallarmé, were striving to push utterance to its limits, to where it approached or attained the unutterable. The rest, of course, is silence. As the decades wore on, however, the problem became somewhat different: how to wrest meaning, perhaps even beauty, from a language that had been used and abused by dictatorships and their propaganda machinery and concentration camps quite literally to death. For poetry in German, the problem was especially acute. It is understandable how scarcely and accidentally surviving victims of genocide mistrusted or even rejected the language of the mass murderers. Yet the rejection had to be couched in the selfsame tongue. Or did it? Theodor W. Adorno had proclaimed repeatedly and influentially that, after Auschwitz, no poems could be written. It has always amazed me how wide an acceptance this profoundly mistaken notion was to gain.

Poetry, though, kept being written—even by survivors—and fairly soon after the war a generation of younger poets acquired imposing stature. The most important figures were Karl Krolow, Walter Höllerer, Heinz Piontek, and Paul Celan, to be followed a little later by Ingeborg Bachmann and Hans Magnus Enzensberger. Older poets enjoying longevity also contributed to the renewal and vindication of German verse; in the end, even Adorno had to retract his sweeping pronouncements, while George Steiner and others were still mouthing them elsewhere. Among all these poets, the one who was to achieve the greatest international resonance was Paul Celan (1920–70).

Let me skip ahead and across to the Anglophone world, where Bruno Bettelheim wrote about Celan’s “Todesfuge”: “It was this poem which immediately established [Celan] as Germany’s—and probably Europe’s—most important poet of his generation.” And George Steiner (in After Babel, 1975) announced that Celan was “almost certainly the major European poet of the period after 1945.” In Germany, Rolf Hochhuth published his provocative play Der Stellvertreter (“The Deputy”) in 1963. It contained mini-treatises in its stage directions, in one of which we read about the dangers, at least in drama, of “proceeding in the manner of, say, Paul Celan in his masterly poem ‘Death Fugue,’ which has translated the gassing of Jews entirely into metaphors.” Because, Hochhuth continued, “great as is the power of suggestion that emanates from word and sound, metaphors inevitably hide the hellish cynicism of this reality.” Contrariwise, the distinguished poet-essayist Hans Egon Holthusen had praised Celan’s ability to “sing the Holocaust in a language that, from first line to last, is true and pure poetry, without a trace of reportage, propaganda and argumentation.” He extolled “Death Fugue” as “one of the most magnificent occasional poems [Zeitgedichte] we possess.” This essay, published in Holthusen’s collection Ja und nein (1954), infuriated the hypersensitive Celan, whose paranoia where German critics were concerned was boundless.

“Todesfuge” is indeed a major poem of our century, reaching the acme of fame by being reprinted in its entirety in The New York Times Book Review, along with condign praise, in conjunction with the appearance in English of Celan’s Speech-Grille and Selected Poems (1971, translated by Joachim Neugroschel), a full year after the poet had committed suicide by leaping into the Seine. There have been books about Celan even in English, notably Jerry Glenn’s Paul Celan (1973); Israel Chalfen’s important and beautifully written 1979 account of the poet’s early years was brought out in translation here in 1991. Nevertheless, it is Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew, by John Felstiner, that makes the most inclusive attempt at criticism and biography thus far published in English. Felstiner, a professor of English and Jewish studies at Stanford, has also written books on Neruda and Max Beerbohm, revealing him as a scholar of catholic taste. His knowledge of Judaica in both Hebrew and Yiddish was especially useful for a study of Celan and the writings about him; it goes without saying that Felstiner also knows his German. His book is a significant achievement that, unlike many such endeavors, is at least as much criticism as biography; in a mere 344 pages, Felstiner analyzes most of Celan’s important works in both verse and prose—if not in full, at least in generous part.

The first, and probably most debatable, characteristic of the book is that it reproduces the overwhelming majority of poems discussed only in the English of Felstiner’s translation. Although we are told otherwise, this may well have been the publisher’s way of saving space, and it strikes me as unfortunate. To be sure, in exceptional cases the original is included, but with a poet whose effects are so idiosyncratic, and whose meanings so elusive, the original text must always be given, if only in fine print at the bottom of the page. True, Felstiner includes in his analyses phrases and words of Celan’s German—and sometimes, I repeat, the whole poem—but that is not the same as allowing readers with knowledge of German (or even without it) to get the full sense (or at least sound) of what the poet wrote. Would one want a critical biography of a composer without quotations from his music?

As for the quality of Felstiner’s translations, it is generally high, just short of what a major poet-translator could offer.

As for the quality of Felstiner’s translations, it is generally high, just short of what a major poet-translator could offer. Felstiner agonizes over getting the meaning, sound, and ambiguities of the text right. Where he has to take liberties, he explains them; sometimes he even admits to total bafflement. Now and then he also adduces a rival translation. All this is splendid, but has its disadvantages as well. At times, Celan’s life gets shortchanged in favor of the work.

To be sure, not everything about the poet’s private life is available, despite an ample correspondence and a profusion of memoirs by intimates and not-so-intimates. Felstiner has spoken to everyone who could be interviewed, whenever possible face to face. He has enjoyed the full cooperation of Celan’s widow, Gisèle Lestrange Celan (since deceased), and son, Eric. But two lacunae immediately hit us: though the book is illustrated, there are no pictures of Gisèle or Eric, or of the women in Celan’s life. Indeed, least to be had from the book is information about the poet’s marriage and love life.

A useful biographical précis is provided by Felstiner himself in his introduction to the correspondence between Celan and his fellow poet Nelly Sachs:1

Paul Celan’s parents came from Galicia and Bukovina, the “easternmost” reach (he emphasized) of the Austrian empire. His upbringing, though it entailed moderate religious observance and a Bar Mitzvah, would still have left him more-or-less comfortably engaged, like countless other Jews, with western European culture. But Celan underwent a drastic education: Iron Guard anti-Semitism, Soviet occupation, Nazi invasion, ghetto, forced labor, overnight deportation and loss of both parents in Transnistria. Toward the war’s end he abandoned Czernowitz (renamed Chernovtsy), spent two years in Bucharest, fled to Vienna, and in 1948 settled in Paris, becoming a translator and above all a poet writing against the grain of a mother tongue the murderers had brutally abused.

What other salient facts need mention? Celan was born Paul Antschel, in Romanian transliteration Ancel, which, for purposes of euphony, he anagrammatized into Celan. He had no use for his stern and uncultured father, but worshiped his refined and literate mother, who adored her only child. It was she who insisted that only High German be spoken in the house, and it was only relatively late that Paul, a remarkable linguist, evinced interest in Yiddish and Hebrew, with both of which he became conversant. It was this intense closeness to his mother that kept his relations with girls (even the charming Ruth Lackner and the beautiful Rosa Leibovici, both, as Chalfen relates, very much in love with him) apparently platonic. Not until his late twenties, in his Bucharest years, did he lose his virginity to the capital’s prostitutes, though (as Chalfen also reports) he complained that they were “dreadfully primitive.” He did, however, have close relationships with young men, mostly fellow students, although there is no evidence of anything more than comradeship.

Celan was, for the most part, withdrawn and aloof, sometimes remaining silent during an evening’s party. Yet there were also periods of entrancing merriment, when he would do sparkling impersonations, vivid enactments of scenes from plays (notably Shakespeare), and spellbinding poetry readings—though never of his own poetry, which he kept secret. Crucial experiences of his youth were nineteen months in various unspeakably vicious labor camps, and the loss of his parents under particularly guilt-inducing circumstances. Paul had left home in a huff to hide out elsewhere one weekend—the usual time for deportation roundups—and, returning home, found the door locked and his parents gone. Deported to Transnistria, his father died of typhus; his beloved mother, too weak to work, was shot in the back of the head. Paul could never quite get over the probably mistaken notion that, had he been there, he could have shielded his parents in the camp, and somehow brought them back alive.

Celan was, for the most part, withdrawn and aloof, sometimes remaining silent during an evening’s party.

Celan was always passionate about botany, and knew the names of flowers in many languages. Besides German, he had perfect Romanian (in which he wrote some fine poems and prose), French (for a year, he had studied medicine in Tours), Hebrew, Russian (he translated officially approved Russian writers into Romanian), Ukrainian (more translations, providing desperately needed funds), English (a visit with an aunt in London enabled Paul to see Shakespeare at the source), and also a command of Italian, Portuguese, and some Spanish (which he must have studied on his own). Throughout his life, translation, especially of poetry, was of great artistic and financial importance to him, as were studies of Romance and English literature. In Paris he studied philology and German literature at the prestigious Ecole Normale Supérieure, where he later taught.

Of particular meaning in his later years was his correspondence with the German-Jewish poet Nelly Sachs (1891–1970), then living as a refugee in Sweden. The two poets admired each other’s work, and cheered each other up in their ever-increasing depression. Both were to win major awards in Germany, which they were hesitant to collect—but collected anyway—and both, especially Sachs, spent time in mental hospitals and received shock treatment. They sent each other their poems—Sachs rather more than Celan—and received hearty mutual encouragement and admiration, even though Sachs’s later work was pretty poor. They saw each other once in Zurich, and, a bit later, in Paris, where Sachs briefly visited at the Celans’ invitation. Sachs was religious, Celan was not; yet they shared two quasi-mystical experiences involving a special sort of light sighted on the water in Switzerland, and on a wall of the Celans’ Paris apartment.

Late in his short life, Celan made it to Israel, where he had further opportunities for agonized soul searching about why he did not relocate there, as so many of his Bukovinian co-religionists did. With one of them, Ilana Shmueli, he conducted a love affair during his relatively short stay in Israel, then corresponded with her until his death. On or about April 20, 1970, he threw himself into the Seine, and, although a strong swimmer, drowned. His body wasn’t found until several days later, and was buried on the very day his dear Nelly Sachs died.

Celan was always passionate about botany, and knew the names of flowers in many languages.

During the last part of his life, Celan was living apart from his spouse; he was, as Felstiner writes, “a sick man, sometimes violent and even suicidal.” It is not clear how complete the break with his wife was. She had been Gisèle de Lestrange, member of an aristocratic French Catholic family that intensely disapproved of her marriage to a Jewish refugee. Her mother, widowed late in life, became a nun, with whom her family could converse only through a grille, most likely the speech-grille that became the title, first of a poem by Celan, and later of an entire collection. Indeed, most of Celan’s collections took their titles from a poem or phrase in a previous collection, presumably as a conscious or unconscious reaching for continuity in the poet’s fragmented life. Gisèle was a graphic artist, whose work was, we are told, highly regarded, though what reproductions of it I have seen leave me cold. The titles of her—usually very abstract—works were often supplied by her husband.

Why the suicide? Obviously, there was much in Celan’s past that painfully clung to him. Yet he also had good times with his wife and son, and to some extent enjoyed the success of his poetry, which earned him the respected Prize of the City of Bremen, and the coveted Büchner Prize of the City of Darmstadt. But Celan always imagined that prizes, publications, invitations to read or lecture had to do with attempts by Germany to assuage its bad conscience, rather than with genuine recognition of his work. Thus even essentially laudatory articles about it by such prominent critics as Holthusen and Günter Blöcker struck him as patronizing, if not downright insulting. Typically, he resented it equally when no mention was made of his early masterpiece, “Todesfuge,” and when it was singled out after he himself felt he had surpassed it. Even its inclusion in the curriculum of many German schools failed to appease him.

What hurt him most, though, was the Goll affair. Yvan (or Ivan) Goll was an Alsatian Jewish poet living in Paris, writing mostly surrealist poems and plays in German and French, often in collaboration with his wife. Claire Goll had in her youth, though Felstiner doesn’t mention this, been Rilke’s mistress, a thing that could go to any woman’s head. I myself visited with the Golls at the American Hospital in Neuilly during Ivan’s terminal illness, and found the couple most stimulating. So, no doubt, did the young Celan when he was asked to translate some of Goll’s French poetry into German. As Felstiner notes, Celan translated “three collections, which went unpublished because, Claire Goll later claimed, they bore too closely the ‘signature’ of Paul Celan.” Now, it is true that Celan was a rather free translator—though nowhere near so free as, say, Robert Lowell; nevertheless, the result was almost always impressive and, ultimately, undamaging to the reputation of the originals.

So it was most ungracious of Claire Goll to launch, later on, an attack on Celan in a German magazine, asserting and trying to document that the younger man’s poetry plagiarized that of her late husband. This envy-motivated accusation had some repercussions, but both the German Academy as a body, and most leading poets individually, rallied to Celan’s defense. Still, given his overdelicate nature, Celan was to nurse this grievance to the utmost, and it became perhaps the chief goad of his paranoia. (It is worth noting how many poets in all languages ended up more or less insane; one could not begin to match their numbers among painters, composers, and prose writers.) So it was that Nelly Sachs, during one of the bad phases of her persecution mania, which is what ailed Celan as well, summoned Paul to her sanatorium bedside, then countermanded the summons in a telegram that arrived too late. In Stockholm, Celan was either not admitted to Nelly’s room, or, more likely, not recognized by the older poet.

Still, why suicide? Clearly, terrifying depression. I can visualize Celan jumping off the very Pont Mirabeau (near which he lived at the end of his life) that inspired Apollinaire’s famous poem “Le Pont Mirabeau,” from which Celan quoted in one of his poems. Apollinaire’s poem stresses not only our sad transience, experienced especially keenly watching the river flow beneath the bridge (“Ni temps passé/ Ni les amours reviennent”), but also our burdensome, anxiety-ridden existence (“Les jours s’en vont je demeure”). Kinesis and stasis can be equal enemies to the poet. This may well be the source of what the Yugoslav writer Danilo Kis has noted in his book Homo Poeticus: “Yes, the defining factor in the literature and thought of Central Europe is just that: ironic lyricism. Perhaps it’s a combination of Slavic and Hungarian lyricism, with the ironic part, like a grain of salt, coming from the Jews.” A grain of salt, Kis might have added, that could as easily turn into a grain of sand inside a poetic oyster.

Why the suicide? Obviously, there was much in Celan’s past that painfully clung to him.

It is indicative that, of Celan’s favorite poets—Hölderlin, Rilke, Trakl, and Mandelshtam—one died mad, and two prematurely, in war or the gulag. And his favorite prose writer, Kafka, was a Jew and perennial imaginary victim, whose defense mechanism was, precisely, Central European ironic lyricism. Celan, who translated a good deal of Mandelshtam, also rendered into German the narration in Alain Resnais’s hallucinatory documentary, Night and Fog. It is not hard to imagine how much that first and best film about Auschwitz must have possessed the poet’s mind. Not only must the translator have relived the horrors of the Holocaust, he must also have endured a recrudescence of his guilt at surviving. This, in turn, might have become aggravated by remorse about his love affair with Ilana—more traumatic for a habitual nonwomanizer—and torment at his separation from wife and child.

“Of course survivors sustained deep damage,” observes Terrence Des Pres in Writing into the World, “but let us . . . consider, despite the damage done, the strength revealed.” Celan’s work is a lasting memorial, “an example worth knowing when we contemplate the darkness ahead.” Perhaps the best short definition of Celan’s poetry comes from the literary historian Hans Mayer, who knew the poet; it is a summation that all writers on Celan have formulated in not dissimilar terms. Mayer calls it a “poetic practice des gestalteten Verstummens,” which English can render only clumsily as “the embodied falling silent.” Celan himself has evoked it in two verses from “Strähne” (“Strand”) singled out by Karl Krolow in Aspekte zeitgenössischer deutscher Lyrik: “Dies ist ein Wort, das neben den Worten einherging,/ ein Wort nach dem Bild des Schweigens.” (“This is a word that went about alongside words,/ a word in the likeness of silence.”) And, again quoting, Krolow continues: “The word is then ‘ein kleines unbefahrenes Schweigen’ [a small trackless silence].”

Here it behooves us to give examples of Celan’s poetry, starting with a relatively early, 1950 poem in elegant rhyme, which, as Felstiner notes, uses a stanza form borrowed from German baroque religious verse:

So bist du denn geworden
wie ich dich nie gekannt:
dein Herz schlägt allerorten
in einem Brunnenland,

wo kein Mund trinkt und keine
Gestalt die Schatten säumt,
wo Wasser quillt zum Scheine
und Schein wie Wasser schäumt.

Du steigst in alle Brunnen,
du schwebst durch jeden Schein.
Du hast ein Spiel ersonnen,
das will vergessen sein.

In translating this lyric, the usually sober and conscientious Felstiner permits himself a game that should be forgotten: together with one Melissa Monroe, he renders the piece into a rhymed pseudo-Dickinson poem, which he boasts of having passed off as a Dickinson original. But the poem is not much like Dickinson (whom Celan later came to admire and translate); rather, it is in the best German lyric tradition, with added Celan characteristics. Herewith my own, non-Dickinsonian version:

So then you have become
as I have never known you:
your heart beats everyplace
in a country of wells

where no mouth drinks and no
shape [figure] borders the shadows,
where water springs into gleaming [semblance]
and gleam foams like water.

You descend into every well,
you float [sway, hover] through every gleam.
You have thought up a game
that wants to be forgotten [seeks oblivion].

Bukovina is a country of wells, and one might easily take this for a poem of landscape and love, except that Celan, uncharacteristically, revealed it to be about his vanished mother. The rhymes and near-rhymes are sinuously incantatory, yet a vague unease prevails. Even that the dedicatee of such a quasi-amatory poem is the mother is somewhat disquieting. The ghostly mother figure blends with the landscape in a sort of matriarchal pantheism. There are the resplendent compounds, Brunnenland and allerorten, but most of the key words are pared-down monosyllables. Alliteration in sch- flows through the poem: the murmur of wavelets.

The mother haunts the depths of wells from which no one drinks—graves?—and where no shape (or figure, or body) borders (or edges, or hems) the shadows (or shades)—which must be the realm of the dead. Yet in these shadowlands water springs into sunlight or gleaming, or, via its German homonym, semblance. So the shadows are really unbordered by human forms that would cast them (a typical Celanian reversal or paradox), and the life-giving water is only an illusion. Yet even such a semblance can foam, can bubble up in memory: the dead mother is recalled, ebulliently alive.

So the mother has both descended into the dark and risen into gleaming day. And then those mysterious, multivalent verses: “You have thought up a game/ that wants to be forgotten” (or “seeks oblivion”). Is that game the teasing, tormenting haunting of the son? Or is it merely a sneaky kind of death? And by whom or what does the game want to be forgotten? In any case, a terrible game, but still only a game. An indefinable irony blends with the sadness.

Now for a somewhat later poem (1952), again to the mother, but more characteristic of the poet’s mature mode:

Zähle die Mandeln,
zähle, was bitter war und dich wachhielt,
zähl mich dazu:

Ich suchte dein Aug, als du’s aufschlugst und
       niemand dich ansah,
ich spann jenen heimlichen Faden,
an dem der Tau, den du dachtest,
hinunterglitt zu den Krügen,
die ein Spruch, der zu niemandes Herz fand,

Dort erst tratest du ganz in den Namen, der
       dein ist,
schrittest du sicheren Fuáes zu dir,
schwangen die Hämmer frei im Glockenstuhl
        deines Schweigens,
stieá das Erlauschte zu dir,
legte das Tote den Arm auch um dich,
und ihr ginget selbdritt durch den Abend.

Mache mich bitter.
Zähle mich zu den Mandeln.

As translated by Felstiner:

Count up the almonds,
count what was bitter and kept you waking,
count me in too:

I sought your eye when you glanced up and no
       one would see you,
I spun that secret thread
where the dew you mused on
slid down to pitchers
tended by a word that reached no one’s heart.

There you first fully entered the name that
       is yours,
you stepped to yourself on steady feet,
the hammers swung free in the belfry of your
things overheard thrust through to you,
what’s dead put its arm around you too,
and the three of you walked through the evening.

Render me bitter.
Number me among the almonds.

Felstiner tries as hard for the rhythm as for the meaning, which is admirable, but can distort what the poem is saying from the very start. Thus “Count up” renders the disyllabic Zähle but puts an unwelcome spin on the meaning, which is simply “count.” “Der Tau, den du dachtest” is not quite “the dew you mused on.” For dachtest, literally the past tense thought, I would prefer imagined. The pitchers, I would say, are guarded or preserved, rather than tended. I would translate the next line as, “Only there did you wholly enter the name that is yours”—shades of Mallarmé on Poe: “Ainsi qu’en lui-même enfin l’éternité le change.” Strode would be better than stepped. And, please, not “things overheard” and “what’s dead,” but “the Overheard” and “the Dead,” with capitals to drive home the personification. Finally, that “render me bitter.” True, it gets across the disyllabic verb, but it has to resort to the more elaborate render, instead of the simple make, and incurs a slight singsong with the repeated -er ending. As for the suggestive echo in Mache and Mandeln, no one could get it in English.

In his comments on the poem, Felstiner is characteristically perceptive and thorough in adducing the significance of almonds in Hebrew and Yiddish literature, and even operetta, as well as in Celan’s work. He is also sedulous in rounding up possible allusions in the poem, including “Zählappell, a head count in Nazi camps.” The associative zeal, though often suggestive, can carry him too far afield. He writes: “It’s possible, though only just, to think here of the smell of almonds given off by Zyklon B, the gas the SS used.” Here that cautionary “only just” seems almost overscrupulous. In other places, where it might be more appropriate, it is absent. For example, Felstiner labors valiantly, but I think in vain, to establish parallels between Celan and Marianne Moore. Elsewhere, in the poem “Blume,” he will link “The stone in the air, which I followed./ Your eye as blind as the stone” with the famous passage in “Death Fugue,” where, at Auschwitz, “we shovel a grave in the air”—about as far from the stone in the air as one can get.

Even more bizarre is Felstiner’s finding in these verses of a late Celan poem, “die Offenen tragen/ den Stein hinterm Aug” (“the Open ones carry/ the stone behind their eye”) something that “reminds me of the statue in Rilke’s ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo’: ‘for there is no place on it/ that does not see you. You must change your life.’” One sometimes gets the feeling with Felstiner that the things farthest apart are only a stone’s throw away. This reaches the heights of the ludicrous when, for Felstiner, Celan and his wife, Gisèle, become “Lan-celot” and Guinevere.

One more example. Discussing Celan’s Büchner Prize acceptance speech, Felstiner writes (note, by the way, the dangling construction): “Along with the pervasive ‘Allow me,’ Celan studs his talk with Meine Damen und Herren (‘Ladies and Gentlemen’) eighteen times over, with a spate toward the end. While this honorific keeps the poet conversant [sic] with his listeners, it also impugns their honor, as Jerry Glenn suggests, and even—who knows?—evokes the politeness the SS used.” This is very strange. It seems far-fetched, though not preposterous, to endow the repeated rhetorical apostrophe with irony, but it is absurd to invoke the politeness of the SS, assuming that such politeness there was.

But to get back to the almond poem. Here, as on occasion elsewhere, Felstiner does not come to grips with the real interpretive difficulties. What is the secret thread with its putative dew? What is the unheard word? What are those pitchers? And so on. It appears to me that line four, about Paul’s mother’s opening her eyes wide with no one looking at her, refers to the moment when she was shot from behind. The secret thread is Paul’s empathy, which allows the mother’s dying thoughts—a benison that her gentleness exudes even in death—to be collected like dew into the pitchers of memory. The son’s recollections preserve an utterance that found no destination—except that Celan, once again, paradoxically inverts the statement. It is the utterance that preserves the memory rather than vice versa: the rememberer is sheltered by what he remembers.

There—in death and in her son’s memory—the mother becomes fully herself. In life, she was repressed (“the belfry of your silence”), but now her essence rings out loud and clear. The Overheard—what she hinted at—joins the solid contours of finality (the Dead), and together with Mother they walk into the dark. Felstiner’s “the three of you” is feeble for selbdritt. “You walked, a threesome [or, better yet, triune], through the evening.” There remains only for the son to achieve full identification with mother by absorbing all her suffering, by inheriting her bitter fate.

I point out my differences with Felstiner hesitantly, impressed as I am with the thoroughness of his research, the care that went into his translations, and the sensitivity with which he evaluates the achievement. If, at times, he is overindulgent with certain recurrent devices and excessive obscurities, these foibles are an earnest of the devotion and effort needed for an undertaking as arduous as this book. Yet Felstiner does not address Celan’s exaggerated tendency to invert relationships, noted by Holthusen, who remarks on how the poet “quite simply stands the real world on its head. ‘The sea above us,’ he says, ‘the hill of the deep,’ ‘the stars of noon.’” And again: “At several climaxes of his poetry, paradox becomes the punch line (Pointe) of the statement . . . ‘we part intertwined’ or ‘a hanged man strangles the rope.’” This conceit is so compulsive in Celan that it almost merits the stern word trickery that Holthusen employs. It goes so far (as Felstiner notes but does not comment on) as to deliberately misquote another poet. Where Verlaine, in Sagesse, writes simply, “Ah! quand refleuriront les roses de septembre!,” Celan gives us the intentional inversion, “Oh quand refleuriront, oh roses, vos septembres,” which strikes me as excogitated and even unfair to Verlaine.

In his last phase, Celan could be overwhelmingly opaque; but, on occasion, also magnificently pellucid. As an example of the former, take this poem in its entirety:

Mandelnde, die du nur halbsprachst,
doch durchzittert vom Keim her
lieá ich warten,

Und war
noch nicht
noch unverdornt im Gestirn
des Lieds, das beginnt:

What are we to make of this, one of the rare poems Felstiner reproduces with text and translation facing each other?

Almonding one, you half-spoke only,
though all trembled from the core,
I let wait,

And was
not yet
not yet enthorned in the realm
of the song that begins:

Thus Felstiner, who also explains that this was written for a young woman Celan knew in Czernowitz, of whose survival in Israel he became joyously cognizant. But he does not say whether this was Ilana Shmueli, with whom the poet was soon to have an affair on his trip to Israel. Felstiner does, however, note that Celan “has turned the obsolete verb mandeln (‘to yield almond kernels’) into . . . the noun Mandelnde, ‘almonding woman,’” and that for Celan “that oval-eyed sweet or bitter fruit had signaled Jewishness.”

Felstiner further reminds us that the poet’s mother (surprise! surprise!) “also hovers near this almonder, along with the Shechinah, the female presence of God.” He duly reveals that the coinage entäugt can mean both dis-eyed and its exact opposite. “Both senses feed into a blinding which is visionary truth, as the Shechinah in exile wept out her eyes . . . Celan’s ‘enthorned’ also wrests a Jewish destiny out of Jesus’ crown of thorns. Whatever the poet has ‘not yet’ become—‘eye-reft,’ ‘enthorned’—ties pain to hope.”

He then explicates Hachnissini (“Identified easily enough,” he remarks cavalierly and overoptimistically) as “a Hebrew imperative to a feminine singular, ‘Bring me in,’” and as the opening of “a popular 1905 lyric by the first modern Jewish poet, Chaim Nachman Bialik . . . ‘Bring me in under your wing,/ and be mother and sister to me. . . .’” Felstiner rightly concludes, “Celan had no sister, had lost his mother, and sought them both in a beloved.” He ends by adducing Bialik’s, and thus Celan’s, biblical sources, and how the erotic element stands for “a return from homelessness,” i.e., conversion to true Judaism. All this is admirable elucidation, but stops short of full explication and evaluation; the poem strikes me as a total failure. Like so many of Celan’s lesser efforts—I think that he published far too much—it is a doodle: the skeleton of a poem that remains unfleshed-out.

Yet this is not to say that other short pieces of Celan’s do not score, or that the poet, even in his last and most self-destructive phase, did not have moments of serendipitous aptitude to write a gorgeously translucent poem. Such a one is “Es stand,” which also rates parallel German and English in Felstiner. As he explains, the “Danish skiff” (really a ship) refers to a monument erected in North Jerusalem to the ships in which the Danes in 1943, secretly and gallantly, ferried Jews across to the safety of Sweden. The monument is surrounded by pines, and Celan viewed it with Ilana, his mistress on the trip to Israel (a trip he, characteristically, cut short):

der Feigensplitter auf deiner Lippe,

es stand
Jerusalem um uns,

es stand
der Hellkiefernduft
überm Dänenschiff, dem wir dankten,

ich stand
in dir.2

Felstiner helpfully points out the biblical significance of the fig, and of the “standing” of Jerusalem, although he is unclear when he writes “both Hebrew versions say the same”—versions of what? The poem, of course, works better in German. First, the lovely compound words—Feigensplitter, Hellkiefernduft, Dänenschiff (which Felstiner, out of excessive concern with sound, renders as skiff). Then the fine alliteration in d, culminating in dir. Next, the various meanings of stand (stood), repeated as a kind of litany cum anaphora, and climaxing in that last stand, which, besides its metaphorical meaning, has a literal one: Paul and Ilana seem to have made love in that pine grove.

The four or five kinds of standing take on vivid life. The splinter of fig sensuously adhering to the beloved’s mouth; the whole big city of Jerusalem protectively encircling the lovers; the scent of bright green pines in the air that surrounds the earthy surroundings, translating them to a higher, heavenly plane; and, lastly, the lover erect inside the beloved, also in the figurative sense of sheltered, supported in a woman’s maternal and sisterly love. Even the generous white spaces between the brief strophes contribute their suggestive power.

But neither Ilana’s love nor anything else could keep Celan going. Felstiner quotes from one of the poet’s last letters to Ilana, shortly before the suicide: “The doctors have much to answer for, every day is a burden, what you call ‘my own health’ is probably never to be, the damage reaches to the core of my experience . . . They’ve healed me to pieces!’ (Man hat mich zerheilt).” That coinage, zerheilt, is superb and tragic, whether or not it is strictly true. It is of a piece with the daring language of Celan’s poetry and some of his prose. But the prose could also be touchingly simple, as can be seen in the letters to Nelly Sachs, for example. These contain only one remotely “literary” passage, when Paul writes Nelly on May 30, 1958: “All the unanswerable questions in these dark days. This ghostly mute not-yet, this even more ghostly and mute no-longer and once-again, and in between the unforeseeable, even tomorrow, even today.” Otherwise, everything in the letters is plain and unconcerned with posthumous publication.

The poetry, however, can be difficult. Felstiner quotes Samuel Beckett: “Celan me dépasse” (Celan is beyond me).

The poetry, however, can be difficult. Felstiner quotes Samuel Beckett: “Celan me dépasse” (Celan is beyond me). Beckett at least is honest. Others, including some of the most vociferous admirers, often misunderstand what they read. Thus Felstiner cites George Steiner’s mistaking for Yiddish a Middle High German passage from Meister Eckhart incorporated in a Celan poem. Thus in “Shibboleth,” where Celan quotes the rallying cry from the Spanish Civil War, “No pasarán” (though unaccountably omitting the accent), Jacques Derrida perceives a relationship between that slogan and Socratic aporia. Bruno Bettelheim managed to misinterpret the shattering “black milk” of “Todesfuge”—the black ash from the crematoriums imbibed by the as yet living inmates—as “the image of a mother destroying her infant.”

Felstiner himself can be on shaky ground. In the poem “Es war Erde in ihnen” (“There was earth inside them”), Celan evokes the Auschwitz inmates digging, endlessly digging. The powerful poem ends, as Felstiner translates, “O you dig and I dig, and I dig through to you,/ and the ring on our finger awakes.” He comments: “Now the digging leads to a ring and an awakening: is it the Nibelungs’ ring of buried gold? If so, what of the rings pulled from the fingers of Jews about to be slaughtered?” This is all perfectly otiose. Finally Felstiner gets it right: “Celan’s ring seals the bond with those who dig.” But why didn’t he throw out those useless bits of free association?

Never mind, though. He has accomplished what he promised in his subtitle: given us Celan the poet, the survivor, the Jew. Partial survivor only, for the aftereffects of persecution and loss, time-bomblike, induced delayed death by suicide, as they did for others like him. “It is no coincidence,” Felstiner writes, “that Jean Améry and Primo Levi also took their own lives. Nor that Celan’s loyal friend and brilliant critic, Peter Szondi, another survivor, drowned himself the year after Celan.” But incomplete survival in life does not preclude full survival in death. Celan’s work lives on undaunted, undented by time. To this survival, Felstiner’s book makes its modest but invaluable contribution.

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  1. Paul Celan–Nelly Sachs: Correspondence, edited by Brenda Wiedemann and translated by Christopher Clark; The Sheep Meadow Press, 112 pages, $19.95. Go back to the text.
  2. For the useful translation into English of Celan’s sparse but not unimportant prose, see Paul Celan: Collected Prose, translated by Rosmarie Waldrop (The Sheep Meadow Press, 67 pages, $15.95). The translator aptly remarks, “For Celan, whose poems moved ever closer to silence, prose was too noisy a medium.” Unfortunately, Miss Waldrop reduces the decibels overmuch, as when, in a particularly poetic passage, she renders “überflogen von Sternen, die Menschenwerk sind” as “with manmade stars flying overhead.” Go back to the text.
  3. To be sure, this happens, not in a translation of Verlaine, but in Celan’s own comic poem “Huhediblu.” Go back to the text.
  4. Felstiner translates: “There stood/ a splinter of fig on your lip,// there stood/ Jerusalem around us,// there stood/ the bright pine scent/ above the Danish skiff we thanked,// I stood/ in you.” Go back to the text.

  1.  Paul Celan: A Biography of His Youth, by Israel Chalfen; Persea Books, 214 pages, $24.95. Go back to the text.
  2.  Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew, by John Felstiner; Yale University Press, 344 pages, $30. Go back to the text.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 14 Number 9, on page 28
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