The first line in prose or the first poem in a collection of poetry should establish the tone and the theme of the entire work and provide a way for the reader to enter the work. So, when I read someone else’s prose or poetry, I pay attention to the first sentence or the first poem that is, in effect, the first stitch in the artist’s written tapestry. In other words, I hold its beginning throughout the reading.
In this regard, I recently spent an inordinate amount of time reading and re-reading the first poem in Paul Celan’s Atemwende, Suhrkamp Verlag (Frankfurt am Main 1967) and, more particularly, reading and re-reading the first two lines- Du darfst mich getrost/ mit Schnee bewirten (You may confidently/entertain me with snow)-in order to find an entry or a hand hold to my reading. For me Celan’s use of the verb-bewirten-is a significant clue and key to the work. The word means to feed someone; however, it also means to entertain through providing a meal. In other words, the verb holds a concept that may be expressed thus: “you may take me to dinner and entertain me with food and drink.” Therefore, the verb conveys a sense that the “ich” is receiving nourishment and entertainment at the hands of the “du.” This entertainment follows a summer, where the “ich” walked with the “Maulbeerbaum” (the mulberry tree), and the youngest “leaf cries out.” In winter we find the “ich” celebrating or more precisely allowing himself to be “celebrated” by the “du” through snow. From this juxtaposition of season and the emergence of snow, Celan presents an end-summer followed by autumn, dying leaves, and the fall of snow-and the offer of the “ich” to be celebrated through a frigid rebirth after seasonal “death.” The image of snow is an allusion to the time of the camps where there was little or no actual nourishment, only ash and snow to fill the mouths of the starving prisoners. So, perhaps, he is saying that he will allow himself to be celebrated through snow, an icy nourishment but nourishment nevertheless.
In another poem, Eis, Eden, Celan employs a similar image-Das Eis wird auferstehen,/eh sich die Stunde schliesst (The ice will be resurrected/ before the hour concludes). What does this thread signify to me in my exploration of this Celan collection?
As a result of its images and allusions, I will look for themes of rebirth after metaphorical images of decay and death and the mechanism and means of that allowed or consented to resurrection. In other words, this strategy will furnish me a means in which to enter Celan’s poems, which are difficult at best and sometimes opaque.
Next time, I will discuss the meaning of the mulberry tree.