In my last post, I discussed primarily the first two lines of the first poem of Paul Celan’s Atemwende, SuhrkampVerlag (Frankfurt am Main 1967). In our discussion, I focused on “snow” and the verb “bewirten.” Now I turn, to the last four lines, which, through the image of “summer,” “Mulberry tree” and “leaf,” stand in opposition to the first two lines but also offer a reason, a rationale, and an explanation for the coming celebration in “snow.” Additionally, Celan’s rhetorical choice to use a “colon” between the first two lines and the last four demonstrates his grammatical intent to have the last four lines explain, express, define, resolve, and, most importantly precede, the first two lines.
In temporal and causative terms, the first two lines precede the action of the last four and, thereby, figuratively put the cart before the horse. In other words, the grammar of the poem actually states that in this thought-“because I often strode shoulder and shoulder with the mulberry tree, you may, if you wish, regale me with snow.” However, another phrase, modifying mulberry tree, twists the meaning and adds perhaps a further explanation to the expression of the first two lines. As the “ich” walks with the mulberry tree on an equal footing, the mulberry’s youngest leaf “screamed, shrieked, screeched, moaned, or called out.” The poem begs the question-did the youngest leaf cry out because the “ich” walked with the mulberry tree or did the “ich” hear the youngest leaf cry out because he often walked with the mulberry tree.
The action of the poem, like nearly every other Celan poem, is charged by his use of surrealistic images. Here, one is regaled or celebrated with snow; one walks shoulder to shoulder with a mulberry tree; and a leaf shrieks or cries out. Celan, however, is not a surrealist, although he uses their techniques. I would argue that there is a clear meaning beneath his images, drawing him closer to the symbolists than to the surrealists. Here, he chooses the mulberry tree for several reasons. One, the mulberry tree exists only in the tropics and warmer climates. Two, the mulberry tree grows fast when young and slows down as it ages. Three, the mulberry leaves are tasty and are used as nourishment for silk worms. Four, according to Ovid the mulberry tree is connected to the legend of Pyramus and Thisbe, a tale of tragic love. Five, the mulberry tree is a member or the moraceae family, which also includes the breadfruit, an image that appears again in this collection.
In the next post, I will continue our discussion by applying each one of the five reasons to the poem in an attempt to approach its meaning and show how the misunderstanding between Pyramus and Thisbe is repeated in images contained in other Celan poems.