Yesterday, we began our discussion of Paul Celan’s poem, Encounter, by discussing the image clusters in the first stanza.
The first line of the poem is indicative of the depth of meaning to be found in Celan’s short poems and instructive in helping us devise a methodology on how to read Celan’s poetry.
Therefore, before I move on to the second stanza, I wanted to concentrate on the imagery of just the first sentence: Tonight it’ll rain on the green dunes of limestone.
As we saw yesterday, the poem deals with memory and death. The use of the word-limestone-connects and adumbrates that theme.
Limestone is sedimentary rock composed of mineral calcite, chert, flint, clay, silt and sand. The calcite originates in marine organisms that secrete shells that settle out of the water column and are deposited on the ocean floor as pelagic ooze.
Once we know limestone’s connection to the sea, we become aware that limestone joins the image cluster, which we labeled yesterday as water, but it is also a part of Celan’s overall use, throughout all of his poetry, of mineral images.
A further connection is made when we know that limestone is soluble and susceptible to erosion. Because of its soluble nature limestone formations possess potholes, caves, indentures, gorges, and weathered and roughened surfaces.
Pure limestone is white but because of erosion, it may take on colors from the other minerals in it.
Limestone used in construction in rainy areas may be responsible for acid rain.
Limestone is also the main ingredient in quicklime, a substance used in industry.
However, here, I believe Celan is referring to the fact that before the Nazi death camps became mechanized, “the prisoners were shot, thrown into mass graves, and then covered with quicklime.” Masters of Death: The SS-Einsatzgruppen and the Invention of the Holocaust, Richard Rhodes, Knopf 2002.
So, the use of “rain” plus “limestone” immediately creates images of death, toxicity, erosion, putrefaction, decomposition, and transformation through breakdown, mortification, and ooze.
"Green" limestone furthers the image of decomposition and ties in with other images of decay employed by Celan.
For instance, in the poem entitled "The Sand from the Urns," in the collection Mohn und Gedactnis, the first line reads-Moldgreen is the house of forgetting. Pierre Joris's translation in Paul Celan, Selections, University of California Press, 2005. Here the sand in the urn is coupled to forgetting and joined with mold.
I will return to this poem when we reach the second stanza.