Friday, April 28, 2006

Hermes, Hephaestus, Breton and the "ultra receptive posture"

In my last post I discussed one of the tenets of surrealism, the “ultra receptive posture,” and I said that this posture was ultimately hermetic in nature. In that regard, I was thinking of Hermes as the guide that leads us into unexpected, unknown regions of experience. New experience and new behavior are difficult to express in our society, where conformity is considered a virtue. The only way that we will follow Hermes and open ourselves to new experiences, new ideas, or new feelings is if we are receptive and willing to overcome our prudishness and our puritanical ideas and be ourselves, to find ourselves and speak of ourselves in a frank and honest way.

It is interesting to note that André Breton was the inventor of the game-Truth or Dare. It was a Dadaist strategy to break down barriers and expose the underlying psyche. Any one who has played the game knows that there must be a degree of trust but there must also be a willingness to accept certain unexpected results, which, in most instances, involve certain crudities, which we usually hide behind a patina of respectability. Hermes, like the Dadaists, was willing to express his desires openly and that is why he was the father of some of the most unusual children in mythology-Pan, Priapus, and Hermaphroditus.

An example of Hermes’ spontaneous and “ultra receptive posture” is found in Homer’s story of Hephaestus and Aphrodite in The Odyssey. In this story, Hephaestus suspects that his wife Aphrodite is having an affair with Ares. To catch them in the act, he devises an elaborate trap, which involves unbreakable nets. He traps the two in the act and then summons all the gods to see Aphrodite and Ares naked in his trap. The male gods show up and utter the usual epithets and censures of the immoral couple. Hermes, however, does not repeat the usual wornout platitudes. Instead, he says, “Apollo, my royal Archer, there is nothing I should relish more. Though the chains that kept me prisoner were three times as many, though all you gods and goddesses were looking on, yet would I sleep by Golden Aprodite’s side.” Rafael Lopez-Pedraza says of Hermes’ response that “Hermes is not at all bothered by revealing his fantasies in front of the rest of the gods.”

I am not calling for a revelation of our inner most thoughts to the world. Instead, I am calling for an investigation of our innermost thoughts rather than repressing or destroying them. If the psyche presents you with an odd or crude image investigate and expose it rather than quickly suppressing it. Because the fact of the matter is that it will not be destroyed; instead,it will simply sink back into the unconscious mind to grow stronger and uglier.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Breton and the "ultra receptive posture"

There is a story about André Breton that I like. In the early twenties he was living in a hotel and at night he would leave his door open, hoping that some stranger might enter and climb in bed with him.

Mark Pollizzotti mentions this story in his biography, Revolutions of the Mind, The Life of André Breton, Farrar Strauss Giroux 1995, while discussing Breton’s play If you Please:“More important the act foreshadows the more specifically Surrealist ethic of 'availability,' or 'receptiveness to chance.’”

Later, while discussing the play and the character Létoile, a detective, Breton states “It’s positively true that he’s not waiting for anyone, since he hasn’t made any dates. But, by the very fact of adopting this ultra-receptive posture, he intends to help chance-how should I say it-he means to put himself in a state of grace with chance, in a way that something will happen, that someone will show up.”

This concept of creating a “state of grace” with chance appeals to me both as a philosophical stance for life and as a strategy for writing because the concept of "availability" possesses, on the one hand, a mystical quality and a way in which to deal with experience , at least in a measured way, and, on the other hand, complies with some of Jung's ideas about the unconscious.

Specifically, on a creative level, if we place ourselves in a 'state of grace' or become available for images, they seem to arrive unbidden into the conscious mind like a stranger in the night. When these images surface we should greet them, meditate upon them and follow them, even if they repulse us, disturb us, or puzzle us. This type of receptivity ultimately is "hermetic" in nature and leads us back to Hermes, the guide (see earlier posts).

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Celan, Auster, Cortanze

November 4, 2004
Hotel Bourgogne-Montana

I am across the street from the Assemblée National. A group of Palestinians have gathered outside my hotel room, upset about Arafat, who has descended into a coma.
I am on my way to Frankfurt but I decide to stop in Paris for a few days to search for evidence of Celan’s past existence on the Left Bank. I leave the hotel and turn left rather than right to avoid the crowd. I seem to always be in Paris when something is happening. I was here when the first Gulf War started. I was here when the second started and now Arafat. Because I am an American, I suddenly become a spokesman for all things American. What they don’t know is that I am the wrong guy to ask. I know little or nothing, just what I read in the newspapers like them.

I circle around the hotel and head east toward the Boulevard St. Germain de Prés. There is a small bookstore a few blocks from my hotel and I enter looking for books on Celan. There is nothing on Celan or any of the poets I am interested in; instead, there seems to be a large selection of Beckett and Céline, writers that I use to read but who don’t interest me now. They must be the owner’s favorites. On a table in the back I find several books on Paul Auster. Two are written by Gérard de Cortanze, which I buy.

I leave the bookstore and begin to think about Auster and his connection to both Beckett and Celan. In fact, as I walk, I believe that I saw a reference to Celan’s name for the first time in a book by Auster. Am I right, did a reference by Auster suggest my interest in Celan? It was in, I now remember, the Art of Hunger. Now looking for Celan I find books on Auster. I now want to read Auster again so I look for the Metro. I know of an English bookstore on the right bank. I know I can find Auster there or maybe I should read Céline again. I have an undefined hunger to read someone or something that will fill me up at this moment and it has to be someone unique because my tastes have become specialized and particular.

I descend into the underground and plot my way to the bookstore. As I speed through the underground, I begin to read the Cortanze book and then I feel the interaction of Paris, Celan, Auster, French, the Metro, and the grayness of winter, and I am aware of my hunger and my need to find in writing some solace, some companionship.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Depp, Gainsbourg and Attal

If there was any doubt that Johnny Depp is a great actor, it is dispelled in his virtually speechless performance in two scenes in Yvan Attal’s Ils se marièrent et eurent beaucoup d'enfants (2004). He appears twice-once at the beginning in the scene at the Virgin Mega Store on the Champs-Elysée and again at the end of the film. He says very little in either scene and yet he steals both from Charlotte Gainsbourg. This is no mean trick because she is a terrific actress who in a matter of seconds in the scene with Depp shows us pain, happiness, loss, love and lust without uttering a word.

The silent Depp is simply the canvas upon which Gainsbourg paints all of her projections. He appears to us as vapid and unaware of the young woman’s desires. In this, I believe, Attal is quite perceptive. He knows that usually our fantasies of love are really directed to an ideal rather than to a person and the vapid and silent Depp, simply referred to in the credits as l’inconnu, underscores the capricious nature of human desire. I also believe that Depp in his sheer intelligence also understands Attal’s message and personifies in this memorable scene the unknowing unaware object.

This is the second full-length film written and directed by Attal and it proves that he is one of those self-conscious but wise observers of the human condition. Although his plots are somewhat predictable, his film contains sparks of genius. The two scenes with Depp and Gainsbourg illustrate Attal’s psychological depth and also predict a unique cinematic style.

For a clip in French:

Sunday, April 23, 2006

"Sacrifice" by Keith Harvey


I scraped the roots of a cypress tree and unearthed grubs
that tasted like metallic silver that stained the mountain.
She caught crimson butterflies and popped them into her mouth.
Afterwards she doubled in pain and threw up fragile wings.
They are too beautiful to eat.
We grazed on grass like bison but it too made us sick.
Starving, we followed the red lions
and stole their prey’s bloody remains,
even though flesh had been forbidden us.
It was she who devised our stratagem. It was always she.
We shall sacrifice one tenth of the kill to him
and worship the sacrificed. From then on we ate meat
and became one with the sacred kill.

Copyright © 2006 by Keith William Harvey. All rights reserved

Saturday, April 22, 2006

"The Fourth Day" by Keith Harvey

The Fourth Day

At dawn she presses her pelvis against me, forcing me up.
I bring her stale water in a clamshell. As she drinks I pick up my tools-
a sharpened stick, a small rock with a tapered head, and a bag woven from reeds.
I stand naked on the ledge of the cave and watch the river run
to a sea that shimmers green blue in the distance
and hear the roar of red lions hunting across the veldt.
The lions have grown afraid and suspicious.
A great red one with a burgundy mane leads a pride
of six that follows me throughout the day. I remember him from the garden.
He, like us, is forgetting our time there.
Soon neither he nor I will remember our previous lives
when we spoke the same language and lived in peace.
We have become brutes in this new world and know not what we do

Copyright © 2006 by Keith William Harvey. All rights reserved.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Water, Wave, Shipwreck in Paul Celan's "Love Song"

Yesterday, we discussed the first three lines of Paul Celan’s Love Song and focused on the image of the “walnuts.” Today, I want to look at line two and the first few words of line three and the water imagery that emerges. Once again the translation from the Romanian is by Julian Semilian and Sanda Agalidi.

You’ll juggle them and a wave will crash in through the window,
Our single shipwreck . . ..

The “you” is juggling the “chiming walnuts” or the “phosphorescent eyes.” In the word “phosphorescent, ” Celan provides an image that conveys a sense of burning through oxidation. This burning will not be extinguished by water, by inundation, nor will walnuts be drowned by a crashing wave.

“Water” here has an intrusive and destructive quality but “phosphorescent eyes” will continue to burn and “walnuts” will float. At dawn, after the lovemaking, “a wave” will crash in through window and reveal the “shipwreck.”

The image places them-the you and the I- floating on the sea. I believe that once again we have an image of stuck-ness. The poem’s location now is not up in the sky, not below at the bottom of the sea, but on the surface of the water; and, the surface of the water is not safe: it is the location of a “ship wreck,” a dangerous place where the participants might drown. People caught in a shipwreck find themselves washed up on beaches lost and desolate.

Additionally, there is something nonchalant and sinister about the “you” juggling the walnuts because through the juggling or because of it the wave comes through the window. There is an invasion of their containment, their space. With the invasion of the room by the wave, a split occurs, revealing yet another layer within the poem. Below their room is yet another room, just, as within the poem, there are additional layers of meaning.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Eyes and Walnuts in Paul Celan's "Love Song"

An archetype moves upward toward the world of ideas, images, and symbols and downward toward “the natural, biological processes-the instincts-it presents certain affinities with animal psychology.” Jolande Jacobi, Complex Archetype Symbol in the Psychology of C.G. Jung, Bollingen Press 1974.

An archetype manifests itself primarily through metaphors. Jung initially referred to archetypes as Urbild or urtümliches Bild or, in English, “primordial images.” Jacobi states that Jung meant “all the mythologems, all the legendary or fairy-tale motifs, etc., which concentrate universally human modes of behavior into images, or perceptible patterns.” (id. 33)

An archetypal symbol appearing in the here and now can be “felt” as much as known by the conscious mind because of the psychic energy that surrounds it. The word “walnut” in Paul Celan’s poem Love Song has a psychic charge to it. When we read the poem we feel its mystery and its weight as symbol and as sexual image.

The first three lines of the poem, translation from the Romanian by Julian Semilian and Sanda Agalidi, set the stage and presents the images:

When the nights begin for you at dawn
Our phosphorescent eyeballs will scurry down from the walls, chiming walnuts,
You’ll juggle with them and a wave will crash in through the window

In this image, we have eyeballs scurrying about and compared to chiming walnuts. This, of course, is a surrealistic device, using an unusual, discordant metaphor to shock and also excite us. The metaphor shocks us primarily because both eyes and walnuts have sexual connotations and a long history, primarily in Greek and Roman literature, as sexual images. However, the shock comes from the new-the comparison of the two.

The comparison, no matter how shocking is not illogical. Both images convey a sense of wholeness and sexuality. The eye was thought to be a symbol of the androgyne, which we learned in an earlier post, is a symbol of wholeness and the nut because of its roundness is a symbol of unity and completeness. It is perhaps because of these initial associations that the two symbols have also represented sexuality. When Oedipus commits a sexual misdeed, he puts out his eyes and “walnuts” were known among the Romans as “Jupiter’s nut” and the Greeks as Dios balanos or “Zeus’ nut.” A nut is the end result of flowering and the walnut because of its shape and size was particularly “phallic” to the Romans. Varro states that juglans is a derivation of Jovis and glans means, “nut.” We have taken the word “glans” into our language as both the glans penis and the glans clitoridis.

According to J. C. Cooper, the walnut “shares with all nuts the symbolism of hidden wisdom, also fertility and longevity; the walnut was served at Greek and Roman weddings as such.” An interesting fact is that not only did the bride and groom share a quince at the marriage feast but the guests also threw walnuts at the bride and grown, symbolizing the impending cracking of the shell and the hope for fertility through the planting of the seed.

Consequently, when Celan compares these two images-eyes and walnuts-he brings all of the underlying connotations, associations, and psychic energy with them.

In my mind, Celan accomplishes, where maybe some of the other surrealists failed, the mandate to reach the archetypal through the use of startling metaphors.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Metaphors and Archetypes in Paul Celan's "Love Song"

The imagery in Love Song, translated from the Romanian by Julian Semilian and Sanda Agalidi, is a triumph of surrealism because it moves from the personal unconscious of the poet to the archetypal and it does so through just a few key images.

Bill Zavatsky writes in his introduction to André Breton, Earthlight, Green Integer 102, 2004, “metaphor making, the dynamic principle that motivated Surrealism, asserts that all is connected, even if we must puzzle through a glass darkly.” He goes on to say that the purpose of this metaphor making is to penetrate to the archetypal. In this regard, I believe that Paul Celan is successful in connecting his metaphors and images, no matter how abstruse and difficult that they might be, and penetrating the archetypal.

In Love Song, Celan connects the primary images and metaphors: eyes, walnuts, hair, water, shipwreck, and vacant rooms.

The phosphorescent eyes are associated through their shape to the walnuts. Walnuts possess a sexual connotation, just as the other’s tresses do.

The lovers are up during the night but as dawn breaks they fall- tresses hang, walnuts chime and are then juggled, and the day brings a shipwreck.

From above they will descend but not all the way. They are stuck, shipwrecked, above the vacant room, above reality, above the everyday. They will not be saved; instead they will drown together.

Tomorrow I will discuss the symbolic and archetypal nature of the walnut.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Paul Celan's "Love Song" and the Archangel Rafael

Paul Celan as a survivor watched as the victims of the Holocaust died and rose to the heavens as smoke, as ash. As a witness, he is caught in a middle place, on his way, from the past to an unknown future.

In the prose piece entitled, The Next Day the deportations about to begin (translated by Julian Semilian and Sanda Agalidi), we feel the “I’s”stuck-ness between those that died and those that are alive without his memories and experience.

In the piece, written while Celan was in Bucharest, the archangel Rafael (רפאל, "God has healed") appears to the protagonist. He is there to help the people escape, which is consistent with the archangel’s role in the Book of Tobit: 3:17 -- And Raphael was sent to heal the two of them: to scale away the white films of Tobit's eyes; to give Sarah the daughter of Raguel in marriage to Tobias the son of Tobit, and to bind Asmodeus the evil demon, because Tobias was entitled to possess her. At that very moment Tobit returned and entered his house and Sarah the daughter of Raguel came down from her upper room.

In the prose piece, Rafael’s gaze creates a leaf (Apollo’s gift to the poet) that falls on the forehead of the “I,” thereby granting him a poetic voice. However, because he is to speak, he does not rise with the others. He says, Hours pass and I haven’t found anything. I know: down there the people gathered, Rafael touched them with his thin fingers, and they lifted off, and me, I’m still rising.

This same stuck-ness manifests itself in Celan’s poem Love Song. (Paul Celan, Romanian Poems, translated from the Romanian with an Introduction by Julian Semilian and Sanda Agalidi, Green Integer 81, 2003). The poem situates the participants, the lovers, in a middle place, a ghostly mid-world: Our single shipwreck, the translucent floor through which/ we’ll peer at the vacant room below our own.

This feeling of stuck-ness supports our discussion in an earlier posting of Celan’s verticality, the movement within the poem between the sky and the earth or sea, and his horizontal movement between the past and the future.

Although this poem is purportedly about love, the tone of the poem is not much different from the prose piece. Melancholy surrounds the lovers and their love making fails to relieve them of their angst.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Paul Celan, Chestnuts, Walnuts and Love

Two and half months ago, I prepared an outline of topics for this blog. The list had twenty subjects and so far I have only covered one or two of them. One thing is clear to me, however, but may not be clear to you, and that is each of the topics is interrelated. You might ask, what has Paul Celan to do with your meditation on Hermes, and the answer would be-he is a hermetic poet. What is a hermetic poetic you might ask, and I would say I have not yet reached that point in our discussion.

Today, I was going to discuss the myth of Hephaestus and Aphrodite but instead, over coffee, I became interested in the first line of a Paul Celan poem and I rushed off to see if I could figure it out. The line is from a poem written in 1940, entitled Drüben: Erst jenseits der Kastanien ist die Welt/ Only on the other side of the chestnuts is the world.

I was interested in this line because I have been preparing an explication de texte of one of Celan’s Romanian poems, entitled Love Song, which begins

When the nights begin for you at dawn
Our phosphorescent eyeballs will scurry down from the walls, chiming walnuts

(Translation by Julian Semilian and Sanda Agalidi in Paul Celan Romanian Poems, Green Integer 81, 2003)

The Romanian word in the original is noci, “nuts.” Why did the translators choose the word "walnuts" rather than nuts or chestnuts for that matter?

We have already dealt with image of nuts in an earlier blog; however, is there any connection between the chestnuts of 1940 and the noci in 1947? Is there any relationship to the “love song” of 1947 and Drüben written during the war? Is Love Song really a poem about love?

Nevertheless, I am fascinated with the image of nuts, walnuts and chestnuts.

What was happening in 1940 to Paul Celan?

Because of the war, Celan could not return to his medical studies in France and he was forced to remain in Czernowitz. He, therefore, made the decision to enroll at the local university to study French language and literature.

On June 28, 1940, Russian tanks rolled into Czernowitz with little or no opposition.

Upon their arrival, the Romanian teachers fled to Bucharest and later the Russians installed their own teachers at the university. Out of necessity Celan began to study Russian.

A few months after the Russians' arrival, Celan was heard to say “Jetzt bin ich Trotzkist,” just as André Breton had declared in Paris when he learned the truth about Stalin.

During the summer of 1940 Celan met Ruth Lackner, an actress in the Yiddish Theater, and in September he met Rosa Leibovici. He was fated to have a romantic relationship with each of them.

With the stage set, I will begin a discussion of Love Song tomorrow.

Friday, April 14, 2006



Blood flows-
A mixture of
Salt and water,
fats and minerals,
In dream, vision, and thought,
Across a horizon
Of a sulfurous sea,
In the center,
An archipelago,
Where a severed head,
Like a pirate’s rum cask,
floats its metaphors into
an alchemy of fluids
That lubricates
the crossroads
where outer meets inner.

Copyright © 2003 by Keith William Harvey. All rights reserved.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

"First Days" a new cycle of poems

I am currently working on a cycle of poems that follows the first family from its expulsion from the Garden to the murder of Abel.

I am using this story to explore several psychological themes and images that concern me.

In working with these images I am reminded of several paintings that I admire, housed in the Musee d'Orsay in Paris. I have stood for many hours studying them.

One, Deux Mères by Leon-Maxime Faivre, 1888, upsets our expectation of the vagaries of primitive life and romantically and dramatically pictures a woman engaged in mortal combat to protect her children.

First Day

I sharpened a stick and burned the end black outside the gates.

She squatted and pissed on the trail. I groaned and growled
Disappointed that she would so defiantly mark our way for the giants.

We dug potatoes from the black earth with my stick and picked berries.
Black juice ran down our faces. I cooked potatoes in the ash of a dying fire.

We slept together, our naked bodies pressed
against a limestone rock, while frigid winds tore at my back.

Wolves howled louder than the night on the green plain.

Copyright © 2006 by Keith William Harvey. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

"Home" published by Spiky Palm

I want to thank Carol Cotten and Chuck Wimple, editors of Spiky Palm, for publishing my poem "Home."

It always makes the day special to receive an acceptance letter and a copy of Spiky Palm.

If you want to order a copy of the Spring 2006 issue check out their website:

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Petronius and Paul Celan

As we said in an earlier post, Paul Celan left his home in Bukovina for Bucharest in 1947. Bucharest was only a way station because Celan intended going on to Vienna.
However, because it was difficult to obtain a visa, Celan ended up spending two years in Bucharest.

During the two years in Bucharest he supposedly had numerous amorous experiences.

Israel Chalfen writes that “The taboo of the feminine, established in his childhood, began to lose its force, and he no longer struggled against the experience of his own sexuality. From time to time, he would complain to a friend that the easy girls with whom he came into contact were awfully primitive, but this fact did not keep him from their company.” Israel Chlafen, Paul Celan: A Biography of his Youth, Persea 1991.

In Czernowitz, Celan had fallen in love with Rosa Leibovici and he, later, persuaded her to join him in Bucharest. However, once there something happened and they broke up after a few months.

With this historical or biographical context, we will explore a few of the Romanian poems that purportedly deal with love.

John Felstiner said of these poems that they were looser and perhaps happier. I am not quite sure that this summary is accurate. In a prose piece written during this time intimations of the suicidal Celan are present and within the context of poems of love we see image after image that foretell doom and destruction.

For instance, in Those were Nights, the “I” of the piece says ”those nights it was cumbersome to open your veins, while the flames engulfed me.” He goes on to say, “I was Petronius and spilled my blood again among the roses.”

This reference to Petronius is enlightening, considering what we know about Celan’s future actions.

Petronius was a Roman writer during the time of Nero and his one famous work is the Satyricon.

According to Tacitus, Tigellinus was jealous of Petronius’s lifestyle and success. He made an accusation against Petronius to Nero and Petronius was compelled to commit suicide.

According to an entry in the Encyclopedia Britannica: “He did so in a way that was in keeping with his life and character. He selected the slow process of opening veins and having them bound up again, whilst he conversed on light and trifling topics with his friends. He then dined luxuriously, slept for some time, and, so far from adopting the common practice of flattering Nero or Tigellinus in his will, wrote and sent under seal to Nero a document which professed to give, with the names of his partners, a detailed account of the abominations which that emperor had practised.”

As we work through some of the Romanian poems, let's remember this image of Petronius.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Verticality in Paul Celan's "Encounter"

On March 30, I began a discussion of Paul Celan’s poem, “Encounter.” I am not sure that we have come to a conclusive determination of its meaning but at least we have made friends with the poem, entered and felt it. I don’t believe the poet ever intended us to do more than to feel its tone and its sadness.

Today, I will end my discussion with a final observation and look toward the next poem in the collection of Celan's Romanian poems translated by Julian Semilian and Sanda Agalidi. My observation, I hope, will act as a transitional device.

In reading the poem over and over, just as Celan instructed us to, I noticed that there is a movement downward and then back up. This movement is vertical and I believe that verticality-through descent and ascent-provides a prevalent image in his poetry and provides a sense of movement. This movement is transcendental or symbolic of certain psychological as well as religious concepts of development.

The poem begins with rain falling onto the “dunes of limestone.” We begin with the sky, clouds and falling rain. The movement is from the sky to the earth.

The rain falls and transforms the “wine preserved” and “douses” the eyes and causes “hair to drip out of mirrors.”

Then the poem, in the last stanza, turns back and looks up toward the sky where the memory of the dead resides. The hair blankets the “region of air,” and the poet climbs a “belated ladder.”

From the rain that falls onto the earth, the poet, now remembering, climbs up to the sky, where the smoke of the burning bodies rises and memories live and fall from time to time onto the earth.

Friday, April 07, 2006

The Leaf that Speaks-Paul Celan's "Encounter"

The “I” in Paul Celan’s poem “Encounter” has recaptured a memory and from that memory, the poet or the “I” or the “leaf that speaks” will set the “autumn on fire.”

The rain on green limestone sets the transformative power of memory into motion and produces a series of images that reflect the poet’s duty to awaken and swallow the wine of sorrow and memory.

The dead have risen, like smoke from a funeral pyre, and blanketed “the regions of air” and the poet must climb his “belated ladder” to “take a bite from your head.”

The poet must, like “a human tongue,” trumpet “audacity in a helmet.”

The “leaf,” delivered in a funereal urn, will speak for the angry trees, full of fury.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Recaptured Image of Shulamith in Paul Celan's "Encounter"

We have been discussing Paul Celan’s poem “Encounter” for almost a week and the meaning still runs ahead of us, refusing to be trapped or captured.

The translators chose the title-Encounter-while the Romanian word “regasire” could also be translated as “recaptured.”

What has been “encountered” or “recaptured?”

In an earlier post, I felt that the poem was once again addressed to Celan’s mother. The reason that I turned so quickly to that was the references to death, the military images, and, most importantly, the image of “hair,” which seemed to point toward her memory.

Celan has used the image of female hair numerous times when discussing the events of the Holocaust. The best-known reference is in his most famous poem-Todesfugue. (Dein aschenes Haar Sulamith wir schaufeln ein Grab in den Lüften da liegt man nicht eng. Your ashen hair Shulamith we scoop a grave in the air there one lies freely.)

Shulamith is the "black and comely" princess in the Song of Songs in the Old Testament, whose name holds echoes of the Hebrew words shalom for peace and Yerushalayim for Jerusalem. According to Felstiner, the name Shulamith stands for the Jewish people themselves. John Felstiner, Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew, Yale University Press, 1995), p. 38.

When Celan, in the third stanza, writes “your hair dripping out of the mirrors will blanket the regions of air," I feel that the “regasire” is the captured image of the mother, frozen in the mirror, of memory; and when he writes in the second stanza-“let it douse in your eyes, so I’ll think that we’ll die together”-he is referring to her death and his desire to think that they will die together, not apart and alone.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Celan, Surrealism, and "Encounter"

Celan’s poem, “Encounter,” demonstrates certain surrealist elements. Images such as “your hair dripping out of the mirrors” and “with a hand of frost, I’ll set an autumn on fire” remind one of surrealist art.

Surrealism attempted to express the workings of the unconscious through the use of fantastic images and strange alliances of content. André Breton was one of the main proponents of the movement and Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Lautréamont were its precursors.

Celan was aware of the surrealists as early as 1938 and he read Verlaine and Rimbaud, while in high school.

Later, while a medical student in Tour, he was exposed to the surrealists.

Israel Chalfen, in his Paul Celan, A Biography of his Youth, Persea, 1991, postulates that Celan’s introduction to French surrealism was through a French literature student that Celan called the Trotskyite.

Chalfen writes that he was “also aware of the connection between the surrealists and Trotsky; indeed, André Breton and Trotsky met in 1938, and in the same year the Féderation de L’art révolutionary indépendent was founded.”

Celan left France and returned to Czernowitz when the war began.

By 1945, the Soviets controlled his hometown.

In order to escape the Russians, Celan traveled to Bucharest in April 1945.

John Felstiner, in Paul Celan, Poet, Survivor, Jew, Yale University Press, 2001, states that the “Years in Bucharest, from April 1945 until December 1947, were not wholly wilderness years. Paul saw them as a transition, a time to earn money toward resettling in Vienna.”

As soon as he arrived in Bucharest, Celan found himself attracted to the thriving community of surrealists working in the city.

Chalfen reports that he “experienced the highpoint of his social relations in the circle of Bucharest surrealists around Ghérasim Luca, D. Trost and Paul Paun. Whereas Luca, who founded the circle in 1939 after his return from Paris and maintained contact with André Breton, published theoretical books in French, Paun wrote Romanian verse.”

“Encounter” was obviously written under the influence of the surrealists.

As Felstiner says of the poem, “chalk dunes might have appeared in Celan’s earlier poetry, and wine and bell, but not green chalk dunes or wine in a dead man’s mouth or bells with a human tongue.”

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Daphne, inspiration, and the laurel in Paul Celan's "Encounter"

I sat down this morning to continue with the explication of Paul Celan’s “Encounter,” intending to write about Celan and Shakespeare; however, two images-“the leaf that speaks” and “my short laurel”-stymied me.

Before I proceed, I present the third stanza translated by Julian Semilian and Sanda Agalidi.

Your hair dripping out of the mirrors will blanket the regions of air,
Where, with a hand of frost, I’ll set an autumn on fire.
From the waters imbibed by the blind my short laurel will scurry
Up on a belated ladder, to take a bite from your forehead.

Yesterday, I thought I controlled and understood the image of the “leaf that speaks,” but today I am not so sure. I am compelled to look back at the first stanza, where the poet writes, “a human tongue will trumpet audacity in a helmet,” and associate that image with the “leaf that speaks.”

My first impressions are of the funeral urn, filled with ashes. Leaves in the fall are burned and people in camps are ultimately burned or their remains are covered with quicklime. People standing on ladders harvest fruit in the fall. Autumn, a time of harvest, filled with colors, will progress into winter, a time of frost, to death.

Then, I ask, who will set the autumn on fire?

Perhaps, it is the poet and he will “scurry” “set fire” and “bite” through the use of his “laurel,” his poem, his poetry.

For an explanation, I turn to Robert Graves’ The White Goddess, a Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1999, where he discusses the laurel: “Apollo, though the God of Poetry and the leader of the muses, did not, yet, however, claim to inspire poems: the inspiration was still held to come to the poet from the Muse or Muses. He had originally been a mere Demon whom his Muse mother had inspired with poetic frenzy; now he required that, as the Nine fold Muse, she should inspire individual poets in his honour-though not to the point of ecstasy. These poets, if they proved to be his faithful and industrious servants, he rewarded with a garland of laurel-in Greek, daphne.”

Following Graves’ lead, the poet chews the laurel leaf and becomes inspired and immortalizes his subject, his mother, who is dead.

The source of the laurel or the poem is from a drink from the waters imbibed by the blind, which I believe is an allusion to the land of the dead and the scene from the Odyssey, where Odysseus draws the dead to him by offering them blood. He speaks with Teiresias, the blind seer.

The “you” of the poem is female because of the reference to the hair, and is the "I's" muse and his Daphne.

Daphne, a wild virgin huntress, in an attempt to avoid rape by Apollo prayed for help from her father and was metamorphosed into a bay-tree.

Has the poet in a belated attempt to save his mother from ravishment and death metamorphosed her memory into a poem? Is the mother both muse and subject?

Monday, April 03, 2006

Macbeth and Malcolm in Paul Celan's-"Encounter"

Today, I will continue with the second stanza of the Paul Celan poem-Encounter- written in Romanian and translated by Julian Semilian and Sanda Agalidi.

And thus the trees will arrive in fury
To wait for the leaf that speaks, delivered in an urn,
The heralds of the coast of sleep sent off to the tide of
Let it douse in your eyes, so I’ll think that we’ll die together.

Sea, coast, container, and military imagery unify the first stanza with the second. The image “dunes of limestone” relate and reflect “the coast of sleep” and the “tide of banners,” while “banners” connects with “trumpet audacity in a helmet” and “bell,” “helmet,” and “urn” carries the sense of container. The phrase -“trees arrive in a fury” -seem to allude to Shakespeare's play Macbeth, where the attackers cut limbs off the trees and march toward Macbeth, disguising their number. The connection to Macbeth is also made in the first stanza, last line, “a human tongue will trumpet audacity in a helmet.” In Macbeth, an armored head, conjured by the witches, predicts the end of Macbeth, while a third apparition, a child with a tree in its hand, predicts that Macbeth will not die until the forest comes to his castle.

Third Apparition

Be lion-mettled, proud; and take no care
Who chafes, who frets, or where conspirers are:
Macbeth shall never vanquish'd be until
Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill
Shall come against him.



That will never be
Who can impress the forest, bid the tree
Unfix his earth-bound root? Sweet bodements! good!
Rebellion's head, rise never till the wood
Of Birnam rise, and our high-placed Macbeth
Shall live the lease of nature, pay his breath
To time and mortal custom. Yet my heart
Throbs to know one thing: tell me, if your art
Can tell so much: shall Banquo's issue ever
Reign in this kingdom?

Before the end of Macbeth, however, Lady Macbeth dies (Act V, Scene V). Scene V begins with a description of banners on the wall.


Hang out our banners on the outward walls;
The cry is still 'They come:' our castle's strength
Will laugh a siege to scorn: here let them lie
Till famine and the ague eat them up:
Were they not forced with those that should be ours,
We might have met them dareful, beard to beard,
And beat them backward home.

Remembering that limestone made up the “dune” of the first stanza and “tide of banners” on the “coast of sleep” is the situs of the poem’s action in the second stanza, there is a sense or an impression of “castle,” knights,” heralds,” “invasion,” and “war.”

When I first read the poem I had the impression that the “leaf” that speaks, is almost like Henry speaking to his troops before battle, but instead I believe that the leaf is the “I” of the poem, a representative of the forest that comes to displace the murderer within.

As I said above, Scene V of Act V heralds the death of Lady Macbeth and Macbeth’s famous speech.

She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.
Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

After the speech, a messenger comes and announces the approach of the forest.


Gracious my lord,
I should report that which I say I saw,
But know not how to do it.


Well, say, sir.


As I did stand my watch upon the hill,
I look'd toward Birnam, and anon, methought,
The wood began to move.


Liar and slave!


Let me endure your wrath, if't be not so:
Within this three mile may you see it coming;
I say, a moving grove.

If Celan were thinking of the play Macbeth, the “I” of the poem is not Macbeth but Duncan’s son, Malcolm.

The “leaf” that speaks is the son that speaks for the father, who has been murdered. However, in Celan’s poem, the one murdered is the father and, also, the mother.

The mother will appear in stanza three, which I will discuss tomorrow.