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.

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