Monday, May 29, 2006

"Flesh" by Keith Harvey


Snow slides still against the cave
as night slips away.

I stare into whiteness,
waiting for the snow leopard’s wail.

A goat’s death rattle echoes
as the leopard’s jaws crush bone
and munch marrow.

I finger flint that I fasten
as claws.
I mimic the leopard
but fear its tricks.

I find the half eaten goat
and tear flesh from its bones.

I return to her
with my offering
and we eat flesh
as we ate fruit
and lick blood and grease
from our fingers.

Headless Minstrel in Paul Celan's "Sand from the Urns"

This is a photograph of the monument to the White Rose in Munich.

In the last post, we concentrated on the color blue in line two of Paul Celan’s Sand from the Urns. Now I want to turn to the image of the headless minstrel. The second line reads- Vor jedem der wehenden Tore blaut dein enthaupteter Spielmann./ Before each of the blowing gates your decapitated minstrel turns blue. The most obvious conclusion is that a headless minstrel is no minstrel at all. In other words the minstrel has been silenced and the discordant image is that of a headless body, turning blue, painting the face of the “you.” As I said in a previous post, the minstrel is turning blue through the cold, his sadness, or his death. Through the use of the word, minstrel, Celan alludes to both a medieval servant, who entertains the nobility, or an American form of entertainment where whites performed in black face. Here, the minstrel has been beheaded. Decapitation has a long history and has been prevalent throughout western cultures for thousands of years. Additionally, severed heads play an important role in myths and folktales. However, in this poem we are not dealing with a talking head; instead, we have a headless body that performs its art without the benefit of its head. This headless minstrel, I believe, is to be seen as a political figure. As is well known, Nazi justice was dispensed to political criminals via the guillotine, the same form of punishment used during the French Revolution. The most notorious Nazi use of the guillotine was the execution of Sophie Scholl in Munich. On February 22, 1943, Sophie Scholl, her brother Hans, and Christoph Probst, stood trial before Judge Roland Freisler in Munich. Upon sentencing, they were quickly transferred to Munich-Stadelheim prison and within mere hours of their conviction executed via guillotine. Sophie Scholl was a member of the White Rose and she was arrested for distributing anti-Nazi pamphlets. The pamphleteer was silenced through beheading but the pamphlet took on its own life. It was smuggled out of the country and then distributed throughout Germany by the allies. In this poem, the minstrel, the poet, is silenced but its art continues through the strength and discordance of the image. We will explore this theme more in our continuing explication.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Blue in Paul Celan's "Sand from The Urns"

"Im Irisgarten", 1968
Christian Schad

I am back from a quick business trip and I want to continue our discussion of Paul Celan’s “Sand from the Urn.” In the last post we began a discussion of Celan’s use of color. More specifically, we concentrated on his painting the metaphoric "house of forgetting," “mold green.” In the second line he continues his use of color and develops his conceit of the “house of forgetting” by stating that it has many gates and that the gates are “blowing.” Vor jedem der wehenden Tore/ Before each of the blowing gates. Grammatically, the first sentence is tied to the second by the use of the pronoun “each,” which refers to the gates of the house of forgetting.

In my reading of the poem I imagine a large house, a chateau perhaps, with its windows, doors, and gates open and a frigid wind blowing from within the containment of the edifice. I imagine the wind as frigid because of the remainder of the second line- Vor jedem der wehenden Tore blaut dein enthaupteter Spielmann./ Before each of the blowing gates your decapitated minstrel turns blue. The wind, through the gates, turns the minstrel-the poet-blue. Blueness associated with cold seems right to me because coldness, as demonstrated through images of ice, snow, and glaciers are prominent in Celan’s poetry. However, I believe that blue here also expresses loss, depression, melancholy, despair, and death. The minstrel turns blue in multiples equal to the number of gates. I imagine an almost cubist painting similar to Schad's above. He might turn blue from singing the blues or his corpse might turn blue as it begins to decay, which aligns us once again with “mold green.” Additionally, blue is connected with the great deep, the feminine principle of the waters, and the Void, which connects us to the word "oblivion."

The image here is surreal in that a decapitated minstrel stands before each of the gates. In other words, the image is multiplied, as we apprehend many versions of the same minstrel before many gates. I believe the message is that the process of forgetting is on going and active and that the winds emerge from within the house, the edifice itself, creating a circular action. In forgetting, there is a process of remembering and in remembering there is a forgetting or a relegating of a memory to a place or a house.

“Your minstrel” stands before each of the gates, which situates the poem. The poem is addressed to “you,” and it is the “you” that is the subject and object of the minstrel’s art-his music or his painting. In reading the poem I have the sense that the “you” is female because the minstrel is male and because the “you” in most of Celan’s poems is an abstract feminine other. I believe the “you” is a expression of an ongoing psychological communication with Celan’s anima, reminiscent of the "you" in the Song of Songs’ Cantiques. In support of this proposition, I want to point out a quote from Andréa Lauterwein’s Paul Celan: Voix Allemand, Belin 2005, where she discusses the importance of knowldge of Celan's biography in reading his poetry: Il vaut mieux savoir notamment que l'omniprésence de la 'soeur' dans la poésie de Celan ne se réfère pas-comme chez Trakl- á une soeur de sang, mais plutôt a une altérité féminine de côté de la soeur du Cantique des Cantiques. . . . (It is better to know that the omnipresence of the sister in Celan's poetry does not refer-like the poetry of Trakl-to an actual sister but to a feminine other similar to the sister in Song of Songs.)

Tomorrow, I will focus on the image of the "headless" minstrel.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Color in Paul Celan's "Sand from the Urns"

The strength of the first line lies in the juxtaposition of the color-mold green-against the concept-the house of forgetting.

Celan begins the poem with the word Schimmelgrün, a compound construction that functions as an adjective, describing the house of forgetting. Mold green conveys a color and a tone. This tone is expressionistic in nature and presents a worldview and is also consistent with the themes found in the hermetic poets of the 30s. In other words the House of Forgetting or Oblivion is in a state of decay. It is important to note at this juncture that the word for oblivion in German is Vergessenheit, which Celan did not use; instead he uses Vergessens/forgetting. Oblivion is a state of unknowing, while forgetting is an active erasing of memory.

More specifically, the use of the world "mold" elicits a tone (somber, sinister, sad) as well as presents several alternate meanings that serve to deepen the complexity of the poem as well as unify the overlying theme. For instance, molds are fungi that cover the surface of something organic that is either in some stage of decay or moist. The fungi cover the surface in the form of fluffy mycelia, which produces masses of spores. These spores can be either asexual or sexual. The use of mold in the first line, then, raises Celan themes of decay, water, and sex, all of which are reinforced in the later sentences. This type of precision in word choice differentiates Celan from the surrealists and demonstrates his craftsmanship but also raises the specter of hermeticism, a term he did not like.

Our first image then is a house, a container of forgetting, mold green in color, decaying and dying.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Strange Attractors in Paul Celan's "Sand from the Urns"

Before we discuss the first line, I want to refer to several quotes in André Breton’s Manifestos of Surrealism, translated from the French by Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane, The University of Michigan Press, 1972, and a definition of “image” in mathematical form from John R. van Eenwyk’s Archetypes & Strange Attractors, Inner City Books, 1997.

Breton, at the beginning of his Manifesto cites Pierre Reverdy:

The image is the pure creation of the mind.
It cannot be born from a comparison but from a juxtaposition of two more or less distant realities.
The more the relationship between the two juxtaposed realities is distant and true, the stronger the image will be-the greater its emotional power and poetic reality.

I see the image as the basic building block of poetry. In that regard, John van Eenwyk defines image mathematically in his work and shows the basis or source of tension of images. First, he defines image as image=form + content. He goes on to say that when an image possesses value, it becomes a symbol. He defines this relationship as symbol = value + image. Of course this formulate begs the question-what is value? He then defines value as value = archetype + energy. Jung defines archetypes as “deposits of the constantly repeated experiences of humanity . . . .a kind of readiness to produce over and over again the same or similar mythical ideas . . .. recurrent impressions made by subjective reactions. “ (Two Essays on Analytical Psychology, CW 7, par.109.)

The energy referred to here is psychic energy and Jung defines psychic energy as “life energy.” Tension derived from polarity creates psyche energy; consequently, returning to Reverdy and the surrealists, we may surmise that the greater the distant between images, the greater the energy, the greater the energy the greater the impact on the reader. So when we read a surrealistic poem such as Breton’s A Nettle Branch Comes in Through the Window, we are struck first by an emotional response to the juxtaposition of the disparate images- The woman with the wallpaper body/The red snapper of the fireplaces.

It is just such a juxtaposition of images that creates the emotional resonance of Celan’s poetry; however, there is more going on in his poetry than surrealistic conjuring of discordant images. One of the dangers of surrealistic poetry is that if two images are too far apart, if the reader cannot maintain the connection, the images separate and the poem fails to move us. Instead, it appears as so much nonsense. With Celan's poetry, there is a juxtaposition of disparate images but there is also a conscious use of the poet's tools to make the poem adhere and hold. We sense a master working behind the images so the poem cannot be truly surrealistic. It may be more appropriate to say that Celan employs the surrealist's methods in a conscious and planned way.

The first line-Schimmelgrün ist das Haus des Vergessens/ the house of forgetting is mold green - provides one impossible image juxtaposed against an odd color. From a rhetorical standpoint, in my translation, we have subject + verb+ adjective. In German, it is adjective+ verb+ subject. Following the German order, the first word- Schimmelgrün – begins the poem and sets the stage. The House of Forgetting, or as Michael Hamburger translates it oblivion, is mold green.

This poem about remembering begins ironically with a reference to forgetting or oblivion. In addition, a psychical process-forgetting-is given a color-mold green. These two images juxtaposed create a polarity and an energy that animates the poem and makes it interesting and intriguing.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Paul Celan's "Sand from the Urns"

As I wrote on Monday, I want to spend some time dealing with Paul Celan’s poem Der Sand aus den Urnen. I want to understand its magic. In other other words, how does this poem mean and how does it convey that meaning?

In addition, I want to demonstrate and develop a method of reading poetry, a method that is similar to the way we deal with or interpret dreams, images or other flotsam and jetsam from the unconscious mind. This process will employ both a look at and discussion of surrealism, expressionism, chaos theory, rhetoric, and Jungian and Freudian psychology.

Let's begin our discussion by simply looking at the poem, walking around it, examining its physical and grammatical shape. It consists of six unrhymed lines. The six lines consist of five sentences. A semi-colon joins the third and fourth lines. Each line presents one or two strong images, usually in a declarative form, without any subordinate clauses. In this regard the poem, written in Bucharest in 1946/47 resembles the poetry of Georg Trakl. (See previous post.)

When I read the poem out loud, I am aware of the strong pause at each of the five periods and the shorter pause at the semi-colon. Because of their declarative nature, the lines seem to convey strength and integrity. The unity of the poem results from the use of two pronouns-"er" and "Du." There is no unity of action. In other words there is no narrative. Instead, the poem employs surrealistic images, without any apparent connection, to convey a mood or an emotion.

Although the odd juxtaposition of images evidences Celan's surrealistic influences, there is also a strong expressionistic tendency in the poem demonstrated by his use of basic warm colors-the mould is green, the headless minstrel is blue, the toe blackens and the lips are red. These strong colors are reminiscent of the colors employed by the Expressionist painters and provide a painterly approach to the poem’s expression.

The following translation is mine. I used the version of the poem set forth in Paul Celan Die Gedichte, Kommentierte, Gesamtausgabe, Suhrkamp Verlag, 2003.

Der Sand aus den Urnen/ Sand from the Urns

Schimmelgrün ist das Haus des Vergessens./ The House of forgetting is mold green.

Vor jedem der wehenden Tore blaut dein enthaupteter Spielmann./ Before each of the blowing gates your decapitated minstrel turns blue.

Er schlägt dir die Trommel aus Moos und bitterem Schamhaar;/He beats the drum of moss and bitter pubic hair for you;

Mit schwärender Zehe malt er im Sand deine Braue./ with festering toe he draws your brow in the sand.

Länger zeichnet er sie als sie war, und das Rot deiner Lippe./ He draws it longer that it was and the red of your lips.

Du füllest hier die Urnen und speisest dein Herz./ You fill the urns here and feed your heart.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Celan, Kiefer, "Shulamith"

A poem of Paul Celan’s from his time in Bucharest entitled Der Sand aus den Urnen/ Sand from the Urns demonstrates an exquisite blend of both expressionistic and surrealistic components. I will spend the rest of the week on the poem in an attempt to explain how these elements underline the impact of the poem and to describe the way in which he achieved its emotional tenor.

As I worked on the poem, I was struck immediately by its expressionistic quality and reminded of the paintings of Anselm Kiefer. In that I am aware that Celan's poetry informed Kiefer's work, I imagined, as I studied the poem, how an understanding of "neo-expressionism" could illuminate Celan's poetry.

If we understand that neo-expressionism exhibits, inter alia, a rejection of traditional design, an ambivalent emotional tone, a presentation of elements in a primitivist manner that conveys disturbance, tension, alienation, and ambiguity, then we can certainly identify a similarity between Celan’s work and the work of the neo-expressionists.

The painting above is Kiefer’s painting Shulamith, which owes its inspiration to Celan’s poem Todesfugue.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Lucas Cranach the Elder

One of my favorite artists is Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-October 16, 1553).

Recently, while in Frankfurt I was able to see several of his works and I reacted to them viscerally just as I do to the expressionists.

The painting included here is his Adam and Eve, which I saw at the Uffizi in Florence last year. One critic in the museum noted that this painting illustrates a "cold eroticism" and Eve's cruelty.

As I work through my Adam and Eve cycle of poems, I often imagine my characters just as Cranach presents them: sensual, exquisite, emotional, and cruel.

In that regard, I am including my latest poem in this cycle.


Winter falls as a flat frozen flake on her tongue,
and black birds strip the bushes of their berries.

I find a fish frozen in the mud of a beaver’s pond
and scrap it free from the clay with a clamshell.

She squats in a hedge for warmth
and moans, cursing the snake that betrayed her.

I gut the fish and spy a speckled star shaped shell;
I hold it to my ear and listen as the red lion roars
and three seabirds struggle over the offal.

The longhaired bison pass through the night
and awaken me from a dream. I pick up the shell
to listen to the north star whispering,
as snows smothers the earth.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Christian Schad

For over thirty years I have been interested in fauvist, expressionist and surrealist art. Fate seems to have encouraged that interest because I have repeatedly stumbled onto exhibitions at just the right moment.

In 2001, I was working in Paris and one free afternoon I set off on a walk. When I reached the Marais I saw a notice for a Giacometti exhibit at the Centre G. Pompidou. Once there I became fascinated with his systematic study of the human skull and I jotted down a sentence from one of his notebooks. I later used the line in my second novel: J’ai passé tout l’hiver dans ma chambre d’hotel à peine le crâne, voulant le preciser….

A few years later, once again in Paris, I was returning to my hotel when I noticed that there was an important exhibit of Picasso's erotic art. I spent the rest of the afternoon lost in Picasso's mythic universe. Since that time I have used his images of the Minotaur over and over again in my work. In fact, the character, Karl Wisent, grew out of my study of Picasso's Vollard Suite.

In the early 90's I was working for a major manufacturing company and I often accompanied the President of the company to New York. During this time I was studying Gustav Mahler and Oskar Kokoschka. One free afternoon as I passed the Guggenheim I noticed that the whole museum was featuring the works of Kokoschka. Fate once again was on my side.

Approximately, a year and half ago in New York, I stumbled onto an exhibit of Christian Schad's work. At the time I had no idea who he was but I was immediately struck by his images and the feeling tone of his work and I knew instantly that he would enter my pantheon of artistic gods. The painting above is one of his. I mention Schad because he, like Celan, was both an expressionist and a surrealist. He was born on August 21, 1894, in Miesbach. In 1913, he studied art in Munich. During the first world war, he fled to Zurich where he joined Hugo Ball and Tristan Tzara. Together with Walter Serner he started the magazine-Sirius. From 1920 to 1925, Schad lived in Rome and Naples where he studied the Italian Renaissance painters and in 1925, he joined with Otto Dix and George Grosz to particpate in the Neuen Sachlichkeit.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Jené, Celan, and the Austrian Journey

For several weeks now I have been trying to imagine Paul Celan’s journey from Romania to Austria. Neither of the biographies that I have deals with this ordeal in any detail.

In my fantasy, I begin by remembering images from Carol Reed’s film, based on a Graham Greene script, The Third Man. I imagine Celan stealing away through ruined streets one frigid night, probably wearing a dark suit, hat, and an overcoat, and carrying a small cardboard suitcase. Somewhere in the dark he meets a Hungarian farmer who leads him and other Jews, who are hiding in the woods, to the Hungarian border, where they cross in a rush, wading through deep snow. Once across they work their way to a deserted train station where they wait for a train that may or may not appear.

Israel Chalfen in his Paul Celan, a Biography of his Youth, writes “with the help of Hungarian farmers, Paul crossed the Romanian-Hungarian border in 1947-the smuggling of people was well organized and proceeded undisturbed. On the other side of the border he joined up with a group of Jewish emigrants and tried to make his way to Vienna.” (Chalfen, 191).

Somehow I don’t find this description satisfactory or persuasive. At the time, the Russians occupied both Hungary and Romania and shared the occupation of Vienna with the Allies. Chalfen makes this journey sound almost safe. I imagine that they met with Russian patrols and were accosted, slept in barns and deserted stations. They must have been hungry and thirsty, tired and frightened. They traveled in groups for safety but these were the survivors, traumatized and barely recovered from the war. Celan writes that he was among them but not one of them: “I lay on a stone, back then . . . on the stone tiles; and next to me, there they lay, the others who were like me . . .my cousins; . . . they did not love me and I did not love them, because I was one, and who wants to love one, and they were many . . ..” (Chalfen, 191)

Nevertheless, the simple facts are that Paul Celan arrived in Vienna by way of Budapest on December 17, 1947, as a refugee. Shortly after arriving he became a member of an artist’s circle that met at the Agathon Gallery. The group’s leader was Leopold Wolfgang Rochowanski, who published the magazine Die schönen Künste.

One of Celan’s major supporters at the time was the painter, Edgar Jené. Jené was born on March 4, 1904 in Saarbrücken. He studied art at the Akademie der Bildenden Kunste in Munich and at the Ecole National des Beaux-Arts, the Académie de la Grande Chaumière, and the Académie Julian in Paris. In 1928, he met the surrealists. The painting above, entitled Coco (1928), is an expressionist portrait of Jené's wife.

Later Jené was responsible for the surrealist renaissance in Vienna and Celan’s connection to him further illustrates his contact with the surrealists.

In addition to Jené, Celan also met Ingeborg Bachmann, who would become his lover and ultimately a friend for the rest of his life. More on her later.

Monday, May 08, 2006

"Nadja" by Breton

After finishing Nadja by André Breton last night, I closed the book, took a deep breath and then started over. I realized that I had not paid proper attention to the beginning because I am programmed to read a novel in an Aristotelian fashion. I also realized upon finishing that it holds the key to surrealism and only in the re-reading would I truly understand.

I see the novel expressing, inter alia, the idea that the random acts of life received raw, without the ever-gnawing desire to cook our experiences through will and ego, offer a panoply of possibilities that when studied in silence and in arrears hold meaning and significance. Most novelists in their desire to be god-like in their omniscience create a dead letter, which we rush through to the end. However, a novel like Nadja demands a rereading and another, just as the poetry of Celan demands a rereading.

I believe the novel also conveys the message that life received in the ultra receptive posture attracts all types of images and symbols that we usually ignore; however, if we pause and recollect, listen and mediate, we may come to see the beauty of the random act, which creates, as we discussed in earlier posts, depth. Our life could resemble a poem or a piece of art rather than misery and boredom if we were prepared to concentrate on the chaotic acts that occur daily and which we usually ignore.

More on Nadja in future posts.

Friday, May 05, 2006

"Ave Maria" by Keith Harvey

Ave Maria

Fat frozen drops fall
from bruised clouds
onto the Uffizi
and a tourists’ queue
stretches serpentine into rain
that soaks fur coats,
and stains leather pants.

Mother and child wait,
speaking French to one
and German to another.
The mother pulls her mink coat
against her body
and shrugs at the sky;

her child frowns,
moans and pouts,
her olive skin vibrating,
her black eyes flashing anger
as she begs to leave.

They stand before an altarpiece
by Martini, tempura on wood.

On golden board
the Virgin, with olive skin,
is so shocked
by the angel’s suggestion,
in gilded Greek
that her body recoils
from the words flying from his mouth
and her black eyes flash
as her mouth turns down to reject
impregnation through her ear.
As she refuses to relent and pouts,
the angel, with embroidered wings,
holds an olive branch as a bribe.
Recognizing her youth
he grows firm and resolute,
making his case until she
hears his potent words.

Doves gather and wait
like tourists in the winter’s rain.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Celan, Trakl, Bly

It is obvious that Paul Celan was influenced by surrealism but it is also equally clear that he was interested in and felt an attraction to German Expressionist literature. We know that he read Kafka and felt an affinity to him and that he also felt close to the German writer Georg Trakl.

John Felstiner quotes from a letter that Celan wrote to his friend, Sperber: “I’m much less attracted to Else Lasker-Schüler’s poems than to Trakl and Éluard, and also because I didn’t know what Ludwig von Ficker thought of her poems. But then Ludwig von Ficker took from his desk Lasker-Schüler’s latest volume, The Blue Clavier, it was a copy of the book published in Jerusalem, and began speaking of this poet in such a way that I saw she meant every bit as much to him as Trakl. He also thought Trakl himself was often very indebted to her. And he talked to me as if even I were one of them. What especially delighted me was that he really entered into the Jewishness of my poems-as you well know, that counts a great deal to me.”(Felstiner, 55)

Georg Trakl was an Austrian expressionist. He knew Kokoschka and was subsidized secretly by Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Robert Bly and James Wright have translated some of Trakl’s poetry beautifully into English. Bly writes in his introduction: “In a good poem made by Georg Trakl images follow one another in a way that is somehow stately. The images have a mysterious connection with each other. The rhythm is slow and heavy, like the mood of someone in a dream.”

Here is the first stanza of a poem entitled “Summer” translated by Bly and Wright:

At evening the complaint of the cuckoo
Grows still in the wood.
The grain bends its head deeper,
The red poppy.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Donald Sutherland, James Burke and "Aurora Borealis"

Sometimes a film has a performance so riveting that it seems to stop the narrative flow. Donald Sutherland in James Burke’s Aurora Borealis, which I recently saw at the USA Film Festival, gave such a performance.

However, the narrative was not broken; instead, a spell was uttered, and we forgot that Sutherland was Sutherland. Perhaps, the magic was accomplished through the director’s unified vision and the superb performances of the entire cast.

The story is about Duncan Shorter, played by Joshua Jackson, a young man at a crossroads. He has failed at nearly everything he has put his hand to but when his dying grandfather (Sutherland) moves into a retirement home in Minneapolis with his faithful and loving wife, played by Louise Fletcher, Duncan, unlike his successful brother, takes up the burden of caring for them.

Kate, a health care giver, played by Juliette Lewis, provides Duncan a love interest. Juliette Lewis admitted after the film that the role of Kate was new for her. Kate is self-assured, self-confidant, and mature. As Lewis said, “she is a grown woman.” She also admitted it was a type of role that she hasn’t always played and that was what attracted her to the part.

Because there were so many minor characters, I feel that it necessary to emphasize that one of the film's greatest strengths is that it is even and well paced and that every minor character possesses resonance.

I had not heard of James Burke before I saw the film but he provided a mature and touching story.