Thursday, June 15, 2006

Door Images in Paul Celan's "Grabschrift für François"

I heard an interview the other day with the poet Billy Collins, who said that the theme of all poetry is death. I am not sure that I believe that but in regard to Paul Celan it seems to be true. Recently, I discovered a new image, related to death, that possessed a certain resonance for me. It is the image of two worlds, two places, two doors, and a space in between. I noticed the image first in Grabschrift für François, a poem written after the death of his first son. However, there is an echo or a trace of the theme in a letter written to his wife Gisèle on January 7, 1952, almost two years before the death of François.

He begins the letter by saying, Maïa, mon amour, je voudrais savoir te dire combien je désire que cela reste, nous reste, nous reste toujours/ Maïa, my Love, I want you to know how much I desire that this remains, we remain, we remain always. As I read this I have the impression that he is afraid that the present moment, the moment in which they are in love and together, may pass. He continues with the image of doors slamming behind him as he quits a world and moves toward her. The question is, of course, what world is he leaving: the world of the work camps, the world of the refugee, the world of solitude. He explains by saying, car elles sont nombreuses, les portes de ce monde fait de malentendus, de fausses clartés, de bafouages [sic]/ because they are numerous, the doors of this world made of misunderstandings, false expressions, and nonsense.

In the first sentence of the poem Grabschrift für François, he writes that the two doors of the world stand open, opened by “you,” his son, in the “Zwienacht,” the “two night.” Here the dichotomy between life on the one hand and death on the other is emphasized, opening up a space, a space of existence for the “living,” the survivors, who hear the two doors slam (hit) and slam (hit). In the second sentence he says that “we hear them slam (hit)(schlagen) and slam (hit)(schlagen) and we carry the uncertain, and we carry the green in your always.”

The notes to the letter, composed by Celan’s son, Eric, state that the letter was written while his father was upset at the accusations of Yvan Goll’s wife that Celan had plagiarized certain poems. It is interesting to note that during times of extreme emotional distress that the image of the doors between worlds emerges in his conscious mind.

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