Friday, December 22, 2006

Pyramus, Thisbe, and Paul Celan

One of the first poems of Paul Celan's that I translated was Wir Lagen, a short poem found in the collection entitled Lichtzwang, Suhrkamp Verlag (Frankfurt am Main, 1970). It is this poem that provides the title to the collection and which, I believe, evokes one of Celan's primary themes-the inability to connect with the other in the face of extreme longing. The other in these poems is unidentified and usually simply appears as "Du." However, the other could be a lover, the mother, God, the Self (in Jungian terms), or Being (in Heideggerian terminology). It is not really important who the "Du" is; instead, the emotions that weld up within the poems, arising from desire, loss, sehnsucht, or mystical yearning, illustrate an almost transcendental need to connect. Similarities in theme exist in the poetry of Rumi and, perhaps more importantly and precisely, to The Song of Solomon.
The following is my translation of Wir Lagen:
We lay
already deep in the shrubs, when you
finally crawled along
but we could not
darken over to you:
it ruled
In Celan, some barrier always exists that frustrates the "ich's" seeking for and uniting with the "Du." In this regard, I believe that the myth of Pyramus and Thisbe provides an important metaphor or trope for Celan and I further believe that he alludes to the myth in the poem, Du Darfst, the first poem in the collection, entitled Atemwende, SuhrkampVerlag (Frankfurt am Main 1967), in order to prepare the reader for an employment of one of his major themes.
The myth of Pyramus and Thisbe emphasizes desire, the frustration of desire, confusion, misunderstanding, loyalty, and the proximate relatedness of thanatos with eros. These themes are established quickly as illustrated by the following quotation from Thomas Bullfinch:
Pyramus was the handsomest youth, and Thisbe the fairest maiden, in all Babylonia, where Semiramis reigned. Their parents occupied adjoining houses; and neighbourhood brought the young people together, and acquaintance ripened into love. They would gladly have married, but their parents forbade. One thing, however, they could not forbid- that love should glow with equal ardour in the bosoms of both. They conversed by signs and glances, and the fire burned more intensely for being covered up.

In the wall that parted the two houses there was a crack, caused by some fault in the structure. No one had remarked it before, but the lovers discovered it. What will not love discover! It afforded a passage to the voice; and tender messages used to pass backward and forward through the gap. As they stood, Pyramus on this side, Thisbe on that, their breaths would mingle. "Cruel wall," they said, "Why do you keep two lovers apart? But we will not be ungrateful. We owe you, we confess, the privilege of transmitting loving words to willing, ears." Such words they uttered on different sides of the wall; and when night came and they must say farewell, they pressed their lips upon the wall, she on her side, he on his, as they could come no nearer.
As we progress in our discussion of Celan's poetry, we should remember the wall separating the lovers and the crack in that wall that provides the means of communication, imperfect though it might be.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Paper Making, Etching, and the Mulberry in Celan

Paul Celan’s poetry, more often than not, causes me to slow down, to meditate on the images, and once I think that I have grasped their meaning, they surprise me and turn me in another direction. This surprise usually springs from a trap of images. In reading and re-reading the first poem of Atemwende, SuhrkampVerlag (Frankfurt am Main 1967), I thought I had tripped the spring and that the trap of meaning was sprung; however, through an accident really, I discovered yet another meaning behind the word-Maulbeerbaum. I happened onto a book that I read in 1965, when I was in middle school, entitled The Black Rose (1945), by the Canadian novelist, Thomas Costain. In that novel Costain describes, in some detail, Chinese paper making techniques, which depend upon the use of mulberry bark. Suddenly the line-sooft ich Schulter an Schulter/ mit dem Maulbeerbaum-ushers us into the realm of the literary. Perhaps, Celan is saying that “You may celebrate me because I have walked shoulder to shoulder with paper-with the page, with poetry.
Nevertheless, even though you may celebrate him for his literary excursion, the “leaf” still cries out. We know from prior explications that "leaf," often refers to the poet; consequently, we have yet another possible meaning for the poem. We also have the obvious connection between "Blatt" from tree and "Blatt (leaf) of paper. In fact, the use of the word Blatt in regard to paper and writing is as rich or richer in German than in English.
Finally, as an aside and for future consideration, etching is an image that permeates the collection-Atemwende. Etching and papermaking are handmade arts that have a physicality to them, which I believe, as images, thematically emerge.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

"Mulberry" in Paul Celan's "Du Darfst"

In my last post, I discussed primarily the first two lines of the first poem of Paul Celan’s Atemwende, SuhrkampVerlag (Frankfurt am Main 1967). In our discussion, I focused on “snow” and the verb “bewirten.” Now I turn, to the last four lines, which, through the image of “summer,” “Mulberry tree” and “leaf,” stand in opposition to the first two lines but also offer a reason, a rationale, and an explanation for the coming celebration in “snow.” Additionally, Celan’s rhetorical choice to use a “colon” between the first two lines and the last four demonstrates his grammatical intent to have the last four lines explain, express, define, resolve, and, most importantly precede, the first two lines.

In temporal and causative terms, the first two lines precede the action of the last four and, thereby, figuratively put the cart before the horse. In other words, the grammar of the poem actually states that in this thought-“because I often strode shoulder and shoulder with the mulberry tree, you may, if you wish, regale me with snow.” However, another phrase, modifying mulberry tree, twists the meaning and adds perhaps a further explanation to the expression of the first two lines. As the “ich” walks with the mulberry tree on an equal footing, the mulberry’s youngest leaf “screamed, shrieked, screeched, moaned, or called out.” The poem begs the question-did the youngest leaf cry out because the “ich” walked with the mulberry tree or did the “ich” hear the youngest leaf cry out because he often walked with the mulberry tree.

The action of the poem, like nearly every other Celan poem, is charged by his use of surrealistic images. Here, one is regaled or celebrated with snow; one walks shoulder to shoulder with a mulberry tree; and a leaf shrieks or cries out. Celan, however, is not a surrealist, although he uses their techniques. I would argue that there is a clear meaning beneath his images, drawing him closer to the symbolists than to the surrealists. Here, he chooses the mulberry tree for several reasons. One, the mulberry tree exists only in the tropics and warmer climates. Two, the mulberry tree grows fast when young and slows down as it ages. Three, the mulberry leaves are tasty and are used as nourishment for silk worms. Four, according to Ovid the mulberry tree is connected to the legend of Pyramus and Thisbe, a tale of tragic love. Five, the mulberry tree is a member or the moraceae family, which also includes the breadfruit, an image that appears again in this collection.

In the next post, I will continue our discussion by applying each one of the five reasons to the poem in an attempt to approach its meaning and show how the misunderstanding between Pyramus and Thisbe is repeated in images contained in other Celan poems.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Entry into Paul Celan's "Atemwende"

The first line in prose or the first poem in a collection of poetry should establish the tone and the theme of the entire work and provide a way for the reader to enter the work. So, when I read someone else’s prose or poetry, I pay attention to the first sentence or the first poem that is, in effect, the first stitch in the artist’s written tapestry. In other words, I hold its beginning throughout the reading.

In this regard, I recently spent an inordinate amount of time reading and re-reading the first poem in Paul Celan’s Atemwende, Suhrkamp Verlag (Frankfurt am Main 1967) and, more particularly, reading and re-reading the first two lines- Du darfst mich getrost/ mit Schnee bewirten (You may confidently/entertain me with snow)-in order to find an entry or a hand hold to my reading. For me Celan’s use of the verb-bewirten-is a significant clue and key to the work. The word means to feed someone; however, it also means to entertain through providing a meal. In other words, the verb holds a concept that may be expressed thus: “you may take me to dinner and entertain me with food and drink.” Therefore, the verb conveys a sense that the “ich” is receiving nourishment and entertainment at the hands of the “du.” This entertainment follows a summer, where the “ich” walked with the “Maulbeerbaum” (the mulberry tree), and the youngest “leaf cries out.” In winter we find the “ich” celebrating or more precisely allowing himself to be “celebrated” by the “du” through snow. From this juxtaposition of season and the emergence of snow, Celan presents an end-summer followed by autumn, dying leaves, and the fall of snow-and the offer of the “ich” to be celebrated through a frigid rebirth after seasonal “death.” The image of snow is an allusion to the time of the camps where there was little or no actual nourishment, only ash and snow to fill the mouths of the starving prisoners. So, perhaps, he is saying that he will allow himself to be celebrated through snow, an icy nourishment but nourishment nevertheless.

In another poem, Eis, Eden, Celan employs a similar image-Das Eis wird auferstehen,/eh sich die Stunde schliesst (The ice will be resurrected/ before the hour concludes). What does this thread signify to me in my exploration of this Celan collection?

As a result of its images and allusions, I will look for themes of rebirth after metaphorical images of decay and death and the mechanism and means of that allowed or consented to resurrection. In other words, this strategy will furnish me a means in which to enter Celan’s poems, which are difficult at best and sometimes opaque.

Next time, I will discuss the meaning of the mulberry tree.