Thursday, April 14, 2011

Poem/Translation: Paul Celan

The other day amid a river of tweets I spotted a mention of Paul Celan (1920-1970), and for reasons known only to the deeper currents of my mind, the following poem popped into my head. Almost like an automatism. I even tweeted in response: "Arnica, eyebright." The poem, as is probably well known, was Celan's response to an encounter with his old friend, the esteemed philosopher and Nazi Martin Heidegger (1889-1976). This Wikipedia entry sums up what went down:

On one of his trips, Celan gave a lecture at the University of Freiburg (on July 24, 1967) which was attended by Heidegger, who gave Celan a copy of Was heißt Denken? and invited him to visit his work retreat "die Hütte" ("the hut") at Todtnauberg the following day and walk in the Schwarzwald. Although he may not have been willing to be photographed with Heidegger after the Freiburg lecture (or to contribute to Festschriften honoring Heidegger's work) Celan accepted the invitation and even signed Heidegger's guest book at the famous "hut".

The two walked in the woods. Celan impressed Heidegger with his knowledge of botany and Heidegger is thought to have spoken about elements of his press interview Only a God can save us now, which he had just given to Der Spiegel on condition of posthumous publication. That would seem to be the extent of the meeting. "Todtnauberg" was written shortly thereafter and sent to Heidegger as the first copy of a limited bibliophile edition. Heidegger responded with no more than a letter of perfunctory thanks.
As the poet and critic Pierre Joris points out in his thorough account and translation, Celan, who survived the Holocaust, was expecting an apology, which he never received. The Wikipedia entry suggests Heidegger's indifference, his coldness, in response to the poem, which, at least to me, is unsurprising. He had by this point long retreated into a kind of mental Hütte, no? I won't attempt to interpret the poem, since Joris has already done so (as others, like Hans Georg Gadamer and John Felstiner have before), though I think that careful reading outlines the events clearly (deutlich) enough, but what strikes me so powerfully is the strangeness, the disorientation, the language almost aurally knotting itself; to give one example, there is the moment of hyperbaton at the end, with the humidity of the day, the dampness (from the heat, sorrow and disappointment, or, metaphorically, tears in the heart), preceding its qualification, an amplification (viel--very).  The entire poem feels this way, almost a bit dizzying, a record of--what?--a visit, but also a revisiting, a trip to the Death Mountain ("Todtnauberg") which leaves its grief-mark like the burst of the beautiful and haunting healing flowers'' names,"Arnika, Augentrost," or those ominous "star-dice" on the well's head--in part, as this poem.

Below is my translation, which is admittedly flawed, as my German is rather provisional (I studied it many years ago, in high school, after trying to teach it to myself), but where I think it works is that I have tried to capture not only the literal translation, with the nuances Joris suggests (and his reading was very helpful to me), but Celan's strange music, rendered into English. Rather than suggesting that you enjoy the poem, I'll say instead, read, and reflect.


Arnika, Augentrost,
der Trunk aus dem Brünnen mit dem Sternwürfel drauf,

in der

die in das Buch
—wessen Namen nahms auf
vor dem meinen?—,
die in dies Buch
geschriebene Zeile von
einer Hoffnung, heute,
auf eines Denkenden
im Herzen,

Waldwasen, uneingeebnet,
Orchis und Orchis, einzeln,

Krudes, später, im Fahren,

der uns fährt, der Mensch,
der's mi anhört,

die halb-
beschrittenen Knüppel-
pfade im Hochmoor,


Arnica, eyebright,
the drink from the well with the
star-dice on top,

in the

written in the book
—whose name did it take
down before mine—?
written in this book
the line about
a hope, today,
for a thinker's
in the heart,

forest sod, ungraded,
orchis and orchis, separated,

crudeness, later, while driving,

who drives us, the man,
who is listening too,

the half-
trodden club-
paths on the high moor,


Copyright © 2011, Paul Celan. Copyright © 2011, Translation by John Keene.

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