Poetic Investigations

Tom D'Evelyn on Poetry and Its Others (philosophy, theology, poetics)

Celan’s Transcendent Form



Reading Celan, we may have to speak of form and transcendence together.

Here is a short lyric written almost immediately after his return from Jerusalem in 1969. The translation is by Pierre Joris (Joris’s translation often captures Celan’s commitment to the immediate and singular perception, his refusal of the banal which threatens to subvert every poem; SEE Paul Celan: Selections, University of California Press, 2005)):


on your lip: the figsplinter
it stood
around us: Jerusalem
it stood
above the Daneship:
the bright-fir-scent, we thanked it,
I stood
in you.
For the details of the following I draw on John Felstiner, Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew.

The poem moves through a step-wise series of transcendences: from the sharp objectivity of “figsplinter” (fig being a symbol of peace and prosperity in the bible, now reduced to a splinter; one, however, “auf diener Lippe” –not a mote in the eye, but a splinter on the lip, perhaps disabling speech, perhaps enabling communication beyond speech); then, echoing Psalms, widening to the city, Jerusalem; then broadening to recent history, the Danish ship bringing Danish Jews to Jerusalem during the war, the “bright-fir-scent” rising above the ship, and the respondent thanks to the ship itself; and then, poetically speaking, the miraculous I-in-You, the embrace of the other, IN the other. STANDING there.

In the final transcendence, the impersonal “it” becomes “I.” But the poem is anything but egoistic. This “I” transcends itself. The tense of the verb “es stand” is past: this is memory. In its transcending spiral towards immediate loving community it is sacred memory, and one which stands.

The form of the poem, outlined as ascending steps here (following William Desmond), is superbly realized in an almost stately sequence of assertions about a stair way of remarkable and marked things: figs, Jerusalem, ship. “Es stand” becomes erotically and even heroically charged. (Felstiner translates “es” as “there” which seems second best.) It is an ascension of sorts, a ladder, one climaxing in the between of the I-Thou.

A small, carefully wrought poem, “Es stand” fills me with the splendor and intensity of a symphonic chorus.

Joris’s translation of the title of the collection, “Zeitgehoft” (posthumously published in 1976) is “Timehalo.” That seems just right.


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This entry was posted on October 4, 2014 by in Celan.
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