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Holocaust Visions:
Surrealism and Existentialism
in the Poetry of Paul Celan

by Clarise Samuels

Table of Contents

Chapter 5: The Landscape of the Imagination:
Representations of Space

THE PHILOSOPHICAL BASIS OF Celan’s poetry begins with the realm of the concrete, the object-oriented motifs that recur throughout his poems. These motifs appear conspicuously in the top layer, or the empirical layer, of Celan’s poetry. Celan’s refusal to call himself abstract in his interview with Hugo Huppert1 is true when these motifs are studied closely, because there is nothing abstract about the objects, the places, or the events that he selects for his poems. Celan relies upon literary material that is very much entrenched in reality, and he uses motifs that are observational and factual.

James K. Lyon notes that Celan repeatedly said that there were no metaphors. Lyon finds that Celan’s use of language has a unique purpose far different from that which is found in conventional poetry. Poems are “explorations of realities of words” rather than “metaphoric reality.”2 This is true in the sense that Celan used words in an attempt to depict the true nature of reality. He, like Breton, sought to strip away the superficial layer that acted as a facade, that inauthentic facade created “under the pretense of civilization and progress.”3 Celan took up this search for meaning, this attempt to delve beneath the surface, using the poem as a tool and regarding it as a form of communication.

Gerhard Neumann discerns the singular nature of Celan’s linguistic organization and its relationship to reality. He comments that Celan’s metaphors are an expression of some reality that cannot be named in words, “a metaphor of a wordless reality” that attempts to hint at something at which it ultimately and paradoxically fails.4 Neumann senses that Celan has a specific purpose in mind that differs from the use of the metaphor in conventional poetry. Celan’s metaphor is a wordless reality because it is always a reality that is suggested rather than directly observed. This is undoubtedly what causes Neumann to feel that Celan’s language is of a paradoxical quality, whose suggestiveness unsuccessfully leads the reader to the reality it attempts to describe. But Celan, it would seem, never intended to describe a reality that is genuinely observable. He tried rather to use poetry to explore the possibilities of reality, like a true surrealist in search of the alternative possibilities offered by the subconscious mind. Poetry, like the dream, was Celan’s tool for the exploration of the subconscious.

Celan begins his exploration with empirical motifs that are bound up with sense perception. That which can be perceived empirically is representative of the superficial layer with which historical reality is manifested. It is empirical data that are at our disposal for the purposes of analysis. Celan perhaps took his cue from the surrealist poet Yvan Goll, whose images based on mundane objects found in everyday reality reveal striking similarities to Celan’s: trees, fruit, roots, hands, suns, and animals, to name a few of Goll’s motifs. Pretzer observes that Goll’s images confirm Goll’s own poetics, stipulating that “reality is the basis of every great art,” and that in this fashion the dream world and the real world are mingled in order for the one to help make the other visible.5

Celan, too, adopted this surreality based on ordinary reality, and he tended to use the same set of motifs consistently. Employing a small number of images over and over again, always changing context, combination, and juxtaposition, he was able to produce endless variation. As Corbet Stewart notes, this results in a compression of images where incongruous experiences are densely layered to form one integrated entity.6

James K. Lyon commented on Celan’s nature motifs, which he believed to be the most important motifs in Celan’s poetry. Lyon, however, does not see Celan as a nature poet. He feels that Celan’s nature motifs are used to produce an “internal landscape,” whose images do not necessarily correspond directly to their counterparts in the external world. It is rather an imaginary landscape whose images symbolize various themes of concern to the poet.7 This analysis can be applied to all of Celan’s motifs based on concrete objects perceptible to the senses. They are not intended to be associated with the reality that they ordinarily represent. Within the context of the poem, these objects produce associations that create the internal landscape which Lyon speaks of, and their point of reference is a closed world consisting of Celan’s alter reality.

Lyon divides Celan’s nature motifs into the four categories of darkness, water, plants, and stone. He also notes the frequent use of eye, hair, and hand images.8 An even more comprehensive categorization can be had by examining Celan’s motifs in terms of representations of space, time, persons, and action. Representations of space, which are the actual locations or settings of the poems, are geographical places designated by specific names or such nonspecific markers as plants, stones, and trees. For Celan representations of space always comprise vast, imaginary landscapes. These landscapes are almost always depicted as veritable wastelands overcome by some natural or man-made disaster, a scene that is, as Celan expressed it poetically, “Gottes quitt” (rid of God) (2:326). The imaginary wasteland in Celan’s poetry is generally characterized by holocaust and death, or what Stewart calls a “Totenlandschaft,”9 and is often overridden by water, fire, or ice.

In the first poem of Mohn und Gedächtnis (Poppy and Memory),10 Celan’s earliest volume published in 1952, the title of the poem “Ein Lied in der Wüste” (A Song in the Desert) announces the spatial imagery at once.11 The reader has been transported to a biblical desert land near Akra in ancient Israel:

Ein Kranz ward gewunden aus schwärzlichem Laub in der Gegend von Akra:
dort riß ich den Rappen herum und stach nach dem Tod mit dem Degen.
Auch trank ich aus hölzernen Schalen die Asche der Brunnen von Akra
und zog mit gefälltem Visier den Trümmern der Himmel entgegen.
Denn tot sind die Engel und blind ward der Herr in der Gegend von Akra,
und keiner ist, der mir betreue im Schlaf die zur Ruhe hier gingen.
Zuschanden gehaun ward der Mond, das Blümlein der Gegend von Akra:
so blühn, die den Dornen es gleichtun, die Hände mit rostigen Ringen.
So muß ich zum Kuß mich wohl bücken zuletzt, wenn sie beten in Akra...
O schlecht war die Brünne der Nacht, es sickert das Blut durch die Spangen!
So ward ich ihr lächelnder Bruder, der eiserne Cherub von Akra.
So sprech ich den Namen noch aus und fühl noch den Brand auf den Wangen. (1:11)

A wreath was wound of black leaves in the region of Akra:
there I forced the black horse round and stabbed at death with my sword.
From wooden bowls I drank the ashes from the fountains of Akra
and with my visor closed I headed toward the heavens in ruin.
For dead are the angels and blinded the Lord in the region of Akra,
and no one is to watch for me in repose those who rest here.
The moon was hacked to pieces, the little flower of the region of Akra:
thus bloom those who are one with the thorns, the hands in their rusted rings.
Thus I must bend to kiss the ground when they pray in Akra.
Oh, wicked the mail of the night, the blood oozing through the rings!
Thus I became its smiling brother, the iron cherub of Akra.
And I still utter the name and still feel the mark burning my cheeks.

The spatial representation of Akra is emphasized by the constant repetition of the name. Akra, known today as Acre (Akko in Hebrew), and mentioned in the Old Testament, is a battle site where significant Jewish battles were fought both at the time of the Roman suppression of the Jewish revolt in A.D. 70 and at the time of the Maccabees. Its natural harbor caused it to be a principal point for invasion over a period of centuries. After the Romans Akra was conquered by both the Persians and the Arabs. It was also a significant battlefield during the crusades, the Turkish conquests, and the siege of Napoleon. The mention of a wreath woven out of black leaves in the first line is a reference to the multitude of deaths that took place at this well-known battleground.

There are images of blood and violence that have a dreamy, surreal quality, which is enhanced by the juxtaposition of contradictory ideas. A romantic desert moon hacked to pieces, dismembered hands with rusted rings that bloom like thorns, and blood that oozes through clasps are all disparate, incongruous images that heighten the aura of death lingering over this ancient place of strife. The mention of the iron cherub is a reference to the golden cherub of the Temple, a contradictory reference because the golden cherub of the Temple is a positive image, and the iron cherub of Akra is a negative one.12

The action of bending for a kiss at Akra produces an incongruity that alludes to Akra’s dual aspect of being both a battlefield and a part of the Holy Land, where one might bend to kiss the ground in reverence. The empirical objects present in this poem produce two contradictory predispositions — the adversity and the violence of the battlefield, and the reverence toward a holy place. In the last line, the speaker is still uttering the name of Akra and still feeling “the mark” burning his cheeks, that is, the shame caused by the violence and the warfare that have occurred in the bloody history of civilization. When the poetic voice says “Thus I became its smiling brother,” it is a comment on the most recent atrocities of history in which the poet feels he has played a role.

The preoccupation with the ancient past becomes evident again in these lines from the Mohn und Gedächtnis poem “In Ägypten” (In Egypt):

Du sollst sie rufen aus dem Wasser: Ruth! Noëmi! Mirjam!
Du sollst sie schmücken, wenn du bei der Fremden liegst.
Du sollst sie schmücken mit dem Wolkenhaar der Fremden.
Du sollst zu Ruth und Mirjam und Noëmi sagen:
Seht, ich schlaf bei ihr! (1:46)

You shall call them out of the water: Ruth! Naomi! Miriam!
You shall adorn them when you lie with the stranger.
You shall adorn them with the cloud hair of the stranger.
You shall say to Ruth and Miriam and Naomi:
You see, I sleep with her!

Once again the spatial motif is a geographical area that is saturated with history, particularly history that is directly related to the Old Testament and the Jewish people. Although there is no widespread death and destruction associated with Egypt in the context of this particular poem, the period of exile in Egypt was one of great suffering and travail for the Jews.

Other references by Celan to historical sites include Sodom, Babel, Massada, Ithaca, Waterloo, Troy, and Eden. Some of these historical references are famous battle sites, others famous for their biblical significance. Celan also makes passing reference to specific cities such as Rome, Hamburg, Frankfurt, Zurich, and Prague. He mentions Paris, his city of residence after the war, a number of times.

What many of these geographical designations have in common is that they allude in some way to a golden era, an empire, a highly successful society that reached a glorious peak before sinking into decline. Even Paris has been the central capital of empires, starting in the fifth century A.D. when it was the Merovingian capital, as well as the center of government for Louis XIV and Napoleon during its rich history. The reference to the German city of Frankfurt in the title of the poem “Frankfurt, September” cannot be overlooked when it is noted that Frankfurt, built on the site of a Roman settlement, was a royal residence under Charlemagne. In the sixteenth century, it became the coronation place of the Holy Roman emperors. The city of Zurich, mentioned in the title of the poem “Zürich zum Storchen,” was an imperial free city after 1218, and under the influence of Ulrich Zwingli became the leader of the Swiss Reformation in the sixteenth century. This preoccupation with places that were once great societies hints at Celan’s ever-present question regarding the nature of a utopian society, and whether the perfect state can ever be built and maintained by any society.

Nevertheless, these specific geographic locales are more the exception than the rule in Celan’s work. He is more inclined to describe the kind of spatial designation that is a characteristic internal landscape of the imagination. Celan himself made use of this terminology in 1969 when, addressing the Hebrew Writer’s Union in Tel Aviv, he spoke of finding there “an internal and external landscape,” where there existed the “force of truth” of great poetry (3:203).

In a short poem entitled “Landschaft” (Landscape) from the Mohn und Gedächtnis collection, Celan’s preoccupation with sweeping spaces and nature motifs is evident:

Ihr hohen Pappeln — Menschen dieser Erde!
Ihr schwarzen Teiche Glücks — ihr spiegelt sie zu Tode!
Ich sah dich, Schwester, stehn in diesem Glanze. (1:74)
You high poplars — the people of this earth!
You black ponds of happiness — you reflect them to death!
I saw you, sister, standing in this radiance.

Present here are trees and water, two common nature motifs in Celan’s poetry and the basic composition of the natural landscape. Celan’s landscapes continually possess this elemental quality, as they are invariably made up of fire, water, air, or earth. But the pleasantness of such a tranquil, sylvan scene is marred. The innumerable poplars eerily symbolize people, and the happy ponds are black pools in actuality reflecting death and not some innocent woodland scene. Mary Flick observes that the poplar image is consistently used by Celan to represent people, in particular the Jewish people. She notes that although the scene is a pastoral one, it is actually a psychological landscape that is being depicted.13 The landscape, like reality, is deceptive, if not illusory. Its dark side lies very near the surface. The radiance spoken of in the last line dangles at the end of the poem; it is a non sequitur, a ray of hope, perhaps even truth, to be sought out somewhere in this tangled forest of delusion.

In the following excerpt from the poem “Entwurf einer Landschaft” (Sketch of a Landscape) from the Sprachgitter (Speech-grille) collection published in 1959, Celan describes an explosive, volcanic landscape characterized by stone:

Laven, Basalte, weltherz-durchglühtes Gestein.
wo uns das Licht wuchs, vor
dem Atem. (1:184)

Lava, basalt, rock
glowing like a global heart.
Tuff source,
where the light grew for us, in front of
our breath.

In this earthy landscape, the meaning of life, or rather its meaninglessness, is manifested. The universe is explosive, volcanic, destructive, and it is characterized by the hardness of stone. Like trees and plants, the stone motif appears often in Celan’s poetry, an important part of the elemental landscape. The hardness of stone lends the earth the characteristic of being corelike, an apt existentialist expression of the essence of reality. Celan often referred to the earth itself as a unified, rocky substance, whose nature could ostensibly lead him to the poetic expression of the essence of all things. He addresses the earth apostrophically in the line “we see you, earth,” and he speaks of, among other things, being kneaded from earth, the black earth, earth swarms, and earth backs: “Wir sehen dich, Erde, wir sehn dich” (1:133); “Es war Erde in ihnen“ (1:211); “Niemand knetet uns wieder aus Erde und Lehm“ (1:225); “Schwarzerde, schwarze Erde du, Stunden-mutter“ (1:241); “Erdschwärme sprechen dir zu“ (2:303); and “auf dem Erdrücken, handspannenbreit“ (2:310).

More frequent than the earth images are allusions to trees, plants, roots, forests, and fields, references that abound. Trees and plants, a major nature motif for Celan, are a significant existentialist motif as well. It is noteworthy that in his novel Nausea, Sartre’s hero, Antoine Roquentin, experiences a vision in a park at the sight of a tree and its roots, where the meaning of existence suddenly becomes apparent to him. Says Roquentin:

And then all of a sudden, there it was, clear as day: existence had suddenly unveiled itself. It had lost the harmless look of an abstract category: it was the very paste of things, this root was kneaded into existence. Or rather the root, the park gates, the bench, the sparse grass, all that had vanished: the diversity of things, their individuality, were only an appearance, a veneer. This veneer had melted, leaving soft, monstrous masses, all in disorder — naked, in a frightful, obscene nakedness.14

But for Celan stone is the most elemental object to which all objects are reduced; it is, so to speak, the basic atom of his earthen landscape. Stone, and specific forms of gems, such as agate, jasper, crystal, and gold, are referred to time and again. There is something about the quality of their hardness, their ability to endure for millennia, that makes them very attractive in Celan’s poetic quest to unveil the essence of truth. When Celan juxtaposes gold and oblivion in the line “zwischen Gold und Vergessen” (1:138), he makes a direct transition from the concrete to the abstract. Other such expressive lines, where Celan speaks of awakened gemstones or lark-shaped stones, make a point of lending abstract or organic properties to an inorganic substance: “Wie man zum Stein spricht, wie du” (1:239); “erwachten die Kindlein Jaspis, Achat, Amethyst — Völker” (1:281); “Der lerchengestaltige Stein aus der Brache” (2:241); and “mein Stein ist gekommen zu dir” (2:401) are some examples.

The earth elements and their organization into unusual landscapes conjure up a spatial context that is solid and secure, almost implacable. It is the earth’s core that fascinates the poet. The multiple references to stones and gems underscore Celan’s poetic awareness of the earth’s innermost center, the hard essence that can easily parallel Sartre’s vision of being-in-itself. Lyon notes that the stone image is a reference to both silence and the inability to feel beyond one’s own being.15 Lyon’s idea of the stone emphasizes the alienation of the individual. Michael Winkler, on the other hand, sees the stone motif as a reference to that heavy burden in life, the cross that we all have to bear.16 Winkler’s comparison is much like the existentialist stone spoken of by Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus. Camus compares Sisyphus’s absurd and endless ordeal of eternally rolling a stone back to the top of a hill to that of the common laborer. They are both absurdly engaged in an existentialist dilemma where the “whole being is exerted toward accomplishing nothing.”17

For Roquentin, Sartre’s fictional hero, it is a stone that he picks up on the beach that enables him to perceive the in-itself for the first time, leading to his first attack of nausea:

I saw something which disgusted me, but I no longer know whether it was the sea or the stone. The stone was flat and dry, especially on one side, damp and muddy on the other. I held it by the edges with my fingers wide apart so as not to get them dirty.18

Celan has incorporated this Sartrean vision of the stone into his poetry. It is elemental, substratal, a primary ingredient whose intrinsic value is its ability to expose a false veneer. Just holding the stone and observing its qualities — damp, muddy, flat, dry — are enough to usher in the shock waves of an authentic reality that is too dreadful to comprehend. The world with its complex interaction of innumerable factors manages to conceal that inherent reality, but the world is delusory. You need only to pick up one unit of its basic material, a stone, to be confronted with its essence.

Earth is but one of the four elements, and Celan continues to explore elemental landscapes with his frequent descriptions of watery landscapes. Lyon identifies seven different symbolic interpretations of Celan’s waterscapes, including human tears, the sea of life, love, nothingness, a realm of night representing inarticulateness or the dead, a fertility symbol wherein dead or unspoken impressions are given vent in poetic speech, and the subconscious.19 The realm of night, representing dreams, speechlessness, and the dead, may be the most important interpretation on this list. The waterscape, like the earth landscape, is repeatedly depicted as a wasteland that is the result of some grim disaster. The wasteland is marked by images of desolation and barrenness, sometimes distinguished by a fiery inferno, but very often by water in the form of flooding and ice.

Celan’s many references to water describe a forbidding habitat. Water is an aggressive element that threatens to drown man, who is always its victim. Consider the following excerpt from the poem “Spät und Tief” (Late and Deep):

Ihr mahnt uns: Ihr lästert!
Wir wissen es wohl,
es komme die Schuld über uns.
Es komme die Schuld über uns aller warnenden Zeichen,
es komme das gurgelnde Meer,
der geharnischte Windstoß der Umkehr,
der mitternächtige Tag,
es komme, was niemals noch war!
Es komme ein Mensch aus dem Grabe. (1:35-36)
You admonish us: You blaspheme!
We know it well,
let the guilt come over us.
Let the guilt of all the warning signs come over us,
let the gurgling sea come over us,
the wind’s forceful gust of the return,
the midnight day,
let there be, what never was before!
Let a man come from the grave.

The menacing waters in the above poem appear to be an instrument of punishment and destruction for the human race. Celan often suggests this kind of a priori guilt laden with ominous and threatening implications. Janz interprets the watery deluge of this poem as a reference to the Flood, and feels that Celan demands that only the advent of another world catastrophe could pave the way to a state of utopia. A worldwide catastrophe would enable a tabula rasa, an opportunity for absolute renewal, as opposed to a progressive, dialectical process based on historical continuity.20 This small measure of hope for renewal mitigates the sense of doom in this poem, and that hope is underscored by the Messianic overtones of the man “from the grave.”

Other destructive water images used by Celan imply disaster, drowning, flooding, even shipwreck: “Es schwebt auch dein Haar überm Meer mit dem goldnen Wacholder” (1:18); “der Ast überm Herzen schon weiß und das Meer über uns” (1:20); “das Meer, das uns Nächte an Land warf” (1:99); “Wortaufschüttung, vulkanisch, meerüberrauscht” (2:29); and “die Brücken, vom Strom überjauchzt” (2:132).

Destructive and overwhelming, the water motif implies punishment for some innate guilt. It is not quite the Flood of the Bible, but it has decided apocalyptic dimensions. Similar and also elemental are the qualities of Celan’s fiery landscapes, which often echo the death and destruction that is the aftermath of a battle scene. Water and fire are sometimes even combined by Celan, as they are in these first four stanzas from an early poem entitled “Wasser und Feuer” (Water and Fire):

So warf ich dich denn in den Turm und sprach ein Wort zu den Eiben,
draus sprang eine Flamme, die maß dir ein Kleid an, dein Brautkleid:
Hell ist die Nacht,
hell ist die Nacht, die uns Herzen erfand,
hell ist die Nacht!
Sie leuchtet weit übers Meer,
sie weckt die Monde im Sund und hebt sie auf gischtende Tische,
sie wäscht sie mir rein von der Zeit:
Totes Silber, leb auf, sei Schüssel und Napf wie die Muschel!
Der Tisch wogt stundauf und stundab,
der Wind fällt die Becher,
das Meer wälzt die Speise heran:
das schweifende Aug, das gewitternde Ohr,
den Fisch und die Schlange — (1:76)

Thus I threw you into the tower and spoke a word to the yew tree,
out of it sprang a flame that fitted you for a dress, your wedding gown.
Bright is the night,
bright is the night that invented hearts for us,
bright is the night!
It illuminates far out to sea,
it wakes the moons in their straits and raises them onto foaming tables,
it washes them clean of time for me:
Dead silver, rise up, be dish and bowl like the shell!
The table heaves hourly to and hourly fro,
the wind fills the goblets,
the sea tosses the food:
the roaming eye, the thundering ear,
the fish and the snake —

The fire motif of the first stanza is a reference to Greek mythology, the story of Jason and his estranged wife, Medea. Acting out of insane jealousy, Medea killed Jason’s bride-to-be by sending her an enchanted wedding gown that burst into flames and burned her to death. For Celan death by burning is always an oblique reference to the Holocaust, and the mythological story of a pagan murder committed out of insanity has its allegorical purposes. Beyond this negative allusion to fire, however, there appears to be a more positive reference to a blaze whose light is almost elucidating, a revelatory phenomenon that manifests itself with the poet’s repeated exclamation, “Bright is the night!”

Yet Celan’s image of the sea continues to overwhelm, even drown, in its eternal rolling motion and the eerie perpetuity of a “roaming eye” and a “thundering ear.” This threatening aspect of the water transmutes the elucidating blaze into one whose nature is more ominous than epiphanic. Perhaps the glow that illuminates the night is a revelation of truth only in the sense that it indirectly exposes a heinous crime — the burning dress, the murder, the Holocaust.

Unlike the waterscape, which is a common spatial designation throughout Celan’s poetry, fire becomes more dominant in later volumes, particularly in the volume Lichtzwang (Light Force), published in 1970. The title itself suggests a coercive light, a blaze that tends to be destructive in nature while still hinting at enlightenment. Consider the following excerpt from this Lichtzwang poem:

Das Gespräch, das sich spinnt
von Spitze zu Spitze,
angesengt von
sprühender Brandluft. (2:237)
The conversation that spins itself
from peak to peak,
singed from
spewing fire air.

The landscape described here is one that is volcanic, explosive, the “conversation” being either a series of explosions from multiple volcanic eruptions or perhaps the wartime bombing by planes that emerge from the mountain peaks. Yet a conversation implies communication, the relating of events, history, or fact. Amid the chaos of destruction lies the opportunity to discover truth.

A similar image of an apocalyptic blaze recurs in a short poem in the same volume:

Wir lagen
schon tief in der Macchia, als du
endlich herankrochst.
Doch konnten wir nicht
hinüberdunkeln zu dir:
es herrschte
Lichtzwang. (2:239)
We lay
deep in the macchia, when you
finally crept near.
But we could not
get to you in the darkness:
a light force

Once again there is a sense of war. The “we” of the poem are perhaps the soldiers of the trenches waiting for a comrade to crawl into position. They want to reach for him in the darkness, but they are blinded by the force of an explosion that nullifies everything else. It is total annihilation on the order of the bombing of Hiroshima. This is the light force of nuclear holocaust. Nonetheless, the force of such a blinding light is also the force of revelation, the apocalypse. It is horrific to gaze upon because it does not just reveal, it exposes the veneer of a false reality.

Such landscapes of destruction and death, fiery and merciless, are numerous. For example, in the poem “Einem Bruder in Asien” (A Brother in Asia), the reference to the Vietnam War and the description of bombs and rapid fire in battle (“zehn Bomber gähnen, ein Schnellfeuer blüht” [2:259]) are obvious. Celan continues to create fiery images that signify both the calamitous effects of war and the hope of an apocalyptic outcome. He speaks of such things as a light amid the blood of the trenches, a quiet light illuminating the arteries, and a death light: “Die freigeblasene Leuchtsaat in den unter Weltblut stehenden Furchen” (2:197); “Still, in den Kranzarterien, unumschnürt: Ziw, jenes Licht” (2:202); and “Kein Ton, nur das Sterbelicht trägt an ihm mit” (2:241).

For all the faith that the poet might have in the dualism of the fire that destroys but that similarly enlightens, he appears to be continuously faced with the desolation and the horror of a wasteland. For Celan the wasteland is the aftermath of a blitz or a holocaust. Not always the burnt-out, charred residue of a fiery war zone, it appears often in the form of an icy landscape. These ice images become more dominant in Celan’s later volumes, particularly Lichtzwang and Schneepart (Snow Part), which was published posthumously in 1971. The icy landscape is generally portrayed as a barren world where a perpetual winter, a neo-ice age, has descended upon the planet, and what is left of civilization lies buried and frozen.

Some sense of this is present in the Lichtzwang poem “Schaltjahrhunderte” (Leap Centuries):

Schaltjahrhunderte, Schalt-
sekunden, Schalt-
geburten, novembernd, Schalt-
tode, in Wabentrögen gespeichert,
on chips,

das Menoragedicht aus Berlin,
(Unasyliert, un-
archiviert, un-
umfürsorgt? Am
Leben?), Lesestationen im Spätwort,
am Himmel,
Kammlinien unter Beschuß,
Gefühle, frost-
gespindelt, Kaltstart -
mit Hämoglobin. (2:324)
Leap centuries, leap
seconds, leap
births, novembering, leap
stored in honeycomb tubs,
on chips,
the menorah poem from Berlin,
(unasylumed, un-
archived, un-
cared for? Alive?),
reading stations in the late word,
low flame points
in the sky,
lines of ridges under fire,
feelings, frost-
a cold start —
with hemoglobin.

“Leap centuries” and “leap seconds” are unusual time designations that imply the gradual, cyclical accumulation of time. Yet when juxtaposed with “leap births” and “leap deaths,” they acquire a dark absurdity that is vaguely menacing. This time sequence is additionally laden with a sense of perpetual winter (“novembering”), a device to heighten the feeling of barrenness throughout the ages. The diverse “bits,” the “unasylumed, unarchived, uncared for,” and the ambiguous “Lesestationen,” with its double meaning of either harvests or reading stations, contribute to the desolation of this icy landscape in which human feeling has been “frost-spindled.” Human existence is expressed as a frigid mode of being (“cold start”), using hemoglobin as its fuel. This paradoxical image of the red color of spilled blood suggests violence and death, and at the same time it also suggests the life-giving force of the substance that carries oxygen throughout the body. Together with the ice are the fire images — “low flame points in the sky” and the “lines of ridges under fire” — images that produce relentless associations with battle and war.

In a more universal sense, it is a landscape where feelings, overwhelmed by events, have died (“feelings, frost-spindled”). A “cold start — with hemoglobin” is not an engine that is unable to ignite, but a lifeless human body in a mechanized era. The fragmentation and destruction present here are further underscored by the visual appearance of the poem with its short choppy lines and hyphenated words forming unusual enjambments. Such a fragmentation describes man’s shattered and fragmented existence in contemporary, existentialist terms.

The ice motif is used repeatedly in Lichtzwang with the mention of such phenomena as “charming” frosts and frozen eyelashes, among others: “frostgebänderten Käfern” (2:287); “gesümmerter Schnee” (2:293); “Grenzschnee” (2:296); “leise bestrickenden Frost” (2:302); “der Eisbewimperte” (2:323). This relentless pessimism continues in the Schneepart collection. The following poem from Schneepart has wasteland images whose qualities are similar to “Schaltjahrhunderte”:

in der bedornten
Balme. (Betrink dich
und nenn sie
Frostgesiegelt die Schulter;
Schuttkäuze drauf;
Buchstaben zwischen den Zehen;
Gewißheit. (2:351)
in the thorned
crevice. (Get yourself
drunk and call it
Paris.) Frost-sealed shoulder;
screech owls of refuse are sitting on it;
letters between the toes;

Particularly notable are the participial constructions “Januaried” and “Frost-sealed,” both references to a perpetual winter, and the neologism “Schuttkäuze,” silent rubble owls perched on the frosted shoulders. In this poem the wasteland is geographically designated by Paris, Celan’s city of residence for the last half of his life. Here the wasteland is representative of the individual’s environment, one that fills the poet with despair and alienation rather than familiarity and a sense of security.

Of these enduring pessimistic qualities to be found in Celan’s later poetry, Rosenfeld noted the references to mud choking, submergence, drowning, bloody phalluses, silent stones, and skies torn apart; and to “landscapes that are frosted over and located somewhere outside of the workings of time; to the abstract realms of above and below and beyond; to Babel.”21 This landscape located outside of time is essential for Celan’s formulation of a perfected society that is detached from the trivial concerns of the passing moment, one that endures, and one whose essence is universal and eternal. The realms of above, below, and beyond are the final spatial contexts for Celan, a metaphysical context consisting of little else but air, the last of the four elements.

The air motif characterizes Celan’s last spatial context, an infinity, it seems, of nothingness. In one stanza from a poem in Die Niemandsrose (The Nobody’s Rose) collection, which appeared in 1963, Celan writes of the infinite property of space:

Weißt du, der Raum ist unendlich,
weißt du, du brauchst nicht zu fliegen,
weißt du, was sich in dein Aug schrieb,
vertieft uns die Tiefe. (1:212)

Listen, space is unending,
listen, you need not fly,
listen, what is inscribed in your eye,
deepens the depths for us.

And the air motif becomes an explicit spatial reference in the following line from Die Niemandsrose:

In der Luft, da bleibt deine Wurzel, da,
in der Luft. (1:290)
In the air, there remains your roots, there,
in the air.

The above line is an allusion again to the burning of the Holocaust victims, but it also invokes a metaphysical realm for a different kind of existence, an existence for the spirit of a people. Celan often mentions air as something abstract; it is a mixture of time and space that is simultaneously infinite and eternal. He speaks of air-borne people and air-borne stones, graves in the air, crowns made of air, and the very air within our lungs: “Unbeschuht aber kommt durch die Luft, der am meisten dir gleichet” (1:24); “wir schaufeln ein Grab in den Lüften da liegt man nicht eng” (1:41); “Finger, rauchdünn. Wie Kronen, Luftkronen” (1:228); “Die hellen Steine gehn durch die Luft, die hell-weißen, die Licht-bringer” (1:255); “Windmühlen stoßen dir Luft in die Lunge, du ruderst durch die Kanäle, Lagunen und Grachten” (1:284).

Besides explicit references to air, Celan often alludes to infinity by making the entire cosmos his point of spatial reference. This includes such motifs as the sky, the heavens, the sun, the stars, the moon, the comets, and the planets. The title of the collection Fadensonnen (Thread Suns), a 1968 volume, is one example, and there are many others. These laconic references create the impression that the poetic voice is making observations from outer space, as it comments, like a true space traveler, on the silence of space, shooting comets, the moons and the shadows of Saturn, and the earth’s axis: “Oben, geräuschlos, die Fahrenden: Geier und Stern” (1:188); “Quirlend unter Kometen-brauen” (2:36); “Tretminen auf deinen linken Monden, Saturn” (2:240); “im großen, unausgefahrenen Felgenring deinen genabten Schatten, Saturn” (2:315); “den beschleunigten Herzschritt draußen im Raum, bei ihr, der Erd-achse” (2:320).

Esther Cameron describes Celan’s space traveling as one that is propelled, not by rockets, but by anguish over the Holocaust and the future of humanity. It is this anguish that launches the poet into a “no-place,” from which he gazes back at the earth.22 An alienating foray of this nature into outer space, spaceship and all, is the subject of the short poem “Das umhergestossene” (The Pushed Around) from Atemwende (Breath Turn), published in 1967:

Das umhergestossene
Immer-Licht, lehmgelb,
Blicke, Seh-
ins Raumschiff gekerbt,
betteln um Erden-
münder. (2:71)
The pushed around
Forever-light, clay yellow,
planet heads.
glances, seeing-
carved into the spaceship,
beg for earth-

The phrase “Forever-light” alludes to the infinite and eternal attributes of the universe. This light is not the blazing light of Celan’s fiery images; it is clay yellow, an eerie, pale, and unnatural light illuminating the darkest reaches of the universe. The spaceship itself is an eerie presence, carved with scars, “seeing-scars,” the scars of a lifetime of bad memories. Alone in the cosmos, the ship is without direction, taking an aimless flight into infinity when its scars “beg for earth-mouths,” longing to return to the planet.

But whether Celan is portraying a devastated wasteland overcome by water, fire, and ice, or whether he explores the infinity of outer space, his spatial representations portray a reality that is fraught with an existentialist’s sense of despair. Beyond the limitations of the spatial context, there is the overwhelming vastness of the eternal aspects of time, the problematic existence of the Other, and the need for action within a social context. All of these dimensions play an important role in the existentialist need to derive meaning from existence.

  1. Huppert, Sinnen und Trachten, 31.
  2. James K. Lyon, “Poetry and the Extremities of Language: From Concretism to Paul Celan,” Studies in Twentieth Century Literature 8, no. 1 (1983): 46.
  3. Breton, Manifestoes, 10.
  4. Gerhard Neumann, “Die ‘absolute’ Metapher: Ein Abgrenzungsversuch am Beispiel Stéphane Mallarmés und Paul Celans,” Poetica 3 (1970): 210, 214.
  5. Pretzer, “Surrealistische Aspekte,” 125-26.
  6. Corbet Stewart, “Paul Celan’s Modes of Silence: Some Observations on ‘Sprachgitter,’” Modern Language Review 67 (1972): 135.
  7. James K. Lyon, “The Poetry of Paul Celan: An Approach,” Germanic Review 39 (1964): 53.
  8. Lyon, “Poetry of Paul Celan,” 54-55.
  9. Stewart, “Paul Celan’s Modes of Silence,” 132.
  10. With the exception of Speech-grille, the translations of Celan’s poetry volumes have not been published in their entirety; therefore, the translated volume titles appear in roman type.
  11. Before the 1952 publication of Mohn und Gedächtnis, Celan had published a 1948 volume entitled Der Sand aus den Urnen. The edition was recalled, however, because of typographical errors.
  12. Jerry Glenn, Paul Celan (New York: Twayne, 1973), 52.
  13. Mary Flick, “Paul Celan’s Use of the Poplar Image: A New Approach,” Neue Germanistik 1, no. 1 (1980): 26-28.
  14. Sartre, Nausea, 127.
  15. Lyon, “Poetry of Paul Celan,” 60.
  16. Michael Winkler, “On Paul Celan’s Rose Images,” Neophilologus 56 (1972): 73.
  17. Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, trans. Justin O'Brien (New York: Vintage Books, 1955), 89.
  18. Sartre, Nausea, 2.
  19. Lyon, “Poetry of Paul Celan,” 56.
  20. Janz, Vom Engagement absoluter Poesie, 45.
  21. Rosenfeld, Double Dying, 89.
  22. Esther Cameron, “The Distant Earth: Celan’s Planetary Vision,” Sulfur 11 (1984): 61.

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Copyright © 1993 by Clarise Samuels

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