Read from December 10th to 16th 2013
“He speaks truly who speaks the shade”
I was eighteen and obsessed with this verse. I can’t remember where I found it, maybe I had read it in a book, maybe someone had given it to me (we used to collect quotes then). I knew it was Paul Celan’s, but I did not know Paul Celan. I did not even know how to pronounce his name – it sounded French to me, but I had a vague suspicion it could be Romanian. And of course, living in a communist Romania I couldn’t possible make a genuine research and soon I forgot about him or abandoned him for I had just discovered Dostoyevsky, my greatest obsession of all.
But, in some corner of my mind, Paul Celan always lingered and thirty years after I can at last put a title and a poem and a book around that strangely beautiful verse. I’ve also learned I was both right and wrong in my assumptions: Celan, an anagram of his real name, Anczel, was used as a pseudonym while publishing in a Romanian periodical, but otherwise his links with Romania were complicated, as were those of all our writers in exile (Cioran’s, Ionesco’s, Eliade’s, etc.) and in his case rather weak – it is hard to find a veritable influence of Romanian literature in his work, not at the same extent as French and German influence even though the poems he published at Bucharest immediately after WWII were in the Surrealist spirit still effervescent in Romania of that time. Anyway, his penname would eventually be pronounced in a French manner, since he lived in Paris until his death.
That said, it is almost uncanny to discover the verse that impressed me so much that it stayed with me all these years contains “in nuce” all his poetic beliefs and obsessions, like a concise ars poetica that rejects confessional and realistic poetry, yet without resorting to the hermetic. The way found is the refuge into the poetic of darkness, both literally and metaphorically, an inexhaustible resource, which will take infinite, forms, all speaking of nothingness.
Sometimes nothingness pours inexorably over the destiny of some hopeless prisoners of wars, prisoners of racial hate, prisoners of life:
Black milk of daybreak we drink it at nightfall
we drink it at noon in the morning we drink it at night
drink it and drink it (Fugue of Death)
Other times nothingness grows powerful branches that shadow and protect a sweet but tragic memory:
Aspen tree, your leaves glance white into the dark.
My mother's hair was never white. (Aspen Tree)
The darkness of the same nothingness is occasionally traded for the darkness of the knowledge, hidden and prying like Argus behind the veil:
Go blind now, today:
eternity also is full of eyes (Go Blind Now)
For what is life other than food for death, what is death other than the only reality – and the only salvation from the lie of existence:
suckled big with our life,
lay around us, true as an ashen image (In Prague)
Haunted by his tragic past, Paul Celan incessantly struggled with his inner demons, forever viewing life as a transit point:
I hear that they call life
our only refuge. (I Hear that the Axe has Flowered)
Like many a damned artist, he tried and experimented Art as a cathartic liberation. But in the end, it was Death the supreme poetry. But in the end, it was Death that prevailed:
You Were My Death
You were my death:
you I could hold
when all fell away from me.