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Imagine making beautiful poems out of the deepest horror. Paul Celan's haunting "Deathfugue," considered the major poem about the Holocaust, accomplishes just that. No other poem so masterfully treads the line between good and evil, using mere hair color as the delineator between those who lived and those who died.
Now, John Felstiner, the Stanford professor who brought that unforgettable poem into English, has given us a hefty collection of Celan's poems in translation -- easily the largest group ever available to English readers. For those moved by "Deathfugue" but less than comfortable with German, there's finally a way to read much of Celan at once.
Celan's poems are always relevant because they make humanity itself their audience. "Deathfugue," for example, includes all of us in its pain -- killed and killer, bystander and witness:
Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink you at midday and morning we drink you at evening
we drink and we drink
The book includes never-before-translated poems as well as familiar favorites. English readers finally get to read poems like "There Was Earth Inside Them," which takes the biblical premise of coming from earth and returning to earth and pushes it as far as it can go:
There was earth inside them, and
They dug and dug, and
their day went past, their night. And they did not praise God,
who, so they heard, wanted all this,
who, so they heard, witnessed all this.
Celan was a boy in Nazi-occupied Romania when he went to a friend's to sleep over. When he returned, the door to his home was sealed and his parents were gone. He never saw them again. Both that door and Celan's parents -- their voices, their mannerisms, their murders -- became the materials of poem after poem.
After the war, Celan remained in Europe and wrote in German, for many, the hated language of the conqueror or, in Felstiner's words, "a mother tongue that had suddenly turned into his mother's murderers' tongue." This challenge, Felstiner believes, is part of why Celan felt compelled to write in German.
Felstiner has spent 20 years trying to understand Celan. The first product of that project was a biography of Celan, titled Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew. Because Celan's life is so embedded in his work, Felstiner's knowledge of the nooks and crannies of his biography shines through on every page, enriching the poems.
Felstiner did his homework. He describes long nights in Celan's library, thumbing through books that looked particularly used, perusing Celan's notes and scrutinizing his scribbles in both Hebrew and German. Felstiner tells of 3am conversations with Celan's artist wife, Giselle. He even writes about a talk with Celan's son, in which Felstiner asks for permission to print the most private of notes.
This reaches a crescendo when Felstiner puts himself in Celan's shoes, wondering if Celan should have moved to Israel, as so many survivors did. One question is always present: Was there a way to prevent Celan's eventual suicide, when he drowned himself in the Seine in 1970?
For Celan, life and poetry were as closely related as life and death. He gave everything he had to the work, writing poems in the ghetto and in forced labor. In Felstiner's hands, Celan's poems remain at once spare and lush, gorgeous and frightening. There is an intimacy to these translations, a voice that comes out of close connection.
Again and again, Celan revisits his central subject, and Felstiner follows him. As the decades pass and Celan becomes a more powerful poet, he continues to hear his dead parents' voices, and he continues to mine their fates, searching the Bible, all of Jewish tradition, and much of Western culture for a way to make art out of tragedy. In the poems and in their English translations, despite all the destruction, there is one success -- at least in the space of the poems, humanity lives on.
Contributing editor Aviya Kushner is the poetry editor of Neworld magazine and has served as poetry coordinator for AGNI magazine. Her writing on poetry has appeared in The Harvard Review and The Boston Phoenix, and her essays on individual poems have been published in Poetry for Students, the college textbook on poetry. She has given readings of her own work throughout the United States and can be reached at AviyaK@aol.com.