4 Poems by Paul Celan, with Commentaries

As I am in the process of proofing my final Paul Celan volume of translations — Memory Rose into Threshold Speech: The Collected Earlier Poetry — to be published by FSG in early November, the month Celan turns 100, I thought I’d post a few of the earliest poems that speak to me this morning (which, I guess, allows me to simultaneously alleviate the tediousness of proofing & the excitement of finally getting close to publishing these translations.) I am adding the commentaries (based on the commentaries by Barbara Wiedemann in her superb  edition of Celan’s complete poetry) though these will be fully useful only once you have the book in hand as many of the references are to other poems in the book.  And check this blog over the next 2 or 3 months, as I will publish a few more Celan poems.


Die Mönche mit haarigen Fingern schlugen das Buch auf: September.
Jason wirft nun mit Schnee nach der aufgegangenen Saat.
Ein Halsband aus Händen gab dir der Wald, so schreitest du tot
übers Seil.

Ein dunkleres Blau wird zuteil deinem Haar, und ich rede von Liebe.
Muscheln red ich und leichtes Gewölk, und ein Boot knospt im Regen.
Ein kleiner Hengst jagt über die blätternden Finger –
Schwarz springt das Tor auf, ich singe:
Wie lebten wir hier?


The monks with hairy fingers laid open the book: September.
Jason now throws snow at the sprouting seed.
A necklace of hands the forest gave you, so dead you walk
the rope.

A darker blue becomes part of your hair, and I speak of love.
Shells I speak and light clouds, and a boat buds in the rain.
A little stallion gallops over the leaf-turning fingers —
Black the gate leaps open, I sing:
How did we live here?



Es ist eine Stunde, die macht dir den Staub zum Gefolge,
dein Haus in Paris zur Opferstatt deiner Hände,
dein schwarzes Aug zum schwärzesten Auge.

Es ist ein Gehöft, da hält ein Gespann für dein Herz.
Dein Haar möchte wehn, wenn du fährst – das ist ihm verboten.
Die bleiben und winken, wissen es nicht.


There is an hour that makes dust your escort,
your house in Paris your hands’ sacrificial altar,
your black eye the blackest eye.

There is a homestead, where a team for your heart pulls up.
Your hair wants to waft when you ride — but that’s forbidden.
Those who stay and wave don’t know it.



Paris, das Schifflein, liegt im Glas vor Anker:
so halt ich mit dir Tafel, trink dir zu.
Ich trink so lang, bis dir mein Herz erdunkelt,
so lange, bis Paris auf seiner Träne schwimmt,
so lange, bis es Kurs nimmt auf den fernen Schleier,
der uns die Welt verhüllt, wo jedes Du ein Ast ist,
an dem ich hänge als ein Blatt, das schweigt und schwebt.


Paris, a tiny ship, lies at anchor in the glass:
and so I feast with you, drink to you.
I drink until my heart endarkens for you,
until Paris swims on its tear,
until it sets course for the distant veil
that shrouds the world for us, where every You is a branch,
from which I hang, a leaf, that in silence sways.



Was du aus Leichtem wobst,
trag ich dem Stein zu Ehren.
Wenn ich im Dunkel die Schreie
wecke, weht es sie an.

Oft, wenn ich stammeln soll,
wirft es vergessene Falten,
und der ich bin, verzeiht
dem, der ich war.

Aber der Haldengott
rührt seine dumpfeste Trommel,
und wie die Falte fiel,
runzelt der Finstre die Stirn.



What you of gossamer wove,
I wear in honor of stone.
When in the dark I wake the
screams, it wafts above them.

Often when I should stammer,
it throws forgotten creases,
and who I am forgives
the one I was.

But the attleheapgod
beats his dullest drum,
and just as the crease runs,
the Dark One frowns.





Talglicht | Tallow Light

Bucharest, 1945 or more likely 1946. First published in SU.
1 The monks with hairy fingers laid open the book: September.] cf v. 2 f. pf “Schwarze Flocken | Black flakes;” Barbara Wiedemann suggests a possible connection of that month with the fact that 15 September 1935 was the date of the Nazi Nurnberg laws which stripped the German Jews of their civil rights.
1 schlugen das Buch auf | laid open the book, 6 Ein kleiner Hengst jagt über die blätternden Finger | a little stallion gallops over the leaf-turning fingers] Cf. v. 4 & 9 f. of  “Königswut | King’s Rage” (BiT p 74/75.)
2 Jason] In Greek myth, the leader of the argonauts on their journey to Colchis on the Black Sea, where, among other things, he has to sow dragon teeth and fight with the warriors that grow from these. Cf. the altered ref. to this in v. 2 of  “Das Gastmahl | The banquet.” Ancient Colchis, also Ovid’s place of exile, is not too far from Celan’s homeland, the Bukowina. In a later letter Celan will establish the connection between this toponym and the Latin & French name for the flower known in German as “Herbstzeitlose,” the autumn crocus (cf. PC/GCL #145, “Die Silbe Schmerz | The syllable pain” & v. 80 of “Und mit dem Buch aus Tarussa | And with the Book from Tarussa.”).

Auf Reisen | Traveling

Vienna, probably 1948. PC in Paris as of 7. 14. 48 On the ms. for SU it says: “(before departure)”. On 9. 10. 1948 Celan sent the poem to Alfred Margul-Sperber in Bucharest with the date “Innsbruck, 28. June 1948.”  First printed in SU.
2 your house in Paris your hands’ sacrificial altar ] Celan lived from 7. 14. 1948 until his death in Paris. Cf.  citation of this line in “Zwölf Jahre|Twelve Years,” v. 3-5.
4 homestead] cf. the later poem “Hollow Lifehomestead” in BIT p. 29.
4 a match for your heart |Gespann für dein Herz] Untranslatable pun: Celan, very well versed in botany,  here probably  deconstructed the word “Herzgespann,” the name of a plant, Leonurus cardiaca, originating in Westasia, motherwort, throw-wort, or lion’s tail. The plant grows on waysides, dumping grounds, etc. Cf. commentary to v. 2 of “Embankments, Roadsides, Vacant Lots, Rubble.” Cf. also Celan’s readings in Jean Paul (Richter)’s work where the word occurs on a number of occasions.
5 Dein Haar möchte wehn, wenn du fährst – das ist ihm verboten. |Your hair wants to waft when you drive — but that’s forbidden] Cf. v.1 of “Lock” (TtT): “Lock, that I didn’t braid, that I let waft,”

Auf Hoher See | On the High Seas

Paris, 1949.
Celan sent the poem on 10. 7. 1949 in a letter to Diet Kloos-Barend with the title “Rauchtopas | Smoky Quartz.” Celan added: “I think it is a beautiful poem, Diet, no, I’m sure it is a beautiful poem. A good sign.” (PC/DKB 38-40 & 75 f.). Diet Kloos-Barend wore a smoky quartz ring, given her by Jan Kloos, her husband who had been tortured and murdered by the Nazis in her presence.
1, 4 Paris] In the official town seal of Paris, Celan’s hometown since July 1948, there is a ship with the motto “Fluctuat nec mergitur [It floats but doesn’t sink].”

Totenhemd | Shroud

Paris, before 1950.
1 Was du aus Leichtem wobst |What you from gossamer wove] reference to v. 19 of “Schwarze Flocken | Black Flakes” a poem published in SU, but not included: “ Kam mir die Träne. Webt ich das Tüchlein | A tear came to me. I wove the little cloth.”
9 Haldengott | attlegod] cf. what Jean Boase-Beier has to say about the etymologies of this image-complex: “The image of a god of rubble-heaps, recalling the ‘ Trummerhaufen’ of Germany in the aftermath of war and Allied bombing, and the  ‘Trummerfrauen’ who worked at clearing them up, suggests, with its reference to a drum, the repetitive sounds or feelings of traumatic memory. But beyond this image, the language itself is full of significance. ‘Halde’ is another word for ‘Trummerhaufen’ and ‘Trimmer* derives from ‘Trumm’ (‘piece’), which is originally from Old High German ‘drum’, a word which, like the Old English ‘thrum’, means a ‘small fragment’. ‘Trummer1, a word that is only present in the synonymity of ‘Trummerhaufen’ to ‘Halde’, thus recalls the English word ‘drum’ for ‘Trommel1, via its homophony with the Old High German word. And the Old High German ‘drum’ and the Old English ‘thrum’ have given us the modern technical word ‘thrum’ in English: the end of a warp thread. ‘Warp’ derives from the Old English ‘ weorpan’, which led to’ werferi in German, a word that appears in the second stanza, and ‘weapon’ in English, and is related to the Indo-Germanic *’ueri, which gave the German ‘Wunde’ and the English ‘wound’. Furthermore, because the first line (in its English translation) is ‘That which you wove’, the warp-end ‘thrum’ that echoes through ‘Trommef and ‘Trummer” ties together the images of weaving and drumming. […]

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1 Response

  1. pieter jan nat says:

    Beautifull poetry and perfectly translated Pierre. Tbhe commentories reveal an extra layer!

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