Paul Celan: Fifty Years Later: Tenebrae & 5 More

It was exactly 50 years ago, on the night of 19 to 20 April 1970 that Paul Celan left his apartment on the avenue Emile Zola, and succumbed to his psychic demons: the Pont Mirabeau (an actual bridge over the Seine that is also a poem by Apollinaire) is where he decided to put an end to his life by going into the Seine. His body was found further downstream on 1 May. He was buried in the Thiais cemetery on the outskirts of Paris where his son François already rested and where his wife Gisèle would join him in December 1991.

On his desk Paul Celan had left Wilhelm Michael biography of Hölderlin, Das Leben Friedrich Hölderlins lying open to page 464. He had underlined the following sentence from a letter by Clemens Brentano:

“Sometimes this genius goes dark and drowns in the bitter well of his heart.”

Here are 6 poems from Sprachgitter | Speech-grille (I will post commentaries to the poems tomorrow) from  Paul Celan: Memory Rose into Threshold Speech. The Collected Earlier Poetry forthcoming from FSG in November, i.e. in time for Celan’s 100th birthday on November 23. In October, Contra Mundum Press will publish my translation of Paul Celan: Microliths (Posthumous prose). These two volumes complete my translation work on Celan’s oeuvre.


We are near, Lord,
near and graspable.

Grasped already, Lord,
clawed into each other, as if
each of our bodies was
your body, Lord.

Pray, Lord,
pray to us,
we are near.

Windbent we went there,
we went there to bend down
over crater and maar. 

To the trough we went, Lord.

It was blood, it was
what you spilled, Lord.

It shone.

It cast your image into our eyes, Lord.
Eyes and mouths gape, so open and empty, Lord.
We have drunk, Lord.
The blood and the image that was in the blood, Lord.

Pray, Lord.
We are near.



Sickledunes, uncounted.

In the windshadow, a thousandfold: you.
You and the arm,
with which naked I grew toward you,
lost one.

The rays. They blow us into a heap.
We wear the shine, the pain and the name.

what moves for us,
what we barter.
White and light:
let it wander.

The distances, moon-close, as we are. They build.
They build the cliff, where
what wanders breaks,
they keep
with lightspume and spraying wave.

What wanders, signaling from the cliffs.
The foreheads
it beckons,
the foreheads that were lent to us,
for the sake of the mirroring.

The foreheads.
We roll with them over there.
Forehead coasts.

Are you asleep?


Seamill turns,
icebright and unheard,
in our eyes.




Eyeround between the bars.

Flitterbug lid
rows upward,
frees a gaze.

Iris, swimmer, dreamless and dim:
the heavens, heartgrey, must be near.

Slanted, in the iron socket
the smoldering splinter.
By its light-sense
you guess the soul.

(Were I like you. Were you like me.
Didn’t we stand
under one trade wind?
We are strangers.)

The flagstone. On them,
close together, the two
heartgrey pools:
mouthfuls of silence.



Eyes, worldblind, in the deathcliffs: I come,
hardgrowth in the heart.
I come.

Moonmirror rockwall. Downward.
(Breathflecked ligthglow. Blood streaks.
Clouding soul, once more near-shapely.
Tenfingershadow — Gripclasped.

Eyes worldblind.,
eyes in the deathcliffs,
eyes, eyes.

The snowbed under us both, the snowbed.
Crystal after crystal,
meshed timedeep, we fall,
we fall and we lie and we fall.

And fall:
We were. We are.
We and the night are one flesh.
In the passageways, the passageways.




Gorselight, yellow, the slopes
pus skyward, the thorn
woos the wound, in it the bell
rings, it’s evening, the Nothing
rolls its seas in worship,
the bloodsail heads toward you. 

Dry, silted
up, the bed behind you, sedge-
choked, its hour, above,
next to the star, the milky
tidal inlets yack in the mud, stone-mussel
below, tufted, gapes into the blue, a shrub of
transience, pretty,
greets your memory.

(Did you know me,
hands? I walked
the forked path that you showed, my mouth
spit its gravel, I walked, my time,
a wandering snow cornice, cast its shadow — did you know me?)

Hands, the thorn-
wooed wound, it rings,
hands, the Nothing, its seas,
hands, in gorselight, the
heads toward you.

you teach
you teach your hands
you teach your hands you teach
you teach your hands to



Waterhour, the rubble scow
ferries us into evening, we,
like it, are in no hurry, a dead
Why stands at the stern.

. . . . . . . . . . .

Lightened. The lung, the jellyfish
swells into a bell, a brown
soul-extension reaches
the bright-breathed No.


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2 Responses

  1. Sonia Lewington says:

    So much I love about these translations… principally, the directness and immediacy of the language, which feels very faithful to Celan, and carries so much emotion. I also like the way your translations capture Celan’s reading-traces; there is tremendous density to the phrases, but also a crystalline quality.

  2. Pierre Joris says:

    Thank you for the good words, Sonia!

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