Speechgrille — A Celan Poem for World Poetry Day

Yesterday I finished reworking my translation of Paul Celan’s poem “Speechgrille |Sprachgitter,” from the eponymous 1959 volume. Let me offer it here on World Poetry Day (as — rare occasion! — a second post on the same day on Nomadics blog). I will also add my commentary which takes off from Barbara Wiedemann’s in her German edition of The Collected Poems of Paul Celan. This translation will be published by FSG in 2020 — Celan’s 100th birth- & 50th death-year in —  in my “Paul Celan — The Collected Earlier Poetry.”



Eye-round 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.


Sprachgitter | Speech-Grille

Written 6. 14. (Vienna, Rennweg) – 0. 18. 1957. Celan’s friends Klaus and Nanni Demus whom he visited during his holidays in Austria (cf. also “Voices”) lived in the Rennweg, the third district of Vienna,

T Sprachgitter | Speech-grille] Also title of volume. Celan received a postcard dated “Whitsuntide 1957” (6.9.1957) from Günther Neske with the image of the confessional screen (the Sprechgitter) of the Saint Clare covent in Pfullingen (Württemberg); the text turned around Celan’s intention of publishing his next book with Neske. Cf. marginal mark in Jean-Paul’s Kampaner Thal: “… unter dem tiefer einsinkenden Gewitter schlugen die Nachtigallen lauter, gleichsam als lebendige Gewitterstürmer, hinter blühenden Sprachgittern |… under the fast approaching storm the nightingales raised their voices, as if they were living lightning stormers, behind blooming speech-grilles.” (Bd. 42/43, S. 20; my translation, as the available English translation avoids “Sprachgittern” by translating it as “hedges.”) Celan told Demus that those were the two inspirations for the title. He wrote his friend Joachim Seng, “I tell myself that in “Sprachgitter” the existential, the difficulty of all speaking (to one another) and at the same time the structure of that speaking is what counts” (Gedichte 643).

 1-4 Eyeround between the bars. || Flitterbug lid | rows upward,, | frees a gaze] Cf. the famous poem “The Panther,” from Rilke’s New Poems: “His gaze against the sweeping of the bars |has grown so weary, it can hold no more. | To him, there seem to be a thousand bars | and back behind those thousand bars no world.” & further on: “An image enters then, | goes through the tensioned stillness of the limbs — | and in the heart ceases to be.“ (translated by Stanley Appelbaum.)

6 the heavens, heartgrey, must be near.] Cf. the note to the Büchner speech: “Artistry and word-art — that may have the feeling of something occidental, evening-filling, Poetry is something else; poetry, heartgrey, sublunar, heavens- and heart-grey, heart and heavens-grey breath-marbled language in time. (M p.110)

7 Tülle | socket] Celan had many notes from various dictionaries, plus French translations, concerning this word essentially referencing the metal holder into which one sticks a light, also “Lichthalter | lightholder.”

13 under one trade wind ] Celan’s Kluge/Götze dictionary defines the “Passat” trade wind thus: “These easterly winds blowing regularly in the lower latitudes are beneficent for crossings.”

17 pools] the German word is “Lachen.” Marjorie Perloff writes in “‘Sound Scraps, Vision Scraps’: Paul Celan’s Poetic Practice:” “Lachen, in this context, has the primary meaning of puddles or pools: two gray pools of water blot the flagstones. But Lachen also means “notches”—the stones are notched with the sign of the two unknown strangers–and in the singular, the noun “Lachen” is the common word “laughter”—in this case, a mirthless, hollow chuckle of sorts. In all three cases, the flagstones reflect the “heartgray” condition of the lovers: the desire for communion—with hidden priest? God? and especially the “you” who is his beloved—has failed. 

18, 19 Two | mouthfuls of silence.]  As Dennis J. Schmidt puts it, Celan’s “’Two mouthfuls of silence’” (zwei / Mundvoll Schweigen) . . . mark the place of the poem for Celan . . . such silence is not to be confused with mere quiet but needs to be heard as the unvocalized voice of the poem. . . . a voice estranged from language, rendering the effort to listen to language in the poem rare, demanding, and painful at once.” (Dennis J. Schmidt, «Black Milk and Blue: Celan and Heidegger on Pain and Language,» in Hamacher 110-29; see p. 110.) 

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1 Response

  1. Brent says:

    Fantastic love this. I have all your Celan translations so of course want to thank you for your Herculean labor. It of course brings us everything.

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