Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Prescriptions for Melancholy: Rachel Blum and Paul Celan

Paul Celan (1920-1970).
“I can swim like everyone else, only I have a better memory than them. I have not forgotten my former inability to swim. But since I have not forgotten it, my ability to swim is of no avail and in the end I cannot swim.” – Franz Kafka, Notebook, 1920

One thing an art and literary critic, or any cogent observer really, never wants to do if they can help it is to compare a contemporary painter to Mark Rothko or Barnett Newman, compare a contemporary musician to Brian Eno or Terry Riley, compare a contemporary playwright to Samuel Beckett or Harold Pinter, and especially not to compare a contemporary poet to Paul Celan or W.S. Merwin. Poets, and the rest, hate being compared to giants in their field, even if it’s meant in the most complimentary way, since it taints their work with unfairly gargantuan lauding, the weighty shadow of which might be too much for them to comfortably bear. And yet, that last poetic reference is exactly the aesthetic crime I’m compelled to commit in this assessment of two new and recent books, one by and the other about, two poets of sterling caliber. 

To describe the new memoir of Jean Davie (Under the Dome: Walks with Paul Celan, City Lights Books, 2020) on his relationship with the great German poet Paul Celan, for whom he provided a priceless role as confidant and poetic confrère, as arresting, unsettling, breathtaking and unnervingly sad is merely to capture some of the essential poignant sorrow and shimmering melancholy that made Celan practically a cult figure among modernist poets and lovers of the kind of elliptical existential insights that only poetry of the highest order of hermeticism can often approach. Davie had a unique access to the heart and mind of what J.M. Coetzee once called the greatest poet of “the dark twentieth century.” Another attentive observer, Michael Palmer, also recognized the core of pure and nearly molten melancholy that burbled to the surface of Celan’s volatile mind when he characterized this new City Lights publication of Jean Davie’s memoir as a “fluid and indefinable work which breathes with Celan while walking with Celan, walking in the dark and the light with Celan, invoking the stillness, the silence of the ‘breathturn’, while speaking for the deeply human necessity of poetry.”

Lovers of the power of poetry will be nourished by this memoir for a long time to come, just as Celan’s own work continues to nourish us as a kind of spiritual vitamin, a jagged little pill offering a way forward through our human abyss, even if the writer of the poems himself, possibly suffering from the post traumatic stress of World War Two, was not able to survive that particular abyss, committing suicide by drowning himself in the River Seine in Paris in April of 1970 at the age of 49. When he won the Georg Büchner Prize in 1960, Celan offered his most clear-eyed assessment of the task he considered a valid and lifelong mission: “One thing remained reachable, close and secure against loss: language. In spite of everything, it remained secure against loss. There is nothing in the world for which a poet will give up writing, not even when he is a Jew and the language of his poems is German.” And yet, something did force him to give up writing – unless, rather than force him, it permitted him to do so, almost against his own will. 

City Lights Books, 2020.

Celan, born Paul Antschel in 1920, was a German-speaking Romanian poet and translator who had the misfortune to find himself living in a country which shared Hilter’s madness and imposed harsh restrictions on its Jewish citizens. He tried to convince his parents to leave Romania to avoid persecution, but while he was away in the summer of 1942 his family was taken to an internment camp where two thirds of the “deportees” eventually perished. His father died of typhus and his mother was shot after being exhausted with forced labour. Celan himself was taken to another camp, where he remained until the winter of 1944, when the Red Army advanced, and forever after he carried with him a profound sense of guilt at not having convinced his parents to leave their home, over which, of course, he had no control. Living in a human condition coloured by the absence of any control over our own fate would develop into one of the capstones of his poetic work. His most famous work, “Todesfuge (Death Tango),” appeared in translation in 1947 and contained scenes of dancing and musical performances which (he explained in notes) evoked the images and realities of extermination camp life.

“Death Tango," with its imagery of golden and ashen hair, is interpreted as a reflection of his Jewish-German culture, while the “blue-eyed master from Germany” was said to embody Nazism. The intense urgency and emotional power of Celan’s extremely compressed and distilled works have been said to stem from his attempt to find words “afterward,” to bear impossible witness in a language that gives us no words that can be effectively utlilized. Celan is internationally acclaimed as a poet who occupies the same stellar rank as Goethe, Hölderlin and Rilke, despite the demands and difficulties of his idiosyncratic linguistic styling, and he is widely considered one of the most significant German poets who ever lived.

My own first encounter with his overwhelmingly beautiful and sad work came about in the last few years of the twentieth century when I stumbled upon a dog-eared and bent paperback copy of his Atemwende (Breathturn) in a used bookstore collecting dust while wedged sideways in between two shelves. Thus my first encounter was also with his most obscure and exotic poems, in an obscure collection translated by Pierre Joris. That copy practically fell apart upon my frequent visits to its pages, so I replaced it with a fresh edition and revisited his surreal sadness anew. The new copy, however, underwent some serious water damage in a flood, making it as warped, bent and misshapen as the first edition I had found.

But I’ve never been able or willing to replace it, since its distressed physical form most fully embodies the metaphysical meanings behind the deep melancholy he so incisively expressed. It sits in front of me now, proud of its damaged torso and bent spine, and is now joined by this new book but Jean Davie, who shares Joris’s friendship with the poet whose astonishing experiments with poetic form place him in a category almost by himself (Stéphane Mallarmé, another heavy-duty symbolist, I suppose, might reside nearby). Davie’s book is a precise and almost scientific report about his daily meetings with Celan, and the walks they took together discussing everything under the sun, and under the dome. He also shares his intimate grief at losing his poetic friend and mentor due to that distressing decision to walk into the Seine.

This portrait always reminds me of the American poet e.e. cummings, a writer much influenced by Celan, and whose own famous 1920 work “Buffalo Bill’s” evokes for me some of Celan’s stalwart and stern stature in the face of memories too heavy to continue carrying:

Buffalo Bill ’s
            who used to
            ride a watersmooth-silver
and break onetwothreefourfive pigeonsjustlikethat
he was a handsome man
                                        and what i want to know is
how do you like your blue-eyed boy
Mister Death

This seems to me to collide headlong at great speed with Celan’s “Death Tango,” a fragment of which declaims:

Black milk of morning we drink you evenings
we drink you at noon and mornings we drink you at night
we drink and we drink
A man lives in the house he plays with the snakes he writes
he writes when it darkens to Deutschland your golden hair Margarete
he writes and steps in front of his house and the stars glisten and he whistles his dogs to come


Black milk of dawn we drink you at night
we drink you at noon death is a master from Deutschland
we drink you evenings and mornings we drink and drink
death is a master from Deutschland his eye is blue
he strikes you with lead bullets his aim is true
a man lives in the house your golden hair Margarete
he sets his dogs on us he gifts us a grave in the air
he plays with the snakes and dreams death is a master from Deutschland

your golden hair Margarete
your ashen hair Shulamit

For those lovers of poetry, especially the kind that serves as a bandage on a wound that persists in stinging long after it has actually been healed, I’d also recommend the fine translation by Michael Hamburger of Selected Works by Celan, including some great ones from Breathturn, such as his tantalizing “Thread Suns”:

above the grayblack wastes.
A tree-
high thought
grasps the light-tone: there are
still songs to sing beyond

3: A Taos Press, 2018.

Indeed, there are such songs on the ‘other side’, and I’m compelled to share another such poet, not to run the risk of comparing her to Celan but to alert the reader that such a wavelength, such a vibration, such a heartfelt hue, still exists in our world of gently echoed sentiments. That poet is Rachel Blum, likely much to her probable shock and dismay, and her selection is entitled The Doctor of Flowers, which I persist in feeling contains the semblance of an actual answer to Paul Celan’s still-throbbing poetic questions which he hurled hopefully at us, all these years later. And when Blum says, “Thank you for your translation of the night, it is in my native language,” I immediately decided that she is thanking Paul Celan, or at least angels of his ilk, and it matters not one whit whether this gifted poet intended that to be her address to a long-lost fellow poet, or not, because that is the way real poetry works. We make it our own.

As another favourite of mine, Salvatore Quasimodo, once said: “Poetry is the revelation of a feeling which the poet believes is interior and personal but which the reader recognizes as his own.” So this touching Blum poem, found on Page 31 of her book The Doctor of Flowers, will forever afterward be a postcard from one poet to another, from one recovering patient to a superlative translator of the night into multiple languages, which every reader mysteriously recognizes as their own. Her work in general, and this book in particular, strikes me as offering us a practical prescription for melancholy, not necessarily even to eliminate it from our lives (for life would be less real without it) but to celebrate the depth of feeling required to elicit exquisite lines such as hers:

And I carried
the bottle of soil
from that lost yard
over every border.

. . .

And the jar is always
full of questions
and the garden
grows beckoning.

I believe that the lost yard mentioned here is the night that Celan swam in, whether that was the author’s intention or not, since once it is written by her, such a poem is owned by me, stored in the damp vault of my brain, where I file it nestled cozily next to “Todesfuge.” The garden in question is, for me, the exact physical location that beckons to us all through our lives, and to which we surrender, willingly and hopefully at peace, into the soil that welcomes us like an old friend.

The “soul’s five sadnesses” is, I suspect, one of my favourite lines of poetry in years: for they simply must be our five senses, witnessed from a distance by the soul as we use them to go about our daily affairs. Primary of which is pretending that we will all live forever and never surrender to the soil. And the best way to do this, to live forever, is to live every moment to its fullest extent: which is what The Doctor of Flowers seems to prescribe for our ailment. 

Our so-called ailment is a simple one: that our time spent in this sensorial playground is so brief that it feels like it’s over before we even get started in our obligation to figure out what the hell is actually happening to us. This sentiment, expressed by Blum with such tender clarity in the opening poem of Section I, can barely be contemplated without provoking a teardrop, the kind that was so often distilled and crystallized by that other late poet to whom I am so audaciously comparing Blum, the one who tried to walk on water in 1970, even though he knew he could not do so. Blum’s parallel to him is, as I’ve tried to carefully suggest, not literal or even stylistic; on the contrary, it is strictly a wavelength or a frequency from some shared and long-lost radio signal.

This semblance, not similarity but semblance, hits me like a hammer made of flowers when Blum opines

The unfathomable part of death is love.
So we invented the soul to be its ship.

Because what is the soul
if not a collection of our loves.

Distilled to a form like the hull
Blooming into dark water.

And as full of meaning
As the soft face of the horses.
Blum graduated from Haverford College and also studied creative writing at New York University, subsequent to which, in addition to publishing her work in multiple poetry journals, she has taught writing in unique environments: Goldwater Hospital in New York, PATH Community Mental Health Centre in Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Centre for Grieving Children, Teens and Families. It strikes me that these real-world experiences, where literature becomes a salvage operation and a prescription for renewal, must have impacted her insights in powerful ways.

When I say “prescriptions for melancholy” in this context, I really mean the careful administering of a homeopathic remedy: the use of melancholy in small doses (the poems) in order to help build up our immune systems to the degree necessary to withstand rough weather in our lives. Since she is additionally a lifelong reiki practitioner and engaged in private practice as a reiki therapist, I’m also made aware of yet another pertinent metaphor for what profoundly insightful poetry such as hers can do and be in our lives. A poem might also be a kind of reiki, a gentle form of massage with minimal, if any, physical contact, working with subtle energies. Thus her poems can be said to massage our hearts and minds in a special way, almost akin to the way music massages us.

As Blum expressed it in notes to The Doctor of Flowers: “The first god was sensation, a music preceding believing. My father’s family are German Jews, my mother’s German Mennonites. Family is a river too. Sanctuary happened when the notes of the universe bowed their heads in meditation, together comprising an awesome silence. That too is the purpose and function of fine human poetry such as Celan’s and Blum’s: the manufacture of an awesome silence. This is the kind of benevolent benediction bestowed by the best poetry, by whichever kind and by whatever poet moves you personally, not to tears, but to silence. This is the kind celebrated in another of her pieces from Section I of The Doctor of Flowers, which offers, in part, the following prescription

In the soul’s hospital room,
friends bring flowers,
their petals the shapes of stars
in colours that dignify an old shame.

And when the doctor comes in from the night hallway,
the soul stands and folds her soul
into an origami house.

And now, I’ll just have to wait patiently for the miniature flood that will warp and bend my fresh copy of Blum’s charming and touching book of poems, so that it will feel as comfortable as possible nestled next to the books of one of her forbearers. Celan is her great-uncle, not genetically but poetically, which might in the end prove itself to be an even stronger bond than that of mere blood.

Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films.He is the author of the book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, and is a frequent curator of film programs for Pacific Cinematheque. His latest book is Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, published in November 2018. His new book, Tumult! The Incredible Life and Music of Tina Turner, is forthcoming from Backbeat Books in 2020. 




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