The limits of light, Richard Millington

Celanie: Poems and Drawings after Paul Celan 
Jack Ross (poems), Emma Smith (drawings)
Pania Press, $30.00,
ISBN 9780473224844

Among the measures of esteem for the poetry of Paul Celan (1920-1970), the number, calibre and dedication of his translators are probably most visible for English-language readers. Michael Hamburger, John Felstiner and Pierre Joris, among others, have each brought years of study to the task of anglicising the cryptic, allusive, neologistic German of Celan’s verse. These new versions by Auckland-based poet Jack Ross contained in Celanie, accompanied by two portfolios of drawings by artist Emma Smith (20 dark and abstract variations on the theme of a horse’s skull), continue this tradition of scholarly devotion to a body of work embodying the trauma of Holocaust survival through a desperate probing of the limits of poetic meaning. In the introduction Ross recounts his enduring fascination with Celan and characterises the book itself as the culmination of a “twenty-year masterclass”. The title echoes Celan’s own term for the Parisian streets that became the centre of his life from the late 1940s until his drowning in the Seine, but Ross consciously shifts the emphasis from the physical to the imaginative space of Celan’s world, a place, he tell us, “which, once visited, can never be forgotten”.

The profusion of existing translations, encompassing both cross-sections of the oeuvre and one-to-one reproductions of Celan’s own collections, poses the problem of distinctiveness for new English-language editions. Ross provides a novel solution by basing his selection on the 90-odd poems included in Celan’s correspondence with his wife Gisèle Celan-Lestrange. To compensate for her weak German, Celan glossed the poems in Gisèle’s native French, and Ross has shrewdly seized on these commentaries for clues to the mysteries of Celan’s meaning.

The result is a diverse collection that, although originating with Celan himself, reflects more the happenstance of his biography than any artistic design. It features both poems familiar from the authorised collections and lesser known ones that he perhaps never seriously considered for publication. For aficionados, the latter offer some fresh insights, most notably “Those”, in which with uncharacteristic directness the poet takes issue with the “megalomaniac delusions” of Nobel Prize winner Nelly Sachs (Celan’s otherwise apparently sincere friendship with Sachs is commonly viewed as an expression of solidarity between German-Jewish poets living in post-war exile). Regrettably, however, Celanie does not detail the publication history of individual poems, which would have helped readers to grasp the poet’s own distinctions between wheat and chaff.

Rather, in keeping with the volume’s biographical orientation, the only “extra” information offered is the date of the letter to Gisèle in which each poem appears. Overall the collection spans almost 18 years from January 1952 to December 1969, but by far the highest concentration is in the mid-to-late 1960s, a period in which Celan repeatedly sought psychiatric treatment. Indeed, most of the poems were sent from hospital at a time when the relationship between the couple was becoming increasingly strained, even violent. These are not love poems in any established sense, although Ross sometimes gives the impression that he would like to see them as such, for example in the final poem “There”, in which he has the poet’s hand “inscribe / around us both / a circle”; in the German it enigmatically traces just “a / single / circle”. With the German texts not included, such modulations become virtually invisible.

As it happens – and here emerges the biggest challenge presented by Ross’s selection strategy – in the mid-1960s Celan’s already difficult poems became, in the words of his biographer Felstiner, “so cryptic as to seem like signals from another planet”. The development is occasionally alluded to in the poems themselves, for instance when they talk, in Ross’s phrasing, of “the ounce // of truth deep in our craziness”, or more obliquely of the “lime-leaved faint / for the upfallen /clattering / psalm”. “After abandoning // light,” another poem tells us, the messenger “brings louder / and louder blessings / to the bloody ear”. At such moments the reflexivity of Celan’s anguished struggle with his mother tongue, usually expressed indirectly in lexical twists and parings back, becomes manifest.

How can one “do tribute” – for this is Ross’s stated intention – to such poetry while accommodating it to the sensibility of a foreign readership? The approach taken here is to augment the exquisite tone that in the German is constantly being undercut. To his credit, Ross achieves his aim: his versions are if anything more beautiful than Celan’s. But to this end he departs from established practice by smoothing out the jagged edges of the poet’s “craziness”. “To try to translate it as if it were current, commonly spoken or available German […] would be to miss an essential aspect of the poetry,” Joris warns. At times, however, and it is often at particularly uncomfortable times, Ross does precisely this. In Hamburger’s version of the poem that gave the title to the 1970 collection “Light-Compulsion”, the translator had closely imitated Celan’s quirks:

We were lying
deep in the macchia, by the time
you crept up at last.
But we could not
darken over to you:
light compulsion


Ross’s interpretation slides down more easily:

Already we lay

deep in the scrub
when you came crawling up

We couldn’t
overshadow you
due to
the limits of light.

Does this still count as translation? Ross himself seems unsure. The title page promises not “translations” but “poems” by Jack Ross, to be precise “poems after Paul Celan”, and the introduction describes the book as “an amalgam of images and poems, ‘translated’ [the speech marks are Ross’s own] from our own understanding of Paul Celan’s work” – in short, less Celan than Celanie. It is tempting to describe the poems as “Celan lite”, offering a lower risk of bloodied ears than the full-bodied variety. But even Celan lite makes for a rich meal.


Richard Millington teaches German in the School of Languages and Cultures at Victoria University of Wellington.


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