Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“From the Beam” is a poem about loss and about the irresistible pull of the past. For Celan, whose family was killed in the Holocaust and whose losses did not stop when the war was over but continued with the death of his son in childhood, the past was a series of amputations. The horror in this poem is barely suggested but remains a dark presence. “[Y]our scream/ enshrined” suggests that the speaker was never able to go beyond this painful separation, but kept it with him always as a talisman of his life and a guide to its meaning. The “arm-stalks” which “multiply” (or grow luxuriantly) are another reminder of amputations which fester. The poem reflects the inability of one who has experienced such wrenching horror to get free of it and live.

Although this poem is not directly about the Holocaust and the concentration camps, as so many of Celan’s poems are, their presence informs the poem. Celan was accused by critics of “aestheticizing” the Holocaust—of turning it into art instead of representing it in the horror of its reality. These poems of loss and of unhealing wounds do nothing to blur or diminish the reality of the Holocaust, however; rather, through the empathy with which they evoke the desolation of loss in the reader, they perpetuate the memory of the death camps as well as more realistic accounts.

“From the Beam” needs to be read together with Celan’s other late poems if it is to achieve its full effect. In context with these, it becomes a cry of isolation from one who has had family, friends, country, identity, and faith wrenched away from him. The mysterious other toward whom he gropes “with fingers” becomes lost family, lost love, lost God: All losses merge into the shadowy underwater being that he addresses in German as “du Untre”—“you down there,” or “you, the underneath-one.” The conclusion of the poem may suggest an attempt at closure through “reading” the past, but the sustained tone of the poem is one of anguish at irrecoverable losses.