The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 564

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“Cello Entry” is one of Paul Celan’s later poems. It appears in the fourth of six cycles of short poems published under the title Atemwende (turn of breath). These eighty poems are best read together because the images of Celan’s refined, referential poems are less cryptic in the context of the collection. The poems describe mind space. Both of Celan’s parents were killed in concentration camps. Paul was their only child and subsequently suffered increasingly from survivor guilt, a mental state of grief and self-recrimination. At the beginning of the poem, it seems as if the sound of the cello, with its deep, resonant tones, may distract him from his pain. The second stanza, with its references to “arrival runway and drive,” indicates that the poet is moved by the music but is still unsure of where it will transport him.

Any elevation in mood the music may have afforded him is marred in the third stanza by the surreal shift in metaphor. It is evening, and he finds that branches he has climbed are not tree branches but lung branches. This mention of lungs, followed in the fourth stanza by “smoke-clouds of breath,” refers almost certainly to the gas chambers and crematoria of Adolf Hitler’s concentration camps in which millions of people were murdered simply because they, like Celan, were Jewish. His thoughts are now back on the horrors of the Holocaust. A book gets opened: not just any book, but the book, the story of his people, opened by the noise in his own head, which seems to have drowned out the cello music.

Celan begins the fourth stanza with the word “two” set off in a line by itself, a typographic arrangement indicating that this word is charged with significance. What is this significance? Are the two smoke-clouds of breath from his own two nostrils? Are they from his parents? The poetic effect of naming and placing emphasis on an exact number is to lend specificity while permitting several interpretations. For the poet himself, the dreamlike images are fraught with meaning. His interpretive response to them is one of recognition and validation: “something grows true.” This main clause, which stands alone as a single verse and stanza just over halfway through the poem, is like the peak of a musical phrase and may reflect a high point of the cello performance. Its lack of concrete detail places the emphasis fully on the emotional valence of the experience.

Stanza 6 describes twelve flashes of insight. Again, the specific number lends almost magical significance to the events but may also be determined by referents external to the poem such as twelve-tone music or the twelve tribes of Israel. The poet focuses finally on a woman and man engaged in a sexual act that cannot produce offspring. Their intimacy is paradoxical because they are dead, “black-blooded.” This powerful image conveys feelings of futility, depression, and horror, all perfectly understandable in a bereaved survivor of extreme persecution. In the last stanza, the poet has stopped the frightening flow of images and comments rationally on them as if awakening from a bad dream: “all things are less than/ they are.” That is not the last word, however. Celan cannot dismiss the promptings of his subconscious. He ends the poem with a characteristic reversal that augments the intensity of his experience: “all are more.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 473

The twenty-two lines of “Cello Entry” contain a total of only sixty words in the original German. Celan had studied the development of the German language from medieval times to the present and had seen it debased by Nazi propaganda between 1933 and 1945. It had gone, he explains, “through the thousand darknesses of death bringing speech.” Celan is therefore extremely careful in his choice of words and avoids the arbitrary frameworks of end rhyme and metric pattern. The length of his poems is dictated by inner necessity. His attention is focused on the sounds and meanings of individual words, syllables, and even letters.

Four of Celan’s distinguishing techniques that occur in “Cello Entry” are his tendency to split words to emphasize their component parts, his construction of neologisms, his repetition of words and phrases with or without variation, and his inclination to let the sound of a word lead him to a similar one. In “Cello Entry,” for example, “the black-/ blooded woman” is split at the hyphen over two lines, whereas “the black-blooded man” is written together on one line. The effect of the initial split is to place more weight on the word “black” and its negative connotations and to emphasize the highly unusual first part of the compound word. “Black-blooded” is also one of Celan’s neologisms, a shocking departure from the familiar “blue-blooded,” “hot-blooded,” and “cold-blooded.” Other such thought-provoking new combinations in the poem are “counter-heavens,” “lung-scrub,” and “temple-din.” Celan’s most famous poem, “Death Fugue,” written in 1952, is replete with repetitions and recombinations. This technique comes close to replicating human thought processes. People dwell on anything that bothers them. In “Cello Entry,” “black-blooded” can also serve as an example of effective repetition. By applying the unusual adjective to both the woman and the man, Celan stresses that they are both dead, that they represent two separate deaths. The fourth technique, that of letting one word determine the next, is often lost in translation but is apparent in the German even if one does not know the language. For example, the second stanza of “Cello Entry” ends with the line “Einflugschneise und Einfahrt,” in which Celan seems to have selected the second capitalized word for its felicitous resemblance to the first on the accented first syllable and following f.

The positioning of Celan’s periods is a reliable guide to the understanding of his poems. “Cello Entry” has just one period. The entire poem is a single sentence. Celan gently leads the reader in and out, but the bulk of the poem consists of a highly figurative account of a personal moment of truth. Twelve poems later in the cycle, a shorter poem encapsulates the meaning, method, even the music of “Cello Entry”: “A RUMBLING: truth/ itself has appeared/ among humankind/ in the very thick of their/ flurrying metaphors.”