The Poem

“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...

(The entire section is 564 words.)

Forms and Devices

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...

(The entire section is 473 words.)