The Poem

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 429

“Homecoming” is a free-verse poem of nineteen lines. Its title is somewhat ironic, suggesting a joyous return, a celebration of reunion. The actual “homecoming” that Paul Celan describes in the poem is a bleak return to a landscape of the dead.

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The poem comes from a collection that marks the point at which Celan became renowned throughout Europe. The title of this collection, Sprachgitter (speechmesh), illustrates the increasing darkness and obscurity of his work. The title suggests the difficulty of speaking through a mesh or grid, and perhaps implies that speech itself is a mesh or grid, filtering and distorting the feelings it attempts to represent, perhaps causing pain and injury to the one who attempts to speak. The word is Celan’s invented compound, and such inventions abound in his later work.

In the case of many poems, it is important to distinguish the speaker of the poem from the poet. In Celan’s case, however, no such division is necessary. Celan’s life speaks through his poems. They tell of the loss of his parents in the Holocaust and of his attempts to factor this loss into his life and come up with a product other than zero. They also tell of his failure to do this, describing again and again the void left by the Holocaust and the silence of God in response to his anguish.

The poem refers to an unidentified “you,” but the “I” is suppressed. The word “I” is used once, but it is not the usual use of the first-person singular—it refers to “an I,” a consciousness. The English version has only about seventy-five words (the total depending on how compounds are counted), and although “Homecoming” is not as sparse and compact as his later poems, no word is wasted.

The opening three-line section provides the basic scene and coloration of the poem: snowfall, gray-white or “dove-coloured.” The second segment lifts the vision upward, but there is no change in mood. Above the landscape stretches the white sky, “the sleigh track of the lost.” There is no respite from this overall blankness in a downward glance either, for there, “hidden,” are “what so hurts the eyes,” presumably the graves of the dead, which are what the speaker most sees although they are hidden by the snow.

Each of these “hills” represents “an I slipped away into dumbness.” In the snow and ice, “a feeling” blown across the cold and empty scene ceases its drifting and plants its gray-white flag: Perhaps the flag is the poem, a grave-marker for the unnamed dead.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 471

“Homecoming” is spare and stark, having little use for ornament. The truth it describes trivializes conventional attempts at ornamentation. Its nineteen lines contain a number of words that have a falling rhythm—words such as “hidden,” “dumbness,” and “feeling,” each of which contains a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed one. These words, often placed at the ends of lines, contribute to the mood of snowfall and of sadness. (The words in the original German have the same effect.) The other patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables in the poem produce the effect of chords in a minor key, and contribute to the overall impression of grief. The musical quality of “Homecoming” is also found in many of Celan’s other poems, some of which make specific reference to musical forms and themes.

Metaphor in this poem is very basic. Snow and winter traditionally suggest death, and here the snow is becoming “denser and denser”—obscuring more and more the possibility of any vision of light. The snow is described as “the sleigh track of the lost.” One of the recurrent images in Celan’s earlier poems is the picture of the ashes of the dead rising over the Holocaust ovens, and this suggestion is recalled by the image of the dead rising in this poem into the air in a sleigh. The gray of the remembered ashes pollutes the purity of the snow, so that although the snow should be white, it is seen as gray, “dove-coloured.”

The gray and white colors of this poem, combined with the insistent snow and ice, produce a feeling of isolation and desolation, the lowest level of the psyche. It is a mental state not far removed from the coldness at the center of Dante’s inferno, where the deepest damned are immobilized in a pit of ice. At the level of complete loss, all freezes to “dumbness.” This paralysis comes not from sin but from total grief, deprivation of all that centers one in the world and makes it livable.

At the conclusion, the only sign of life is a “feeling”—an emotion divorced from the speaker who experiences it. The poem combines the concrete with the abstract to explain how this feeling attaches “its dove-its snow-/ coloured cloth as a flag.” The feeling has thus been brought into the world of real things.

By the end of “Homecoming,” the reader has been led through a series of winter images to a closure that is ambivalent. The last image is the “flag,” which suggests labeling, identifying, or claiming. The speaker may be using the poem to reclaim his lost loved ones by memorializing them. On the other hand, this attempt may be vain. The flag is barely discernible from the snow, its color almost indistinguishable from the surroundings of the same neutral hue.

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