Last Poems

The catastrophic fact of the Nazi Holocaust has been considered so devastating to the human spirit that one critic, Theodor Adorno, has proclaimed, “After Auschwitz there can be no more poetry.” Among the millions of lives devastated was that of Paul Ancel, a Romanian Jew who survived the forced labor camps but was lastingly haunted by that experience and by the Nazis’ execution of his parents. In 1970, after years of exile in Paris under the name of Paul Celan, he took his own life by jumping into the Seine. Tormented as he was, however, and strongly as part of him subscribed to Adorno’s pessimism, Celan nevertheless wrote nine volumes of brilliantly paradoxical poetry, in which he drew creative force from the abiding sense of nothingness and despair which the Holocaust produced in him.

LAST POEMS constitutes an ideal introduction to Celan’s work, for the collection presents the writer in the final, most powerful stages of his development. Selected and ably translated by Katharine Washburn and Margret Guillemin, these poems from Celan’s three posthumous volumes--LICHTZWANG (FORCE OF LIGHT, 1970), SCHNEEPART (SNOW-PART, 1971), and ZEITGEHOFT (THE FARMSTEAD OF TIME, 1976)--show the poet reaching his minimalist limits of hard-edged compression, while also continuing to achieve the effects of verbal wit and strangely hypnotic lyricism that had always characterized his work. The translators also include Celan’s short autobiographical fable of...

(The entire section is 419 words.)

Last Poems

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

The catastrophic fact of the Nazi Holocaust has been considered so destructive to the human spirit that one critic, Theodore Adorno, has proclaimed, “After Auschwitz there can be no more poetry.” Among the millions of lives devastated by the Nazi regime was that of Paul Ancel, a Romanian Jew who survived the forced labor camps but was lastingly haunted by that experience and by the Nazis’ execution of his parents. After years of exile in Paris under the name of Paul Celan, he took his own life in 1970 by jumping into the Seine. Tormented as he was, however, and as strongly as part of him subscribed to the sort of absolute pessimism expressed in Adorno’s dictum, Celan nevertheless completed nine volumes of poetry. In these brilliantly paradoxical books, he somehow draws creative force from the abiding sense of nothingness and despair that the Holocaust produced in him.

Last Poems constitutes an ideal introduction to Celan’s work, for this collection of ninety-nine poems (most of which have not been previously translated into English) presents the writer in the final, most powerful stages of his development. Selected and ably translated by Katharine Washburn and Margret Guillemin, these poems from Celan’s last three volumes—Lichtzwang (1970; Force of Light), Schneepart (1971; Snow-Part), and Zeitgehöft (1976; The Farmstead of Time)—show the poet reaching his minimalist limits of hard-edged compression while also continuing to achieve the effects of verbal wit and strangely hypnotic lyricism that always characterized his work. In addition to these poems from Celan’s three posthumous volumes, the translators also include Celan’s short autobiographical fable “Conversation in the Mountains” (1959), and Washburn provides an informative (though sometimes formidably academic) introduction to Celan’s life and writings that suggests the impressive range of his learning and allusions.

Although “Conversation in the Mountains” is the earliest piece of writing in the book in its date of composition, the translators place it last in the volume—perhaps because, even though it is written in prose, its meanings are often more elusive and enigmatic than those of many of the poems. Nevertheless, the fable helps locate Celan’s moorings in the tradition of Holocaust literature, and it also provides a sardonic dramatization of Celan’s problematic relation to his poetic self, his audience, and the worlds within and around him. Significantly, Celan wrote the fable after a failed attempt at communication—according to Washburn he had “missed [a] meeting with an unnamed person on a mountain road”—and the stuttering, halting conversation that occurs in the fable fails to establish much more than that both the speaker and his interlocutor are Jewish “babblers” who are prevented by “veils” and “shadows” (images of their dark and cloudy past) from experiencing any direct communion with the beautiful Alpine countryside around them. In the manner of a Samuel Beckett play, their interactions with the external world are comically and pathetically reduced, yet in this dark world in which “the sun (and not only the sun) had gone down in the west,” there are images of a limited achievement and hope. Though the two Jews are mostly blind, they do perceive and express images of the natural beauty around them, if only in a strangely twisted way: “an image barely enters [the eyes] before it gets caught in the web[;]. . . a thread from the veil. . . winds itself around the image and gets it with child, half-image, half-veil.” Celan thus suggests a metaphor for his strangely internalized, surrealistic mode of poetry: Images from the natural world are covered over by the “veil” of his brooding, Holocaust-haunted imagination, and a new sort of poetry is born.

Though the Romanian Celan knew a number of languages, emigrated to Paris after the war, and was strongly influenced by the French surrealists, he chose—perversely and paradoxically—to write in German, to create in the language of the oppressor and the destroyer. The Washburn-Guillemin bilingual edition of the poems helps the reader (even the reader who is not expert in reading German) appreciate one of the reasons for Celan’s strange choice: The use of German compound nouns greatly enhances his effects of minimalist density. Thus, many of his lines in German consist of only a single word that requires several English words to translate.

Another aspect of Celan’s minimalism is that he severely narrows his range of imagery. In poem after poem, the reader enters a...

(The entire section is 1902 words.)

Bibliography

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

Booklist. LXXXIII, October 15, 1986, p. 321.

Library Journal. CXI, June 15, 1986, p. 70.

The New York Times Book Review. XCI, November 9, 1986, p. 21.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXIX, April 18, 1986, p. 57.

TriQuarterly. Fall, 1986, p. 172.