Poems of Paul Celan

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

Paul Celan’s experiences as a German-Romanian Jew during World War II form the basis for his spare, devastating poems. Michael Hamburger’s English versions follow all the subtleties of the German originals, and, in the later poems, which are rich in neologisms and multiple meanings, Hamburger brings sharp insight as well as tremendous verbal flexibility to his translations. Hamburger’s prefatory critical essay gives a clear basic introduction to Celan’s work as well as illustrating some of the problems of translating it. This volume prints both the original German and the English translation, on facing pages.

Celan was born Paul Antschel in 1920 in Chernovtsky, Bukovina, a German settlement in Romania. His studies were interrupted in 1941 when the Jews were interned. His parents died in a concentration camp; this loss, particularly that of his mother, sets the tone for much of his poetry. He settled in Paris after the war and adopted Celan as his name. Re never recovered from the horror of the Holocaust, however, and although he married a Frenchwoman, had children, and became more and more widely known as a poet and translator, his deepening melancholy led to his suicide by drowning in 1970.

Celan claimed that language was one thing that remained intact for him after the war, but his poems show the progressive disintegration of language as even this center fails to hold for him. In the first collections of his work, language seems to be indeed the only firm ground, but it gradually becomes an abyss into which the poet, spiraling, descends, taking with him the reader and the world. This selection, part of which was published in 1980 as Paul Celan: Poems, spans his career, from Mohn und Gedaichtnis (poppy and memory), which appeared in 1952, through three posthumous collections. Read through, the sequence establishes a thematic cycle:

the mourning of the Holocaust; the attempt to establish a new, cosmopolitan identity and the failure of this attempt; and the reidentification with the Jewish heritage. Stylistically, the poems become more complex and gnomic as they proceed, until some of the final poems in the collection are nearly impenetrably hermetic and mysterious.

The first poems center on the concentration camps and the poet’s mother’s death. Set in autumn, the season of her death, they are relatively direct, emotional, and personal. Their somber descriptions of nature reflect the losses they recount. One begins: “Aspen tree, your leaves glance white into the dark.! My mother’s hair was never white.” The poems are filled with moss, clouds, bracken, mold, dusk, hair, halflight, and soft things. The most famous of them is “Todesfuge” (”Death Fugue”), a direct examination of the concentration camps, which begins, “Black milk of daybreak we drink it at sundown,” and uses the “black milk of daybreak” as a refrain linking the images of the camps and contrasting the “golden hair” of Margarete, the Aryan, and the “ashen hair” of Shulamith, the Jew, The poem, like the others, is preoccupied with “the grave you will have in the clouds”—the smoke from the ovens, which was the only grave of the Jews. Metaphorically, Celan breathes this air throughout the poems; it infuses them with darkness and sadness.

These poems, however, do not have completely straightforward surfaces. Their use of nonrational associations in the tradition of French surrealism helps them...

(The entire section is 1419 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

Booklist. LXXXV, April 15, 1989, p.1485.

Library Journal. CXIV, May 1, 1989, p.79.

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The New Republic. CCI, July 31, 1989, p.36.

The New York Review of Books. XXX VI, January 18, 1990, p.3.

The New Yorker. LXV, August 28, 1989, p.93.