Paul Celan stands as one of the most influential and visible poets of the second half of the 20th-century. The work he produced from World War II to his suicide by drowning in 1970 has been lauded by subsequent poets, taught in German history courses, and set to music by Berio, Birtwistle, and Rihm. The central theme of most of Celan's poetry is the slaughter of European Jewry in the Holocaust, as the poet was born in a German-speaking Jewish enclave in Bucovina and there lost his parents and his home, scars which even a successful new life in Paris could never erase. This volume of selected poems with English translations by Michael Hamburger is a fine introduction to his work.
Celan's poem "Todesfuge" (Death Fugue) is one of his earliest mature pieces and the most common introduction to his poetry. It's opening lines "Black milk of daybreak we drink it at sundown / we drink it at noon in the morning we drink it at night / we drink and we drink it / we dig a grave in the breezes there one lies unconfined" are a powerful depiction of the death camps and fully repudiate Adorno's claim that poetry after Auschwitz is impossible.
Some critics have claimed that "Todesfuge" was Celan's only great poem and had it not been for that, then we would have never heard of him. That poem was certainly his break into the literary world, but other material in this volume is just as fine. "Einfuehrung" (The Straitening) is something of a rewriting of "Todesfuge" in considerably more desperate language and my favourite of Celan's poems. Here the motifs of the first poem are shattered into pieces ("Grass, written asunder. The stones, white / with the shadows of grass blades ... Ash. / Ash. ash. / Night. / Night-and-night.") which in turn are dissolved into their component atoms (Gales, / Gales, from the beginning of time, / whirl of particles.").
In "Tenebrae" Celan reverses the relationship of God and his people in Judaism and explicitly evokes the violence of the camps: "We are near, Lord, / near and at hand. // Handled already, Lord, / clawed and clawing as though / the body of each of us were your body, Lord." One of Celan's main concerns was how speech might remain meaningful when so much of life had become meaningless after the horrors of the war years. In "With a Variable Key" he writes: "With a variable key / you unlock the house in which / drifts the snow of that left unspoken ... You vary the key, you vary the word / that is free to drift with the flakes. / What snowball will form round the workd / depends on the wind that rebuffs you."
While much of Celan's work is haunting, I cannot make much of his last works. With the last collections he saw published in his lifetime ATEMWENDE (Breathturn) and FADENSONNEN (Threadsuns) his poetry became so hermitic and so obsessed with polysemy (multiple meanings) that it effectively means nothing. Take, for example, the poem "Coagula" which in its entirety reads: "Rosa, your / wound as well. // And the hornlight of your / Romanian buffaloes / instead of stars above / the sandbed, in / the talking, red- / ember-powerful / rifle butt."
Now, some of the linguistic games of these late poems are entertaining, but I cannot sketch them here because I'm assuming readers of this review have no German, and they indeed cannot be preserved in English. Hamburger has attempted to give the poems some intelligibility by basing his translations on our knowledge of Celan's life, but in doing so he collapses the possibilities inherent in the German text.
In reviewing this volume of selected poems, and consequently the poet's entire career, I'm not sure how to rate it overall and therefore have given it three stars. Celan is certainly a poet worth getting acquainted with, but I can't help feeling that he was going astray into irrelevance with the late poems that only the author himself would have understood. If you are a fan of modern European poetry, or interested in the Holocaust and its influence on literature, pick up Hamburger's translations if you cannot read the original German. John Felstiner's Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew also makes a good companion for those who might miss the Jewish symbolism found throughout the early poetry.