by Paul Celan
The Sheep Meadow Press 2007
Reviewed by Komo Ananda


“What knits / at this voice? At what / does this voice knit?”

Celan coverIn Schneepart (Snow Part), Paul Celan’s final completed work before his death in 1970, language is used to demonstrate the limits of circumstance; the book is overrun with constriction and death. The use of punchy, poignant words (“slobberedmouth,” “luff,” “tumuli”) entraps the reader in a world of dark and indelible imagery. The poems in Schneepart don’t match the lyrical ambition seen in some of Celan’s standards; however, the poet is still deeply concerned with the grim experience of the Holocaust and the poet’s time spent in the labor camps.

Celan’s compact diction (as translator Ian Fairley terms it in an introduction) suggests inevitability and the unpredictability of circumstances in life: the notion that a person is seldom in control of his/her own fate. One cannot help but feel restricted by Celan’s words. The poems are individual paradoxes; stanzas become snapshots of confinement:

Parcel Freight, baked
groatbig from
unfelled light;

despair shoveled in,

winched onto tracks, the laden
shadow-wheel wagon.

Literally the poem suggests a weathered train car being hoisted onto tracks. Interestingly enough, the scarcity of language and the vividness of words like “baked groatbig,” “aggregate,” and “winched onto tracks” creates a narrow tension reinforced by the line breaks and the very spareness of the poem. Naturally, it is about more than a freight car. The reader is asked to slow down and think about each line of the stanza. What comes to mind in “despair shoveled in, / aggregate” is a mass population being prepped for deportation.

Throughout the book we see Celan still haunted by the hellish events of his youth. It seems to follow naturally, then, that these lyrics are both guarded and spare. Celan subtly describes the minds of the tortured and ostracized; “I Gave a Chance” provides an important example of the helplessness of circumstance faced by so many: 

I gave a chance
to your, even your
ill-rung shadow,

I bestoned
it, even it, with what’s
true-shadowed, true-
rung of mine—a
six-pointed star
to which you gave your silence,
take your silence where you will,

strewing tings timeunderhallowed,
long enough, I too, in the street,
I am bound, no heart to embrace,
for home, out into
the stony many.

I see this poem as Celan’s attempt to grapple with a sense of being ostracized with those who kept silent to the injustices committed against the Jews. Long after the liberation of the concentration camps, our poet is helpless to escape a certain kind of psychological imprisonment; these poems struggle with the need to find a “heart to embrace for home.”

“I Gave a Chance” also demonstrates the somewhat ambitious translation style of Ian Fairley; “timeunderhallowed” as a single word seems his way of reconciling the length and feel of the original German word, “zeitunterheiligtes.” In another application, Fairley translates “wahnbrot”—which has no real English equivalent—as “lunebread,” as the German word “wahn” means craze or mania, and “brot”’ bread. In each case, Fairley’s translation adds to the general feeling of constriction implicit in Celan’s German poems.

When I talk about constriction, I tend to view it in terms of hope. Schneepart, with all its dark and grotesque imagery, displays a recognition of faith. And poems that seek to bring to light the many circumstances of the human condition have embedded in them an abstract sense of freedom despite the constrictions of the physical world; in the end, Schneepart accomplishes just that:

LIVE THE LIVES, live them all,
tell the one dream from the other,
look, I rise, look, I fall,
am an other, am no other.

In a time of heightened fear of terrorist attacks, torture, kidnappings, international discord, and infringement of civil liberties, Ian Fairley has done a great service in choosing to translate Paul Celan’s final effort. The book cannot help but invoke our own fears and insanities, those that we experience privately. Whether or not we encounter atrocities like deportation, genocide or war zone violence, we are always subjected to—if not rendered entirely paltry by—circumstances, circumstances which we do not wish to have imparted on our daily lives, but yet, we must somehow come to terms with if we are to contrive any means, however abstract or imagined, of liberation from them.