Guest Post by Courtney Druz – "Transductions of Celan"
Courtney Druz is a published poet whose works we BLT bloggers have taken note of and appreciated. We have been happy to interact with her via comments at this blog. Even more now we are delighted that she’s offered us all the following guest post! You can find her on the Internet at www.courtneydruz.com. Do feel free, nonetheless, to leave comments below.
Transductions of Celan
Everyone knows that Paul Celan’s writing resists translation. Those who have attempted it (including Michael Hamburger and John Felstiner) discuss the difficulties eloquently. This resistance not only inhibits translation to another language, but also inhibits the basic translation of meaning from poet to reader. Even the original German is necessarily inadequate to full communication not because the poems are either meaningless or “hermetic” (an accusation Hamburger strongly refutes), but because they are poems of individual witness. Their translation must be more than re-interment. All who wish to be Celan’s readers must carry these bones themselves, transplant them to within their own sinews, breathe. There they can live, stand on feet; their great force is transferred and multiplied.
How is genetic material transplanted from one living cell to another? Transduction is performed by a virus as the mover of breath. How does one convert energy into another form? “The sense organs transduce physical energy into a nervous signal”; “a telephone receiver..actuated by electric power… supplies acoustic power to the surrounding air.” (Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary) This is also transduction and is what is needed here, because linguistic translation, though prerequisite, is insufficient when performed by an intermediary.
I think that is why many have felt compelled to make works of art based in the poetry of Celan: simply to understand it. “To stand in the shadow” of its power, “With all there is room for in that.” In painting, sculpture, architecture, and music, the change of medium is obvious. But even when staying within the realm of poetry, writers have sensed a need to transduce the poem in some way—as in Geoffrey Hill’s “Chorale-Preludes,” among other variations. This is a change from the sculptural to the lyrical use of language. I went another way, sketching the sculptures in a kind of verbal derivative.
First, here are four poems by Paul Celan from Atemwende (1967) translated by Michael Hamburger (Persea 2002):
TO STAND in the shadow
of the scar up in the air.
With all there is room for in that,
above the grey-black wilderness.
tunes in to light’s pitch: there are
still songs to be sung on the other side
IN THE SNAKE CARRIAGE, past
the white cypress tree,
through the surge
they drove you.
But in you, from
the other wellspring foamed,
on the black
dayward you climbed.
ETCHED AWAY from
the ray-shot wind of your language
the garish talk of rubbed-
off experience – the hundred-
poem, the noem.
your way through the human-
the penitents’ snow, to
glacier rooms and tables.
in Time’s crevasse
the alveolate ice
waits, a crystal of breath,
These late poems are so different from the early and famous—the ravishing—“Deathfugue.” That is not a word I would normally use but it is appropriate here: the poem’s haunting music is a challenge to the moral reader, who does not want to sense beauty there. The insistent repetition draws the reader into a terrifying lyrical engine, forces the reader into the positions both of persecutor and of victim.
For whatever reason, Celan distanced himself immeasurably from that style. The later poems are not lyrical, but, as I have suggested, sculptural—each a kind of complex solid, like a crystal (of breath)—or more accurately, like a molecule, a solid’s ultimate essence. I thought I could begin to understand them by pretending to be an actual observer, in space, of the strange artifacts. To witness the witness. I don’t have the knowledge necessary to even try translation, but, rather, worked primarily from translation to produce what I now tentatively call “transduction”.
The result was “Notes on Some Sculptures by Paul Celan,” a very small advance on my own attempt at understanding Celan’s work. Even though I placed this poem near the beginning of my first book, Complex Natural Processes, it was actually the last poem I wrote in that book. I ordered those poems according to the Jewish schedule of weekly Torah readings, and placed “Notes” in the position of Parshat Vayera (Genesis 18:1–22:24). This is the portion in which Lot’s wife looks back at destruction and solidifies, in which Abraham binds Isaac on the altar. Writing the poem had an unexpected impact on what was to become my next project, The Ritual Word, a book-length poem exploring the Book of Psalms.
I had been wanting to write about psalms for some time, but couldn’t find a way to break into their completeness without doing damage. I had enter the space of the psalms, as an observer and as an actor, via a surgical cut. My reading of Celan in this poem gave me a way to do that—to find the energy bound in the toughness, the spaces and movements inside the atom.
Unlike total transformation, transduction is result-oriented. It is not predicated on grasping the deepest structures and manipulating them, as transformation would require. (If I had the ability to directly comprehend those structures—even within the translations—I would have had no need to attempt these projects.) And yet, inevitably, the original is betrayed by what transpires—transduced, it is stretched thin, traduced, led out by the duke for mocking, by the Meister saying play on. That was not my intention! Rather, I tried to avoid the other betrayal that is too much respect for purity. Celan, in these poems, achieved a crystalline essence—we feel the power but cannot use it. Use it? Is that ethical? If the source is sun-like, why not use it—for energy, for growth. From darkness? If that is what is available. I think this is respectful, allowable; perhaps even his hope?
Notes on Some Sculptures by Paul Celan
1. to stand
I’m amazed how the rupture suspends upward
above his head, body-sized; it sways with him,
stays. The sustained exhalation holds it open
for the viewer to climb in and look down.
The tree on fire throws out its filaments,
weaves them to an orb with all eight branches
to keep you out. What we see seems
a chrysalis, lanterning a pulsing light.
3. in the snakecarriage
Water hides the tracks. It is impossible
to see where nothing spouted from the blowhole,
not clearing the lungs for nothing to enter.
4. etched away
Here we are asked to take part; each must rub
a pink eraser tongue over the marks
spider-veining the surface. Harder, now—
they keep blossoming the windshield;
we must work faster to retract the web
to the point of impact, send the bullet backward.