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Guest Post by Courtney Druz – "Transductions of Celan"

February 28, 2012

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   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.

To stand-for-no-one-and-nothing.
for you

With all there is room for in that,
even without


above the grey-black wilderness.
A tree-
high thought
tunes in to light’s pitch: there are
still songs to be sung on the other side
of mankind.


the white cypress tree,
through the surge
they drove you.

But in you, from
the other wellspring foamed,
on the black
jet remembrance
dayward you climbed.


the ray-shot wind of your language
the garish talk of rubbed-
off experience – the hundred-
tongued pseudo-
poem, the noem.

your way through the human-
shaped snow,
the penitents’ snow, to
the hospitable
glacier rooms and tables.

in Time’s crevasse
the alveolate ice
waits, a crystal of breath,
your irreversible


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.


2.  threadsuns

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.


5 Comments leave one →
  1. February 28, 2012 8:01 pm

    Courtney, I want to thank you for this wonderful post. This morning I started to read your poetry books and you are doing something very special in your poems. Your control over prepositions and verbs/adverbs “of motion” in your first poem above, for example, manages to evoke dance: stand, upward, above, sways, stays, open, for, to, in, down. You thus simultaneously evoke action and and the static position of a sculpture, contrasting them and combining them at the same time. By comparing them with the story of Lot’s wife, you evoke both her constant motion (unable to resist looking back), and her freezing, and moreover, the uncertain position of her soul after she is frozen. By comparing them with the story of the bound Isaac, you reverse the process — from being bound and all but still forever, to becoming dynamic and full of life — a necessary link in the etz chayim.

    When I have a chance, I hope to write detailed thoughts on your achievement in words. Until then, thank you again for sharing with us.

  2. February 29, 2012 6:08 pm


    I’ve ordered your Complex Natural Processes: poems and your The Ritual Word: a poem of psalms. As you allude to these respective works in your post, I’m reminded of Anne Carson’s Economy of the Unlost: (Reading Simonides of Keos with Paul Celan) and also Mary Rakow’s novel, The Memory Room, which interweaves Celan’s poetry and the Psalms.

    While waiting for your books, I think I’ll read through your “Notes on Some Sculptures by Paul Celan” again and again.

    What a very wonderful way you’ve taken the titles and the poems of Celan and shown bits of them to us:

    “notes” of yours, “some sculptures” of his

    In your post, you make us aware that “For whatever reason, Celan distanced himself immeasurably from that [ravishing,“Deathfugue,” haunting, challenging, repetitious, reader-drawing and reader-positioning, terrifying lyrical] style.” And you bring us to his later, different, style. There’s the different dimensions, the spatial ones of sculptures.

    This makes me wonder how you’d write a stanza of poetry based on his earlier work, in contrast to the later poems you show us as sculptures. How would you render his earlier style, that one of “Todesfuge” in lines of a poem? Or would you?

    What a very wonderful way you’ve played on the act of rendering, of translating. It’s your transduction. Yes, I see: “Unlike total transformation, transduction is result-oriented.”

    There’s so much to this word that I’m recalling. At first, I thought of it in terms of electricity and vacuum tubes and light. But then I remembered other uses that and wikipedia find. And the Oxford English Dictionary seems to list definitions of this word that have evolved — a sort of lexical and etymological transduction — as various sciences and technologies have been discovered, invented, and developed. Yes, results-oriented. And yet yours is the result orientation of Celan’s later poems, as your notes, as some sculptures by Celan. As I said, I’ll be musing over this for some time.

    (So sorry to have messed up the format when first uploading your post. Thank you for making sure that we got it right. Thanks to my co-blogger Theophrastus for doing that work. We would love to hear from you more.)

  3. March 2, 2012 2:55 am

    Thank you both so much for your generous and insightful comments. And thank you especially for prompting me to write these thoughts about my poem, as revisiting it in this way has been surprisingly and enormously helpful to me.

    I have to say that something about writing prose makes me feel guilty; I’m not any kind of scholar, and don’t have the right to pronounce upon matters in which others are far more knowledgeable . But I think Celan invited everyone to this “encounter” (see “Meridian”). I try not to “pronounce” but to approach with “negative capability.”

    To answer the question of what poems may investigated in this manner, I certainly don’t think I would touch the “Todesfuge.” I’m less sure about whether and how to engage with those poems which fall between that hearer-directed lyric and these late “frost-sealed” artifacts; those middle poems which do look out to the reader, through a dark, gathering eye (“Hüttenfenster”).

    By the way, I alluded briefly to Geoffrey Hill’s “Chorale-Preludes,” taking the liberty of calling them transductions, but did not mention how very strange what he did there was. Because the mature Celan almost never used a regularly metric, end-rhymed form as he did in these two poems. I think I read him quoted on how he could indeed no longer do so unless to convey an irony—but I can’t find the passage and am possibly imagining or otherwise mangling it, for which I apologize and advise more caution than I myself have managed to use.

    And yet, the already song-formed “Ice, Eden” and “Kermorvan” are specifically the poems Hill chose to turn into “music.” In so doing, I think Hill emphasizes how the originals, though having the appearance of song, are in essence somehow not lyrical (even as the irregular, modern-formed “Todesfuge” was in fact so.)

    A more pressing question is what this all means for the directions in which poetry can or should go. What poetics enables deposition of the fragile, interior “breathcrystal” of witness, retains its inviolability, yet furnishes it with its own tools of outreach?

  4. March 30, 2012 11:50 am

    What a powerful post! I think that you have grasped some of the essentials of Celan that some of the more purely intellectual approaches seem to miss out on. I love these poems meditating on/inspired by his poems, too. They capture some of that fusion of concrete physical (even scientific) images with the devastating emotional impact we feel from reading him.

  5. April 26, 2012 9:32 am

    I’m just opening this up again because I belatedly located the source for Celan’s remark on rhyme which I was missing in my March 2 comment. It comes from Esther Cameron’s interview with Celan in August 1969, and is included in her thought-provoking essay “Against Time” on her website, Point & Circumference, which she calls “an on-line poetic academy.” During the interview, Celan said to Cameron, “I don’t think anyone can use rhyme today, except for irony; what do you think?” There was much more to this, though, as the essay discusses, and Cameron felt that “in his mind the question of style was by no means closed.”

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