While living in Sherman Oaks, California, in the spring Of 1970, I had the
following dream. a man that I recognized as Paul Celan walked to the bank of the
Seine in Paris and stepped up onto a stone which I also recognized as the
"Vallejo stone.' Celan stood there for a moment- then leapt into the river.
When I mentioned my dream to someone a week or so later, I was informed that the poet had just drowned in the Seine, an apparent suicide.
The "Vallejo stone" refers to a poem that Cesar Vallejo wrote while living in Paris in the mid-193os. Like many of the poems that Vallejo wrote during these years, 'Parado en una piedra" records his acute sensitivity to human suffering. This particular poem strikes me as a stay against suicide. In the early 1930s, Vallejo still believed that a Communist-inspired world revolution would occur, but this belief was beginning to founder, overwhelmed by the suffering he found everywhere daily.
Vallejo's untitled poem opens with the following two stanzas:
Idle on a stone,
at the bank of the Seine, it comes and goes.
Conscience then sprouts from the river,
with petiole and outlines of the greedy tree;
from the river the city rises and falls, made of embraced wolves.
idle one sees it coming and going,
monumental, carrying his fasts in his concave head,
on his chest his purest lice
his little sound, that of his pelvis,
silent between two big decisions,
a paperscrap, a nail, a match. . .
slightly different version of this note appeared in Studies in 20th
Century Literature, Volume 8, Number One, fall 1983.
Bottom thoughts, The generational body, out of work, ends in the trash in the
I think of this 'Vallejo stone' as a locus of exile where lamentation is tested. It brings to mind a passage from Rilke's 10th Duino Elegy that evokes the crisis of lamentation for the twentieth century. A young woman, identified as a Lament, responds to a young man's questions, saying:
were a great clan, once, we Laments. Our fathers
worked the mines in that mountain range. Sometimes
you'll find a polished lump of ancient sorrow among men,
or petrified rage from the slag of some old volcano.
Yes, that came from there. We used to be rich.
Attempting to read my dream in the penumbra of Vallejo's and Celan's lives and
poetries, I see that Vallejo, still weighted with some of the riches of
lamentation, could address the misery of humankind from his stone, and then walk
away from the Seine to write other poems.
For Celan, both of whose parents were murdered in Nazi death camps, lamentation was not entirely empty but was so distorted by the absurdity of praising anything that its so-called riches had been undermined. I suspect that at a certain point he could no longer even feel sorry for himself.
From Sprachgitter (1959) onward, the movements of words and lines in Celan's poetry have a strong, twisting, downward propulsion, like strands of a rope that is, at the same time, tightening with increasing weight and self-destructing through torsion into cast free strands. As if the direction is vertically commanded by a central suck, a whirlpool. Language as spars, rapidly milling. For example (in Cid Corman's translation from "The Syllable Ache," a poem in Die Niemandrose,
at To-be-forgotten, earthparts, heartparts
sank and swam, Columbus,
less in eye, the mother-
murdered masts and sails. All fares forth,
the compass-flower fades, point
by leafpoint to height and to day, in blacklight
of wildrudderstreaks. In coffins,
in urns, canopic jars
awoke the little children
Jasper, Agate, Amethyst-peoples,
stock and kin, a blind
the serpentheaded free-
By modifying "Let there be" with "blind," freedom and
license twist into each other, and for a moment Aleister Crowley's "Do What
Thou Wilt" shows its lust-deformed face. By putting it that way I attempt
to indicate to what an extent Celan's poetry contains a pronouncement of
creation emptied of meaning. When "Do What Thou Wilt" becomes, as it
does for Crowley, the only law, there is no meaningful creation. The god-spark
is exterminated, one is no one, one says one's prayer to ashes.
On another level, Celan's contraries were "I" and "Thou,' and in his mature poetry they grow unbearably close, closer than contraries can to function; one could say they devour each other, the living become the dead, the dead the living, and out of such devastation a grand but dreadful vista opens. Celan's voice is finally consumed in a 'we" that is the living and the dead scratching a message on stone to "no one. Under the stress of such an anti-vision, nothing is forgotten: memories of the death camps and insignificant slights have hundreds of doors opening on each other. It is a condition in which there cannot be poetry and in which there can only be poetry.
In regarding Paul Celan today, I meditate on the stamina of his wound. He neither allowed it to flow at fall vent, nor did he brilliantly cicatrize it at the right hour. He worked it as a muscle as long as there was any strength left in it-he knelt at its altar alone, and thus did not set other energies in motion that might have given him reasons to continue to live at the point that the wound ceased to ache.
Then there was only numbness. And a great poetic testimony in which Paul Celan and annihilated millions can be sensed as a single “we” that you and I can try to pronounce. [Los Angeles, 1975]
from Eshleman’s forthcoming book Companion Spider- Wesleyan Press]
replies- I don’t think this essay holds up well in light of a ¼ century’s
passing. Celan was a very hit & miss poet. For every plus in a bit of
experimentation there were overdone metaphors, a lack of structure- even in his
attempt to deny such there is structure- & he missed far more often than
connected. Suffering &/or a person’s self-worth is never an excuse for
mediocre art. People often wonder why Charles Bukowski was such a force
poetically in Germany- well, after Rilke if you stack up German poets of name
[excluding the last 20 years or so for most of the newer poets’ works have not
made it our way yet]: Celan, Brecht, Bobrowksi, Goll, Krolow, Piontek, etc. you
have a very dull, self-flagellating lot. That he meant something to you &
others personally is fine, but to the rest of us- cum-see/cum-sa!]
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