Paul Celan – Chymisch

Schweigen, wie Gold gekocht, in
Große, graue,
wie alles Verlorene nahe
Alle die Namen, alle die mit-
Namen. Soviel
zu segnende Asche. Soviel
gewonnenes Land
den leichten, so leichten
Große. Graue. Schlacken-
Du, damals.
Du mit der fahlen,
aufgebissenen Knospe.
Du in der Weinflut.
(Nicht wahr, auch uns
entließ diese Uhr?
gut, wie dein Wort hier vorbeistarb.)
Schweigen, wie Gold gekocht, in
verkohlten, verkohlten
Finger, rauchdünn. Wie Kronen, Luftkronen
um –
Große. Graue. Fährte-
-(GW, I.227)
From Die Niemandsrose, S. Fischer Verlag.
Silence, like gold, cooked, in
Great, grey,
like all the lost nigh
All the names, all the co-incin-
names. So much
ash to bless. So much
land won
the light, so light
Great. Grey. Cinder-
You, back then.
You with the pale,
bitten-open bud.
You in the wineflood.
(Is it not true, this watch
discharged even us?
good, as your word here to death overtook.)
Silence, like gold, cooked, in
coaled, coaled
Fingers, smokethin. Like crowns,
round –
Great. Grey. Track-
-translated by Robert Clarke, 2001

From cracks of silence – A gleaming of hope.
by Robert Clarke

One recognizes the landscape of Paul Celan’s “Chymisch” immediately. It is once, again, the ashen and terror-gray “Gelände” (terrain, grounds) at the end of the line connecting the author’s most famous and overtly holocaust-themed poems: “Todesfuge” (“Deathfugue”) and “Engführung” (“Stretto”). It is a place, for Celan both familiar and foreign, where restless souls wrestle (“ringen”) beneath the “won” land of a Poland and its Auschwitz, or a Romania and its camps on the southern Bug river (where both his parents and his cousin, the young poet Selma Meerbaum-Eisinger, were murdered, or died, in captivity). It is also that strange place of madness where, like Georg Büchner’s "Lenz," one walks on one’s head “with heaven as an abyss below…” and those same souls’ rings, light, like smoke, drift up, hence down, into the earth above.

It is a place where “nein” (nay) and “ja” (aye) grow “n-ah” (nigh), near, “close at hand,” like all with their names who were lost, yet remained immediate to this poet with the painfully acute, ever-present memory; where, simultaneously, strains from Friedrich Hölderlin’s "Rhein, Patmos," and "Hyperions Schicksalslied" resound from every corner, echo off every breathwall. It is also a landscape of speech, like that noted by Peter Szondi in his seminal essay on “Engführung,” with a path of traces inscribed from the author’s trauma into the snow-white silence of the page. The hands, the charred, doubled hands; hands that write and lie written on the page; hands of the poet and of the “blau”-eyed murderer (actually, just “a man”), whose writing and pulling of the trigger intersect exactly (genau) in the single rhyme of the author’s most famous poem “Todesfuge.” These hands that have passed through, and dare to write, the memory of the Shoah, the burning of the ovens of Nazi Germany, may never be white again. These hands may never again know the pure innocence of the hands of Hölderlin’s poet. Hands, yet un-singed by the lightning-blitz of God’s wrath, of a poet attempting to gain His knowledge; a poet who, also, immediately faces the white caesura of silence in the poem “Wie wenn am Feiertage.”

These hands of Celan’s poem serve as evidence of all that was incinerated, while also serving as alchemical crucible and oven, in which earlier German aspirations to wealth were pursued via a dangerous combination of technology and misplaced religious fervor. For the alchemical magic of extracting pure gold from base(r) metals through the removal of impure elements was viewed simultaneously by its most devout practitioners as a marriage; a re-unification with Christ and subsequent restoration of the innocence of Eden (a time ironically referred to as a chiliastic (lasting 1000 years) “third kingdom” or “Reich”). Telltale signs of this marriage float, “smoke-thin” and majestic, with their fingers, rings, and air-crowns, throughout the text, as does the ashen memory of the realities such thinking may incite. It is all these hands that reach out to the reader and point the way to the hope-less-ness--no--yes--gleaming silent and golden from the poem’s seams.

How, in this frozen traumatic wasteland of cultural wreckage and repetition, is it possible for a poet with Celan’s experience and memory, to write poetry at all? To find the golden light of hope in the midst of such silence-inducing despair? He plies his own form of linguistic alchemy, recalling Rimbaud’s “alchimie du verbe.” Through repetition, an in-cantation (a silent singing-in?) of all that was lost, he moves toward the golden silence that would surely be the absolute poem--were it to exist. Like the Jewish mystic wrestling with the serpent at the bottom of the sea in order to emancipate the last sparks of holy light and bring about the restoration of the Godhead, the House of Israel, and the return of the Messiah (indeed, based on Jewish mystical numerology, the serpent and the Messiah have the same numerological value, hence the mystic wrestles with two aspects, good and evil, of the same thing), Celan attempts to mine the cracks of the language of those who murdered his mother, that was also his mother-tongue, in order to find pure gold. But as speakers of German and English well know, “silence is golden.”

So, Celan plies his language like an axe, moves into the great silent gray space between the black ink of the word on the white of the page and there, against all expectations, finds hope. This is a very Jewish sense of hope, like that of the Psalms, that issues from the absolute depths of despair, from the absolute limits of expression, as song. One never knows if the song will be heard, or if the golden silence might not be the wrath of a scornful and still vengeful God, as one sees in the final image of Georg Trakl’s “Psalm”: “Schweigsam über der Schädelstätte öffnen sich Gottes goldene Augen.” (“Silent above the place of the skull, open God’s golden eyes.”) Yet Celan pushes into that silence.

Can one find hope in this poem? Cindy Mackey ("Dichter der Bezogenheit," Stuttgart:1997) argues convincingly that it is not possible, and it is true that hope is not given voice in the poem. It remains silent, like cooked gold. Indeed, it is through silence that Celan makes hope possible. Via the hyphen, Celan performs his alchemy, dividing, dissolving (“lösen”) words with a momentary silence, “perhaps a breathturn,” and emancipates the straightest of hopes.

Again, this is a different burning: “Große. Graue. Schlacken- / lose.” It leaves: no ash. “Große. Graue. Fährte- / lose.” It leaves: no tracks. Like the sister-figure, great and gray, all is lost. The poem is at loose ends. In the hyphen and the line-break, at first, is heard but silence; confirming the absence, confirming the loss. But this, again, is a different hyphen. It is a “Dehnungs-zeichen.” A sign of a bend. Alchemically, it divides (“lösen”), sets loose (“lose”) what is lost. But, like the “Dehnungs-fuge,” (expansion-joint”) it bends and it binds, like Hölderlin’s “leichtgebauten Brücken” (light bridges), which connect. “Drum, da gehäuft sind rings / Die Gipfel der Zeit, und die Liebsten / Nah wohnen.”(’round there, piled high, ring / the summits of time, and the most beloved / live nigh)1 In this silence, the poem loses hope and so lets hope loose. The bending of the hyphen sets loose the “lose” (“los” or “lose” as a German adjective means: loose, free, flowing) and that is a lot. With the brief silence introduced by the hyphen as the text bends around to the next line, Celan draws attention to the particle that follows. A “Los” (pl. “Lose”) in German can be many things. From one’s destiny (“Schicksal”), or “lot” in life, to the notion of fortune itself and the chance that informs it, a “Los” is also the name for a lottery ticket. One in a billion, maybe, but if it is the winning ticket or “das große Los,” then that silence of the hyphen has done its magic, brought golden hope from silent despair. The vertical organization of the poem on the page, made possible by the hyphenation, twice aligns the particle “lose” directly beneath the word “Große” and makes the possibility of the “big win” visible. Perhaps it is a hard lot, but it could be a “great” lot, a “wunder Gewinn,” (see Celan’s poem “Fahlstimmig”) a “gerechte Geburt” (just birth),2 a “Königs-Geburt” (king’s birth)3. In this brief silence of the hyphen, the slash of the black caesura in the silent white of the page (“Seite,” which also means “side”--of the body perhaps?) Celan performs a cesarean of the word, a “Kaiser-schnitt” breaks through the “Gitter” (bars) of the “grauen-Haft” (gray-prison…also a play on the word “grauenhaft”: terrible) and sets language loose “from its innermost straits.” (See Celan’s Meridian Speech: complete works v.II, p.200, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt a.M. 1985.) In the pause, he finds a turn of breath, a “Gegenwort.” From his aching, he looses a king. With the b-end of the hyphen, he loosens the loss, and creates from hopeless a loose hope, a “-lose,” a life-line (in the technical register of German nautical language, a “Lose” is the free end of a rope).

In the silent delay, the bending of the word, Celan allows that which is absent, “Schlackenlose…Fährtelose,” to blink, ever so briefly, as a presence. It is but a moment, a blink of an eye (I?). Lest one forget how brief that moment, that “Augenblick” (blink of an eye) can last, Celan reminds his reader with a final hyphen, a final stillness that breaks apart the majesty of the kingly birth (König- / liche), raising the possibility that it might be a stillbirth. The “liche” that closes the poem resonates so strongly with the Middle High German “lich” (“Leiche”: corpse), that any moment of hope must remain short-lived; but it is there, being--“da-seiend,” for anyone near, to see, to hear, to se-ar. Again and again, repeating compulsively, driving towards, diving into the depths, into death, Celan lets loose and finds hope; his text gives up a birth. In the repetition and in the hesitation of the “Dehnungszeichen,” the “Dehnungs-fuge,” the “Todesfuge,” Celan looses hope--again; he repeats, again, re-turns the loss into itself: a-gain.

Footnotes to Chymisch Commentary

1 The chance return to the bridges and rings of Hölderlin’s “Patmos,” herethe middle, where everything begins and ends, is due not only to the image of the “Seelenringen” (Hölderlin used the “Gipfeln” metonymically with “die Säalen der Götter”), but also is due to the image of the hands, which finds an echo in “Der Rhein.” It is not difficult to imagine that Hölderlin was very much with Celan during the writing of “Chymisch,” as the poem that precedes it in "Die Niemandsrose" is “Tübingen, Jänner,” (I.226) Celan’s best-known Hölderlin intertext.
2 From “Tretminen”: “Es muß jetzt der Augenblick sein / für eine gerechte / Geburt." (II.240)
3 From “Wortaufschüttung”: “Bis du den Wortmond hinaus- / schleuderst, von dem her / das Wunder Ebbe geschieht / und der herz- / förmige Krater / nackt für die Anfänge / zeugt, / die Königs- / geburten." (II.29).