Paul Celan: Glottal Stop: 101 Poems, Threadsuns

Paul Celan
(translated by Nikolai Popov and Heather McHugh)
Glottal Stop: 101 Poems
Wesleyan University Press

Paul Celan
(translated by Pierre Joris)
Sun & Moon Press

THE PHOTOGRAPH OF Paul Celan is a grainy headshot. His dark hair is back-swooped like a night sky, and an enormous forehead glares at the lens, its wrinkled terrain a distant planet. Two bladed eyes float in black-hole sockets, and something holds the mouth in a position between a grimace and a smirk. Looking at this photo, one has no trouble believing that the poems made by this man are little otherworldly wonders, at once playful and terrifying. Thirty years after Celan's suicide by drowning at age 50, his poems still amaze as if they were text fragments of beautiful instruction manuals for alien machines.

That photo, well known to fans of the man's work, graces the cover of Michael Hamburger's Poems of Paul Celan, the major English-version source of Celan's German originals since it appeared in 1988. However monumental, Hamburger's selection remains incomplete, especially slighting the later, more enigmatic work. Two books now attempting to flesh out this end of the corpus are Glottal Stop, a selection from Celan's twilight years, and Threadsuns, a complete volume arranged as published in 1968. The latter offers German versions alongside translations that adhere fairly closely to the original rhythm and surface meaning of the text. The former--translated by the much-lauded poet Heather McHugh and her scholar husband Nikolai Popov--takes a looser approach, unabashedly altering the given to release what McHugh calls in her introduction "higher levels of fidelity."

What matters, of course, is that both illuminate the essential Celan for us. What we see are slivers of the unknown, dense and mysterious configurations of language that, even well translated, resist full illumination. Here's a couplet from a poem in Threadsuns: "The feeling-walls deep in the you-ravine/rejoice, seedpainted one." This may still sound like a foreign tongue at first read (the way some works by E.E. Cummings and Gertrude Stein do), but the language of "Celan-land," as McHugh calls it, grows familiar soon enough, especially his fondness for fabricating fresh metaphor out of unusual compound nouns (e.g. "word-hollows," "thoughtbouquets," "trashswallower-choirs").

It's Celan's voice, finally, with its ecstatic bursts, that commands so much attention, allowing the reader to penetrate any hermetic difficulty. Like Emily Dickinson, whose abstract intensities may have been aimed more at the 20th Century than at her own time, Celan seems to have been speaking most directly to the 21st Century. So the voice found in these two new books--stammering, unmoored, doubting, information-besotted--resonates immediately for our post-everything ears.

Take this little poem from Glottal Stop: "Your heart manholed/for the installation of feeling.//Your great motherland made/of prefab parts.// Your milk-sister/a shovel." Like most late Celan poems, this one has no title, no conventional sense of beginning or end. Reading these two volumes, you can feel individual poems collapse into a longer whole, that terse but wild speaker guiding you along the outskirts of your intelligence.

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