For Holocaust survivor Paul Celan, poetry was a “chance meeting in language-time nobody can foresee.” For Celan, darkness is not willed obscurity, rather, the poem comes out of lived experience and is “born dark.”


Autumn nibbles its leaf right from my hand: we're friends.
We shell time from the nuts and teach them to walk:
Time turns back into its shell.
In the mirror is Sunday,
in dreams goes sleeping,
the mouth speaks true.
My eye goes down to my lover’s loins:
we gaze at each other,
we say dark things,
we love one another like poppy and memory,
we slumber like wine in the seashells,
like the sea in the moon’s blood-beam.

We stand at the window embracing, they watch from the street.
It's time people knew!
It's time the stone consented to bloom,
A heartbeat for unrest.
It's time it came time.
It's time.

Paul Celan (2013) Corona: The Selected Poems of Paul Celan, Translated by Susan Gillespie, First Edition, New York: Barrytwon/Statil Hill Press.
Paul Celan was born in Romania in 1920. In 1942, his parents were deported and died in an extermination camp. Celan escaped but remained in a labour camp until 1944, ultimately being the only member of his family to survive the Holocaust. In 1948, he settled in Paris, which remained his home until his suicide by drowning in 1970. He would often allude to his 'survivor's guilt' in the letters and poems he wrote. Though he lived in France and was influenced by the French surrealists, he wrote his own poetry in German. Celan received the Bremen Prize for German Literature in 1958 and the Georg Buchner Prize in 1960.

As Shoshana Olidort notes in her Chicago Tribune review of Breathturn Into Timestead (trans. by Pierre Joris and published by FSG, 2014), Celan was “a Holocaust survivor, [who] wrote in German, his mother tongue and also the language of his mother's murderers…” As a German-speaking Jewish survivor living in France, Celan harboured feelings of intense estrangement from the language and thus set about creating his own language through what Joris eloquently describes as a “dismantling and rewelding” of German. The result, Olidort writes, “is arguably even darker than his earlier poems with their direct references to the Shoah.” For Celan, darkness is not willed obscurity, rather, the poem comes out of lived experience and is “born dark.”
Image Credits:
Cover: Wikimedia, Celan Passport Photo 1938 (Der Dichter Paul Celan auf einem Passphoto aus dem Jahre 1938, als er erste uebersetzerische Versuche machte.)
Photo 1: Wikimedia, Paul Celan & Petre Solomon (Spring 1947, Bucharest)
Photo 2: Wikimedia, Paul Celan, (1945-1946, Bucharest)