Reading: I hear that the axe has flowered by Paul Celan

Today, let’s dive into a mysterious poem by the great Paul Celan, in a translation by Michael Hamburger.

I hear that the axe has flowered
I hear that the axe has flowered,
I hear that the place can’t be named,

I hear that the bread which looks at him
heals the hanged man,
the bread baked for him by his wife,

I hear that they call life
our only refuge.

To my ears, it sounds quite different in German, but let’s pretend it is an English poem (I can’t bear any translation of Celan’s famous Todesfüge and the “Platz in den Wolken da liegt man nicht eng” but here its not fatal). The German begins:

Image Wikimedia Commons

Ich höre, die Axt hat geblüht
Ich höre, der Ort ist nicht nennbar,

Ich höre, das Brot, das ihn ansieht
heilt den Erhängten

The image of the flowering axe is designed to be strange, elusive. Does it mean the axe has attracted the equivalent of birds or insects, who take care of its reproduction? But the place can’t be named, is it a concentration camp (of course, we’re reading Celan…)

The world is so completely ‘aus den Fugen’, incomprehensible that in this abyss of meaninglessness, the smallest thing can heal: The bread baked for him by his wife ‘heals’ the man even after he was executed. Why? It restorace the tiniest modicum of normalcy, it retroactively pierces an infinitely tiny hole in the narrative of the absurd that has enveiled the hanged man. What is healed is not the body of the man, but his story.

The story of life is our only refuge (“Ich höre, sie nennen das Leben / die einzige Zuflucht”). It is all Celan has to offer here, all we can hope for in the darkest of times: (imagining) being looked at by fragments of that, which we can still understand as life.

Reading: I hear that the axe has flowered by Paul Celan was originally published on Meandering home


Reading: L’Orangerie by Yves Bonnefoy

The French poet Yves Bonnefoy (1923-2016) published major collections of poetry throughout his livetime. He lived, and died, in Paris in 2016. Today, I read a poem headed ‘L’Orangerie’. I didn’t like the English translation by Galway Kinnell so I have improved it. As usual, here’s the poem:

Thus we walk on the ruins of a vast sky,
The distant landscape will come into fullness
Like a destiny in the vivid light.

The most beautiful country, long-sought
lies before us land of the salamanders.

Look, you say, at this stone:
it carries within it the presence of death.
secret lamp that burns under our gestures
Thus we walk, enlightened.

Since I changed the translation, let’s quote the original as well so you can see for yourself:

Ainsi marcherons-nous sur les ruines d’un ciel immense,
Le site au loin s’accomplira
Comme un destin dans la vive lumière.

Le pays le plus beau longtemps cherché
S’étendra devant nous terre des salamandres.

Regarde, diras-tu, cette pierre :
Elle porte la présence de la mort.
Lampe secrète c’est elle qui brûle sous nos gestes,
Ainsi marchons-nous éclairés.

It’s a dense poem. Originally I wanted to do a poem called ‘The tree, the lamp’ that ends with the lines ” You know it’s the darkness of your own heart healing / The boat that reaches shore and falls.” The metaphor of the fading light, a lamp of darkness, seems to be common in Bonnefoy’s poetry. So, what do we have here? The first line paints the picture of a wasteland where the vast skies are ruined. What are the ruins of the sky other than memories of the ruins of the land? The land of salamanders is a dry, empty desert. The land of Mad Max, who eats salamanders. The land of North African tribes. Being a French poem written in July 1962, does this have something to do with Algeria?

Then the woman (I gender this poem according to the sex of the author, of course) the stone carrying death. Is it a fossil? And how do we understand the enigma of the secret lamp burning under our gestures? The most straight-forward interpretation is the Freudian death-drive. There is light happening and we know it is shining on our subconscious (‘under our gestures’). This knowledge makes us ‘éclairés’. Galway wanted to avoid the connotation of spiritual enlightenment, so he put ‘lighted’ taking the lamp at face value. However, a secret lamp of death, burning under our gestures doesn’t work like a household lamp you plug in at night.

What’s going on here is that the couple is illuminated or ‘enlightened’ as I prefer. The secret lamp means coming to terms with death, the final term. It signifies a kind of enlightenment that ‘burns’, coincides with our existential drive. Or, the light comes from the inside, where the full awareness of our finitude and wisdom has replaced bad and boundless infinity.

Reading: L’Orangerie by Yves Bonnefoy was originally published on Meandering home

The gizzard of Halcyon

The world is a forest
we cheapskate light on the forest floor
high above flies the body of the bird
of cool. We fools look up to see if she’s gone

halcyon, junky of the cloudless skies
deal me more words, I want to play.
I want to prove I’m here
I want the spirits to turn me on
and live as long as the fish
who dies in the gizzard of halcyon

The gizzard of Halcyon was originally published on Meandering home

On people who live on in our dreams

I dreamt that the late British American public intellectual Christopher Hitchens was walking next to me. He was bald, like in the last months of his life when he underwent chemotherapy, but appeared in excellent health and was obviously not aware of his impending death. The image was so vivid that I could see the pores of the man’s skin and the gentle swaying of his untrimmed nasal fur. In my dream, I had recreated him in my image, that is my interpretation of the fragments I have read and listened to. But there he was, as real as any other human primate, as sharp and witty as ever, bounded only by the limitations of my own brain, that staged this exclusive (I am not saying solipsist) show. It was awe-inspiring.

“You know dear Christopher”, I told him. “When I speak in English there is some compelling force within me that makes me mimic your rhythm, your accent and your choice of words.”
“That’s the power of rhetoric” he smiled. “It is in the ardor – I should not say fanatiticism – with which we rationally defend our innermost ethical convictions that we are at our best – that we are most alive. And I think we wouldn’t be too far off when I say that where we feel most alive, we leave the most lasting impression on our fellow man.”
“You are spot-on” I replied. At that point I felt deep empathy for my imaginary friend, being painfully aware that his quest, his life’s work had been about freeing humanity from the the shackles that had hold it back for so long, namely religion, yet here he stood next to me, arguably the greatest master of eloquence of our time, and I was his puppet master. Full disclosure was out of the question, because it could have hurt him too much. I was overcome by a numbing feeling of embarrassment and so we continued walking in silence, me thinking how I would brag about our brief exchange of words to all of my friends and some of my enemies.

We were crossing a street. I remembered that what brought me into the reality of this dream had been several hours of televised debate in which Christopher demonstrated his brilliancy in polite yet devastating rebuttals. I wondered, walking there, in that very moment, next to the man who ironically had become a demigod to many, what would his reaction be when I would break the news that I made his acquaintance vicariously, through his written words and the video recordings of his addresses and debates – that I read after he died?

Perhaps he would not feel offended but look curiously at the man from the future, and muster his verbal strength to tell me that Cassandra should never have access to a time travel machine. I would nod, hoping he wouldn’t notice the tears flowing down my cheek. I decide there and then that I will not tell Christopher about cancer of the esophagus, the horrible death sentence that will kill him in December 2011. I will not tell him about the brilliant final tribute to life and language entitled ‘Mortality’ that he would write ‘from the country of the ill’. Silently we continued walking; he was going back to his hotel to prepare for yet another round of defense of humanism, freedom and rationality against the dangers of dogmatism. Soon, his contours were swallowed by the thick shadows cast by the tall buildings.

I woke up bathing in sweat and intrigued by what my brain had just done. The Seneca of our century had been so alive, so present. Living on in other people’s minds, my friends, is more than a commonplace consolation in the face of the horror that is death. It is a very real thing if you will accept the idea that these arguments, these endlessly expressive phrases are not a bulwark protecting an innermost ‘you’ against infidel invaders, but constitutes itself your innermost being. To these specific – not to all – intents and purposes, Christopher is alive and will remain so for years to come.

On people who live on in our dreams was originally published on Meandering home