Finding Poetry in the Landscape Of Paul Celan’s Bukovina


By Joshua Cohen

Published February 06, 2004, issue of February 06, 2004.
  • Print
  • Share Share

I began my pilgrimage in Prague, the city in which I now live, evoked by Paul Celan in his poem “In Prague”:


ground into sperm

ran through the hourglass

through which we swam, two dreams now, chiming

against time, in the squares.

In this poem I find an extended metaphor for Jewish survival — an erotic fight against death, a very kabbalistic inversion of the Wagnerian love-death — running into the sad declaration of a later poem from the same Celan collection:

A rumbling: truth

itself has appeared

among humankind

in the very thick of their

flurrying metaphors.

The last stop on our travelogue will be Bukovina, Celan’s birthplace. We moved on from Sighet, making time through dusk, night, dawn and day, racing the rising sun through mounting snow. Heading toward Ukraine, to the hometown of Paul Celan, the most meticulously transcendent of 20th-century poets, we found ourselves in a meter and a half of snow, and in the midst of his words — “Als uns das Weiße anfiel” (“When whiteness attacked us”).

When he lived here in Bukovina, he was Paul Antschel (then Ancel, then Celan, the final stage of his anagrammatizing), born on November 23, 1920. Orientation is a major theme of Celan’s work — both personal and geographic — and so his poetry is an excellent guide to one of the most strange and beautiful areas of Eastern Europe.

Aspen Tree, your leaves glance white into the dark.

My mother’s hair was never white.

Dandelion, so green is the Ukraine.

My yellow-haired mother did not come home.

To the north of Celan’s hometown, Czernowitz (now Chernivtsy), is the spreading Ukraine; far, far to the west is Paris, Celan’s adopted home, where he lost a son in infancy and himself died a suicide a week after Passover in 1970; to the south is Romania, and Bucharest its capital, the poorly nicknamed “Paris of the East” where Celan worked in 1945 translating Russian works into Romanian; to the near east is Transnistria, the site of an internment camp where, in 1943, Celan’s father died of typhus and his mother was shot in the neck.

Bukovina, like Celan, is foreboding and gorgeous, outwardly impoverished, but with a heart-rending richness under the muddy surface. The name Chernivtsy comes from the ancient Slavic root chern, meaning black; the town was named such after its original black walls. Black — the obvious color of Celan’s poetry.

Reams of Celan criticism and notes on probable sources have been written, a library of work standing in opposite proportion to the actual body of Celan’s work. New millennium readers — especially those English-language readers influenced by the pro-Thomas Bernhard, pro-Celan, pro-most-everything-mid-century-and-Germanic school of George Steiner — have already learned the contexts of Celan’s art: the Holocaust; the death of Celan’s parents; Jewish suffering and the mysticism (and eroticism) entangled with its interpretation; a nearly gnostic collapse of all meaning except for those of words.

Celan, cut off in Paris from the German-speaking world, cut off by the war from the language of Germanic Bukovina, head buried in a dictionary, lived in a landscape of his own invention. So then Czernowitz, or Chernivtsy, where we were standing and freezing, was not his hometown — it was a metaphor.

With the painted monasteries, abandoned outposts of stern Orthodox beauty, guarding its borders, Bukovina shimmers in the famous Voronet blue — its sky, its waters. This flow found its way into the poems of Celan, who then interrupted its discourse with artfully positioned stumbling blocks and holes. This is the Prut River we followed in, twinning the uneven, sketchily-paved road that winds into town.

No one we encountered in this once-half-Jewish town called “Little Vienna” spoke German or any other language that we could speak, so we were on our own. We took in the Hapsburgian architecture — the university complex, the Opera House, the Armenian church. None of Celan’s works were to be found in the town’s bookstore, none of them were to be found in all of Romania either, outside of Bucharest, at least where we looked — and we looked.

Men stumbled out of a small bar at 9 a.m. — drinking starts early here — held each other and, to misappropriate the poet, danced the bear-polka across the emptied main drag. Stray dogs, a major problem in Romania and Ukraine, nipped at each other’s frayed tails and chased each other headlong into snowdrifts.

On the way to Ukraine we passed a milkwoman, outside of Botosani, and asked her for directions to the border, to the further reaches of Bukovina, a land that doesn’t obey borders. She pointed to the road, and then we asked her about shuls in the area. She shrugged and we bought a quart of milk off her in thanks. This was not the black-milk woman, not the purveyor of the death-milk drunk in Celan’s most famous poem, “Death Fugue,” a poem Celan later withdrew from anthologies. After Celan had released it in 1952, he was accused by many of aestheticizing or poeticizing the Holocaust.

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night

we drink you at noon death is a master from Germany

we drink you at sundown and in the morning we drink

and we drink you

This accusation of turning pure horror into (impure) art, of imagining or re-imagining the real, is better leveled not at the poetry but at its author’s legacy. Celan — like many Holocaust survivor-writers, like Aharon Appelfeld, like Primo Levi, like Elie Wiesel — has become an artist of suffering, a poet whose biography must be known alongside the writing, whose biography is as much a poem as anything in his many collections. And so in the Romania and Ukraine of today — and thank God the times have been more generous — there are not many who have inherited his silver crown, with the possible exception of Sandor Kanyadi, a poet of incredible depth, a remnant of the dying Hungarian minority in Transylvania, and an annual candidate for the Nobel in literature.

Celan’s last posthumous collection was titled “Zeitgehöft,” a curious German compound neologism of the type Celan relished. It means, roughly, time-courting — what I take to indicate universal judgment, the judgment of angels, the ultimate reckoning, through the trials of generation after generation, of a life’s worth. Up there in time-courts, in Michael Hamburger’s painstaking translation of the poem beginning Erst wenn ich dich:

you come to the host

of the seconds — utilizers among

the angels,

and a body that rages for silence


We pull out of Bukovina, through open nature, heading south across the border, through the whispering snowstorm, lit by three stars hiding — but still visible.

Find us on Facebook!
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • "A few decades ago, it would have been easy to add Jews to that list of disempowered victims. I could throw in Leo Frank, the victim of mob justice; or otherwise privileged Jewish men denied entrance to elite universities. These days, however, we have to search a lot harder." Are you worried about what's going in on #Ferguson?
  • Will you accept the challenge?
  • In the six years since Dothan launched its relocation program, 8 families have made the jump — but will they stay? We went there to find out:
  • "Jewish Israelis and West Bank Palestinians are witnessing — and living — two very different wars." Naomi Zeveloff's first on-the-ground dispatch from Israel:
  • This deserves a whistle: Lauren Bacall's stylish wardrobe is getting its own museum exhibit at Fashion Institute of Technology.
  • How do you make people laugh when they're fighting on the front lines or ducking bombs?
  • "Hamas and others have dredged up passages form the Quran that demonize Jews horribly. Some imams rail about international Jewish conspiracies. But they’d have a much smaller audience for their ravings if Israel could find a way to lower the flames in the conflict." Do you agree with J.J. Goldberg?
  • How did Tariq Abu Khdeir go from fun-loving Palestinian-American teen to international icon in just a few short weeks?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.