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
in the very thick of their
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
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.