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Correspondence with Nobody
Ellectrique Press. 105 pp. Paper. US $35 (includes free shipping anywhere) 978 3 033 01685 9
La Nature est un temple où de vivants piliers
Laissent parfois sortir de confuses paroles;
L’homme y passe à travers des forêts de symboles
Qui l’observent avec des regards familiers.
(Nature is a temple in which living pillars/ ometimes give voice to confused words;/
Man passes there through forests of symbols /Who look at him knowingly.)
— Charles Baudelaire
I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – Too?
Then there’s a pair of us! Don’ t tell!
— Emily Dickinson
incarcerated or deported, persecuted, traumatized
and obsessed), i am writing a writing that opens from its own
threshold, erupts in withdrawal in carnal-soaked
codes, naked liaisons rapt with all that is trivial,
and oppressive. all that is sacred and
elliptic resting in jagged syntax
— Adeena Karasick
Anne Blonstein opens her most recent book, the hauntingly titled Correspondence with Nobody, with a statement of method. The book, she writes, is a “notarikoned” take on Paul Celan’s translations of twenty-one of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Notarikon is a Jewish exegetical tradition, in which words of a source text are unpacked for meaning beyond their surface semantic content by transforming them into short phrases using each letter of the word as the opening letter of a word in the phrase: a sort of “reverse acronym” so that, for example, “word” might become “Where ordinary rapture descends,” and “phrase” becomes “Pretend he returned after shedding epidermis.” This method is both additive (it generates material) and archaeological (it unearths, or unwords, meanings hidden within the spaces and depths of the immanent word); in either case, it enhances and complicates the relation between written language and “its” “meaning.” Blonstein notarikons every word of these twenty-one sonnets, translating from Celan’s German back into a contemporary and highly individualized English; moreover, wherever she finds a comma in Celan’s translation, she interjects, in parentheses, a quotation from something she is reading at the time, and as this reading matter can be in German, French, English, Italian or Latin, the text becomes multilingual, reflecting the place of its composition, Basel, Switzerland, where three countries and many more languages come together in jostling co-existence. (There is an index at the back of the book identifying the texts whose snippets comprise the parenthetical matter.) The endeavor is thus highly structured, but, like a Gothic cathedral whose sound architectural principles permit a high degree of ornamentation, this seemingly overdetermined structure is actually a field of tremendous freedom, as Blonstein’s lexical palette is as wide-ranging as her reading material.
Already, the book is a palimpsest of “poets’ poets’” poetry; Blonstein translating Celan translating Shakespeare. And because of the technique of notarikon, there is a proliferation of words, exponentially more words than in either the original or the first-order translation, Celan’s: “was west und schoen” becomes “words and silences. where european shadows throng. unchaperoned nervous diffinities. some carry heavy ornate engraved names.” So words become phrases, lines become stanzas, sonnets become poems of several pages’ duration. The effect is one of cascading but self-interrupting language, all lowercase and stabbed through with periods, organized in a sort of terracing form.
How to read it? In Correspondence with Nobody, one tends to focus first on the short phrases engendered by Celan’s words, then work outward from there to an overview of the stanza (which was originally simply one line in Celan), and then perhaps each whole poem; but it is very difficult to read the whole book sequentially as a sonnet sequence is intended to be read; it’s simply too much to hold in one’s mind. It is not really possible to read through these poems as one walks from one point to another along a forest path. It is, rather, the ultimate experience of not being able to see the forest for the trees.
And that metaphor, clichéd though it may be, invokes another intertext in this rich layering of authorship and circumstance. This intertext is already announced in the book’s title, in which is embedded that of one of the most wellknown evocations of synesthetic overload in the literary landscape: Baudelaire’s “Corréspondances,” in which trees (which are symbols), with their intimate regard of the human caught in their midst, already know everything about us that we strive to learn. That is, Baudelaire’s trees are analogous to Blonstein’s words, which encircle us with their kindly but complex entanglements, their intricate intimacy. Meaning precedes us, though we believe we determine it. Habitually, all we do is narrow it down, cutting a path through its lush proliferations, but this book happily thwarts such instrumentalism. Once we enter its forest of highly individuated tree-words who engage us in silent dialogue, we can’t avoid resonant and rewarding overload in this simultaneously delicate and abundant text. And it is, I would argue, a legitimate solution to spend one’s time with the book entirely contemplating one poem, as one tree can already tell us much more than we can assimilate, and conscientious study of one element can illuminate the secrets of the whole.
In addition to “correspondence,” the other major word in the book’s title is, of course, “nobody.” Who is this interlocutor, if the experience of reading is so intensely rich? Is “nobody” the reader, our customary subjectivities vacated through the process of Othering necessary to reading a text that demands and gives so much? Or is it “no body:” the anonymity of Shakespeare; the disappearance of Paul Celan into the Seine, suicided after all he had survived; the irretrievable disappearance of millions, including Celan’s parents, into Holocaust smoke? (Celan undertook most of his Shakespeare translations in the ghetto into which the Romanians forced their Jewish citizens in 1941.) Is “nobody” the wished-for addressee of the lonely poet’s solitary endeavors (Blonstein writes: “days in editing … nights in creating hebrewed through.”)? And does “nobody” therefore also at some level mean “anybody,” as in Gertrude Stein’s observation that she wrote “for myself and for strangers”? Does Blonstein write for those who are gone: not only her stated intertexts Celan and Shakespeare, but also the female subjects of some of the later sonnets (if they can still be called sonnets after being put through the procrustean notarikonization): among them the neglected artist Sonja Sekula (whose ravishing “Grace” comprises the book’s cover image), “Russian Sappho” Sophia Parnok, film director Dorothy Arzner, gender-bending surrealist artist and photographer Lucy Schwob/Claude Cahun, artist and art dealer Betty Parsons, and Blonstein’s own mother, whose achingly lonely and honest journal she cites in the parenthetical comma-places (can you imagine reading your mother’s journal entries about you after her death? can you imagine putting those entries in a poem? the poet’s courage and compassion is astonishing) in the poem dedicated to her memory?
Certainly “nobody” resonates with another literary enigma, by whom Jewish scholars and students of Celan’s poetry have also been intrigued. Emily Dickinson’s fragmented quatrains include the assertion “I am Nobody!” and immediate “outreach”: “are you nobody too?” establishing a secret society of outsiders, anonymous cerebral and verbal laborers… poets? Certainly the anonymity or near-anonymity of Blonstein’s roster of women artists (lesbians as well as artists) suggests a Dickinsonian nobody-ness, though they were highly productive, provocative and unusual in their artistry, as was ED. There is thus a strong thread of highly imaginative feminist consciousness, and an active cultural agenda in that mien, running through this project, in spite of its prima facieorientation toward the European male canon.
Likewise it is thoroughly if subtly laced through with a Jewish consciousness: from the first “stanza”/“line,” where the above-cited phrase “days in creating hebrewed through” suggests a strong desire to keep the reader mindful of the project’s debt to Jewish hermeneutical culture both secular and sacred, to more oblique reminder of recent catastrophe -- “sift ashes gently through silk” in “XXI/137: Thou blind fool, Love, what does thou to mine eyes/ selected by Betty Parsons,” the final poem. “Recent catastrophe,” however, does not refer only to the Holocaust; the preface tells us that 9/11 happened partway through the project’s undertaking, and from Poem VII/50 forward its impact bleeds through into the text:
“world in eventualizing. intensed shocked tragodied. memorying in representing. representing explosively inadequate survives extremely negotiableless disappearances exceed mimesis… unchildrened mothers. … dust and subject… ”
“Writing as sobject,” reads one brilliant neologistical rendition of “was” (German “what”) from VIII/57.
Blonstein’s project thus resonates with the work of other contemporary Jewish experimental women poets such as Rachel Blau Duplessis, who also works with generative self-designed structures to produce her serial epic Drafts, and Adeena Karasick, whose Kabbalistically-driven performances unlock the infinitely recombinatory “fiery potentials” of the letters of the alphabet. Both of these poets also, like Blonstein, thematize the lives and culture of Jews, women, and Jewish women in multiple overt and implicit ways. Unlike the work of these two, however, this book carries an elegiac onus, one that contrasts history’s winners and knowns (“where european shadows throng … some carry heavy ornate engraved names”) with its relative unknowns, be it forgotten artists, victims of historical catastrophe, traditionally marginalized castes, ethnic groups or sexual minorities:
You may forget but
Let me tell you
this: someone in
some future time
will think of us
very every rate in reasonably reading this. Imperfect museum.
The project is heir to Benjamin’s “Theses on the History of Philosophy,” capturing the courage and intelligence of history’s forgotten ones, rendering them anew, under the aegis of a Jewish woman’s language experiments. This is a fascinating and, for many of us, compelling development in contemporary poetry and deserves far richer exegetical attention than a book review can provide: this work deserves its own notarikon process to justly embed it anew in an analytic chrysalis of syllables and contexts, such as the one in which it has embedded at least this reader.
Maria Damon teaches poetry and poetics at the University of Minnesota. She is the author of The Dark End of the Street: Margins in American Vanguard Poetry; co-author (with mIEKAL aND) of Literature Nation, pleasureTEXTpossession, and Eros/ion; and co-editor (with Ira Livingston) of Poetry and Cultural Studies: A Reader.