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Pierre Joris

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Marginalalia: On Pierre Joris Justifying

Pierre Joris: An “E” for an “A”


Introductory Note: Initially a French lecture (Un “E” pour un “A”) held in Paris at the Colloque Paul Celan (November 22nd–28th, 1995), this vital text has remained so far unpublished, and unavailable in English.

 — Peter Cockelbergh


To speak, here, of Celan and of contemporary poetry… An immense task in itself — rendered even more difficult by the fact that I do not feel myself to be part of some coherent, well-defined group, either poetic or national. Thus I can only speak, with a minimum of confidence, of what Celan represents for myself and for my work, and try to mix in as much as possible those others who, one way or another, seem to me to be part of a community — a community that is as changing as it is dispersed and nomadic.


Permit me to briefly recount, almost as an exergue, a near-epiphanic event that was decisive for me, even if perhaps only trivial in itself. In high school in my native Luxembourg — I must have been about 14 or 15 years old — our German language and literature teacher brought in someone to read poetry to us. I remember this peripatetic scholar reading texts by Benn, Eich, Krolow, and others, that I have by now forgotten. And then he read “Todesfuge.” My reaction was instant, epidermic, total: gooseflesh, hair standing on end and, literally, my breath taken away. Without knowing anything more about the poem or the poet, I suddenly realized that there was something else, an other language, a use of language that had nothing to do with the so-called language of communication, of everyday usage, nor with what we had been shown under the name of “literature” — something that did not pass through the mediation of what I later learned to call “representation.” Thus I learned, or rather knew, in one fell swoop, that there was poetry — and what poetry was. I owe that to Paul Celan, and so I owe him in a way what I have become.


Much later — in 1975/76 — I tried to pay homage to Celan in a series of poems that stage and address him. Or, rather, that stage the name of the poet, inscribed, willfully turned, deturned, if not turned back in the very title of the sequence through the figure of “Luap Nalec,” which I would have liked to be of Blakean breadth, had my means permitted it. Let me read you an extract from this text, an extract that starts from America (we’ll go back there, eventually), then mentions Gottfried Benn (we’ll talk about him soon too) before introducing Celan who is not yet Nalec:


(… )

somewhere a door closes.
I am not awake
alone  . I am

thinking of
you, lady
la nuit américaine
I’m thinking

the strong body of America arched
night over an ephectic Europe

‘ e n t r o p o c e p h a l u s’

God’s peace, Benn, would have that coin
(age that knew the brain’s skin
Roman des Phänotyp:
played Doktor
wrote Morgue

Celan dares
go further, Faden
sun through
his breath


to water.

How dare you
past the bright
wound mirror?
where you
single counter-
the floated
the lines.


and a little later on:


Scintillation of
my she break
the thin
     the ice-white
        an angled slit
reverses where
we were.
                       From where
            (here & there)


the shifter, am spoken
these chambers -
a quartering
of words
            badly bruised
              & water-logged
but I must keep
on talking keep

your name
changling, maiden

what is
your name
what is is
shimmers, stammers
on the vocal-cords-bridge, in the
Great Inbetween
with all that has room in it
even without speech?


For a long time I neglected to rectify a spelling error that I should have perceived immediately, because the word in question figures in the text of the poem nearly as a title — literally, since it is supposed to quote a title of Celan’s, and typographically, since very, or too visibly, spelled out in capitals. But I did not notice it, not whilst editing the typescript, nor when correcting the proofs, nor even when working, some years later, with Michel Maire on the translation of this book into French — where, consequently, the same spelling error survives, as the word appears in German in the English poem, and is therefore “untranslatable.” When I decided to take this spelling error as point of departure for this talk, I consulted the notebook in which the first draft was written — & even there this same error is present. Paradoxically, one might therefore say that the error in question is “original” and “originating,” or that there is no error in my text, even if there can be error when and if the word leads hors-texte, i.e. to Celan’s text in this case. In both cases, the word is meaningful: and it is here, perhaps, that my relation to Celan’s work comes into play. The word in question that figures in The Book of Luap Nalec (Le Livre de Luap Nalec, tr. Michel Maire, bilingual edition, Le Castor Astral, 1986) is SPRECHGITTER in my text, and in Celan’s, obviously, SPRACHGITTER.


An “e” for an “a.” A small difference, a simple exchange of vowels, that gives two meaningful words. But a difference that causes trouble also — and not only for me, trying, here, perhaps to make too much of it. As it turns out, Celan himself had already noticed this difference. In a letter to Rudolf Hirsch dated July 26 1958, and quoted by Jean Bollack (a letter I discovered 10 years after having written LUAP NALEC) Celan points out that the word — SPRACHGITTER — as the title for a volume to come is “without doubt ambi- and even poly-valent” precisely because (and it is mentioned in brackets) “I’m not saying Sprech- but Sprachgitter.”


Let’s note in passing two or three things the Sprech/Sprach difference implies: for Celan the choice for Sprach may be read, at least in part, as a critique of Gottfried Benn’s “Gitter-Ich” — or perhaps only as an advance against, an improvement on the latter’s thought. (Quick digression: Benn’s “Gitter” permits him to think the separation between the “I” of the poem and the world, thus to posit the poem as a monologue sui generis, and to accept the charge of Hofmannsthal’s statement according to which “there is no direct passage leading from poetry to life, or from life to poetry,” which leads to Benn’s formulation of the poem as “autonomous” via Mallarmé’s “absolute” poem — a position Celan refutes most clearly in the “Meridian” essay, but a refutation visible/readable/thinkable throughout his poetic oeuvre where the “I” of the poem is again and again, is always, vectorial, addressing, interrogating, tending towards the “you” of world, of the other, the non-I.)  In any case the Celanian “Sprachgitter” implies a critique of the “self’s grille” and therefore of everything ferried by the “I” of lyric poetry and the position of the subject that ensues from this. Moreover, for Celan it is also a self-critical stance, as indicated by the last poem of that volume, which bears the same title. It is precisely through this poem that my second encounter with Celan’s oeuvre happens, after my epiphanic initiation to poetry by the “Todesfuge.” I am talking about my reading, in ’65 or ’66, of the volume Sprachgitter (published in ’59) — and therefore also of the poem “Engführung,” that radical rewriting of the anti-“lyrisches-Ich” of the “Todesfuge.” A difficult question for an 18 or 19 year old beginner suddenly staking his life on poetry — a throw of the dice is quickly risked at that age — and about to forsake his medical studies and all that entails in relation to family and tradition — as, by the way, Paul Celan had done at the same age, be it in radically different conditions. But I have to pursue this thought that led me to poetry in the first place and so I try to understand the Wende that begins to reveal itself in Celan’s poetry by the end of the 1950s. Which also leads to reading Mallarmé — a superb, but unusable coldness for the young man that I am those days. (It would take me years to come back to Mallarmé — and it would be through the “Sprech” — speech, i.e. via the texts in Le Livre, (so wrong-headedly named by Scherer) as “score,” score for a live voice performance, rather than by the “Sprach”-constellation that is the Coup de Dés).


Turning away from Europe and even its languages, & thus from my so-called mother tongues — there, too, resides a matter relating to Celan I have addressed elsewhere — I began to write in English at that time, or rather in American English. The US beckons. And it will be a call for air, an in-spiration, even a sort of Atemwende. And it is there that the “Sprech” of my grille will find fulfillment, because if the “Sprachgitter” of Celan is based on the noun, Sprache, language, thus on the language matter, my “Sprechgitter” relates to the verb “sprechen,” and therefore to the act of speaking, to the voice. Which allies my SPRECHGITTER with an American poetics of action, of the verb, of spoken language as a base for writing. Without, however, returning to a tritely romantic, phonocentric lyricism, that would revolve around the lyrical subject in action. The critique of that particular subject was already contained in Charles Olson’s text “Projective Verse,” dating back to 1950 — and which can be seen as a founding text of what was later to be called the new American poetry. There, Olson speaks of the necessity of “getting rid of the lyrical interference of the individual as ego, of the “subject” and his soul, that peculiar presumption by which western man has interposed himself between what he is as a creature of nature (with certain instructions to carry out) and those other creations of nature which we may, with no derogation, call objects.”


No doubt this American poetics would have appeared as somewhat strange to Celan — at least in and through its optimism. Because there is another way of reading the sprech/sprach -gitter distinction. “Sprach” is also a preterit verb form: “er sprach,” “he spoke,” thus in and of the past, whereas “sprech/en” belongs to the present, or even to the future. Bearing in mind his historical situation, and everything that had happened to him, Celan was in a certain way always turned to or toward the past, in that he tried to recuperate a German Sprache that was pre-nazi and thus untainted by the brown plague, a language that would be the language of his assassinated mother.


Now, strange thing, it was at the very moment when critics and readers turned away from him in Europe — or at least in the German-speaking countries  — , that Paul Celan was beginning to be read in the US, with an intensity that has been increasing until today. For it is toward the middle of the 1960s that the generation of German poets that corresponds to my own, turned away from what they called “hermetic lyric poetry,” to claim a new, politically committed poetry;a mode that was in vogue those days. I am thinking here in particular of Jürgen Theobaldi and of some of his essays of those days, but also of my friend, the late Rolf Dieter Brinkman, who, one evening at my place in London, in the early 1970s, in fact just a few weeks before he died in an accident in that city, showed surprise that I was “still” translating Celan — when this sort of writing was, so he thought, already dead and to be discarded in the famous “trashcan of history.”


In the US, on the contrary, poets increasingly read Celan, and in greater depth. I will mention, here, only a few of those who were marked by this encounter (some of whom were also to a certain extent early and often unacknowledged translators of his work): Jerome Rothenberg, Cid Corman, Asa Benveniste, Robert Duncan, Robert Kelly, Michael Palmer, Ben Friedlander, Benjamin Hollander, Allen Fisher, David Gansz, Gustaf Sobin and others still. It is in the company of these friends that, for some twenty-five years now, I have been reading and translating Celan. Impossible to say all that Paul Celan has meant, and still means to this community — or even to me alone.


Yet I would like to come back to one of those famous phrases of Paul Celan: “Niemand zeugt für den Zeugen / No one witnesses for the witness.” A phrase that always seemed to me a terrible, devastating accusation — but also an incitation: there has to be someone who witnesses for the witness. And I think that in one way or the other the work of translation consists, precisely, herein: witnessing for the witness. It is too easy to speak of the translator’s treason, of the impossibilities of translation — to anyone who has set to the task, the losses and problems are only too obvious, they are obviousness incarnate and therefore, in the end, not interesting.


It is time, perhaps, to think of the translator’s contribution as, precisely, a testimony: the translator would be she who witnesses for the witness. Furthermore, as you know, the German word “zeugen” does not refer to the notion of “witness” solely — hidden in it is also the meaning of making, of creating and even procreating. The English word “testify” as translation for the German “zeugen” still preserves in it the root of that meaning: “testis,” testicle, the German “Hode” that so often appears in Celan. Testifying = creating = writing, to Celan; and perhaps to those who come after him also: = translating. Let’s, by the way, not forget that Paul Celan was himself and immense translator-witness as well. This necessity of witnessing imposes itself upon us as a responsibility, a word that Robert Duncan has usefully explained as meaning “the ability to respond,” i.e. not only to respond to, but also, and perhaps above all, to answer for.


For the poets of my generation, this question poses itself in a clear and piercing way: we are born after World War II, after the Shoah — I prefer the Yiddish word that Jerome Rothenberg uses, khurbn, destruction. In a poem written toward the end of the 1940s, Charles Olson defines an era of humanity that would go from Altamira to Buchenwald, an era that would therefore come to its end — with Auschwitz and, I would add, Hiroshima as a closing, as aporias, as real words (and last words — word, mot, Wort is the term that comes back most often in Celan’s oeuvre) of a specific history of humanity. It falls, then, to those born after this date, i.e. to my generation and those who come after me, to think of an other world, whilst being held to not forgetting — “to forget nothing, to forgive nothing,” I wrote elsewhere — and thus to witness, again and again, to that era.


A heavy responsibility, no doubt about it. Poetry, & thinking through poetry, can help us. Paul Celan does it, he who has left us an immense testimony. He has also left us an essay, a poetics, relatively short, about ten pages: The Meridian. We must, poets of today, read and reread that essential document. It is precisely a founding text on the responsibilities of the poet: in it, poetry is named as a question of truth — and not a question of “Artistik,” of “Kunst,” of aestheticism, therefore of the automaton and of the Medusa. It is in that “radical questioning of art” as a project of truth and of witnessing, that Paul Celan responded to Hölderlin’s well-known question: “Wozu Dichter in dürftiger Zeit?” — by making clear that poetry, when it bears witness, when it tells the truth, helps to live.


The Celan, or the Nalec, or the Celan/Nalec I have lived with for over a quarter of a century is therefore double: on the one hand, the SPRACH-Celan of my Europe, a Europe where German pussyfoots behind my mother tongue, Luxemburgish; and on the other hand, the SPRECH-Celan of my America, of my adoptive language (my “other tongue” — the one that has lost the maternal “m”), the one I write in, and into which I have been translating Paul Celan ever since I arrived in the US, i.e. 1967. I may have let go of Europe, but Celan would never let go of me. I moved into America, as one moves from one language into another. An “Übersetzung” (translation), or, as Celan says so gorgeously, a “Fergendienst” — a transfer service aboard a ferry, a ferrying across from one shore to another, crossing water or language, the mater or mother to whom I stuck out my tongue. I am getting confused in this third language, French, which Celan/Nalec and I have in common, and I am looking for a way out of the ferryman’s matters, the nocher as they say in French (even if it derives from Italian, the “nocher — il nochierro — du Styx”).


But that passage from one continent to another, from one language to another, does it connect, or separate? Is there an alchemy of the vowel from the “a” to the “e,” a transformation or transmutation, or only an inescapable mise en abyme? Can the written language of the past join the spoken language of the present/future? Are the continents adrift, moving still further apart, driving the “message in a bottle” — Celan’s definition of a poem — to despair? Are the Bug of Bukovina, the Seine of Paris, the “fleuves impassibles” of America connected by the seas that separate them, or separated by the seas that connect them? Is there a junction? This is what I work at, what I try to discover, again and again: what are — if they exist — the passages that connect these continents? What is the passage from “a” to “e.” Passagen-Werk, as Walter Benjamin says, a montage/collage of the century’s fragments, of fragments of the languages in question, of words that find themselves on one side as (or not as) on the other. Twice, for example, Celan speaks of “commissures,” as junction points, of the brain or of lips, of SPRACH or of SPRECH. In a poem from Schneepart “a wordbraid / red-fed. / sews itself / total baroque / into the mouths’ / wound- / silenced / commissure.” — which could lead us to think that the junction might be silence, the impossibility of saying, of SPRECHEN. It is, then, a matter for us, today, to reopen these commissures stitched up by the SPRACHE’s word, to unstitch language, to make (it) speak, to make SPRECHEN, those lips (“faire SPRECHEN,” versprechen, as I just heard the French, which in German means “to promise”). And in America, in Charles Olson’s Maximus Poems, I find the echo, with which I am going to leave you — a poem of two words, whose final letters already open up that passage from the “a” to the “e,” and which speak of the passage, and the means, the method of the fragment:



(Translated by Peter Cockelbergh)

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