Updated: 2 days ago

Assisi - Paul Celan


Again, the surprise of something that seems to bypass my conscious understanding yet lives happily ever after somewhere in the brain. This is twelve or thirteen years later and I’m in Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop in Galway, always a great place to browse. I pick up a book Collected Poems By Paul Celan translated by Michael Hamburger. I’d never heard of either poets before. I flicked through and stopped at the poem Assisi, included below. I read it once and I was stunned. I couldn’t account for it. I tried some of his other poems but they didn’t even start to have the same effect.


Writing about this event automatically invites an analytical voice to justify the significance of the poem. It would naturally follow that I should trace the influences and identify the allusions beneath the text. Of course there is the horror of the Holocaust haunting his biography. But the joy of reading this poem survives intact without realising such consideration. At the same time I don’t want to just plonk it here.


What happened?


Firstly, props must be given to Michael Hamburger’s translation. I doubt you can improve something through translation, instead it’s far easier to desecrate the original. Especially if that something is as delicate and nuanced as Celan’s poem. I think Heaney said poetry happens before words happen or something to that effect. And I feel, albeit acknowledging my inability to verify, that Hamburger honours that early impulse of the poem.


The simple repetition is effective in creating a solemn mood and drives the poem down and in. The attached information is worked through to arrive at a new epigram which gives the impetus for the next round. Together they operate like the declension of some verb. Which in turn facilitates the impression of a grammar as opposed to a narrative. Its like the verb for the earth in the location of Assisi. This may or may not explain the profound impression this poem made. Altogether, I feel that a rare generous sensibility came through and still does to this day.


Assisi

Umbrian night. Umbrian night with the silver of churchbell and olive leaf. Umbrian night with the stone that you carried here. Umbrian night with the stone.

Dumb, that which rose into life, dumb. Refills the jugs, come.

Earthenware jug. Earthenware jug to which the potter’s hand grew affixed. Earthenware jug which a shade’s hand closed for ever. Earthenware jug with a shade’s seal.

Stone, wherever you look, stone. Let the grey animal in.

Trotting animal. Trotting animal in the snow the nakedest hand scatters. Trotting animal before the word that clicked shut. Trotting animal that takes sleep from the feeding hand.

Brightness that will not comfort, brightness you shed. Still they are begging, Francis – the dead.


Paul Celan reads his poem Assisi (1955).

Michael Hamburger translates:


Updated: 2 days ago

I am starting a new project. To work towards a collection of poems worthy of publication. I have always written poetry, intermittently, over the years. When I was ten years old I wrote The Man With Ten Fingers And Just One Hand. I remember the exhilaration of writing it, the electricity. It was the work of a ten year old child but the charge I felt remains the same sought after feeling today. I had picked up Paul Durcan’s Jesus and Angela, intrigued by the cover, a series of stills from a roll of film showing the poet in various stances – thinking man to fist shaking passion. I settled upon a poem – The Woman Who Keeps Her Breasts In The Back Garden. It starts with an anonymous interviewer asking the question Why do you keep your breasts in the back garden? The woman responds Well it’s a male dominated society, isn’t it? .She then goes on to explain that she wants to avoid the ‘ballyhoo about breasts’ and controls how much ‘bosom gaping’ males get to do. She reveals she has other things on her mind such as Australia. To tell you the truth I think a great deal about Australia.


I didn’t know what to make of this, I was happily baffled. It was working away in the background and its meaning was discovered in my translation. The next day there was a story in the news about nuns that had died in a plane crash. Upon hearing this I immediately wrote the poem. The text included something along the lines of: the man with ten fingers and just one hand, can write and eat but cannot pray/ God has moved in a mysterious way. Durcan’s magic pedestrianism offered a tool to make sense of the world. It enabled my attempt to ‘hold justice and reality in the one thought'. All the time being ignorant of Yeat’s lofty equation for the poetic aim. I was ten and my family had just moved from a housing estate in North Dublin to Inishere of the Aran Islands. I spoke English, the second language on the two square miles of limestone rock, there were no forests or shopping centres or traffic lights even, it felt like a world away from where I’d come.


Now I’m going to try and engage with poetry for a sustained period of time. (while I can!) I frequently experience a distinct lack of alacrity, a dull slowness and creeping vagueness, this is a consequence of Parkinson’s. This can inhibit creativity but there moments where I can forget Parkinson's.

Poetry is a form of expression that might be more manageable than the

drama of theatre production. I’m not going to stop being a playwright but I hope to box clever and write some poems.

I look forward to working with poet/teacher/dramaturg Jessica Traynor in her role as mentor And I am grateful to Arts Disability Ireland and the Arts Council Ireland to support this relationship. Also I would like to thank Irish Theatre Institute in facilitating my application.


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