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.
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.
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 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 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.