A book by David M. Bader
Paul Celan's German poetry became major work for study and consideration from the prolific literary era after World War II. Coming from a Romanian Jewish family, surviving the political polarity and communist labor camps that his family did not, he became an important man of letters and historical insight. His skill with words as a linguist, poet and translator was significant and has been extolled thoroughly by critics and admirers before and since his suicide in 1970. Paul Celan is generally regarded as a German language master because of his eight important German collections from 1948 to the end of his life and two German posthumous books. The Romanian work offered by translators Julian Semilian and Sanda Agalidi in Green Integer 81's 2003 publication Romanian Poems is an exceptionally personal collection of work. Traditional stanza constructions and long unstructured prose poetry show an earlier, intimate side of the poet that cannot be overlooked.
Having studied some of his more famous works such as "The Triumph of Achilles" and "Death Fugue," I was surprised at the kind of deeper connection that these fledgling constructions provided for me. Celan's intensity of language and construction skills seem to melt away into more personal, introspective verses. The reader of these Romanian translations feels more like a fly on the wall of the poet's private space, a half-invited and quietly welcome voyeur. Since many other translation efforts were spearheaded by the poet himself, the ironic voice of external translators to generate such intimacy is quite amazing. The publishers and translators wisely present a bilingual addition with corresponding Romanian on the facing pages of English.
Though the craft of the contents cannot compare to Celan's masterpieces nor to the cryptic rhythms of his later works, the very informality of these poems makes them beautiful and beguiling. Some of the greatest contributions are untitled fragments like : The grass of your eyes, bitter grass
Wind, billow above it, eyelid of tallow
The water of your eyes, forgiven water (43)
Reading Celan's efforts as a younger artist we find less political and philosophical angst and the truly sincere feelings of a man on the verge of major life changes. These selections were written in Bucharest from 1945-1947, before his expatriation and other struggles with alienation. It can seem like a contradiction for a Jewish Romanian to become so prolific in German writing, so this sense of ambivalence that lingers in most of his work is absent here in the Romanian texts. Celan's comment on this: "There is nothing on earth that can prevent a poet from writing, not even the fact that he is Jewish and German is the language of his poems."
I enjoyed reading this immensely and as a student of classics, knowing that Romanian and Latin are closely related, especially appreciated being able to connect the original voice to the adjacent translation. Celan also provides several classical images that we can view as sprouts for his later, more serious canon. Consider, from "Those Were Nights:"
...I was Petronius and spilled
my blood again among the roses. For each petal I
stained you extinguished a torch.
Do you recall? I was Petronius and you didn't entrance me.
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