Poetry & Perception

One day in class, we were talking about Resnais’s Night and Fog and how the images of the Holocaust will change our perception of it. The representation of history is something that I’m very interested in. How can art even attempt to depict an event as huge as the Holocaust or 9/11? There are some artists, especially certain poets, that are very concerned with history and how it is represented in their work. To give some examples:

Paul Celan is a poet who lost both of his parents to the Holocaust and seemed to have lived his entire life with an immense amount of survivor’s guilt (he eventually committed suicide). His poems are all very fragmented and difficult to understand, mainly because he invents a lot of words and uses ambiguous phrases. Celan feels as if the German language has been tainted by the people who destroyed his life and killed his family (and so he tries to create a new language). Essentially, Celan explores two questions:

1. How has the Holocaust changed the meaning of what was written before it

2. How will the Holocaust change what is currently being written?

We said in class that the Holocaust should be remembered somewhere between the past and the present and that what can’t be represented is what is important. If the former is true, then why create art post-Holocaust? Won’t anything that is created just do the event and its impact an injustice? Celan’s poem, “Psalm” interests me because it is the poet’s attempt to muddle through all of these complicated questions and to try to decide what certain words and ideas mean after the Holocaust.

After an initial reading, this poem seems like a revised creation story. Instead of being molded by God, “No one moulds us again out of earth and clay, / no one conjures our dust. / No one.” To my knowledge, a psalm is a hymn that is taken from the Biblical book of Psalms. In the Bible, this book is filled with poems that are praiseworthy expressions of faith. Therefore, Celan’s poem is not really a Psalm, but an anti-Psalm. It doesn’t praise God; it praises nothingness. According to the Bible (and this poem), all men were made in God’s image: “For your sake / we shall flower. / Towards / you.” Humanity’s image is created in God’s image, but God’s image, according to this poem, is nothingness. Therefore, the connection between humans and God must be found in negation. The third stanza sounds very much like the negation used in another of Celan’s poems, “So many constellations…” The poem says, “A nothing / we were, are, shall / remain, flowering: / the nothing -, the / No one’s rose.” This section of the poem brings up the idea of timelessness, of past, present, and future merging together, becoming continuous: “we were, are, shall / remain.” Because of this section, I’m not sure if the poem’s tone is positive or negative; I think that it is neither. It’s not completely bitter but also definitely not comforting (the first stanza seems quite bleak).

The line, “Praised be your name, No one,” could be interpreted in two ways: 1) it could be a suggestion that believers praise something that is non-existent, that God is non-existent or 2) that God is mysterious and that no one can ever really know Him. I don’t know a ton about religion, but I do vaguely remember the concept of mysticism, which my desktop dictionary defines as “belief that union with or absorption into the Deity or the absolute, or the spiritual apprehension of knowledge inaccessible to the intellect, may be attained through contemplation and self-surrender.” However, I’m not really sure that Celan would be a proponent of this. It makes sense that after the Holocaust, Celan has trouble believing in a loving God (after all, God allowed the Holocaust to happen). On the other hand, if the Jews hadn’t believe in God, the Holocaust never would have occurred. God created men in his likeness, but these men are the ones who caused the Holocaust (therefore, God created the Holocaust). Maybe I’m reading too much into it or making connections that aren’t really there, but this is what I feel that Celan might be trying to say or at least allude to. Celan seems to be standing right between affirmation and negation, right between the past and the present.

Another poet who has interesting ideas about history is Greek poet Titos Patrikios. During the years of military dictatorship after the Civil War, Patrikios was sent to island detention camps and eventually exiled from his country completely (which gives him a different historical perspective, I think). In his longer poem, “To Go to Lvov,” we can get a pretty good understanding of Zagajewski as a poet and as a person who struggles with history and his place within it.  What Zagajewski strives for is to create a separate and personal space outside of the clutches of history.

The beginning of the poem makes Lvov a place that seems entirely imaginary (even though it is a real place): “To go to Lvov. Which station / for Lvov, if not in a dream, at dawn, when dew / gleams on a suitcase, when express trains and bullet trains are being born.” Lvov seems real and imaginary at the same time: the narrator wants to know what station he needs to go to but then immediately talks about dreams and dawn and more symbolic elements. The day is born at dawn and dew is water, so this can be seen as a baptism of sorts. What is being born in the first few lines of the poem is a new world where the literal and the imaginary simultaneously exist. The actual city of Lvov is in Ukraine (or it was after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991) and was a kind of cultural center in Poland before WWII. This poem uses Lvov because it is a real city, although the Lvov in the poem is not a real place.

Zagajewski says, “But only if Lvov exists / if it is to be found within the frontiers and not just / in my new passport.” Lvov doesn’t necessarily exist but it can exist according to these lines. There are many whimsical images in this poem that point to Lvov’s unreal or imaginative nature: “the snails converse / about eternity” and “it burst glasses, overflowed / each pond, lake, smoke through every /chimney, turned into fire, storm, / laughed with lightning.” In this poem, it seems like everyday lives and dream lives are overlapping (much like in The Science of Sleep). The narrator of the poem says, “But the cathedral rises, / you remember, so straight, as straight / as Sunday and white napkins and a bucket / full of raspberries standing on the floor, and / my desire which wasn’t born yet.” The desire he speaks of is for Lvov and for knowledge and imagination to become one.

In the end of the poem, he says that Lvov “is everywhere.” I take this to mean that Lvov lasts for a little bit and for forever. It isn’t really historical but it also isn’t futuristic. It seems to defy the elements of time and history, so it’s more like a representation of the strength of the imagination.

Both of these poets, Celan and Zagajewski, interest me because they try to orient themselves outside of history (or to create a new spot in history, at the very least). They also remind me of Deleuze’s “Desert Islands” and the rhizome (although I don’t think that they would wholly agree with D&G). Deleuze and Guattari say that it is hard to see things from the middle as opposed to “looking down on them from above or up at them from below, or from left to right or right to left.” Like the Rhizome, memory begins somewhere in the middle and has no true origin or end. In order to cope with memory, Celan and Zagajewski try to orient themselves outside of it. Because this is basically an impossible thing to do, they must create new words and ways to express themselves.

— Kilgore Trout

Deleuze, Gilles. Desert Islands and Other Texts, 1953-1974. (Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e), 2004), 9.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1987), 23.

“Psalm” and “So many Constellations…” by Paul Celan

“To Go to Lvov” by Titos Patrikios


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