ka mate ka oraa new zealand journal of poetry and poetics
|issue 13, march 2014|
Perhaps the greatest risk for the reading of Celan in our time is that we have venerated him… crippling
Charles Bernstein’s remark, above, inspires one to ask precisely how Paul Celan’s work can be made the “active matrix for an ongoing poetic practice” – by which I presume Bernstein means to imply a practice aware of and responsive to contemporary historical and political events and ideologies?
In her launch speech for my book Celanie: Poems & Drawings after Paul Celan (2012), New Zealand poet Michele Leggott talked of the idea of “airlifting” material from one cultural matrix into another – in this case, a kind of Berlin airlift of German poems by a Central European writer, attached, with extensive annotations, to the letters he wrote to his Francophone wife, and subsequently transplanted (by me) into Antipodean English.
Leggott justified this procedure in terms of the human identification we can all feel with the tragic love-story of Paul and his wife, artist Gisèle Celan-Lestrange:
This essentially emotional reading of my book of translations from Celan’s German (via French) is strengthened by the presence, in Celanie, of a series of intensely expressive artworks by another artist, Aucklander Emma Smith, each focussing on a different view of a flayed horse’s skull.
In a recent review of expatriate Māori poet Vaughan Rapatahana, critic Scott Hamilton cited Celanie as evidence for his contention that these aspects of Celan’s work offer an ideal model for the literary consequences of Rapatahana’s own hostility towards the English language, and his anxiety at retaining it as his principal medium of expression, despite its inevitable colonial overtones:
The key lies in the word “Celanie,” which Emma and I chose for our title after discovering it in the introduction to the French edition of Paul and Gisèle’s collected correspondence. The editor, Bertrand Badiou, explains the term as follows:
While I was careful to quote this passage in the introduction to our book, I neglected to unpack many of its implications there beyond saying that we liked “to think of these images, accompanied by English versions from his German-French dual-text poems, as a kind of ‘Celanie’ – our own take on that particular region of the imagination which can only be accessed through Celan’s strange, bleak, wintry words.” I concluded by saying that we hoped to inspire others:
I’m not sure, now, that that’s an adequate way to characterise Celan’s own usage “non sans humour” [not without humour] of the word “Celanie.” For him, it was clearly more of a place of refuge from the cold inhuman landscapes of his imagination, of the history he had himself experienced, than one of the actual provinces of that poetry.
Perhaps it was not even a place of refuge: an eyrie, rather – a place of power, of sustenance, which he could return to after his excursions, short or long, into that inimical world of the death-camp and the bureaucracies of terror.
Take, for example, the very last poem he sent Gisèle (in a letter dated 18 March 1970, a scant month before his death): “Es wird etwas sein, später”
Is it wrong to see this traced “Kreis” [circle], familiar from magic and necromancy, as somehow related to the “l'espace” [the space] of Parisian streets he frequented, the little quartier that gave him a base, a place to stand, encircled as it was (in its turn) by the little towns he had visited and stayed in so often with Gisèle and their son Eric?
In a much earlier poem, “Plage du Toulinguet”, dated Autumn 1954, Celan wrote:
The equation here between the emotional comfort given by Gisèle (at this early stage in their relationship, at any rate) and an essentially anthropomorphic view of natural phenomena is explicit. Pathetic fallacy or not, Celan’s imagery seemed firmly grounded – at that point – in the romantic sexual iconography of sea and shore.
The tone of these topographical descriptions grows more desperate and frenzied later, culminating in his famous image, in the late sequence “Black Toll” [Schwarzmaut], which Gisele illustrated for him, of “the remnants of hearing and sight / in Dormitory 1001,” where:
Is that a better way to think of a “Celanie,” then: as a littoral, a zone, the place where opposites meet? In Tarkovsky’s 1979 film Stalker, when the Writer, the Professor and their guide, Stalker, finally enter the Zona [Zone] which the aliens once visited, then abandoned, leaving behind the remains of their “Roadside Picnic” (the title of the Strugatsky novel the film was based on), the filmstock shifts from black and white to colour.
The emotional truth of the film, one should note, however, lies in the return of these three to their real world of responsibilities: to the crippled child of Stalker, above all, who has been waiting patiently with her mother for the idealist’s return.
There’s an undoubted excitement, momentousness, in the vertiginous dangers of the Zone. In the end, though, none of the three is prepared to enter the final chamber where wishes can (allegedly) come true: Stalker because he sees the truth of his role solely in acting as a guide to others; the Writer because he is, essentially, an observer rather than an actor; the Professor because he has finally rejected his and his colleagues’ plan to destroy this “unscientific” haven of false hopes.
Similarly, for Celan, neither domesticity nor the extremes of memory (not to mention the constant reminders of entrenched Nazism and anti-Semitism in his trips to and fro to his only true “audience” in Germany) could ever finally satisfy him. It was in the alternation between them that he found his semblance of balance, of normality – the balance asserted again and again in the poems he sent back from this “front” in letters to his wife:
Those of us to whom history has had somewhat gentler lessons to impart might still be able to benefit in various ways from this poetic enactment of the fort-da game. Perhaps, as Freud conjectured, this childish throwing out and pulling back of a toy does represent an underlying pattern which speaks to other activities: not so much a warding-off as an acknowledgment of our powerlessness before death.
In any case, I think it must be in this sense that we take Celan as our guide into the Zone, avoiding the “crippling exceptionalism” of Holocaust-guilt which renders his experiences in the Second World War and afterwards as literally unimaginable to those of us who come after.
The word Kreis which I quoted above, the magic circle Celan hoped in his very last poems to trace around himself and Gisèle, inevitably recalls Bert Brecht – and his various collaborators’ – Kaukasische Kreidekreis [Caucasian chalk circle], In Brecht’s play, however, the chalk circle is a place of judgement, where the true, biological mother proves less devoted to her own child than the servant girl who saved him, and who has raised him as her own. Unconditional love proves stronger than natural maternal instincts, in a direct inversion of the “Judgement of Solomon” motif so familiar from folklore.
In May 2013, Nick Smith, the Minister for Conservation, announced his approval of Australian company Bathurst Resources’ bid to strip-mine a large tract of the Buller Plateaux, on the upper West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island, for coal:
A few days later it was revealed that not only had Smith ignored the advice of environmental networks, but also that of the officials in his own Department in making this decision (Lunn). Despite a partially successful appeal to the High Court by environmental group Forest and Bird, the latest news from the Supreme Court (19/9/13) confirms that Smith’s original decision will be upheld.
But what has any of that got to do with poetry, or (for that matter) with Paul Celan, the subject of the first section of this essay?
I suppose that my own involvement with the struggle to preserve the unique eco-system of this region of New Zealand comes courtesy of my friendship with another, somewhat gentler poet, Leicester Kyle (1937-2006), some twenty years younger than Paul Celan (1920-1970) – brought up on the Coast, but born in what seemed (until recently) the much stabler flatland landscape of Christchurch.
In a reflection piece on the proposed mining of the Denniston Plateau in New Zealand Geographic magazine, Editor-at–large Kennedy Warne remarked:
He speculates, finally: “Isn’t a listing in Schedule 4 – the statutory register of the country’s most valuable conservation land – the highest protection our environment can have? In one sense, yes. But statutes change, reflecting shifts in social priorities. Perhaps a shared cultural esteem offers a more resilient protection than laws ever can.” This is indeed (as he puts it) “an intriguing thought.”
As one of Leicester Kyle’s two literary executors, and the person mainly responsible for making his collected works – protest poetry and more lyrical works alike – available on the Internet, it’s a thought which has had quite an influence on my actions over the past few years.
Beyond Kennedy Warne’s two articles in NZ Geographic – the one I’ve just quoted from, and a longer piece, “The Black and the Green” [issue 116 (July-August, 2012): 48-79] – is there any evidence that works such as Leicester’s The Great Buller Coal Plateaux (2001) are having any real effect on our attitudes now, seven years after his death from cancer in 2006?
Perhaps that’s the wrong way to consider this issue, though. Perhaps (instead) I should go back a few years and fill in more of the background, explain how Leicester – not yet a familiar name to many poetry readers outside these islands –came to write these works in the first place.
Born in Christchurch in 1937, at the height of the Great Depression, Leicester Kyle grew up in Sumner (among other places), before the family moved into one of the first streets of State Houses built by the Labour government, as he chronicles in his long autobiographical poem State Houses (1997). His father, a journalist with some literary ambitions (he worked with Allen Curnow on the Christchurch Press) came from a well-established Greymouth family, but found it difficult to adjust to life in the city. He committed suicide when Leicester was still in his teens. His wife, Leicester’s mother, killed herself soon afterwards, an experience recorded in his posthumously published collection The God Poems (written c.2005).
Leicester himself started off as an apprentice in the Christchurch Botanical Gardens – as he records in his poem Anogramma (2005) – before joining the Anglican church in 1963, at the age of 26. He worked as a vicar in a number of parishes through New Zealand (and even, for a time, in the North of England), and it was during this period that he first made the acquaintance of a group of painters and writers then living on Banks Peninsula (Jeffrey Harris and Joanna Paul among them), as he explains in his prose memoir “Peninsula Days.”
In a CV written in 2000, he remarks that he “remained in this work until retirement at the age of 60, on the illness of my wife”, then goes on to say that “After the death of my wife I moved from Auckland to Buller, the better to continue my interest in botany, and to write.”
I first met Leicester and his wife Miriel Kyle in 1997, at a meeting of the Bookshop poets in Devonport. He became a kind of mentor, in fact, and after Miriel’s death in March 1998, we instituted an informal conversation club at the London Bar on Wellesley Street. We continued to correspond after his departure for the West Coast in mid 1998, and I visited him there three times: in 1998, 2000, and 2002.
The town he was living in, Millerton, in the hills above Granity, up the coast from Westport, was very close to the Stockton mine, and so Solid Energy’s plans to stripmine the plateau above his home hit him hard.
As he himself put it in the late essay “Orchids in a Ghost Town”:
To Leicester, the pakihi, the somewhat unspectacular moorland landscape of the Buller Plateau region, was a treasure trove of hidden botanical marvels: a series of valleys and ridges untouched since the last Ice Age, unique in the world. The idea of mining it into extinction therefore spurred him into action:
After helping to found MAPPS [The Millerton and Plateau Protection Society] in 2000, Leicester, as president of the organization, had a number of meetings with Don Elder, the CEO of Solid Energy, and negotiated the formation of the Millerton Heritage Park, of which Leicester acted as unofficial curator, in 2003.
His greatest coup during this period, however, was the discovery of the giant Millerton snail, Powelliphanta millertonii. Leicester gives a somewhat flippant account of this in his poem “Our New Snail”:
In a 2004 postscript to his 2003 report to MAPPS on the formation of the Millerton Heritage Park, he strikes a more somber tone. I’d like to quote his words in full:
Leicester Kyle died of cancer in Christchurch hospital on July 4th, 2006, leaving behind him a considerable legacy of poetic work, published and unpublished. On his deathbed, he asked my friend David Howard and me to act as his literary executors.
As a result of this, in 2011 we began the publication of Leicester’s collected works online, an enterprise which is now substantially complete, and has already inspired two posthumous book publications.
There’s a more ominous side to his legacy, though. You recall his words, quoted above, about the fragility of the giant snail’s tenure of its environment? For a while its mere presence in the hills above Millerton was enough to halt Solid Energy’s plans.
Then, after a couple of years of sparring with various government agencies, they offered to collect the snails by hand, individually, and transport them to an equally hospitable environment further south.
And so they did. We were treated to film, on national TV, of anoraked workers crawling on hands and knees through the sparse undergrowth of the plateau, plucking each of these huge, grotesque snails from their native soil. It was hard to know if this was a triumph or a tragedy for ecologists everywhere.
Until, a few years later (in 2011), we heard that a laboratory worker had accidentally neglected to monitor the temperatures in the storeroom the snails had been stored in temporarily, and that almost a thousand of them had died as a result. The Department of Conservation’s West Coast manager put an upbeat spin on the disaster: “Fortunately we've already managed to relocate more than 60 per cent of the original population into new habitats and we still have more than 800 unaffected snails in the other cool rooms and environmental chambers” (Westport News, 2011).
As Leicester himself put it: “We are easily dispossessed of what we value lightly. We might well be like those who dream on in life, and then awake in a time of need to find they have no friends or family.”
All of which brings me around again to the original question posed by Kennedy Warne in his NZ Geographic editorial: Can “a shared cultural esteem” offer a “more resilient protection” than the law?
Leicester’s initial successes through negotiation with Don Elder: the formation of the Millerton Heritage Park, the (temporary) halt in proceedings caused by the discovery of that rare snail, have now all been negated by the patience and determination of a large energy corporation.
The poetry he wrote about that struggle, The Great Buller Coal Plateaux (2001); not to mention the long sequence “Death of a Landscape” which he published in brief 31 (2004); or “Happy Valley: A Lament for a landscape about to be mined” (2003), which I included in an online feature on NZ poetry on the American poetics site Jacket2 (2011); or his prose notes on the flora and fauna of the Millerton Heritage park (also available online) do, however, continue to exert an influence.
The particular battle he fought may have been lost, but the war to preserve at least a little of our irreplaceable natural heritage goes on. There’s an interesting poem about the nature of his communications with the power company in his 2004 book Living at a Bad Address. He prefaced it with the following note: “Earlier in the year Solid Energy wanted a publicity photo of me with its C.E.O. Don Elder, and I was asked to meet him after a staff meeting. A delay meant that I had to wait outside with his miners and mine-workers, many of whom regard me as a radical greeney trouble-maker.”
3 - Conclusion
A few months before his death in 2006, Leicester Kyle wrote a series of poems about rain. The significance of this sequence at first eluded me when I looked through the boxfiles where he’d stacked all the completed poems he wished to preserve. It wasn’t, in fact, until I examined the files stored on his computer hard-disk that I came to understand that they were a sequence, rather than just a series of discrete poems. Rain is, after all, perhaps the dominant fact about life on the Coast.
“To pretend /at security.” On the one hand, these lines certainly seem to hint at the precariousness of his own tenure of the land. In a few more weeks he would be forced to leave the tiny hamlet of Millerton, in the hills above Granity, just north of Westport, to shift into the Christchurch hospital ward where he died.
It is Millerton which we must, I think, regard as Kyle’s own version of Celan’s “Celanie.” He relocated there from Auckland in 1998, shortly after the death of his first wife Miriel from cancer. The house he moved into had been purchased sight unseen, and he devoted the rest of his life to chronicling the old mining village: its landscapes and people.
“To pretend /at security.” These lines also gesture back to the role he’d played in the conservation struggle to preserve this region: books such as his The Great Buller Coal Plateaux, published by MAPPS [the Millerton and Plateau Protection Society], consciously blending poetry with eco-propaganda:
In these, and many other poems, he was careful to list the long, beautiful botanical names of the species of flora and fauna which would be displaced – in some cases, threatened with extinction. Millerton may act at times in his poems as a magic circle, but more often it’s more like the chalk circle in the Brecht play: a place where we are tried and found wanting.
Leicester was dead by the time Stockton was stripmined, so he never heard of this crowning indignity to all his efforts to preserve this unique environment, unchanged – he told me, as we walked across it one morning – since the last ice age, an irreplaceable repository of knowledge and beauty which could never be regained or reconstituted once lost. But the portion of it we crossed that day has now been lost. What’s left of the plateaux continues to be eroded by successive mining projects.
Hence, I suppose, my continuing interest in the implications of that last sequence of poems by Leicester – “Flood,” for instance:
Hence, too, my belief that the “crippling exceptionalism” which Bernstein detects in previous readings of Celan must now begin to take into account the ways in which his work might speak to the distortions of language used to justify environmental devastation – not just the continuing culture-erasing and ethnic-cleansing policies of repressive governments everywhere.
By reading Leicester Kyle and Paul Celan together, I would contend, we can learn as much about our present crises as about their own historical circumstances, their respective choices of a place to stand. Bernstein goes on, in the quotation I began this essay with, to point out that the consequence of this ongoing “process of removing [Celan] … from his own time and place” is to take him “also from our own poetic horizon.”
Though it might sound somewhat utilitarian, the enduring value of such poets as Celan and Kyle must be their example, not simply the specific experiences they have given such eloquent witness to. Using Paul Celan as the “active matrix for an ongoing poetic practice” (as Bernstein tells us we must) involves setting him to work against the network news, reading him in a thousand alien contexts, relocating him in the stunted dwarf forests of the Buller pakihi as well as the crowded streets of the metropolis.
. Lire ces lettres doublées de poèmes, c'est aussi mesurer l'espace où Celan pratique habituellement sa langue et qu'il appelait parfois, non sans humour, sa «Celanie»: la rue des Ecoles, la rue de Lota, la rue de Montevideo, la rue de Longchamp, la rue d’Ulm, la rue Cabanis …, la rue Tournefort et l’avenue Emile Zola. Autour de cet espace en existe un autre, à peine plus vaste, incluant Moisville, Epinay-sur-Seine, Le Vésinet, Suresnes et Epinay-sur-Orge. Celan a choisi de faire figurer presque tous ces noms de lieu sur les manuscrits de ses poèmes, comme des prolongements de leur premières version datée et «inaltérée», ainsi que sur nombre de ses livres annotés, les annexant de la sorte a son écriture. [Unless otherwise specified, all translations in this essay are by the author].
. Es wird etwas sein, später,
. Versammelt ist, was wir sahen,
. HÖRRESTE, SEHRESTE im
. Die hellen
ich seh dich, du pflückst sie mit meinen
. For further details on the complicated genesis of this play, adapted from Klabund’s 1925 Der Kreidekreis in 1941 principally by Margarete Steffin, then worked on again in 1944 by Brecht and Ruth Berlau, see Fuegi, 445-46.
3 News online staff. “Supreme Court quashes Denniston mine appeal.” 3 News Online (19/9/13). [Available at:
Badiou, Bertrand, & Eric Celan, eds. Paul Celan & Gisèle Celan-Lestrange. Correspondance (1951-1970), avec un choix de letters de Paul Celan à son fils Eric. 2 vols. La Librairie du XXIe siècle. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 2001.
Bernstein, Charles. “Celan's Folds and Veils.” Textual Practice 18, 2 (Summer 2004): 200-01 [Quoted in Marjorie Perloff, “«Sound Scraps, Vision Scraps»: Paul Celan's Poetic Practice.” From Reading for Form, ed. Susan J. Wolfson and Marshall Brown (Seattle: Univ. of Washington Press, 2006), 177-202. Available at: http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors/perloff/articles/Perloff_Celan-Poetry.pdf].
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Celan, Paul. Die Gedichte: Kommentierte Gesamtausgabe in einem Band. Ed. Barbara Weidemann. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2003.
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Hamilton, Scott. “From Masada to Matakaoa: three notes on Paul Celan and Vaughan Rapatahana.” [Available at: Reading the Maps (18/12/12): http://readingthemaps.blogspot.co.nz/2012/12/from-masada-to-matakaoa-three-notes-on.html].
Kyle, Leicester. State Houses. Mt Eden: Heteropholis Press, June 1997.
Kyle, Leicester. The Great Buller Coal Plateaux: A Sequence of Poems. ISBN 0-473-07746-9. P.O. Box 367, Westport: MAPPS [The Millerton and Plateaux Protection Society], July 2001. [Available at: Leicester Kyle Texts (2012):
Kyle, Leicester. "Death of a Landscape." brief 31 (2004): 83-92.
Kyle, Leicester. Living at a Bad Address. Millerton, December 2004.
Kyle, Leicester. "Peninsula Days: A Memoir of Joanna Paul." brief 32 (2005): 61-64. [Available at: Leicester Kyle Texts (2012):
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Kyle, Leicester. “Orchids in a Ghost Town” (2005)
Kyle, Leicester. “Rain [iii]”
[Available at: Leicester Kyle Texts (2013):
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Ross, Jack, & Emma Smith. Celanie: Poems & Drawings after Paul Celan. Introduction by Jack Ross. Afterword by Bronwyn Lloyd. ISBN: 978-0-473-22484-4. Pania Samplers, 3. Auckland: Pania Press, 2012.
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