John Felstiner's Paul Celan
Nowhere is this individual virtuosity more on display than in Felstiner's translation of Celan's best know poem "Deathfugue." The poem, perhaps Celan's most haunting and terribly powerful poem about the Holocaust, is a fugue poem entwined around the Hebrew myth of Shulamith, the golden, Aryan hair of Margarete, and the terrifying Germanic death machine. There is the sense that no translation out of the German could ever be an accurate translation of the poem, since the German language and culture are so much a part of the poem. Felstiner's translation addresses this problem by allowing the German to gradually overtake his translation. This is a tactic that is possible because of the refrains that exist in the poem. What begins as "your golden hair/ Margareta/ Your ashen hair Shulamith" becomes "your goldenes Haar Margareta/ your aschenes Haar Shulamith" which ultimately becomes "dein goldenes Haar Margarete/ dein aschenes Haar Sulamith." Quite literally, the German overwhelms the English translation; Felstiner's translation of Deathfugue is a work of art in its own right, but most importantly it honors Celan's original "Todesfugue" and becomes a tribute to it. I can think of no higher goal to strive for when attempting to translate a poem.
The collection includes many poems that have not previously been published, among them Celan's earliest works. Felstiner chooses to begin his collection with an early poem of Celan's titled "The Dead Man," a formal poem in couplets that describes a corpse. Because of the weight of Celan's presence, however, the poem takes on an additional meaning, "The Dead Man" is Celan himself and the final couplet's imperative "Poppies scrape blood from him: / - kneel now and drink it in!" becomes referential to Celan's body of work spread out before us.
In another of Celan's early poems "Nearness of Graves" Celan begins to grapple with the formalism that defines his early work. The poem, written to his dead mother concludes with "And can you bear, Mother, as once on a time,/ the gentle, the German, the pain-laden rhyme?" Here we see very early on Celan grappling the German language. It will eventually lead his poetry to much more compact and concentrated expressions.
There are countless examples of Celan's genius to consider in this essential volume of Celan's work. I will end this review with one more moment of Paul Celan's genius translated faithfully and elegantly by John Felstiner. All through his later work, there is a struggle between the "thousand darknesses of deathbringing speech" and the light that stands in opposition to it. In Celan's poem that begins "Once,/ I heard him," a poem dense with abstraction and thick with this imagistic dualism, there is a final moment that is heartbreakingly beautiful. Celan writes, "Light was. Salvation." Syntactically the period following 'was' commands us to breathe. It is this perfect pause, before the word salvation that I will choose as a representation of Celan's sense of light-because in the 20th century I can think of no other poet who is such a master of light. And of darkness.