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From a note by Hilton Als in the New Yorker:
The poet Paul Antschel is more commonly known as Paul Celan. He was born in 1920 to a German-speaking Jewish family with roots in Romania.
He and his parents were rounded up, along with a number of other Jews, in the early 1940s and sent into Hitler’s camps. His mother and father died there; the language-loving Paul survived.
Celan wrote some of the world’s most haunting and terrifying poems out of that experience. His poetry , according to “All About Jazz,” is torn between deep solidarity with the tragedy of the Jewish people and loyalty to the rich German language; poetry where negation becomes a positive force, that seeks for salvation in every act of life and death (he committed suicide in 1970).
Celan’s poetry, in short, enigmatic fragments, is fully aware that it can form a screen between itself and true communication.
Here is Celan’s “Aspen Tree,” translated by Michael Hamburger:
Aspen Tree, your leaves glance white into the dark,/ My mother’s hair was never white. // Dandelion, so green in the Unkraine,/ My yellow-haired mother did not come home.// Rain cloud, above the well do you hover?/ My quiet mother weeps for everyone.// Round star, you wind the golden loop,/ My mother’s heart was ripped by lead.// Oaken door, who lifted you off your/ hinges? My gentle mother cannot return.
Writes Als, “When he won the Bremen Prize in 1958, twelve years before his death, Celan reflected on his experiences as a holocaust victim, saying, ‘Only one thing remained reachable, close and secure amid all losses: language. Yes, language. In spite of everything, it remained secure against loss.’ ”
The composer Dan Kaufman has set some of Celan’s most haunting lyrics to fine elegiac music on “Force of Light,” an album distributed by Tzadik’s prolific jazz artist John Zorn. Kaufman was first transfixed by Celan’s poetry a decade ago.
And from a blurb about the album, we find this:
Dan Kaufman, the man behind the eclectic Brooklyn-based ensemble Barbez, enlists the help of a few of his band members plus some avant-garde classical musicians for “Force of Light.” Inspired by the verse of Jewish poet Paul Celan, this album conjures beautifully melancholy moments via strings, theremin, marimba, bass, and drums.
Personnel: Dan Kaufman (electric guitar); Peter Hess (bass clarinet); Danny Tunick (marimba); Peter Letre, Dan Coates (electric bass); John Bollinger (drums); Pamela Kurstin (theremin). And Fiona Templeton (vocals); Catherine McRae, Sarah Bernstein (violin); Julia Kent (cello).
You will find the album available at various sites; and you can watch a video of the track “The Black Forest” at http://www.barbez.com/first.html.
source: Critic’s Notebook, by Hilton Als in the 1/12/09 issue of the New Yorker; also from the Barbez site at www.barbez.com
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