As It Happened
ONE OF THE CLEAREST of genetic accounts concerns a now celebrated poem from Paul Celan's last and posthumous collection, Schneepart:
DU LIEGST im großen Gelausche,
Geh du zur Spree, geh zur Havel,
geh zu den Fleischerhaken
zu den roten Äppelstaken
Es kommt der Tisch mit den Gaben,
er biegt um ein Eden—
Der Mann ward zum Sieb, die Frau
mußte schwimmen, die Sau,
für sich, für keinen, für jeden—
Der Landwehrkanal wird nicht rauschen
[YOU LIE in the great listening,
Just you go to the Spree, go to the Havel,
go to the meat-hooks,
to the red Äppelstaken
Now the table is coming with the gifts,
it bends round an Eden—
The man became a sieve, the woman
had to swim, the sow,
for herself, for no one, for all—
The Landwehr Canal will not murmur.
The poem is a work of extreme concision and allusiveness, a spare sonnet (rhymed abcd dece ffea [-] b ) ending with a bleak historical reflection. It isn't one of the most obscure poems of a difficult poet—at least it has some obvious real-life references, to Berlin with the rivers Spree and Havel and the Landwehr canal, to winter and Christmas, to something Swedish, to some kind of Eden, to the implied deaths of two people. But what joins these things to make an overall sense isn't immediately clear. Light is however thrown by a report of the experiences that lie behind the poem, as provided in some detail by the critic Peter Szondi, who was one of Celan's companions on his only ever extensive visit to Berlin.
Celan was there in December 1967 to give readings, in the Akademie der Künste and the Comparative Literature Department of the Free University. He was put up in the Academy's accommodation in the Hansa Quarter, in a room whose large windows looked out on the bushes of the Tiergarten. During the day, he met friends, was shown round, and took in the Advent atmosphere. The market had traditional Swedish wreaths decorated with candles and apples on sticks.