But now shrinks the place where you stand: Where now, stripped by shade, will you go? — Paul Celan

Paul Celan

Paul Celan. Woodcut by Dirk Hagner.

The swell of wandering words. These are the words with which Paul Celan’s poem Speak, you also ends. The poem starts with an imperative to speak but to keep ‘yes’ and ‘no’ unsplit, that is, to speak the shade. I think of Paul Celan, coming from Ukraine, writing in German, the language of his mother but also the language of the Nazis who killed her, as essentially residing in language, in poetry. Poetry, which keeps ‘yes’ and ‘no’ unsplit. And the poet is the one who speaks the shade. Poetry’s raison d’être is to find meaning in language against the dark and relentless onslaught of non-meaning. Celan features prominently in anthologies of holocaust poetry, but thinking of him as just that is limiting him. Yes, Nazism was an extreme case of language twisted beyond recognition but the quotidian is also filled with attacks on language. Celan’s poems are relevant to a horizon wider than that of holocaust poetry.

Writing in German but living in Paris until his death I think of Celan trying to find a home in a swell of wandering words, almost the only option left to him who has lost his home.

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