from ATEMWENDE/ Breathturn

I have been working at reading Paul Celan's poems since 1969, when I read my first one — from Breathturn. The work has not gotten easier. Celan torments the German language, which deserved torment after the so-much falsehood it had spoken. Celan is dense and complicated and private. His poems don't strictly 'mean.' They are on the way somewhere, toward someone. At the bottom of it, a translation of Celan can't be a word-by-word affair. You have to take the whole thing of each poem in, gather all of its elements you are capable of gathering, gather all the trust and capacity you are capable of. And throw down what you have heard, into your own language. It can't still be clinging to the original.

Let me show you. In the poem below, 'The shipwrecks of heaven,' I have worried a long time over the last two lines. In German: 'lied-feste/Wimpel.' Literally — whatever that means — 'Song-fast/pennant.' The masthead pennant of a ship is in English its 'colors,' its pride, its identity. Losing in battle, hope lost, it may 'strike its colors,' or it may 'nail them to the mast.' So we might have here: 'song-nailed/colors.' That's good. But I'm looking for more: the sound — 'song-cinched/colors.' But at last I hear: 'song-lashed/colors,' with its whole array of meanings. (Wind-lashed, lashed to the mast, hear the range in English.) They have to be sitting in the dark, original and translation, face to face, alive, as like to one another as brothers can be.


Before your late night face, passing
nights that reshaped me too,
something came to stand there
that was already with us once before, un-
moved by thought.


Through depressions rapids,
past the
polished, mirroring wound:
there comes floating
the raft of forty
barked life-logs.

You only, you swim
against the current, you
count them, touch them


Numbers, in league
with the undoing of images
and the un-

Skull clapped over them,
on whose
insomniac temples a chimer-
ical hammer
sings it all
to the world's


Paths into the shadow-rut
of your hand.

From the four-finger-furrow
I root out
petrified blessing.


well shaft of

Inland — dune
grass blown here drifts
sand riffles over
the smoke of well songs.

An ear cut off listens.

An eye sliced in strips
makes it all all right.


The shipwrecks of heaven sail on —
sung earthward.

You sink your teeth
into this wooden
song —

You are — the song-lashed


eyed by your cheekbone —
glint of silver
where they bit in —
you and what's left of your sleep —
it'll be your birthday.


among the blighted corn
cobs, at home,
obedient to
the late, the hard
November stars:

the conversations of the worms
knotted into the heart strings —:
A sinew your arrow-
script hums from,


Stand, in the shadow
of the wound-memorial in the air.

for yourself

With everything else that belongs there,
also without
a language.


Your dream that butts against waking.
With a word track
carved into its screw-
shaped horn, twisted
twelve times.

The last blast it sends out.

The ferry poled
upward through the
vertical, narrow

It carries what's
gleaned from wounds


Look-threads, think-threads, spun
from night-gall, knotted
behind time:

is invisible enough
to see you?

Mantle-eye, almond-eye, you
came through all the walls,
climbed up on
this desk,
rolled up again what lay there —

ten blindmen's canes,
free, fiery, erect,
float up from the
just-born sign,

over it.

We are still that.


A roar: it is
the very Truth
come walking
among men
in the middle of
a metaphor squall.


Bowls gone astray, their depths,
a mess.

If I were ——

Sure, if I were
that — bent how? —
that ash tree outside,

I'd know how to escort you,
shiny gray meal with
the image you'll have to choke down
growing through you
and my con-
stricted, flickering
field of thought
around you


Lichtenberg's twelve inherited
napkins with table cloth — a
planetary greeting to
the speech towers surrounding
the Sign Zone fallen dead


— no heaven, no
earth, and the memory
of both extinguished
down to the last
ash-tree-trusting blue
nuthatch —,

white comet
plucked from the city wall.

A voice crack
in the All to
protect him.

The lost red of a
thread. Laments
grown loud
above it, the lament
beneath — whose

So — don't ask
where —
I would almost be —
don't say where or when, again.



Cut into the brain — halfway, three-quarters —,
you find catchwords there, benighted — these:

"Tartar arrows."
                       "Art porridge."

Everyone comes, no one missing, male or female.
(Siphets and Probyls among them.)

A man comes, a mensch.

Tears near you, big as a world-apple,
Passed through, flooded,
by answers,

Frozen through — who does that?

"Pass," you say,

The scab quietly lets loose of the roof of your mouth
and wafts light onto your tongue,


Seeing the blackbirds, evenings,
through an absence of bars
surrounding me,

I promised myself weapons.

On seeing the weapons — hands,
on seeing the hands — the line
written long ago
with a sharp, flat stone

— Wave, you
carried it here, sharpened it,
gave yourself up,
you unlosable one,
sea sand, you take it,
dune grass, you
gather it up, blow
what's yours into it —,

the line, the line,
we swim through it embraced,
twice in every thousand years,
the sea, that lives through us,
even the splendid, unreadable sea
can't believe
all the songs in our fingers.


Vast, glowing dome
with its swarm of black stars
burrowing out, burrowing

I burn this image
into the stone brow of a ram, between
his horns, in them,
in the song of their twists, the
marrow of the run-out
heart-seas swells.

Into what
does he not

The world is gone, I have to carry you.


Insurgency of smog-banners, of slogan-banners,
redder than red,
during the great
cold fronts, on
slippery ice-humps, among
seal tribes.

The light beam
that is writing here,
hammered through you,
redder than red.

Use its words:
peel yourself out of your brain-rind here
buried October.

Use your own image as it extincts now:
imprint the gold.

Use yourself: stand by the banners.

Use yourself: moor your pamphlet, brittle as glass,
to the blood-cleat that reads it, cleat down what
the earth gave off through this


Take a rest from your wounds,
full of babble, and silhouetted on tracing paper.

The round one, small, the steady one:
it comes out of the corner of the eye,
rolling up close,
with nothing on.

— pearl, it was so hard
because of you —,
it dipped the saltbush in the double sea.)

It rolls without light, without
color — you,
poke the ivory needle through
— who doesn't know,
that the striped stone that pounced on you
shattered from ringing? —,
and so — where did the earth fall away to? —
let it go on revolving forever,
with ten nail-moons in tow,
near to snakes, in the yellow flood,


I heard him there,
he was washing the world,
unseen, all night,

One, and unending,

There was light. Salvation.

Note: "Paths into the shadow-rut," "The shipwrecks of heaven," and "Forceps" were previously published in A Handful of Sleep Seed, Longhouse Publishers, 2009.

Wave Two

November, 2009


Cal Kinnear translates Paul Celan

Cal Kinnear lives and writes in Seattle. He has been working at translating the poems of Paul Celan his whole life. In the course of a now-long life he has been college teacher, bookseller, modern dancer, waiter, sailor, hiker, carpenter, grant writer and private school development director. He is currently Director of Washington Lawyers for the Arts. He has had poems published in The Louisville Review, The Licking River Review, The Prose Poem: An International Journal, Birmingham Poetry Review, Chrysalis Reader, The Temple, Burning Cloud, RE:AL, Crab Creek Review, Point No Point, Pontoon and Fine Madness. He was winner of Fine Madness' 2003 Nelson Bentley prize. His book, A Walk in Bardo, was published by Blue Begonia Press in 2008.