Voices, scored into

Nikolai Popov and Heather McHugh, translated from the German written by Paul Celan

copyright ©2000 Paul Celan (translated by Nikolai Popov and Heather McHugh)

Voices, scored into
the waters’ green.
When the kingfisher dives,
the split second whirs:

What stood by you
appears on every shore
mown down
into another image.

* * *

Voices from the nettles:

Come to us on your hands.
All you can read, alone
with a lamp, is your palm.

* * *

Voices, night-knotted, ropes
on which you hang your bell.

Dome yourself over, world:
when death’s shell washes up on shore
a bell will want to ring.

* * *

Voices that make your heart
recoil into your mother’s.
Voices from the hanging tree
where old growth and young growth
exchange rings.

* * *

Voices, guttural, amid the debris,
where even infinity shovels,
runnels of
(cardio-) slime.

Launch here the boats I manned,
my son.

Amidships, when an evil wind takes charge,
the clamps and brackets close.

Jacob’s voice:

The tears.
Tears in the eye of my brother.
One clung. It grew.
We live in there.
Now, breathe –
so it may
fall.

* * *

Voices inside the ark:

Only
the mouths
were saved. Hear us,
o sinking things.

* * *

No
voice –
late noise, stranger to the hour,
gift to your thoughts, born of
wakefulness here in the final
account: a
carpel, large as an eye, and deeply
scored: bleeds
sap, and won’t
heal over.

Notes on the Poem

We've examined previously how even a basic understanding of a poet's background and personal experiences can inform and enhance our appreciation of his poetry. Bearing that in mind, let's explore another haunting segment from the work of Romanian poet Paul Celan, whose work was composed in German and came to the 2001 Griffin Poetry Prize shortlist by way of translations by Nikolai Popov and Heather McHugh of the US. Aspects of this poetic sequence suggest that a collective voice is gradually being silenced. The word "voices" is repeated and juxtaposed with uncomfortable settings: "Voices, scored into ..." "Voices from the nettles ..." "Voices, guttural, amid the debris ..." and so on, until there is No voice - Amid grim images and hints of destruction, of things "mown down", of one's heart recoiling, of "an evil wind" and worse, still "a bell will want to ring" ... and yes, that could be a death knell, but it could possibly be something more hopeful, however tenuously so. When something is "scored into", it is cut or notched, but a score can also connote music, however faint. In the end, there is no voice, but there are still signs of life. Sap is bleeding as if from a wound that will not heal, but there is almost defiance in how this is noted. A carpel is a flower's reproductive organ. Something is struggling to not only survive, but to carry on once again. Perhaps voices have not really been silenced.

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