NEA Literature Fellowships

Pierre Joris

Back to NEA Literature Fellowships
(2012 - Translation)

"7 Poems" by Paul Celan

[translated from German]

deep in the underbrush, when you
finally crept along.
But we could not
darken over toward you:
there reigned

CONTACT MINES on your left
moons, Saturn.

the orbits out there.
Now must be the moment
for a just

The lark-shaped
stone from the fallow.
No sound, only the deathwatchlight lends
a hand.

The height
whirls itself
out, more fiercely even
than you.

in the mountain.

The death
you owed me, I

CLEARED, this start

Bow-wheelchant with

The duskrudder responds,
your torn-
awake vein
unknots itself,

what's left of you, slants,
you gain

collector, nightly,
a belly-full,
at finger's tip the guide beam,
for him, the single landing


A YOU, cast in lost matter,
accurate to the mask,

along the lid-
crease with
one's own
lidcrease to be near you,

the trace and the trace
to strew it with grey,
final, deathly.

(All poems are included in Lichtzwang by Paul Celan, in: Gesammelte Werke in sieben Bäner Band 2: Gedihte 2. © Suhrkamp Verlag Frankfurt am Main 1983. All rights reserved by Suhrkamp Verlag Berlin)

Excerpt in German

About Paul Celan

Since his death in 1970, Paul Celan's reputation, though already firmly established while he was alive, has grown exponentially. George Steiner's assessment that "Celan is almost certainly the major European poet of the period after 1945," has proved accurate. Only Rilke, among this century's German-language poets, can conceivably match his fame and impact on German and world-poetry. A touchstone of limit-possibilities for many younger poets both in Europe and America, Celan's work has also proved a major attraction for contemporary philosophy. As Hölderlin functioned for the late Heidegger, so does Celan point to directions "north of the future" for philosophers and writers such as Maurice Blanchot, Jacques Derrida, Hans-Georg Gadamer, and Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe.

Pierre Joris has moved between the U.S., Great Britain, North Africa, France, and Luxembourg for 50 years, publishing more than 40 books of poetry, essays, and translations. Forthcoming in 2012 is Diwan Iffrikya: An Anthology of North African Writings from Prehistory to Today, co-edited with Habib Tengour (University of California Press); in 2011 Chax Press will publish Meditations on the Stations of Mansur al-Hallaj (poems) and Black Widow Press will publish Exile is My Trade: A Habib Tengour Reader, edited and translated by Joris. Recent publications include his translation of The Meridian: Final Version -- Drafts -- Materials by Paul Celan. (Stanford U.P. 2011), and Justifying the Margins: Essays 1990-2006 (SALT Publishers, 2009). Other translations include Paul Celan: Selections (UCal Press) and Paul Celan's Breathturn, Threadsuns, and Lightduress (2005 PEN Poetry Translation Award). With Jerome Rothenberg he edited Poems for the Millennium, vol. 1 & 2: The University of California Book of Modern & Postmodern Poetry. 

Photo by Nicole Peyrafitte

Translator's Statement

This project will be the culmination of my 45-year involvement with the work of Paul Celan. It will add the two posthumously published volumes (Schneepart / Snowshare and Zeitgehöft / Timestead) as well as a range (about 50 pages) of uncollected poems, to be translated for this project, to my reworked translations of the three first volumes of his later poetry. The latter, which I first translated in the late '60s and '70s are Atemwende /Breathturn, Fadensonnen/ Threadsuns and Lichtzwang / Lightduress, which were published by sun&moon press and Green Integer between 1995 and 2005, but are now all out of print. As I started to do in "Breathturn," I will continue to add and expand a series of commentaries on the individual poems -- given the complexity of the poems this is a necessary undertaking and part and parcel of a wider sense of 'translation' -- and add a translator's introduction. Revision of the first three volumes is necessary not only due to the work's complexity, but also because since the time I did those translations, more than 6,000 items (books and articles) of Celan scholarship have been published. This scholarly work is very useful for the translator, as it throws a much-needed light on historical, linguistic, thematic, and cultural aspects that underlie the work of the poet.

This "Later collected" volume will gather for the first time in one book the complete five final collections of what is no doubt one of the most ambitious and complex oeuvres of any 20th-century poet. Celan's method of composition for the post-"Wende" work became 'serial' in nature, i.e. rather than insisting on individual, titled poems, he moved toward a method of composition by cycles and volumes. This means that selecting a few poems (usually because they 'feel' more understandable and translatable than others) for translation and inclusion in a book of 'selected' poems, is something of a betrayal of the author's intentions and poetics. This project thus wants to redress that situation by bringing together the complete late volumes in their sequence of composition, a sequence that also meaningfully throws light on the oeuvre.