The longing, in language, for a connection

A review of 'Under the Dome: Walks with Paul Celan'

Under the Dome: Walks with Paul Celan

Under the Dome: Walks with Paul Celan

by Jean Daive, translated by Rosmarie Waldrop

Burning Deck 2009, 136 pages, $14, ISBN 978-1-886224-97-1

Any discussion of Jean Daive’s Under The Dome: Walks with Paul Celan must start with admiration for the work of the translator. For the French poet Daive’s chronicle of Paris walks with the great German-language poet Celan is a treatise on the question of translation, operating at precisely the point where translation meets poetry. That is, at the edge of the incommunicable. The allure of this odd chronicle has to do in part with an endlessly short-circuited intimacy during a half-decade of Paris walks — a failure that is clearly a trope for the difficulty of language to transmit over deep and definite gulfs. Each poet is conversant in the other’s language, indeed, translates the other. Yet so many of their conversations are riddled with ellipses, with gaps, with odd performative reaches, that the reader is endlessly aware of the tension between languages, between systems and ways of speaking. Rosmarie Waldrop does a remarkable job of scoring the sense of moving between systems, through all that gets left in the abyss. One can literally feel in the brilliant Waldrop English-language version of Sous la coupole that restlessness of the mind, that reach that involves a continual motion between different strives toward poetic gesture. Her translation of this chronicle which is so much, in itself, about translation, is one of those exemplary renderings from one language to another that adds as much or more than gets subtracted.

My first encounter with Rosmarie Waldrop’s writing was A Key Into The Language of America, a poetic reinscription of a colonial document about an essentially missing indigenous language in the Rhode Island region. I was at first troubled reading the text, which is both poetry and essay, by the inference that what is left of the missing “Indian” is alone (my italics) difficult place names. But the German-born American poet Waldrop’s project turned out to involve a language-focused reveal of the limits of consciousness  prevailing in her adopted culture vis-à-vis the indigenous Other. It was a serious interrogation and poetic re-splicing of a “progressive” 1643 chronicle about the “Indians” of the region and their language, written by Roger Williams, whose very presence as a colonizer of Indian land augured the cultural genocide to come. A good example of the layers of time and thinking involved in translation.

In translating Daive’s Under The Dome, Waldrop is acting in the more usual translator mode of directly channeling into English a French-language story involving a German-Jewish poet refugee from a mid-twentieth-century European genocide. It would be tempting as a translator to smooth over the gaps, the awkwardnesses, the misfires, a little, for the sake of clarity. But this important translation excavates what Benjamin called the poetic essential of the text by deploying language that very quietly, unobtrusively, has the effect of metonymically underscoring the layers of transliteration already present in Jean Daive’s recounting of his 1965–1970 Paris walks with the great Celan. Written twenty years after the fact, in prose fragments that often recall, in tone, the discursive language acts of nouvelle vague cinema, the translation is in turn taking place a couple of decades after the text is written. But time cannot alter the longing, in language, for connection. I find myself almost physically experiencing the actual sense of continual transition between systems of thinking, which is, indeed, the poetic secret of the text and of Waldrop’s adroit translation. Precisely because the effect is cumulative, is a metonymic progression, it is difficult to provide an analysis in this space of how she accomplishes this task. Sometimes, it is with what seems to me an odd choice for an English rendering. Here is a tiny instance of that:

— There is a trap. There is a trap between Paul and me.

I might have been tempted, here, to reach a little more. The English “There is a trap between Paul and me” is odd. Speculating on the French version, which I have not seen, I might have said: “There is a serious complication with Paul.” But Waldrop, the poet, does not water the surface language for the sake of “message”; she takes it to the other extreme, and may, in so doing, reveal the text’s most profound measure.


If Daive’s memoir already suggests, with its semantic leaps, the “trap” of gaps or abysses experienced in conversations with Celan, the quite lovely prose fragments recounting those Paris walks also blur time. And the French poet’s refusal to make the slightest concession to the linear draw of prose releases the (non)meaning from the “trap” of that relationship. Like the donkey that Daive watches while writing the chronicle in a Greek Island café two decades later, Celan augments distance by remaining a static image that “does not let anything encroach …” Though he [the donkey!] “cries, he weeps, he brays,” what the chronicler Daive hears, in the untranslatable braying, is the anguish of the “still living mass fall into the sea, into the Seine.” The mass is Celan’s suiciding body. That the braying stands in for the poet in itself gives pause. A pause full of telling vectors about Daive’s take on the relationship. Celan is always leaving. That is, he is always disappearing into the obliquity of his own interior, reappearing seemingly with effort, with a certain pomp that may simply be the awkardness, again, of transiting syntax, so conversation seems performed:

— For it is said you shall translate on the seventh day.

— In which passage of the Bible is this written?

— A passage in my head.

— Ah.

And Jean Daive, the acolyte, panting for acknowlegement, appreciation, suffers from this distance, yet in that inimitable French way of seeing things for what they are, knows himself how to keep an ironic distance. He notes how often Celan, as they take leave of each other in front of the older poet’s apartment building, suggests “with perfectly controlled embarrassment, (that) I don’t come up because the cleaning woman didn’t come today.” Daive insists over and over again on Celan’s reticence. Re: the wartime deportation of his parents, for example, which he dislikes talking about. Or, Celan citing a remembered poster: “The One Alone exists.” — I listen, says Daive. I listen above all to his jerky diction that detaches every word, almost every syllable. The words so detached plunge into a state of waiting that indefinitely prolongs my listening. Paul creates an aquarium effect that muffles what he communicates, makes it hard to hold onto, hold onto immediately. He summons Celan’s morbidity — recounting how a dormitory nurse would wake the children mornings with Debout les morts (Up, you corpses).  Daive, watching the donkey, recalls, one more time, the report of Celan disappearing, then of his body found in the Seine.

Yet, there is nothing morbid about the walks. — As soon as we talk the world seems to lose some of its solidity, and its move toward loss that interests us. But we cannot always face it. It requires an availability that is scorching, says Celan, while Daive contemplates the golden light (that) falls on our approaching fingers, fingers about to disturb with a golden-yellow handshake the usual distance. Always the hope of gold. The gold of poetry. The gold of a sunset. The gold of wonder around the next corner. One can feel the still (then) compelling shadow of surrealism on Daive’s recounting of their movements about the city. The strangeness of “hazard (risk)” that we, contemporaneously, trust less and less. Their walks awaken in the reader the retro desire to live as they seemed to. With time to sit and stroll and seek, in verbal exchanges that sometimes border on nonsense, the better to allow whatever can to surface. The better to find that place where angst meets pleasure in endless awkward conversations (cited extensively by Daive decades later — was he taking notes all the time?) that seem to be the map of their quest. — The search for groundlights is not enough (Celan). There’s the axis to be followed and … forgotten. You must above all find lightness — buoyancy — The permanent defiance of gravity.