PsalmJust typing this out, I see how my translation was really more sight than ear-driven, since I didn't realize that the German W is pronounced with a V-sound. But choosing ignorance is part of homophonic translation, and in this case was meant in part to convey the literal and metaphorical darkness in which Celan's experience, and my own family's, lay. Anyway, here's Michael Hamburger's translation, followed by my own:
Niemand knetet uns wieder aus Erde und Lehm,
niemand bespricht unsern Staub.
Gelobt seist du, Niemand.
Dir zulieb wollen
waren wir, sind wir, werden
wir bleiben, blühend:
die Nichts-, die
Mit dem Griffel seelenhell,
dem Staubfaden himmelswüst,
der Krone rot
vom Purpurwort, das wir sangen
über, o über
PsalmI just noticed there's no period at the end in Selah; that's a typo. Ah, well. The whole poem is a travesty, deliberately so, indexical of the impossible relationship of my personal (American) history with capital-H History. The poem is a little pile of the wrecked language that Benjamin's Angel cannot set right, a little rhythmic rocking in the face of the improbability of my own existence.
No one moulds us again out of earth and clay,
no one conjures our dust.
Praised be your name, no one.
For your sake
we shall flower.
we were, are, shall
the nothing-, the
no one's rose.
With our pistil soul-bright,
with our stamen heaven-ravaged,
our corolla red
with the crimson word which we sang
over, O over
Neiman Marcus knits a leader out of earth and lime.
Neiman be-shops a western stab.
Galloped apts do, Neiman.
Dear zoo leads woolens
to veer bloomers.
where we're singed, we're wared,
we're weary bluehound.
kneed man's rose.
den grin seals in hell
dem stable-faded him's liverwurst,
dares crone's rot.
Vow the pupa's word. Dazzled weresong.
Or bear, O you bar
Matthew's presentation was fascinating. He used a remark of mine about some new poems I read ("I didn't know I could say these things until I said them") as a jumping off point to talk about how normal people tend to peel past the "shallow" surface features of language so as to abstract a "deeper" meaning from them: we do violence to the percept so as to get at the concept. Autistic people do not have this means to control "the continuous flow of happenings," so they devise more primitive rituals to create a sense of safety and predictabilitylike flicking a light switch on and off for hours, secure in the knowledge of the perfect repeatability of their action. He shared with us a remarkable poem by a fourteen year-old autistic boy named Tito Mukhopadhyay:
Men and women are puzzled by everything I doIt's a remarkably clear expression, I think, of the impulse behind writing, or any sort of creative activity, which attempts to master "a world full of improbabilities / Racing towards uncertainty." Matthew also showed us some paintings by autistic artists (high-function autistics tend to be either verbally or visually oriented), many of which were nearly photorealistic except for certain peculiaritiesthe color scheme was often tuned toward the highest possible contrast, creating a psychedelic feel. In a remarkable painting of Times Squaredone from memory, Matthew believesthe cars are lovingly detailed, right down to every reflection and gleam of metal, but there are no people and no drivers.
Doctors use different terminologies to describe me
I just wonder
The thoughts are bigger than I can express
Every move that I make shows how trapped I feel
Under the continuous flow of happenings
The effect of a cause becomes the cause of another effect
And I wonder
I think about the times when I change the environment around me
With the help of my imagination
I can go places that do not exist
And they are like beautiful dreams.
But it is a world full of improbabilities
Racing towards uncertainty.
Matthew used the wonderful phrase "a Cartesian cinema" by which to imagine autistic experience: one is watching a film with an incompetent projector, so that there's a picture but no sound, or vice-versa, or only a tiny portion of the screen is visible; so you go upstairs and ask the projectionist to run the film again, and again. It doesn't change the flaw in the information, but you scrutinize that flawed information over and over, hoping to master the hidden whole. It's not hard to see that these descriptions of autistic experience are like heightened expressions of everyone's experienceindeed, Matthew was quick to draw a comparison between postmodernity as described in literature (he cited Gravity's Rainbow) and autistic art. Ultimately, Matthew believes, it comes down to The Denial of Deatha book by Ernest Becker that he recommends for its insight into the need to hold back chaos, and our simultaneous resistance to the structures that we set up to protect ourselves from chaos. The autistic painter, losing herself in the details, or the autistic boy rocking and rocking, or flipping the light switch over and over, haunts us as an image of imprisonment in our own armoran armor which will ultimately and after all, not protect us in the end.
Shifting gears, I'm looking forward to a conference being hosted at Cornell this weekend, "Between Primitive Accumulation and the New Enclosures." Unfortunately I'm going to miss the opening session this afternoon, but the readings for the conference (available here) are fascinating and will, I think, contribute a lot to my evolving understanding of the particular exigencies and necessity of utopian thought in the face of what Iain Boals calls in a wonderful interview the false Malthusian logic of neoliberalism.