Paul Celan’s “Zurich, At The Stork”

Zurich, At The Stork (for Nelly Sachs)

Our talk was of Too Much, of
Too Little. Of Thou
and Yet-Thou, of
clouding through brightness, of [“of how clarity troubles”]
Jewishness, of
your God.

On the day of an ascension, the
Minster stood over there, it came
with some gold across the water.

Our talk was of your God, I spoke
against him, I let the heart
I had
his highest, death-rattled, his
wrangling word—

Your eye looked at me, looked away,
your mouth
spoke toward the eye, I heard:

really don’t know, you know,
really don’t know

(Paul Celan, Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan, Translation by John Felstiner, W.W. Norton, 2001. The phrase in brackets is an alternate translation of that line by Michael Hamburger from Poems of Paul Celan, Persea Books, 1995, that I found helpful.)

Some Celan (and Sachs) appropriately, on Yom Kippur. I have been reading this poem for a couple of years, and had not planned it like this, but who knows what agencies work beyond periphery of our awareness.

This poem was written on 30 May 1960, and relates a conversation that Celan and Nelly Sachs had at her hotel, The Stork, four days prior. It was the first of few meetings they had. Sachs was there to receive a German literary prize in Meersburg, but the prospect of staying overnight in Germany caused her such anxiety that she lodged across the border instead. (Felstiner; Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew; p. 156) To me it is one of Celan’s most important poems, dealing directly with the pain and aftermath of the Holocaust. It is a depiction of a kind of post-traumatic devastation—with the ferocious anger, pain and almost cosmic stoicism—of two persons who suffered such anguish, but it also has an ambiguity that both hides and reveals.

The entire poem is unusual for Celan because of its strong, clear narrative line; we mostly understand readily the event of the dialogue. Its theme, the examination of one’s relationship to God after the horrendous events of “that,” gets more tangled the longer it is considered. Celan is full of fury, speaks of “your God,” speaks “against him,” and has a hope not for a reconciliation or explanation but a fight. He incites God to his “wrangling word,” maybe to have something as tangible as an argument to sustain his faith, in the absence of any possible acceptable account for what has happened. It is a righteous and utterly justified response.

The final two stanzas are striking. In contrast to Celan's rage, Sachs demurs, and the poem intimates that she sees a broader picture. Sachs' reply to Celan, almost 30 years her junior, is described coolly. The pause that she takes (“Your eye looked at me, looked away”) has the quality of the pause one takes to decide how to express a difficult truth to a someone who is obstructed from seeing it, in this case by anger. There is a suggestion of self-deprecation in Celan’s portrayal.

Prima-facie, Sachs’ response (“We/ really don’t know, you know/ we really don’t know/ what/ counts”) could be seen as the acceptance of our inability to comprehend the motives or will of God or God's actions, no matter what the magnitude of the occurrence. Though this is a prototype for human interactions with gods, here it manifests as a feat of faith and spiritual fortitude almost impossible to grasp given the currency, scale and barbarity of the circumstance, and implies a wisdom that is captured in the physical description of her response, one of remove and indirectness (“your mouth/ spoke toward the eye, I heard”).

A second reading is that because of "that" Sachs, and not Sachs alone presumably, has had a kind of inner compass crushed to the point that she feels it is not longer possible to make a moral judgment of God (or at all, at the extreme) that Celan imputes. How can one view the psychosis of genocide within the realm of ethics? Is a capacity for judgment evaporated or made seemingly absurd by such wanton violence? If this could happen, what is the point of making sense of anything? “What counts” has a sound of resignation beyond incomprehension in it.

A third possible reading, related to the first but more sweeping, is that Sachs is simply implying that one can't say anything at all about God, no matter what the subject or scale, full stop. The relationship to God is at the least indescribable and at the most opaque, yet meaningful. This approaches the domain of mystics; I have no idea how to talk about it, and don’t much trust those that claim to.

These readings (among potential others) are parallel and distinct, and maybe their agglomeration is the point. Celan told Sachs that he “hoped to be able to blaspheme up till the end.” (Felstiner, p. 156) Did Sachs’ reply focus Celan back to the struggle taking place within himself, that his anger of that moment eclipsed? Perhaps the poem uses the conversation to present the arguments within the self that occur simultaneously, and that it is the entwinement of these separate, difficult strains of thought and feeling that tell the real story, to which any rendering less ambiguous would have been unfaithful.

Of course one always wonders (or should), given distance and difference, of how the myopia of one’s ignorance muddles the picture. (I’m not Jewish, theist, deist, poet, literary scholar or persecuted, nor was I alive during the war.) And while it might be extravagant to request that Nelly (b. 1891) be here to enlighten us this evening, it wouldn’t be too much to ask that we could have Paul (b. 1920) to help. What we have is the living artifact of the poem.

I’m going to have a scotch. L’Chiam.


John Felstiner, who has been most gracious in our occasional correspondence over the years, has a new book out that deals with poetry and the environment, Can Poetry Save the Earth?: A Field Guide to Nature Poems. You can hear an interview with him here.