At one level, this stifled "word"--Celan's Wort shut in between "packed" and "snow"--needs no biographical basis, any more than does Emily Dickinson's mortal vision: "As freezing persons recollect the snow, / First chill, then stupor, then the letting go." Yet what underlies those lines of Celan's, that ars poetica, is the Ukrainian snow where his parents were murdered.
In August 1984 at Cerisy-la-Salle near the Norman coast, shortly after coming to know Gisele Celan-Lestrange, I asked her (in tentative French): "Is it not true that many of your husband's poems arise from his own experience?" Cent pour cent, she replied instantly, "One hundred percent." And yet at the same time, if I asked her about Paul Celan's life, Gisele would urge me to concentrate strictly on his work. So that double focus, or call it a fusing of two lenses, forms the challenge of approaching Celan and of making his life's work and his work's life accessible.
To attend deeply to Paul Celan entails, as Gisele well knew, studying his own reading habits, since the world's texts in many subjects and languages furnished realia for his writing. She let me peruse his two libraries, in Paris and Normandy. For hours on end I would pull volume after volume from the shelves, to see just what Celan had bought and read, and when and where, and whether he'd made marginal comments or underlinings. Once, for instance, I came upon a poem he'd drafted inside a physiology handbook; this, combined with his multiple markings of Gershom Scholem on the Shechinah, God's radiant presence, guided my rendering of "Near, in the aorta's arch." I also found an offprint of Rene Char's Resistance notebooks in Celan's German translation. The Frenchman had inscribed it for his translator: A Paul Celan, a qui je pensais ("To Paul Celan, whom I was thinking of")--an uncanny tribute!
Very late one cold night in November '84 at the rue Montorgueil, after Gisele had gone to bed, I stayed up as long as I could, gripped by this silent private access to the poet's mindwork. Spotting the soft chestnut covers of a frayed, hand-worn volume, I took it down: Kafka's Erzahlungen. "A Country Doctor," "The Hunter Gracchus," "A Hunger Artist": these stories had been much read. Then on looking into the book's endpapers, I discovered that Celan had this volume with him during a months-long stay in a psychiatric clinic when nervous depression--"the doctor's simplistic formula," he said--was besetting him.
What took my breath away, in the back endpapers, were some terrifying pained scrawlings. Hardly daring to, I nevertheless copied them down: "early afternoon on the 8th of December 1965: It's still quite clear in my head--Kamen Menschen, If only people would come, I could almost begin anew, ich konnte fast neu beginnen." Along with this heart cry, on the last page I found, in Hebrew: shaddai shaddai, the ineffable name of God, and below that, in a distracted Hebrew hand, the Judaic watchword: Shema Yisrael Adonai Elohenu Adonai Echad, "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One"--the essential profession of faith, which Jewish martyrs have recited over the centuries.
At this moment--3 a.m.? 4 a.m.?--Gisele happened to come into the living room. Seeing me with this Kafka volume, she asked me to put it back on the shelf. After seven more years of work--research, interviews, translations, conferences, essays--I doubted that I could, or rather that I should, publish those naked scrawlings, however arresting and revealing. Even when I'd finished composing my biographical account of Celan, I kept putting off asking Gisele for permission. Then, tragically and to my shock, in December 1991 she died of cancer. Fiercely serious about her own art, and loyal to her husband, she had embodied for me the presence of Paul Celan's absence, and now her death deepened that absence.
Finally I decided that a genuine account needed to include Celan's subjunctive Kamen Menschen, "If only people would come, I could almost begin anew," and his Hebraic cry, "Hear, O Israel." In 1994, 10 years after lighting upon them, I asked the Celans' son, Eric, for permission and he kindly agreed. These utterances belong to the poet's psychic ground, the dark behind the mirror. What's more, in the critical languages of German and Hebrew, they speak for two core motives, the motives that--to my mind, at least--unite in driving Paul Celan's most idiosyncratic writing: Kamen Menschen, an uncertain yet urgent hope for human addressability, humane solidarity; and Shema Yisrael, a radical imperative--"Listen!"--in the other language that remained "near and not lost," nah und unverloren, "in the midst of the losses," as he said in his first major speech, on receiving the Bremen literature prize in 1958.