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the Complete Review
the complete review - poetry

Romanian Poems

Paul Celan

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To purchase Romanian Poems

Title: Romanian Poems
Author: Paul Celan
Genre: Poetry
Written: 1945-7 (Eng. 2003)
Length: 76 pages
Original in: Romanian
Availability: Romanian Poems - US
Romanian Poems - UK
Romanian Poems - Canada
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Julian Semilian and Sanda Agalidi
  • This is a bilingual edition, containing both the original Romanian texts and the English versions

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Our Assessment:

B+ : more of historical than purely literary interest, but a neat addition to the Celan-oeuvre

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Boston Review . 11-12/2005 Marjorie Perloff

  From the Reviews:
  • "(S)urrealist lyrics and prose poems that, far from being juvenilia, shed much light on Celanís poetics to come." - Marjorie Perloff, Boston Review

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Paul Celan's most famous poems and translations were written in German -- his true mother-tongue, despite growing up in post-Hapsburg Bukovina, where Romanian had been installed as the official language. After World War II, between 1945 and 1947, Celan lived in Bucharest (before moving on first to Vienna and then settling down in Paris), and it was here that he also tried to use Romanian as a working language. The poems collected in this volume stem from this period, an unusual and not widely-known portion of his poetic output.
       While the later German poems are almost a continuum -- Celan's distinctive style and voice making them easily recognizable -- these poems owe much more to Romanian literary influences, in particular the vibrant surrealist scene of those times (though also suggesting the themes and approaches found in the later German poems). This volume -- which thankfully includes the original Romanian texts along with the English reworkings by Julian Semilian and Sanda Agalidi -- fills an odd gap in general familiarity with Celan's work (odd in the sense that few are likely to have been aware that there was something missing), offering both glimpses of was to come and hints of what might have been (had, for example, Celan not abandoned Romanian in favour of German -- or, perhaps, had he embraced French (another Romance language) rather than returning to German).
       The translators' introduction provides most of the necessary background information and serves as a good introduction to Celan as Romanian poet. A bit more confounding are the explanations of language and translation -- such as the following (all the typographical mistakes below are theirs -- presumably this sentence defeated the copy-editor too (in what is otherwise -- as are all the Green Integer books -- a lovely and lovingly produced volume)):

the phonetic opennes of the Romanian language, its overall metaphoric rather than metonymic organiztion, its "innocence" -- whether ontologically or historically understood -- project the incompleteness of the subject onto a horizon where accident and ellipsis destabilize the downturn, somehow maintaining an open commmunicative cycle.
       A bit more historical context -- and literary-historical background -- would also have been welcome, especially regarding how the poems have been and are considered in the larger context of Celan's oeuvre (there's a bit of this, but not much). The translator's also make no mention of a previous English translation of this set of texts -- Nina Cassian's, published in American Poetry Review (July/August 1999). Cassian's renderings are slightly more approachable (she wouldn't think of writing "arsoned", for example, opting for "burned" (which admittedly probably also doesn't quite capture Celan's "incendiate")), though for the most part the renderings are very similar; still, a few words on what separates this volume from those would have been of interest.

       There are only sixteen poems, and many have an air of incompleteness about them -- some are without titles, one is a fragment, only one is dated. Half of the pieces are prose poems, though none are very long.
       None of the poetry is as spare as the later German poems (except the one fragment); if not truly verbose, these verses certainly are rich -- dripping, often, in surreal imagery. Not all of this comes across well: "Our phosphorescent eyeballs will scurry down from the walls, chiming walnuts, / You'll juggle with them and a wave will crash in through the window", for example -- though this poem (Love Song) is otherwise impressive (closing nicely: "We'll return upstairs to drown alone at home").
       Some of the concepts are powerful: the untitled poem beginning "Blinded by giant leaps" envisions a third clock-hand:
a hand I never encountered in time's gardens --
the other two hands lie wrapped in each other on the south side of the dial.
       And continues:
As for me, I prefer that time is measured with the hourglass,
let it be a time less tall,


Yes, me, I prefer the hourglass so you can smash it when I tell you
       of eternity's lie.
       The translator's describe the prose poems as "eccentric insofar as they approach an almost automatist stream of consciousness."
       One autobiographical piece is especially powerful, beginning: "The next day the deportations about to begin". It is a particularly successful mix of the surreal ("torrents of wine began streaming on my cheeks, they scattered on the floor, men sipped it in their sleep") and clear narrative, making for a remarkable poem.
       Others hint at his personal struggles: a poem beginning "Perhaps one day" puts a burden on the reader and couples it with a plea: "It's up to you. Understand me." More desperate already, another poem closes:
All that's left me is to resume the journey, but my strength is nearly gone and I shut my eyes to look for a man with a boat.
       In one he refers to himself by name (or at least: "of the halo Paul Celan" -- a name he was just beginning to use (as he was born Paul Antschel)), recognising his place (and its limitations) but sensing also some of the possibilities ahead:
It's easy to see that around here you can't pervade with the arrows of a visible fire. A vast curtain of amethyst dissimulates (.....) I have not yet triumphed and, eyeballs side-shifted to the temples, I spy myself in profile, awaiting seedtime.
       It came soon enough.

       The collection also includes a "sample of Paul Celan's surrealist 'Questions & Answers' " -- six of them, including:
-- What is the poet's loneliness ?
   A circus act not included in the program
       Romanian Poems is a small but exciting collection, some of Celan's experimentation already hinting at what was to come, while also suggesting what else he might have been capable of. It's an uneven collection, still marked by experimentation, but there's genuine talent here and moments of impressive success. Closer to the Romanian poetry of the day than the German poetry of his future, it serves as a good introduction to a neglected literary movement (and language). And it will certainly be of great interest to anyone interested in Paul Celan.
       The translation seems fairly solid, though occasionally reads a bit stilted or forced -- "walnuts" (instead of the simpler -- if potentially more confusing -- "nuts") for "noci" being a fairly typical example of where the word-choices don't always work. Having the original text facing the English renderings however is all that one can ask for.

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Romanian Poems: Reviews: Paul Celan: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Paul Celan (born Paul Antschel) was born in 1920. A leading German-language poet, he was a suicide in 1970.

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