Twenty-One Poems by Paul Celan

by johnwenstrom October 29, 2013


Your mother’s soul hovers over the bow.
Your mother’s soul helps you circumnavigate the night, reef after reef.
Your mother’s soul drives the sharks on before her.

This word is your mother’s bond.
Your mother’s bond apportions your store, stone after stone.
Your mother’s bond makes obeisance to the luminary crumb.


You tall poplars – people of this earth!
You pools of black happiness, you mirror them to death!
I saw you, sister, standing in that luster.


You speak too,
speak last,
say your piece.

Speak –
but don’t split no from yes.
And give your speech this meaning:
give it the shadows.

Give it shadows enough,
give it as many
as you know have been dealt between
midnight and noon and midnight.

Look around:
Look, how lively it is around here –
where death is! Lively!
They speak true, who speak shadows.

But now the place where you stand is shrinking:
Where will you go now, denuded by shadows?
Climb. Grope upwards.
You grow thinner, harder to recognize, finer.
Finer: a thread
on which it wants to be lowered – the star:
so that it can float down,
down to where it sees itself shining: in the swell
of wandering words.


There will be another eye,
a strange one, beside
our own: dumb
under its stony lid.

Come, bore your lookout hole.

There will be an eyelash
turned inwards in the rock,
steeled by the unwept,
the finest of spindles.

Before your face it does its work,
as if there were, because stone is, still brothers.


Snowfall, thicker and thicker
dove-colors, as yesterday,
snowfall, as if you were still asleep.

Stretching away, heaped white.
Upon it, endlessly,
sledge track of the lost.

Under it, concealed,
hump themselves up,
what so hurt the eyes,
hill upon hill,

On each,
fetched home into its today,
an I turned to wood,
a dumb stake.

There: an apprehension,
wailed over by the icy wind,
fastens its dove-, its snow-
colored flag.


to hide unwritten things
saves your name
by sealing it up.

Do you come now, floating light?

Fingers, waxen too,
pulled through strange,
painful hoops,
melting away the tips.

Do you come, floating light?

Empty of time, the clock’s honeycomb,
bridal of the swarm,
ready to go.

Floating light, come.


Wheat billow swarmed by ravens.
Which heaven’s blue? The lower? Upper?
Later shaft that from the soul sped.
Stronger buzzing. Nearer glimmer. Both worlds.


We are near, Lord,
near, at hand.

Already taken care of, Lord,
clawing into one another as though
the body of each of us were
your body, Lord.

Pray, Lord,
pray for us,
we are near.

Wind-twisted we went there
went there to bend
to the trough, to the crater.

To the fosse we went, Lord.

It was blood; it was
what gushed from you, Lord.

It shone.

It cast your word into our eyes, Lord.
Eyes and mouth gaped open so wide, Lord.
We have drunk, Lord.
The Blood and the word that was in the blood, Lord.

Pray, Lord.
We are near.


This is the eye of time:
It squints
under seven-hued brows.
Its lid is washed by fire.
Its tears are steam.

The blind star flies toward it
and melts at the hot lash:
it grows warm in the world,
and the dead
sprout and bloom.


Stone in the air, which I track.
Your eye, blind as a rock.

How were there
hands –
we dipped the darkness empty, we found
the word that summer tended:

Flower – word of the blind.
Your eye and my eye:
they take care
to water.

Wall upon wall
leafs around the heart.

Another word like that and
hammers swing away.


Round eyes between the bars.

Flickering lid
steers upwards,
lets go a glance.

Iris, swimming girl, dreamless film:
the heavens, heart-gray, must be near.

Walleyed in the iron socket,
the smoking splinter.
By light sense
you dowse out the soul.

Were I like you. Were you like me.
Are we not blown
by the same trades?
We are strangers.

Paving stones: upon them,
close beside one another, a pair
of heart-gray pools:
mouthsfull of silence.


Eyes, world-blind, in the death cleft: I come,
hard growth in my heart.
I come.

Moon-mirror, wall-drop. Down.
(Breath-flecked glimmer. Streaks of blood.
Cloudy souls once more taking form.
Ten-finger shadows – cramped.)

Eyes world-blind,
eyes in the death cleft,
eyes, eyes.

The snow-bed under the pair of us, the snow-bed.
Crystal and crystal,
grated deep as time, we fall,
we fall and lie and fall.

And fall:
We were. We are.
We are one flesh with the night.
In the gangways, in the gangways.


Gravel and scree. And a shard thud, light
as an hour’s comfort.

Exchange of eyes, wrong-timed, final:
a picture,

chiseled on
the retina –
stigma of eternity.

up there, on the rails of the world,
the red of two mouths.

Hearable (before morning): a stone
that made another its target.


Water hour, the rubble barge
carries us toward evening. Like it,
we’re in no hurry, a dead
Why stands at the stern.

Lightened. The lung’s medusa
blows itself into a bell, a brown
soul-nodule attains
the bright-breathed No.


What have I
Sewed the night, as though
there could be others darker than

Bird flight, stone flight, a thousand
traced paths. Glances
stolen and plucked. The sea,
tasted, squandered, dreamed away. An hour
soul-dark. Next, an autumn light
offered up to a blind
emotion that happened by. Others, many,
placeless and heavy with themselves,
glimpsed and evaded.
Fallen rocks, stars,
black, full of language: named
after a gagged oath.

And once (when? even this is forgotten):
felt the barbed hook
where the pulse hazards the backbeat.


            For Nelly Sachs

Of too much was our talk, of
too little. Of you
and once again you, of
obscurity through brightness, of
Jewishness, of
your God.

On the day of an ascension, the
cathedral stood over there, it came
with gold shimmer over the water.

Of your God was the talk, I spoke
against him, I
let the heart that I had
hope: for
his highest, death-rattled,
embroiling word.

Your eye witnessed me, looked past me,
your mouth
testified to your eye, I heard.

don’t know, do we,
don’t know

the barnacles, saw
the sea-slugs, saw
the nails on our own hands.
No one carved for us the word from the heart wall.

(Tracks of the shore crabs, morning,
creeping-tracks, accustomed paths, wind-
patterns in the gray

silt. Fine sand,
coarse sand, sand
loosened from the walls by
other gritty grains, in
the shell clutter.)

One eye, today,
gave it to a second, both
closed, followed the stream to
their shadows, set down
their load (no one
carved for us the word from the – –), shored outward
a promontory – a bar in front
of a small
un-navigable silence


Hours, many-hued, cool.
That never more to be named, hot,
heard in the mouth.

Nobody’s voice, again.

Smarting depths of pupil:
the lid
does not cover, the lash
does not blink what enters.

The tear, half,
the sharper lens,
holds the pictures for you.

THERE WAS DIRT IN THEM, and they dug.

They dug and dug, so their
day went by for them, and their night. And they didn’t praise God,
who, so they heard, had willed all this,
who, so they heard, had foreknown all this.

They dug and heard nothing more;
they didn’t grow wise, they composed no song,
they invented no languages of any kind.
They dug.

Then came a stillness, and then a storm,
and all the oceans came.
I dig, you dig, and the worm digs too,
and the singer there sings: They dig.

O one, o none, o no one, o you:
Where did it go that never went anywhere?
O you dig and I dig, and I dig myself to you,
and on our finger the ring awakens.

dearth of both:

I rode through the snow, do you hear,
I rode God into distance – nearness, he sang,
it was
our last ride over
the people hurdles.

They ducked their heads when
they heard us above them, they
wrote, they
translated our neighing
into one
of their embroidered languages.

starflower, unsnipped, passed
between home and crevasse through
your memory.

A strange lostness was
arrestingly present, almost
you would
have lived

- Wenstrom


God Says

by johnwenstrom October 28, 2013

“Time’s of the essence,”
they say. But: “Existence
precedes essence,” says Sartre—
another saying I don’t really

(I watch the clock well
nigh obsessively. At
10 AM today I 
calculated the hours ‘til my choir

If Sartre’s right, though, time’s
an illusion. The chop-
chop physical world’s just
a familiar skin covering a
deep unknown.

A snake sloughs off its
skin. “All could be known or
shown if time were but gone,”
says Crazy Jane. “That’s certainly the
case,” says God.

- wenstrom


Memories of Lizzie Lea

by johnwenstrom October 26, 2013

“I do want to be monogamous,” you said
in our break-up conversation
when you left me for your “shrink”
(found out later, a philosophy professor who
wrote me a good grad
school recommendation) .

That dismal fall, I went to work at a hard
loading dock job, trying to save
on one-hundred-per-week pay.
I made angry songs about you as I grubbed in the
log pile in my Red Wing
boots. You were so sad when

the professor went back to his wife. I tried
to handle your tears in the bath.
A better day, naked on
your couch, I got welts on my chest when your cat Rene
jumped on me from a
high-up window ledge. You

laughed. I can’t deny the comedy of the
situation. You had ugly
razor blade scars on your own
chest. Your mother was using mind control on you from
Texas. You believed
you got an STD

from my friend Lucy in St. Paul. I’m not your
enemy, I insisted.  For
years I kept calling you, but
last heard your voice more than 30 years ago, when you
phoned me one day to
tell me Rene had died. 

- wenstrom


Snake in the Salad

by johnwenstrom October 25, 2013

“There’s a snake in the
salad,” I said. “Damn right there is,” said
Oliver as he tossed.

The snake looked like a
thin string bean, except it was writhing
in the bowl. Then it grew

too big for the bowl.
Luckily, the cupboard contained a
doughty squirrel, which seized the

snake’s head in its teeth.
The snake’s length dangled helplessly down
beside the pantry drawers.

Everyone looked at
me with scorn when I said, “That squirrel’s teeth
won’t hurt that snake’s head much.”

- wenstrom


Too Bad

by johnwenstrom October 23, 2013

“Know thyself,”
said the Delphic Oracle—
simply meaning:
“Don’t be a smarty-pants.”

When I was
fourteen I identified
with Keats. I thought
I’d die at twenty-six.

now I’ve aged to sixty-two,
still living my
poetry fantasy.

I’ve hardly
ever come out in public.
Poetry’s like
other things I started

doing in
puberty—just more harmless
self-abuse. Too
bad I never grew up.

- wenstrom


An Andromache

by johnwenstrom October 9, 2013

Standing in the Guthrie rush line,
waiting to buy tickets for
An Iliad.
An attractive older woman turned
to ask me a question about a piece she was reading—
I think, part of an itinerary description
in a travel-package advertisement.
It was by George Steiner, and it said something about
an implosion of cultural forces in Renaissance Florence.
The woman wanted to know what Steiner meant
by the word ”implosion.”
I said I thought that the word “confluence”
might have been more apropos.
Then she asked me if I knew who George Steiner was.
She was slender—
maybe my age (62), maybe a good deal older—
with thin, chestnut-colored hair and
an elegant silk scarf.
Later, I saw her sitting by herself,
a little in front of me,
during the performance.
I said that I thought George Steiner was a literary critic
who had made a big splash during the ‘60’s
(but I didn’t recall the title of his 1961 book,
The Death of Tragedy).
“I missed most of the ‘60’s,”
she said—“the Bay of Pigs,
the youth movement, the Vietnam War.
I was too busy taking care
of my children and my husband.”
She looked around as if unsure
of what had become of them—
seemingly stranded from another life
here in the Guthrie An Iliad rush ticket line.
“I’ve missed a lot myself,” I said.
The woman thanked me and moved
up to the counter.

- wenstrom


Someone’s Memory

by johnwenstrom October 8, 2013

Memory—not mine.
A ruby pitcher—cheap souvenir
of a World’s Fair visit
twenty-one years before you were born.

Fake crystal, garishly lettered:
                            Blarney Castle

My vague recollection that you
received the pitcher from someone
after the death of my Great Aunt Jewel.

Someone’s memory
of you, a young child
for whom that ruby pitcher was
all precious beauty.

- wenstrom


The Prompt

by johnwenstrom August 26, 2013

An apple is like a heart: when you cut it in half,
you can see its four chambers.
As a make-up exercise for a session
of an “elegy” class I’d missed,
I cut an apple into quarters
and with a tooth pick scratched your name
on a quarter from which I’d carefully refrained
from cutting away the stem and blossom.
Then I bit the quarter at the blossom end.
It tasted sweet
like our friendship of thirty years ago.
But I thought of a caution
I remembered from my childhood never
to swallow an apple seed, as it contains
deadly arsenic.
I believe I did swallow at least one poisonous seed
in the recollection that I didn’t respond
to your friendly long-distance overtures
years after you’d moved away,
and then one day I got the call
that you’d died under surgery after they
cut your chest open to expose
your irreparable heart.
But now that I think of you, I’m ashamed,
and this entire “exercise” seems
an insult to your memory.

- wenstrom


Four and Twenty Blackbirds

by johnwenstrom June 27, 2013

On the twenty-second of June, 1919,
a great tornado came through Fergus Falls,
killing forty-eight people 
and destroying
the Swedish Lutheran Church and the Grand Hotel.

Family lore has it
that not long before my grandmother Delle’s death in 1935
from breast cancer,
a smaller tornado came through my grandparents’ farm.
There’s a picture of Delle standing dwarfed
among big downed trunks and branches.
Her hair is gray, and she’s wearing
a light apron or frock.
When I enlarge the black-and-white image, I fail
to get a better idea of her face,
but her distant forward-looking eyes zoom
to deep pupil-less black holes.

Family lore has it
that that small tornado blew a flock of blackbirds against the barn wall.
The barn was unharmed,
but more than twenty blackbirds lay strewn around beside it.
Delle ordered the kids to gather up the birds,
and she dressed them, baked them into a pie, and invited
all the relatives over for dinner.
It’s a testament to the force of Delle’s personality
that they all came,
and that they remembered the dinner afterwards,
passing down
a tradition of its memory, even to

this very moment.


For Sandra

by johnwenstrom June 25, 2013

Yoga class. Today,
a lot of work on deep breathing—
legs crossed,
index fingers touching thumbs, I felt
round-shouldered and stiff as if
I couldn’t quite unbind
my heart.
But Sandra had us concentrate
on the sound our breathing makes
in our own ears—
like distant waters heard inside
a conch.
Then at the end of practice,
in our Savasana poses, Sandra
had us imagine our breaths
as waves rolling in
gentle or strong,
and at each intake of air
I let my belly swell,
so that each breath really was like an ocean wave
coming in
with a whoosh
that surrounded and held me—
eyes unseeing,
but open
and wet.

- wenstrom

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