Celan is commonly regarded as the most important poet to write in German since Rilke, but many of his poems remain untranslated and very few are known by English readers. Many lines of Celan sound like uncanny echoes of Heiddegger: “Undebecome, everywhere / gather yourself, / stand.” Even the translator admits of the poems that “their readability is still an issue.” And not only because of the complex philosophy they enact, but because many are autobiographical in nature, referencing specific times, places, and people. Footnotes, which all editors and translators of Celan agree are necessary supplements, are sparse here: they are offered “more as a map of our ignorance than as a showcase for our knowledge.” Once the difficulties of the project are acknowledged, any reader of Celan will be happy to have this competent translation (with facing German text) of an important late collection. The comparative lyricism and directness of Celan’s early verse gave way, in the mid-1960s, to the leaner, more obdurate music of his late style. The poems are full of compound nouns (the jawbreaking “verse-fibula-yoke” is a translation of “Versspangen-Joch”), neologisms, and radical disjunctures of prosody. Joris’s valiant efforts to render Celan into readable and adequately inventive English are not as elegant as Michael Hamburger’s (Celan’s most gifted translator), but they do occasionally manage to strike very close to what Celan suggestively calls “the missing target”: “You, too, with all / the instrangedness in you, / instrange yourself, / deeper, / the One / string / tenses its pain below you, / the missing target / radiates, bow.”
While we await the critical and fully annotated edition of Celan’s verse, this collection helpfully deepens his mystery.