Prints in the New Snow: Notes on ‘Es Lebe der König’, J.H. Prynne’s Elegy to Paul Celan

By | 1 September 2013

The poem continues, ‘Only / the alder thrown over the cranial push, the / waged incompleteness, comes with the animals / and their watchful calm.’ In an elegy to Celan, whose botanical interests not only infiltrated his poems but which continued to captivate him throughout his life, this reference attains a unique position. Botanically, the alder referred to, Alnus Glutinosa, is related to the birch tree, common in wet places over the Northern hemisphere, from Europe to North America and Japan. It is a wood especially noted for its resistance to decay for an indefinite period of time under water. Etymologically speaking, alder is a variant of Aller, the German plural of All, and has its roots in Old English connoting: parent, elder, or ancestor (chiefly in plural); superseding this by the comparison of the adjective (eald).1 This is certainly a reference to Alexander Pope’s investigation of the word in his Peri Bathous, Or The Art of Sinking, in the line ‘and to the sighing alders the alders sigh.’2 It is of no great surprise that this reference, brought by its earliest usages from the book in which Pope introduces bathos as a concept into literature, would have resonance here. For Pope, bathos meant a failed attempt at sublimity, a ridiculous failure to sustain it or, more generally, an anticlimax.3 The word ‘alder’ at once unifies the ideas of reverence for loss and the unending capacity of the individual to sustain itself through memory. These referential circumstances force the conclusion that this is the moment in which Prynne enacts Celan’s death.4 Prynne’s poem is not only an enactment of Celan’s suicide by drowning, but an act of preserving the ends to which Celan sought and the ideas and possibilities he strove for in his writing.

What is denoted in such a reference to the alder, as a symbolic representation of Celan’s life, is an enactment of the forbearance and perseverance of the natural. Celan also used a trope of this sort in which a natural element came to stand for the reverence of nature as holding the place of memory through history. This Celan adopted from the Romanian folk song, the elegiac doină, ‘whose couplets typically make some plant or tree witness to personal despair.’5

The signification of Celan’s usage provides an indication of the manner in which Prynne uses his reference to Celan as the alder within ‘Es Lebe der König‘.

‘The watchful calm,’ of the fourth stanza’s opening line attests to the power of nature to sustain the human through atrocity and to the sanctifying power of memory. This is contrasted with the enveloping repetition of ‘white’. Through these descriptions the natural is intoned through an enveloping violence, though it represents both sanctity and threat. Prynne’s use of the alder signifies not only the bathetic condition through which Celan suffered and died, but also unifies the struggle of an individual in modern society whose work, like the poet’s, attests to the power of love and the unification of the spirit. That an idea of the importance of love can arise from the circumstance of Celan’s drowning is maintained by Prynne through the enactment of the event of Celan’s death. Through this enactment Prynne is attempting to hold true to the thematic position of love, nature, memory and forbearance held by Celan.

In the penultimate stanza, after the metaphoric death and preservation of the name of Celan, the idea of love and lust are entered into the poem. If ‘forced lust’ is an attribute of ‘[t]he long-tailed bird’ then it is certainly a reference to the German coat of arms, and the commandment to follow on the orders of the state. This unification of love and violence is also seen in the reaction to the father in the poem ‘The Bee Target on his Shoulder’: ‘Together we love him from limb from / limb’ (151). Violence and its relation to the familial functions as a devotional act of love, which brings the reader to the point where there is: ‘a growing disenchantment over the gap between what he sees as the visionary state of the transcendent Real and the perception of the physical response as a “wounding” of moral ideas. Pain, and the imperative that it be loved, is now the transcendent experience.’6 The somatic response of the physical is only ever thought through an individuated self, facing the idea of the transcendent. The response of Brass however is a passive one; the subjects depicted are forced to accept their circumstances and are presented as having little agency to alter the circumstances to which they are bound. The line, ‘Give us this love of murder and / sacred boredom, you walk in the shade of the technical house’ allows a return to the propositions of Heidegger and the presentation of Being. This is also a call for closer scrutiny of the socio-historical conditions which brought about the Holocaust. What is stridently attested to is that the breakdown in moral and ethical norms may ignite a primal, animalistic lust, or a ‘love of murder.’

The final stanza of ‘Es Lebe der König’ reads:

				                      it is true. Over and
over it is so, calm or vehement. You know
the plum is a nick of pain, is so and is also
certainly loved. Forbearance comes into the
stormy sky and the water is not quiet.

The final stanza functions as a definitive assertion of the atrocities to which the subject was a victim. The final stanza asserts resoundingly the circumstances, which if not recognised, are bound to calamitous repetition. ‘[I]t is true’ and ‘Over and / over it is so’ attest to the conditions of suffering experienced. The replication of the phrase ‘over and over’ from the second stanza attests to the continuing and continual condition of man’s denigration, subjugation and persecution of man. The suffix ‘it is so’ reifies this position but also asserts that there is truth available in the aftermath of history. The commanding ‘You know’ which concludes the second line of this stanza provides another assertion of the condition and prevalence of knowledge of the socio-historical circumstances of Auschwitz. That forbearance is placed within this realm also reinforces the sanctity of memory, and the condition of family love. The fact that this poem ends with the tumultuous state of the water has ekphrastic resonance with Rilke’s ‘Ninth Elegy,’ which states that those dealing with grief and loss must, ‘Bear witness, [for] what comes to replace what we have sought,’ in the sanctity of memory ‘is an event for which there is no image.’ And later, that, ‘Between the hammer strokes / our hearts survive / like the tongue / that between the teeth / and in spite of everything / goes on praising.’7 It is in this moment where love is ‘the unpastured sea hungering for calm’ (165).

As Mellors argues, ‘in Prynne’s poetry, obscurity is combined with excess: there is always more language, more reference, more signification in an expenditure which may or may not be concerned to recuperate some core meaning from its riot of utterances.’8 In Prynne’s work any effort to read meaning through the excess of presentation will necessarily result in a fragmentary and refractive image of the poetic subject or situation. Further solidifying this idea Prynne writes at the end of ‘Es Lebe der König‘ ‘Forbearance comes into the stormy sky and the water is not quiet.’ In doing so he renders Celan’s death as one which will still not produce a coherent reflection of this truth to the subject. It is, as Agamben writes, an act of remembrance where ‘Remembrance restores possibility to the past, making what happened incomplete and completing what never was. Remembrance is neither what happened nor what did not happen but, rather, their potentialization, their becoming possible once again.’9

Not only does this image conclude the poem of ‘Es Lebe der König‘, but the figuration presented attests to the fact that despite remaining in fidelity to the event, only a fragmentary understanding can be experienced. The interrogative process cannot maintain a coherent depiction of the whole, just as an enactment of Celan’s death and a reinvestigation of the socio-historical circumstances of the Holocaust cannot, even figuratively, provide the reader with the experience of living through the Holocaust. It is the conception of nature as ideal, which asks for our patient perseverance but maintains its symbiotic relationship with the atrocities of the human which Prynne summons. In the words of Celan, the stormy waters that conclude Prynne’s elegy is an end towards which the poet ‘goes with his very being to language, stricken by and seeking reality.’10

In Brass, water is the metonymic collector of the details of Auschwitz and of the drowning of Paul Celan. Water, as both substantive and reflective, is nature’s counterpoint to the family in the collection, both life-giving and consumptive, as is fire. That ‘the water is not quiet,’ intones that we can only see our shattered reflection in the surface of water. Water, as social and collective conscious, absorbs the atrocity and represents the moment where meaning has broken down, to a point that seems irredeemable. Nature preserves, but Prynne’s implication is that the image which we may see in its countenance, if an image appears, will not be human.

Humankind’s own voice resounds with the ‘double music’ of Brass: it is a choir of angels as well as the shrill song of humanity’s death-fugue. This ‘double-music’ is mankind’s own reflection; it is the image of the Other as symbol of love, as source of sanctity and perseverance which is now distorted. Despite our grief, Brass asserts that the image we seek will be forthcoming and that in this image there is an understanding that grief is a testament to our love, preserved in memory, ‘as the visible origin of truth’. According to Jean Davie, all poetry is, as Celan said, an effort at assuring our survival. And ‘our survival we owe, just barely […] to exposing our resistance.’11

Prynne’s reclamation of the power of knowledge and history determines the poet’s engagement with the contemporary. Prynne’s elegy to Celan is driven by a desire to face up to atrocity, to strengthen the voice of the victims and to articulate an earnest and hard-fought resistance to the forces of tyranny, through which conditions of subjugation persist. Prynne presents a model of lyric which unifies a reverence for loss, and actively attests to the propensity of the poet to lay claim to the historical. ‘Es Lebe der König‘ functions as both elegy and ode, by allowing the absorption of those truths which Celan sought in writing to substantiate the commitment of the poet to address the violence done unto others. The struggle to give voice to suffering is fundamental to both Prynne and Celan, and in ‘Es Lebe der König’ this necessity exists at the intersection with the imaginative and creation encounter and works to define the ardent nature of Prynne’s poetic. To contest Adorno’s statement that writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric, Prynne created a lyric which unifies the life and work of Celan and stands as testament for the necessity to honour the past, such that the poem might attest to the very definition of ‘who we are.12

  1. “alder, n.1; n.2”. OED Online. December 2012. Oxford University Press. 16 January
  2. Alexander Pope, The Major Works, ed. Pat Rogers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006) 226.
  3. Alexander Pope, The Major Works, 226.
  4. Rodríguez, “Enlarging History: The Poetry of J.H. Prynne,” 95. Rodríguez argues that “Not only is there a similarity between Celan and Milton’s Lycidas, drowned and mourned for. More importantly, it is impossible not to drink the water that took life, and gave it back to the poet in the form of song, in spite of the horror in doing so. The springs of life from this water, this pastoral theme, are utterly changed.” The water, in relation to the preservation of an ideal, or of an imperative, as is represented through the alder’s unique ability to resist rot for indefinite periods of time establishes the waters in which Celan drowned in closer relation to Celan’ snows “which surround the world,” preserving memory and sanctifying loss.
  5. Felstiner, Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew, 49.
  6. Mellors, Late Modernist Poetics, 198.
  7. Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino Elegies, trans. Leslie Norris and Alan Keele (Columbia, SC.: Camden House, 2008) 53.
  8. Mellors, Late Modern Poetics, 169.
  9. Giorgio Agamben, Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999) 267.
  10. Felstiner, Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan, 116.
  11. Jean Davie, Under the Dome: Walks With Paul Celan, trans. Rosmarie Waldrop (Providence, RI: Burning Deck, 2009) 111. Quotation amended.
  12. J.H. Prynne, “Numbers in the Time of Trouble,” Poems (Fremantle, WA: Fremantle Press, 2005) 17.
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