Remembering Antonioni and Bergman

July 30, 2008 at 5:11 am (Cinema)

 

Michelangelo Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman – two of the greatest auteurs the world of cinema has ever seen – left us exactly one year ago, on July 30, 2007. Antonioni and Bergman were 94 and 89 years old respectively when they passed away. 

 

Within a span of a few hours, both these legends departed from the world they spent their lifetime interpreting on celluloid.

 

Antonioni lent cinema the art of creating images imbued with such beauty and feelings that hitherto were the exclusive domain of impressionist painters. Bergman, on the other hand, showed us how the deepest of existential issues can be portrayed and cogitated on the silver screen.

 

Cineastes the world over are yet to recover from the shock of losing both these masters on the same day.

 

What follows is a humble tribute from a mourning admirer.

 

“All my opinions on the subject are in my films.”

 

– Michelangelo Antonioni

 

In 1995, while handing over a Lifetime Achievement Academy Award to Antonioni, the actor Jack Nicholson commented, “In the empty, silent spaces of the world, he has found metaphors that illuminate the silent places of our hearts, and found in them, too, a strange and terrible beauty: austere, elegant, enigmatic, haunting.”

 

Antonioni always had an uncompromising stance on his art.

 

“I do it for an ideal spectator who is this very director. I could never do something against my tastes to meet the public,” Antonioni said when asked whom he made his films for.

 

Set against the backdrop of the swinging 60s, Blow-Up (1966) was perhaps Antonioni’s most commercially successful venture. Starring Vanessa Redgrave and David Hemmings, Blow Up beautifully captured the mood of London’s bubbling fashion scene.

 

However, L’Avventura (1960) and Il Deserto Rosso, known in English as The Red Desert (1964), are for me Antonioni’s finest works. While the latter deals with environmental degradation as the flipside of human anomie, the former remains essentially a saga of alienation, loneliness and the despair of non-communication.

 

In The Red Desert, Antonioni placed his central character Giuliana (played by Monica Vitti – an Antonioni favorite)  in barren landscapes that symbolized her own emotional void. There is an eerie mood that pervades the film. The viewers would go along with the director in keeping it unresolved. 

 

In L’Avventura as Anna’s best friend wore Anna’s clothes and dressed like her after her strange disappearance, we hear the melancholic strain of an uncertain relationship resulting in insecurities – a recurrent theme of Antonioni.

 

Antonioni was preceded by the great Italian neo-realist film movement. However, Antonioni, barring his early creations, never seemed to be influenced by it as he always emphasized on effects rather than the causes of social and political change. “I think filmmakers should always try to reflect the times in which they live – not so much to express and interpret events in their most direct and tragic form, but rather to capture their effect upon us,” he said. This explains why Antonioni’s cinema is free from any tension arising out of the conflict between Catholicism and Marxism that marks some of the most powerful cinema of the neo-realist era like Roberto Rossellini’s Rome, Open City (1945) and Vittorio de Sica’s The Bicycle Thief (1948).

 

By shunning conventional narrative, Antonioni didn’t allow his audience the easy pleasure of viewing realistic illusions. He created an unstable world where the characters don’t seem to act; they, like the audience, merely observe the vagaries of life as they unfold before them. The camera follows their gaze instead of focusing on them as objects. One scene dissolves into another as one kind of relationship dissolves into another. In the evolution of the language of cinema, this remains Antonioni’s monumental contribution. 

 

Antonioni instituted melancholic landscapes as a signature image for his forlorn characters. Trained as an architect, he used planes, angles and heights in visualizing scenes to an extent perhaps unmatched in the history of world cinema. He had a magical ability to infuse concrete objects with moods and meaning as amply demonstrated in the insular buildings of Zabriske Point (1968) and the solemn manufacturing plants with their ‘angry’ chimneys in The Red Desert.

 

For Antonioni, the protagonist who would embody his point of view was frequently a woman. In L’Avventura, the camera follows Claudia (played by the ethereal Monica Vitti) to observe as an outsider and remain emotionally distant from the love affairs.  In L’Eclisse (1962), Vittoria (played by Monica Vitti) enters the stock exchange and through her gaze we observe the rowdy stock traders. In La Notte (1961), the camera picks up Lidia (played by Jeanne Moreau) from the crowd on the sidewalk. In a series of shots, we understand Lidia searching for any acquaintance, a kind human contact – the perennial subject of Antonioni – a loner’s struggle for meaningful existence in a mechanized world symbolized by trolleys, scooters and cars.

 

Another interesting aspect of Antonioni’s oeuvre is his seductive usage of the persistence of vision. He once admitted, “I need to follow my characters beyond the moments conventionally considered important, to show them even when everything appears to have been said.” This penchant for languid movements can be seen in shots of people walking aimlessly, unable to find themselves, not sure of their destinations.  

 

Lasting impressions of Antonioni’s aesthetic triumphs are too many to keep count of. Still, some of them stand out in my memory – the playful coyness of the actress Monica Vitti in the company of the actor Marcello Mastrioanni in La Notte, the mosaic of colors, shapes, patterns and forms of emotions in The Red Desert, the lyrical mysticism associated with the island and the characters in L’Avventura.

 

“For me, the human face is the most important subject of cinema”

 

– Ingmar Bergman

 

Being the son of a clergyman, Ingmar Bergman was both fascinated and terrorized by religion. His cinema reflected his lifelong quest of making sense of faith.

 

Reflecting on Bergman’s cinema, the French film-maker Jean-Luc Goddard commented once, “Nothing can be more classically romantic.”

 

Bergman rarely failed to elicit outstanding performances from his actors. Throughout his life, Bergman was actively involved with theatre and its influence showed in his structuring of scenes, dialogues and performances of the actors.

 

It is unfortunate that some critics characterize Bergman too much with extreme close-ups, static tableaux, monochromatic contrasts and a cold, Swedish temperament. Actually, beyond all these peripheral signanges, Bergman’s cinema is all about questioning man’s place in God’s plan. He raised questions on mortality, the afterlife and the struggle between life and death.

 

Bergman used apparently non sequitur imageries to make his point. For example, in The Seventh Seal (1957), Death allegorically appeared onscreen in the shadow of the possible extinction of human civilization in the nuclear age of post-World War II. He once commented, “In the Middle Ages man lived in terror of the plague. Today they live in fear of the atomic bomb”.

 

It’s the ‘Middle Ages’ which Bergman resorted to in many of his films as a foil to the modern, 20th century world. His quest comes through in the knight’s confession, in The Seventh Seal “Why must God hide in vague promises and invisible miracles?… What will become of us who want to believe but cannot?”

 

In one of the greatest moments of world cinema, in The Seventh Seal, the knight plays chess with Death. Bergman’s persistent search for the meaning of life and death finds expression in a stark conversation between the knight and Death:

 

Knight: Who are you?

Death: I am Death.

Knight: Have you come for me?

Death: I have been walking by your side for a long time.

Knight: That I know.

Death: Are you prepared?

Knight: My body is frightened, but I am not.

Death: Well, there is no shame in that.

 

The encounter with one’s own mortality was repeated again in the first dream sequence of  Dr. Isak Borg (an unforgettable performance by Victor Sjostrom) in Wild Strawberries (1957). Here again, Bergman puts individuals out of themselves in their honest interrogation of the life they have lived.

 

One of Bergman’s strongest motifs is the mirror – the gap between the face and the mask. In Persona (1966), Elisabeth (played by the magnificent Liv Ullman)breaks down on stage during her performance as she is caught in a state between herself and someone else. Time and again, Bergman placed his characters in front of a mirror to examine self-knowledge or to confront the gaze of others, like Karin’s and Anna’s in front of a mirror in Cries and Whispers (1973)).

 

 Bergman used extreme close-ups most tellingly. For him, the human face was the stage on which the drama of our lives could be witnessed.

 

The mental state of a rootless, sequestered individual in Bergman’s cinema was often depicted by black-and-white cinematography as well as physical setting like the island surrounded by the sea in Through a Glass Darkly (1961), the snow forming a white void in the otherwise dull surrounding in Winter Light (1963), an island in Persona, Shame (1968), and Hour of the Wolf (1968).

 

In Bergman’s cinema, through physical and other confinements, men and women travel to communicate, to bridge gaps; like the journey through a plague-devastated land in The Seventh Seal , the journey in the car in Wild Strawberries, the train compartment in The Silence (1963), the boat in Shame (1968), the movement within the several chambers and rooms of a single house in Cries and Whispers, the silhouettes of caravan  in Naked Night (1953) and the four buildings in  the deeply autobiographical Fanny and Alexander (1982).

 

Antonioni and Bergman are no more with us. But what they have left behind will be with us forever.

 

– Amitava Nag.

 

(A different version of this article was published in New Quest, 169, July – September 2007).

 

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An Afternoon in Daze

July 18, 2008 at 8:29 am (Dominic Alapat, Poetry)

 

 

It is a piece of golden comfort

floating somewhere.

The buildings, two-storied, old

and yellow are surrounded by trees.

Hulking guardian angels of the locality.

On Adenwalla Road outside,

taxis are parked around bends,

their drivers asleep on the boot.

A road shimmers ahead, dazzling

like a river in the golden afternoon light.

My father and I are walking.

There is a sugarcane stall here,

the smell of beedi smoke…

How the light has kept this scene

sacred! The jingling of the sugarcane

crusher ringing in my ears.

 

– Dominic Alapat.

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Hotel Shyamprakash: A Love Story

July 13, 2008 at 1:27 pm (Personal Essay, Santosh Ojha)

 

Once upon a time, not so long ago, Hotel Shyamprakash used to be a prominent sight on Infantry Road, right opposite the Indian Express building. Bangalore’s reckless real-estate restructuring  saw the hotel razed down to the ground. A monstrous multistoried building stands in its place now. What a pity!

 

Shyamprakash had that charming feature which once was a hallmark of Bangalore – an open-air restaurant where you could drive in and have a snack, sitting either in your car or in the restaurant.

 

The hotel also offered an inexpensive lodging facility (a rarity in today’s Bangalore) right in the heart of town. The company which hired me as a management trainee had its head office on Cunningham Road. So it made sense to stay at Shyamprakash, which was just a stone’s throw away.

 

I was on a month’s project in Bangalore as part of my training program. Although  hot idli-vada with delicious sambhar for breakfast was a big draw in itself, Shyamprakash’s  prime attraction for me was its spacious open-air restaurant. Much more than the  food, the Kannada and Hindi film songs played by a live band there, made my dinner time something to look forward to.

 

I would reach the restaurant every evening around eight and spend hours drinking beer and nibbling food. The live band was a veritable crowd puller. The lead singers – a young man and a lovely lady whose voice bore a very close resemblance to Asha Bhosle’s – were remarkably good. Together they would sing some great Kishore-Asha duets of the 70s.

 

The band entertained requests from patrons. The steward would pass written requests to the stage through a waiter. No guarantee though that the band would oblige. Requests could come in too late down the queue. Or, the band might not even have the song in their repertoire.

 

While I was keen to request for some of my favorite Kishore Kumar and Asha Bhosle songs, I don’t know why I would feel shy to do so. One day I summoned up enough courage and passed on a request to the stage. The song I wanted to hear was a classic Asha Bhosle solo, one of my favorites. It goes like Baag mein kali khile, bagiya mehki… It has a Malayalam version ( Saagara) too which featured in Ramu Kariat’s Chemmeen, one of the finest films to come out of Kerala.This relatively obscure gem was composed by one of the true geniuses of Indian music industry – Salil Choudhary.

 

An hour elapsed and there was still no sign of the song. I had nearly given up. As I was about to leave, a little disappointed at my failed maiden request, I heard a familiar tune – the opening strains of Baag mein… I looked back at the stage. Lo and behold! The Asha Bhosle of Shyamprakash was on stage with her lyrics- notebook in hand, getting ready to sing the song. I was thrilled to bits!

 

The next evening, I landed earlier than usual, and occupied my favorite table. Emboldened by my previous evening’s success with the request, I asked for the same song again. The crowd had not yet built up. My request was met with in the next 15 minutes. Evening after evening, the same routine followed.

 

One day, I was preoccupied with some thoughts and forgot to ask for my daily fix. And yet the familiar strains of Baag mein… started wafting. My presence among the diners was enough of a prompt for the singer to croon that number. No request was needed!

 

I later questioned the waiter who served my table on how the singer could figure out the person behind that routine request. He explained that after the third consecutive day of the same request, the singer had asked the waiter who this request came from. The waiter pointed out to her the mystery man!

 

My work in Bangalore got over after a few weeks. I relocated to another city  for a few months only to return to Bangalore for good. This time around, I took a paying guest accommodation. One evening, on an impulse, I decided to visit the hotel with a friend. Was the band still playing there? Were the Asha Bhosle and Kishore Kumar of  Shyamprakash still around?

 

I reached the hotel and it was great to hear the familiar voice singing as we entered the restaurant. No sooner had we settled down, I asked for the request slip and placed the old request again. Soon enough, Baag mein … filled out the restaurant, sounding as good as ever!

 

And then something happened during the break! The familiar waiter came to me and requested me to follow him outside the restaurant. I was wondering what was going on! I was led to a corner where the band members were taking a break. There they were, the Asha Bhosle and Kishore Kumar of Shyamprakash!

 

“Hi! My name is Krishna and this is Sabrina,” said  the Kishore Kumar of Shyamprakash.

“Hi,” I mumbled.

“So, you are the one who had only one song to request?” asked Sabrina.

“Yes,” I said, thoroughly perplexed.What were these guys up to?

 

Krishna took out an envelope from his jacket pocket. “May I know your name, Sir?” he asked.

 

He neatly wrote my name on the envelope and gently handed it over to me saying “Mr. Ojha, Sabrina and I are getting married next Sunday. We would be delighted if you could come.”

 

“Are you surprised?” Sabrina asked softly.

 

“As a matter of fact, I am!” I replied.

 

Krishna shyly explained, “When you used to visit Shyamprakash earlier, my friendship with Sabrina was blossoming into something special. But we’re not sure about the nature of the evolving relationship. It was your daily request for a particular song that lent both expression  and direction to our feelings. We discovered the emotional depth of that impossibly romantic song together!”

 

Sabrina added with a smile, “The song that has bound Krishna and me together links back to you. You are special to us! Please do come and bless our union this Sunday.

 

I could not, unfortunately, attend their wedding reception. I hope Sabrina and Krishna are happy in whatever they are doing, wherever they are.

 

– Santosh Ojha.

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The Eyes Have It

July 4, 2008 at 8:49 pm (Mary McQueary, Soliloquy)

 

 

A day at the Spa.  The words flutter mimicking yellow butterflies among my plumbago bushes. The final sentence to my favorite fairy tale, And they lived happily ever after, also flitters in a similar way. And like the butterfly when he has found his delight inside the delicate periwinkle blossom, these sentences are followed by a sigh of contentment. It is this contentment each visit to the Spa women feel. A day at the Spa leaves a woman refreshed and renewed (and often with skin resembling a plucked chicken’s).  She departs feeling more alive, always better than when she first arrived.  The Spa is a place where a woman can let down her hair, cut it, curl it, more often than not remove it, or add to it. It is this adding of hair that intrigues me most.

 

If I had a dollar for every time a hairdresser has felt my hair and whispered in my ear with a conspiratorial smile reflected in the mirror before me, “I can’t believe how thick your hair is”, which is promptly followed by them shouting, “Everyone! Come quick! Feel her hair!” I would be so rich I’d have an assistant typing this story for me as I dictated it while I wandered around a mansion full of valuable art dressed in silk lounge pants sipping a martini for breakfast. So it’s not hair extensions that I’m particularly intrigued by, it is the adding of eyelashes that, no pun intended, caught my eye. 

 

The setup is similar to having artificial fingernails. For a hefty sum the first time, fake eyelashes are applied in tiny clusters to your natural ones. Being a semi-permanent process, fills are needed every month (for a fraction of the original cost), replacing the ones that have fallen out due to the natural shedding cycle of the eyelash. The application lasts approximately 30 minutes and is relatively painless. (If you blink too much while the glue is still wet fumes irritate the eye slightly and a little discomfort is felt, but the irritation isn’t even close to being as strong as getting soap in the eye). I’m all for painless beauty and the promise of full, dark, dramatic eyelashes was so appealing to me that I made an appointment to have mine done.  I set the appointment to be two days before departing on a lengthy trip on which I expected to be in the water half the time. The benefit of fake eyelashes would be that I did not have to wear mascara at all. Even the best waterproof mascara can’t pass the test of water skiing, swimming, and getting sweaty from hiking up mountain trails that dead end at prime viewing spots of pristine, snow-fed, clear, freshwater lakes. 

 

The room was decorated with maroon on every surface. The only other color in the room was white. An antique sideboard holding samples of botanical emollients and pamphlets splashed with statements about no animal testing. Lying on the silk covered bed/table peacefully, I attempted to do as I was instructed. Keep my eyes gently closed while lashes were combined with my own, held secure with tiny dew drops of black glue.  My eyelids began to feel heavy, as when fatigue draws them to the ground, but it was not uncomfortable and although I was sure at the beginning of the procedure my eyes would water they did not. My tear ducts had yet to release the grief that remained damned over the recent death of my grandmother so I was not surprised that the nearness of pointy fingernails and sharp tweezers to my eyeballs did not release more than a fine mist across the eye. The woman attending me chatted about her business and the various wants and desires of her clientele making the time pass by swiftly.  From her tales I gleaned that not all women want or need a complete makeover (contrary to popular belief). More often than not, one change can make such a significant difference upon a woman’s confidence and overall look, that no other changes are warranted. I left feeling thrilled over the new look the eyelash extensions gave me, my hairstyle suddenly more elegant, my outfit more sophisticated.  I was one happy customer as I headed out of the Spa. That is until I climbed in my truck and saw myself in the rear view mirror.  Suddenly I felt unsure about the new look. I went about the rest of the afternoon unable to make direct eye contact due to wave after wave of indecisiveness.  Plus I could see the eyelashes, which was a new experience for my lashes had always been full but never lengthy. I began to wonder, just how do taxi drivers who string pom-pom fringe across the top edge of their windshields see?

   

Hours later I’m perched on the bathroom counter staring in the mirror.  My eye color falls within the catch-all term ‘hazel’.  Upon a foundation of green, brown spins out from the center, the effect similar to the art made one summer at the county fair. A five gallon drum contained a spinning wheel of paper. Given paint in red plastic ketchup bottles, we dropped various colors and sizes of drops upon the centrifuge. My eyes are so ordinary, compared to others.  Mike is blind in one eye. Both his eyes are blue. He often holds up his hand near his blind eye to block you from viewing it for it is so hard not to stare. Frozen in time it sparkles the most brilliant diamond, captured forever his joie de vivre. If he does not block your sight of it, your ability to read his body language is thwarted. He blocks your view to give you a fighting chance.  My sister has freckled eyes. A few dozen dot each of her gray-blue eyes. Her eyes are clear throughout until you reach the bottom, reminiscent of an albino’s.  At the bottom lies a watercolor of a gloomy day at sea.  As she stood in the garage facing the sun a few weeks ago I was able to get an excellent view of her peepers.  I resisted the urge to have her turn sideways so I could attempt to determine whether the freckles were just dots or tips of tendrils reaching out from within her brain.  My best friend’s eyes are the color of the ocean during Snoopy’s tale of a dark and stormy night. On many an occasion I glimpse leviathans in the deep. 

 

As night approached, the glue on my eyes hardens, tightening the bond between artificial and natural lash. There’s been a cricket near my bed for two nights and as I lay awaiting the train to dream land it starts chirping. So loudly is its chirp I decide its location must be directly under the bed and grab a flashlight to peer underneath. Nothing. Placing my ear upon the wall I track his sound upwards, is he in the wall? My eyelids are feeling sore, I assume its fatigue and start to climb back in bed. Perhaps the cricket is in the headboard? More likely it’s in the rain gutter.

 

With one hand grasping the top sheet poised ready to fling back the covers, I reach with my other to move the pillow. Mid air my hand freezes.  A huge ant is walking across the edge of my pillow. Creative writing may demand the use of   better adjectives but I can think of no other way to describe an ant that is the length of your fingernail and a third of the width.  Many insects in Florida suddenly take flight without the obvious means to do so and although I do not see any wings on this ant I do not risk brushing him casually to the floor.  Instead I carry him on the pillow into the kitchen as carefully as if I was the ring bearer in a royal wedding.  Never losing sight of the black and red body I transport him solemnly towards the altar where his fate will be sealed forever.  FWAP! Flip-flop connected solidly with ant body. I went back to bed.

 

It’s 4 a.m.  Maggots have replaced my eyelids.  Black flies have hatched and are attempting to fly away. Their bodies are made from metal bristle brushes used to clean car battery terminals. None can escape. Black glue pins them to my skin, my face having become a dipterist’s collection board while I slept.

 

Nearly blind I find my way to the kitchen. I struggle to read the aftercare card I was given, searching for clues as to how to remove them. It warns to not use oil, to not get wet, to not sit in hot tubs. I grab the olive oil from the pantry and race for the shower, knocking into corners as I go.  Hours of hot water, olive oil, makeup remover, and soap finally release the eyelashes. It stings. A huge relief is felt when the last of the dead fly bodies finally washes down the drain.  My once quick and painless beauty now leaves me humbled, for removed along with the artificial the natural have also been taken. Half as many eyelashes remain as when I began.

 

My wish was to wow people with the look of my eyes, and I was still able to do that after this ordeal. Everyone that saw me for days afterwards said, ‘Wow! What happened to your eyes?’ It wasn’t exactly the comment I was hoping for but one I use as a springboard for a tale that ends with a serious request, “Could we do some testing on animals?”

 

– Mary McQueary.

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Paul Celan: Words from the Snow

July 3, 2008 at 5:30 am (Dominic Alapat, Essay)

 

What words would do justice to Paul Celan’s poetry?

 

From the first time I read him nearly 10 years ago, Celan’s voice has remained in my mind like great rags of sound fluttering in the breeze of 20th century poetry. 

 

Celan was born in 1920 in a German-speaking Jewish family in the Eastern European city of Czernowitc, a part of the Austrian empire. His personal life, which was entwined around one of most catastrophic events of the century, the Holocaust, produced poems that to many are unmatched in their power, moral and poetic, in descriptions of a world that had gone and killed itself. Sample these lines from ‘Deathfugue’:

 

Black milk of daybreak we drink it at evening

we drink it at midday and morning we drink it at night

we drink and drink

we shovel a grave in the air where you won’t lie too cramped

A man lives in the house he plays with his vipers he writes

he writes when it grows dark to Deutschland your golden hair

    Margareta

he writes it and steps out of doors and the stars are all sparkling he

     whistles his hounds to stay close

he whistles his Jews into rows has them shovel a grave in the ground

he commands us play up for the dance   

 

Celan (born Paul Antschel), like many other German-speaking Jews of his time, grew up on the classics of Goethe and Schiller, and Hebrew texts. Having a deep love for poetry, he read Dante, Shakespeare, Dickinson and the French Symbolists. From his teenage years onwards, he translated poetry from English, Romanian and French into German.

One day in 1942, during the course of World War II, his parents were picked up in a raid by the occupying German forces and sent to Ukraine to a concentration camp. Celan returned home that night to find his parents gone. Soon after, he himself was sent to forced labour where he learnt that his parents had died; his father of typhus, his mother shot dead. These events changed the course of his life and resulted in a poetry that moves like no other with its pain and its sense of horror and loss at the world. His poetry is an attempt to find reality in a radically altered world. In this changed world, he wondered what role the German language would have to play. In ‘Nearness of Graves’ he asks:

 

And can you bear, Mother, as once on a time,

the gentle, the German, the pain-laden rhyme?         

 

Celan returned home after two years in labour camp and eventually found his way to Paris where he lived till 1970, when he took his own life at the age of 49. His poetry got him the top literary prizes in Germany after the war. With Nelly Sachs and Peter Huchel, Celan defined German poetry of the postwar era. He married the French graphic artist Gisèle Lestrange, had a son, and earned a living as teacher, translator and poet. Writers like Gunter Grass and Primo Levi and philosophers like Martin Heidegger and Theodor Adorno came to acknowledge his writing. Yet, in spite of all the accolades and acclaim, Celan was a poet in pursuit of what would make sense for him in his poetry and in his world, with a heart that had gone past bewilderment. He suffered from bouts of depression and always the snow of the Ukraine where his mother perished returned to him:

 

Aspen tree, your leaves glance white into the dark.

My mother’s hair never turned white.

 

Dandelion, so green is the Ukraine.

My fair-haired mother did not come home.

 

Rain cloud, do you linger at the well?

My soft-voiced mother weeps for all.

 

Rounded star, you coil the golden loop.

My mother’s heart was hurt by lead.

 

Oaken door, who hove you off your hinge?

My gentle mother cannot return.    

 

Celan was against philosophising about his poetry. He never chose to elaborate on his poems in his interviews and said that meaning rests in the poems alone. Writing poetry for Celan was “an attempt to gain direction”. A poem for him “can be a message in a bottle, sent out in the—not always greatly hopeful—belief that somewhere and sometime it could wash up on land, on heartland perhaps.”

 

Celan’s was a hunt for a language threaded bare. His words go off in the mind with a freshness and power that seem to knock down the boundaries of reality, yet is a part of it and also constantly searching for it.

 

Many of his later poems, works from the mid to late-sixties, are short poems, almost like haiku. Here, the words are pared down to a minimum. The poems stand like torn flags in the wind, with a plain speaking transcendental power. In ‘Once’, a poem seemingly to be meditating on God, he says:
 

 

Once,

I heard him,

he was washing the world,

unseen, nightlong,

real.

 

One and infinite,

Annihilated,

they I’ed.

 

Light was. Salvation.

 

Celan’s bouts of depression increased during the late 60’s and he committed suicide by drowning himself in the Seine River in 1970. Since then, his poems have been translated into many languages and have come to be recognised by poets, critics and readers as an outstanding human testament to a terrible time. Translators like Michael Hamburger and John Felstiner, from whom I have quoted, have rendered a great service to Celan’s English language readers with their insight and scholarship in his works. Celan’s influences can be seen today in the poetry of vastly different cultures and languages. The American critic Helen Vendler calls him “the greatest poet since Yeats.”

 

Many living under brutal and oppressive power structures find a world of their own in Celan’s poems. Like all great poetry, his works transcend their time; they have a lot to tell us in their universality about art and the human condition. Yet, Celan on the occasion of receiving The Literature Prize from the city of Bremen, said, “A poem is not timeless. Certainly it lays claim to infinity, it seeks to reach through time—through it, not above and beyond it.”

 

For me, this is one of the wisest comments on poetry I have read. Poetry is after all the engagement of the poet with his or her reality. It is this test the poet’s work has to engage with. Language and environment, what each does to the other. What art will result out of this marriage. Like with all great literature, each reading of Celan will encounter deeper feeling and nuance as though found for the first time. Like incantations of a kind, his poetry is like the smoke rising to the sky from the death-chambers of the Nazi camps. 

 

 

– Dominic Alapat.

 

 [Lines quoted are from Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan translated by John Felstiner, Norton books.]

 

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