Paul Celan, “I hear the axe has flowered”

I hear the axe has flowered is quite a sentence. It combines an instrument of violence, an axe, with a vision of growth. In case one feels tempted to say an axe merely prunes or cultivates—maybe imagining an axe only felling dead trees or providing firewood—Celan’s fourth line speaks of “the hanged man.”

The references to an executioner lead beyond the horrors the state inflicts on individuals, as “flowered” signals an almost absurd belief in progress. How do any of us reconcile the terror and dehumanization indulged by state and society with hope for the future?

I hear the axe has flowered (from Guernica)
Paul Celan (tr. Ian Fairley)

I hear the axe has flowered,
I hear the place can't be named,
I hear the bread that looks on him
heals the hanged man,
the bread his wife baked him,
I hear they call life
the only refuge.

Celan hints that we do not aim for any sincere reconciliation. An axe deconstructs itself and simply flowers; “the place can’t be named” as many object to investigating lynchings or mass graves. He hears these awful excuses as we all do, silently marveling at one in particular: I hear the bread that looks on him heals the hanged man. How could it be possible to believe bread that alone heals? Holy Communion can be perverted in the public mind, in this case serving to justify the summary execution of dissidents and undesirables. The totality of state and society acting this way compounds horror: I hear the bread that looks on him heals the hanged man, the bread his wife baked him.

At this point I have to pause. Celan envisions a sort of person who can see those executed as indispensable to others. And that sort of person can just shrug off their lives, the fact they’re loved and needed. This is readily identifiable by us as a contemporary political phenomenon. The glorification and over-romanticization of violence-workers such as police and soldiers has built a culture of dehumanization and death, machinery tailored to serve non-democratic ends. Some people, we believe, are useful. They serve. Their lives and the lives of those who support them are “worthy” ones. Others don’t deserve anything, not even their own lives. Note that what counts as useful or as service is entirely made up. A small, trivial example. According to our society, Donald Trump, Jr.—not the President, but the President’s son—has had a job longer than I’ve ever had, and has contributed significantly to the economy. A recent poll said that 17% of Republicans would vote for him as President in 2024.

I sound like I’m getting off-topic, but most of you listening are understanding that some the ways we dehumanize can be imperceptible. The most insidious ways hide within our notions of right and wrong. We don’t even realize how fervently we pursue evil until we’re impacted directly. Even then, we have an incredible capacity to lie to ourselves. It’s against this backdrop I believe Celan’s last line hits hardest. I hear they call life the only refuge. Refuge from what? Life?

Emily Dickinson, “These are the days when Birds come back”(130)

Merely staring out the window, Dickinson envisions no less than a sacrament:

Oh Sacrament of summer days,
Oh Last Communion in the Haze —
Permit a child to join.

Some may be tempted to dismiss her. A “Last Communion in the Haze” has a melodramatic sound. Surely true sacraments ask the Church and God Himself to bear witness! In response, I will note one sort of experience people consider religious. Most would say living everyday life with a deep gratitude has a sacred quality. Religious writers consumed by the middle and upper classes try to see ritual emerging from the practice of quiet virtue. I should add, as a not terribly irrelevant aside, that a dangerous contentment can be bred if one sees one’s way of life as exclusively a gift from God. I’ll never forget an acquaintance obsessed with looking for small moments in her life she could say were God-given. It made her dismissive of others; it led to overt racism. Other people’s claims about justice and grace could not even be considered.

Dickinson wants to join a sacrament as a mere child. What governs her is less an assumption of rightness but a want of awe, curiosity, and innocence. How did she reach this desire?

These are the days when Birds come back (130)
Emily Dickinson

These are the days when Birds come back —
A very few — a Bird or two —
To take a backward look.

These are the days when skies resume
The old — old sophistries of June —
A blue and gold mistake.

Oh fraud that cannot cheat the Bee —
Almost thy plausibility
Induces my belief.

Till ranks of seeds their witness bear —
And softly thro' the altered air
Hurries a timid leaf.

Oh Sacrament of summer days,
Oh Last Communion in the Haze —
Permit a child to join.

Thy sacred emblems to partake —
They consecrated bread to take
And thine immortal wine!

It begins with a “fraud.” “The days when Birds come back,” “the days when skies resume the old… sophistries of June” misdirect. They lead Dickinson to think summer isn’t quite finished. It’s a thought she willingly indulges.

Vendler holds that in this poem, Dickinson works to progress beyond “Nature’s sophistical promise of eternal joy” (36). I submit that while the theme of “eternal joy” has a grand and philosophic aura, it fails to speak to more pressing, personal concerns. Namely: When we reflect, must we indulge untruth? If we try to think through our truest joys, can we maintain them?

Dickinson watches a few returning birds as they look around, some looking backwards. She’s wondering about herself. She’d like summer-like moments to continue indefinitely. For that matter, we all would. I remember having a crush for the right reasons: seeing one eager to learn but also open to levity, or another dedicated to serious causes but not forgoing compassion. I hated losing those feelings; I hated losing belief in someone. I imagine that’s what is at stake in Dickinson’s “backward look.” Not “eternal joy,” but the moments we most want to reflect upon, moments pregnant with possibility and pain.

Our desire to reflect is a trap. We are amazingly good at convincing ourselves of anything. “The old — old sophistries of June” are not the sky’s. We want to see a “blue and gold mistake,” a rich glassy firmament glowing with light. In reflection, we bring our hopes into being, nearly recrafting the past.

The matter of thought is itself thought. It’s a “fraud that cannot cheat the Bee.” Other creatures, busy building homes and working to survive and flourish, do not busy themselves with trying to get the past exactly right. But though Dickinson stands momentarily paralyzed by reverie, she awakens from it. She sees the trees, “the ranks of seeds,” bear witness to a changed season and the author herself. They bear witness to her as their leaves change color and fall. They see her as changed, even if she can’t see it herself. I used to think that in being lovesick I was perhaps impervious to growth. The truth is weirder than that, even when one lacks or tries to purposely reject maturity.

It’s that weirdness—that mystery—Dickinson transfers from reflection to sacrament. She knows she loved, she knows she once felt complete. And now she knows that very feeling of completeness entails embracing change. She believed herself capable of joy and reflection before, and both these capacities proved themselves. How to embrace a future most certainly colder and darker? Only with awe, curiosity, innocence—only with a childlike reverence for experience itself. The “sacred emblems to partake,” the communion that links one with the divine, comes from acceptance of the imagination. It enables one to see what is most nourishing—again, nearly bringing it into existence. In this sense, imagination providing the material for reflection is like “immortal wine” more than bread. Bread is taken but not broken: it is the sign of the real, consecrated in hope but not lost to fantasy (36). For myself, asking what I want in a partner has not merely been useful, but empowering. It does not place the burden of love on me alone.

References

Vendler, Helen. Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries. Cambridge: Harvard, 2010. 35-37.

Giuseppe Ungaretti, “I am a creature”

At the battle, where one maneuvers around life and death, the mountain comes into view over and over. The mountain, “this stone,” breaks the sky, but Ungaretti’s “Sono una creatura” descends. Many understand it to be an anti-war poem. I generally agree, but following Professor Vivienne Suvini-Hand, I also hold that it engages themes found in a cult reading of Nietzsche.

The descent unfolds through sensations inspired by the stone itself. Ungaretti lists these sensations, speaking of himself as if he were gradually becoming the mountain:

I am a creature (from My Poetic Side)
Ungaretti

Like this stone of
San Michele
as cold
as hard
as thoroughly dried
as refractory
as deprived of spirit

Like this stone
is my weeping that can't
be seen

Living
discounts death

Original Italian:

Sono una creatura (from here)

Come questa pietra 
del S. Michele 
così fredda 
così dura 
così prosciugata 
così refrattaria 
così totalmente 
disanimata 

Come questa pietra 
è il mio pianto 
che non si vede

La morte 
si sconta 
vivendo

Being “cold,” “hard,” and “thoroughly dried” points to more than shunning regard for others or rejecting warm feelings. It’s an embrace of lifelessness, seeing in mountain-like manliness true durability and strength. We are tempted to say that this looks profoundly anti-war, a spiral into insanity put on paper. No one actually believes becoming a deathbringer without possibility of remorse is good, right? Professor Suvini-Hand, however, has located a passage in Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil which endorses throwing away pity for the “creature in man” for the sake of sculpting oneself:

“In man, creature and creator are united: in man there is matter, fragment, excess, clay, mud, madness, chaos; but in man there is also creator, sculptor, the hardness of the hammer, the divine spectator and the seventh day—do you understand this antithesis? And that your pity is for the ‘creature in man,’ for that which has to be formed, broken, forged, torn, burned, annealed, refined—that which has to suffer and should suffer!” (18)

If Ungaretti believes being a soldier is a powerfully formative experience, that he can be a hammer unto himself, sculpt himself, then becoming cold and hard are not necessarily problematic for him. We see this as crazy and childish, and his focus on the dryness of the stone shows the possibility of sympathy, if not sympathy itself, for our view. Our everyday devotion to the lives and welfare of others can’t easily be explained to one reading too much Nietzsche and given a gun by the state. They might feel the only thing worth birthing is “greatness” or “ideas” or some other nonsense.

Ungaretti’s descent is by no means complete, though. The stone as “refractory”—as harder than all the attempts to destroy it—must have a special appeal for a soldier in combat. This leads to a realization which can be thought much more dramatic than being lifeless or barren. He claims he is totally “deprived of spirit,” of soul. Stone, bearing witness for years upon years, has no need for illusions or animation, let alone emotion.

I lean to the view that declaring oneself drained of spirit usually marks a point of commitment. In this case, one could envision oneself some sort of perfect, stoic soldier fighting with machine-like efficiency for his nation, but it would be a grim and immature fantasy. Ungaretti follows being “deprived of spirit” by speaking of the weeping he’s suppressing—”weeping that can’t be seen”—and it is notable that the stone now takes on a quality of his as opposed to the other way round. He personifies the stone; it becomes more like him for once.

His final statement, “living discounts death,” does not lend itself to imagining some sort of overman indifferent to suffering. It seems to speak an awful irony of combat, that in order to survive, one has to focus, and that focus means becoming more like the lifeless aspects of the terrain one fights on. I do need to be clear about Ungaretti’s fascism. He very much is a fascist, later in life eagerly wanting backing from Mussolini, speaking of Blackshirts as a “miracle,” celebrating fascist rule. Is it possible to create a fascist poem with this much ambivalence about war, though? It doesn’t look possible, unless one is indulging a particular sort of propaganda.

References

Vivienne Suvini-Hand, Mirage and Camouflage: Hiding Behind Hermeticism in Ungaretti’s L’Allegria. Leicester: Troubadour, 2000. 14-19.

Alicia Ostriker, “America”

Our earnestness our sincerity… when we learned to sing America.

When studying Greek political thought, I’m tempted to think Americans especially naive. For an example, consider Antigone. Antigone invokes the gods; Creon fears disobedience of his edict will destroy the city. That’s the surface, but a closer look shows the play refusing to be such a simple conflict. Creon absolutely is a tyrant, declaring himself in charge and setting down his one law to consolidate rule. He’s a terrible, stupid excuse for a human. His conversation with Haemon demonstrates a complete contempt for women, not just Antigone, and an utter inability to see his own son as anything other than a possession. Thus, it seems opposing Creon’s rule is perfectly just. We witness Creon angrily argue with nearly everyone else in the play as if no one recognizes him as the ruler of his own room, much less Thebes.

But Antigone’s own motives are complicated. She has no concern for the life of her living sister and barely mentions the other brother who died in the fighting. Though she confronts Creon with his hubris, her final justification for her action sounds warped. She buried Polynices because she can always have another husband or son, but she can never have another brother. It is safe to conclude that Antigone, like Creon, has no idea who actual people are. Like him, she has an idea that she’s part of a family and that family should be honored. Creon cannot abide a hint of dishonor, and Antigone’s first conversation with Ismene reveals she cares far more about the slights the family name has received than her sister’s well-being. Antigone and Creon are not merely thin-skinned, as they are completely unable to engage other people properly. If, as a matter of convention, we value obedience to law and honor families dedicated to public service, we hold that distance from other people is a political necessity. It’s what makes a true political leader committed to order, we think, than some individual good.

I look at this sort of reflection on the public and the private—how the family is the heart of the city, but is itself an unstable concept which could destroy civic order—and then I consider how my country thinks. If people don’t believe the Trumps are a great family, deserving of rule, they believe the Kennedys and Bushes are. People believe large amounts of wealth indicate large amounts of skill or favor from God Himself. If something is on television a lot, it must be good, or else why would it be on television? I know–it isn’t fair of me to compare Antigone to common opinion. American contributions to drama, cinema, visual art, sculpture, dance, music, and a host of other artistic endeavors are incredibly thoughtful.

If Americans on the whole are naive, then it is purposeful.

“Our earnestness our sincerity,” part of the achievement:

America (from The Atlantic)
Alicia Ostriker

Do you remember our earnestness our sincerity
In first grade when we learned to sing America

The Beautiful along with the Star-Spangled Banner
And say the Pledge of Allegiance to America

We put our hands over our first-grade hearts
We felt proud to be part of America

I said One Nation Invisible until corrected
Maybe I was right about America

School days school days dear old Golden Rule days
When we learned how to behave in America

What to wear how to smoke how to despise our parents
Who didn’t understand us or America

Only later understanding the Banner and the Beautiful
Lived on opposite sides of the street in America

Only later discovering this land is two lands
One triumphant bully one hopeful America

Sometimes I still put my hand tenderly on my heart
Somehow or other still carried away by America

Earnestness and sincerity as part of a larger project are complicated to explain, but Ostriker’s musing helps. When, “in first grade… we learned to sing America,” no one meant to brainwash kids. Nor did they mean to create a civic faith which would deepen with liberal learning. What you see as an earnest first grader is “The Beautiful along with the Star-Spangled.”

You name the place you’re in. “America.”

You sing it as good. “Star-Spangled” sounds awesome, you stumble over the syllables of “spangled.” You have no idea what it means.

You feel “proud.” It’s higher but related to the same pride you have pretending to be a ninja while watching Power Rangers or powering up a Pokemon. These are “first-grade hearts”—earnest, sincere, innocent above all.

*

Innocence is fine for 6 year olds. We’d like them to know words. We’d like them to fill with pride as they learn more.

I said One Nation Invisible until corrected
Maybe I was right about America

The teacher wants the word “indivisible” learned. Curious. The word doesn’t really have a use outside of the Pledge. They want the Pledge said correctly, but a child’s patriotism or enthusiasm isn’t in question. What matters is the uniformity: the Pledge as proper ritual, said all together, and no teasing of one for not knowing “indivisible.” No one means to brainwash a child, but we have yet to speak about adulthood.

Ostriker then bursts into sing-song about where and when she was taught to behave: “School days school days dear old Golden Rule days.” More than family, more than song, more than teachers, peers at school taught.

Adults in America get so frustrated with their children’s friends. Why is a kid not listening to their elders? Why are they going to some other kid to learn “what to wear” or “how to smoke?” Amazing that adults can’t stop for one second and realize they’re not dealing with first-graders any more. What a kid, teenager, or college student wants to understand is how their interactions with others work. Their own independence and distinctiveness. How to exert control, demonstrate value, gain respect. Amazing so many adults refuse to ask about any of this or appreciate the complexity involved. Nationalism or blind patriotism alone don’t make adults hopelessly rule-bound, unable to understand their own growth. Rather, it’s the assumption growth is natural and inevitable which drives the narrow-mindedness which in turn feeds the nationalism. One ugly sentiment captures it perfectly: “Why aren’t they grateful,” where “they,” for example, have households worth $8 in the same city “we” have ones worth $250,000.

“The Golden Rule” Ostriker intones is deeply problematic in an American context. It is easy to do unto others as they do unto you when segregated by race and class. Relative equality denies the moral principle any force, or for that matter, any moral content.

Still, kids and their peers, despite their lack of knowledge, despite their conformity, see through the Golden Rule somehow. Something regarding their anxiety about being a part of their generation helps them. When I taught Kant’s “Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals” a few months ago, we puzzled over “Act in such a way as to treat humanity, whether in your own person or in that of anyone else, always as an end and never merely as a means.” Never treating another as a means resonated with my students immediately. They knew how wrong it is to simply use people. Treating others as ends? That’s more complicated. What does it mean for society if we put our individual goals aside to ensure the welfare of others? In some ways, we do this already. But the ways we don’t would change everything if attended to.

*

The quiet drama of Ostriker’s “America” concerns growth. Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing” celebrates individuality and industry as musical. Hughes’ response in “I, Too” sings those neglected, bearing witness to their strength and the strength of their songs and hopes.

Ostriker’s growth is different. Older, she now sees “this land is two lands.” That the flag is used in the service of a great denial: “the Banner and the Beautiful…[live] on opposite sides of the street.” I take this to be an echo of Nikole Hannah-Jones in the introductory essay of the 1619 project:


The United States is a nation founded on both an ideal and a lie. Our Declaration of Independence, signed on July 4, 1776, proclaims that ‘‘all men are created equal’’ and ‘‘endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.’’ But the white men who drafted those words did not believe them to be true for the hundreds of thousands of black people in their midst. ‘‘Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness’’ did not apply to fully one-fifth of the country. Yet despite being violently denied the freedom and justice promised to all, black Americans believed fervently in the American creed. Through centuries of black resistance and protest, we have helped the country live up to its founding ideals.

Nikole Hannah-Jones, “The 1619 Project” p.16

Ostriker’s growth, you could say, resides in grasping the difficulty of the ideal being a lie. If you see the opposite side of the street, you have only begun to look. There are no easy, balanced dichotomies even when one has located good and evil: “one triumphant bully one hopeful America.” The complexity of truth comes into sharp relief with the pull nostalgia still has on her:

Sometimes I still put my hand tenderly on my heart
Somehow or other still carried away by America

It’s not a naive pull or a faded pride. It’s the product of confrontation with belief itself. This is growth. Not unwavering triumph or resolve, nor all things settled, but the acceptance of being swayed in an ambiguous world.

Giuseppe Ungaretti, “Weightless Now”

In “I dwell in Possibility,” Dickinson declares hers “A fairer House than Prose.” At the end of the poem, she tells what she does in that “House:”

For Occupation – This –
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise –

On one reading, it is grand. The spreading wide my narrow hands to gather Paradise. Her whole life is just this, the embrace of possibility. Nothing determined can be had—there can be no set object—as beauty resides in the love, the effort, the elegance of the gesture itself. Perhaps this is what it truly means to write poetry, to hymn existence.

On another reading, it is empty. I can’t say that these lines contain a hint of pessimism or darkness, but the problem is obvious. Poems about break-ups pine for time together lost. Poems about lasting love describe strange, symbolic gestures which a beloved can receive and understand. See, for example, Raymond Carver’s “Hummingbird.”

*

One might say Dickinson’s independence, self-fulfillment, and happiness are plausible enough. Her poem refers to the very activity of creating it—she crafts poetry, she dwells in possibility, and she earns her moments of gathering Paradise as she writes them into being.

If we accept this reasoning, a further problem emerges. Can poetry ever be true to experiences other than those of crafting poetry? Ungaretti’s “Weightless Now” brought to mind Dickinson’s above lines because of a gesture that sounded similar: The hands like leaves / Float breathless in the air. I am struggling to understand the poem, though. When Ungaretti declares A soul grows weightless now, what does he mean? Does he mean that one feels lighter than air because of joy? Does he envision someone living their last moments? Is a soul weightless because of rejection or injury? My inability to locate an experience specific enough to help the poem make sense has me wondering about the larger problem of how poetry and experience relate:

Weightless Now
Ungaretti (tr. Richard Wilbur)

For a god who is laughing like a child
So many cries of sparrows,
So many hoppings high in the branches,

A soul grows weightless now,
Such tenderness is on the fields,
Such chastity refills the eyes,

The hands like leaves
Float breathless in the air...

Who fears, who judges now?

Original Italian:

Per un Iddio che rida come un bimbo,
Tanti gridi di passeri,
Tante danze nei rami,

Un'anima si fa senza più peso,
I prati hanno una tale tenerezza,
Tale pudore negli occhi rivive,

Le mani come foglie
S'incantano nell'aria...

Chi teme più, chi giudica?

“A god… laughing like a child,” “cries of sparrows,” and “hoppings high in the branches” create a setting lending itself to tragedy or comedy. The world seems so beautiful and so natural that one feels excluded from it. It is properly the province of “a god… laughing like a child,” one who possesses a glee which does not make sense to those who are mortal. That god has no use for our moral notions or our attempts to achieve something with our lives. They do not appreciate nature the way we do. We must see our mortality reflected in it, but they see it as their perpetual playground.

The stanza about setting gives way to the central drama: A soul grows weightless now. I realize I have made the case for why this can be taken tragically. Can such weightlessness be an expression of pure joy? Of course: the soul may not comprehend the laughter of the god, but it shows sensitivity to the mass of sparrows, the life overhead. It sees “tenderness… on the fields.” As it sees, it regains purity and innocence itself: chastity refills the eyes.

The confusion I have, to be clear, has less to do with whether Ungaretti depicts a tragic or comic experience. He’s pointing to a number of experiences. One may be overwhelmed with joy, one may be overwhelmed with grief, one may be suffering greatly, one may feel terrified. Regarding terror, I am thinking of the last passages of Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls—the forest as cathedral, full of dust, with fighters looking for death. This leads to another issue. While Ungaretti’s poetic language paints a convincing, vivid picture—the sparrows’ noise is heard, the hoppings high above are sensed, light upon the fields seems more tender than bright—it ultimately points to an experience Ungaretti cannot possibly have had unless he died and resurrected. The poem stands on this: the sensations had near death are fundamental to our experiences of great joy, grief, terror, or suffering. No doubt we and Ungaretti have had moments where we thought it was all over and the world slowed down and we tried to be pentinent. But Ungaretti goes a bit further than this: A soul grows weightless now. The one who knows he is dying is all of us who assumed we were dying.

You can argue I’m being far too strict here, as we’ll accept that Ungaretti brings us to profound or grave moments where it felt like everything was gained or lost. He’s not really making a claim about knowledge; it’s good enough that we can bring to mind experiences relevant to the language. But now that I’ve said that, you can see how Pandora’s Box has opened. What exactly has to be felt to understand the poem?

*

I suspect one way around the issue is to speak of poems that create realms of emotion more aspirational than experienced. Dickinson’s “I dwell in Possibility” may be one, and “Weightless Now” may be another. The emotion to which the poem aspires is not that of feeling near death. That is only a beginning. The emotion is reached in the empty gesture Ungaretti ends with:

The hands like leaves
Float breathless in the air…

Who fears, who judges now?

It looks like he has located a moment where one feels no less than a god. Beyond fear, beyond judging—a kind of trembling, empty freedom. He attempts to embrace it all (or, perhaps, spurn it all) as if he is about to die.

It’s a difficult gesture to work with. Dickinson’s “narrow Hands” do not need to actually spread. If she’s writing, if she considers herself working within Possibility, we can accept that as her joy at work. Ungaretti emotionally convinces but breaks from all sense of reality to do so. The scene is powerful. Plenty of us have had our nihilist “rage at god” moments. But this resembles something from a film, and I have my doubts about the tendencies on display.

This is the Internet, after all, where so-called grown men lust after avatar pictures, demonstrating little or no self-control or respect for others. They take rejection as an excuse to burn it all down, as they realize the very threat of that is power. —Who fears, who judges now? — I don’t think Ungaretti has written a fascist poem; he has written a poem which might be best seen as corresponding with the films of Fellini or Bergman. What do we make of God’s silence? The trouble is that someone can see their rage, their hurt, their emptiness as completely justified. Like as if the world has ended for them. And as I can’t challenge them directly and say “grow up,” I’ll state a reservation about a work of art. A magnificent, rightly troubling one, but maybe one I understand too well.

References

Giuseppe Ungaretti. “Weightless Now.” Translated by Richard Wilbur in The FSG Book of Twentieth-Century Italian Poetry: An Anthology, ed. Geoffrey Brock. New York: FSG, 2012. 169.