Paul Celan, “With a fieldmouse voice”

With a fieldmouse voice (from Guernica)
Paul Celan (translation Ian Fairley)

With a fieldmouse voice
you squeak up,
a sharp
clamp,
you bite through my vest into flesh,
a cloth,
you slip over my mouth,
even as my talk
would weigh you, shadow,
down.

Comment:

Perhaps unfairly, I thought of this as a study for George Szirtes’ “Polyphonic,” which I hope to write on later. In that poem, a shadow lodges in a man’s mouth while he speaks, and an argument commences between him and the shadow.

The action of Celan’s poem bears similarity. The speaker addresses a shadow which has come over him. And the shadow is not unrelated to the speaker’s own voice.

Here, the shadow is also aggressive, moving onto the speaker. It seems to start from outside him, almost imperceptible (“fieldmouse voice”). Then all of a sudden it grips, bites, tears into flesh. But the tearing into flesh feels accidental, as the speaker’s clothing, his vest, looks like the target. The shadow ultimately forms a cloth over him and slips over his mouth.

My impression of the shadow: it’s one of Eros’ arrows. Getting bitten by a squeaky mouse that doesn’t really know what it wants to chew is a lot like love. Not love of the “omg I think I’m crushing on that hottie at the bar” sort. This is real romance, where the faintest sound latches on and doesn’t let go. It hits suddenly out of the everyday. To resist is pain; whether any pleasure exists apart from pain is a good question. You’d argue, if this is love of a more real sort, that the speaker would at least allude to how necessary or choiceworthy it is. I do think that allusion presents itself.

Talk weighs the shadow covering the mouth down. To speak is to break the spell in a way, as the shadow will move less quickly over him. But to speak is also to keep the shadow with oneself, to make it more earthly, to make it more real. What’s funny is how this process exists for the people we truly love and who truly love us. Most of what we call love seems to be some sort of game bearing a resemblance to this. On a larger level, this is most unexpected.