Paul Celan, “In lizard skins”

With thanks to Nadia Nasedo & Sophie Johnson

“In lizard skins” (from Guernica)
Paul Celan (tr. Ian Fairley)

In lizard
skins, Epi-
I bed you, on the sills,
the gable
infill us, with lightsoil.


Puzzled, rambled about this poem. It combines sensuality with a quiet domesticity. The whole poem is one action, “I bed you, on the sills,” which is the copulative act (“I bed you”) and the putting of a plant in soil next to a window. The house is less a structure and the locus of growth itself (“the gable holes infill us”). “Lightsoil” is just amazing. As it fills the lovers, it enables them to grow and create the conditions for new growth. And that “light” and “soil” are on equal footing is no less remarkable.

So true love and intercourse do go together. But what do we do with the opening of the poem? “Lizard skins” and “epileptic” suggest behaviors by the speaker that don’t seem to fit the above reading. The purposiveness of sensuality is very clear in the latter half of the poem. That doesn’t quite square with “epileptic” behavior. Lizard skin is camouflage, if it isn’t tough and resilient. It suggests a lover eager to move on or be independent more than one who would settle down.

Celan, I think, is pushing this “true love makes itself manifest in sexuality” theme very far. The inconsistent behaviors that characterize romance prior to settling down do create a longing which makes a life together. It’s a small miracle that a lizard turns into a plant, and epileptic might refer to the ecstasy and loss of rationality involved. The lizard’s behavior would ordinarily take it up the wall, through the gable, and beyond.