Paul Celan, “Vinegrowers”

Vinegrowers (from Poetry)
Paul Celan (tr. Pierre Joris)

Vinegrowers dig up dig
under the darkhoured watch,
depth for depth,

you read,
the invisible
one commands the wind
to stay in bounds,

you read,

the Open Ones carry
the stone behind the eye,
it recognizes you,
on a Sabbath.

Comment:

Titus Techera and I made a podcast about this poem. Titus has been working on an extended commentary on how the original German works. I’ve been fortunate to read part of it, and I can safely tell you it’s beautiful and thoughtful (but then again, who would expect any less?). When it is finished, I will be sure to share the link. For now, here’s the podcast and a brief discussion of the above translation. Credit to Titus for most of the observations which follow:

“Vinegrowers” is Celan’s last poem. Celan killed himself, and one might expect to find darkness attendant upon this lyric. Instead, we encounter a cryptic comment on Creation. First, a garden:

Vinegrowers dig up dig
under the darkhoured watch,
depth for depth

Vinegrowers dig in the dark; both starlight and the clock attest to their earliness. They’re doing, but no matter what, they’re starting, unclear on what is actually being done. “Dig up dig” and “depth for depth” indicate the only accomplishment is an ever-increasing pile of dirt.

Suddenly, Celan switches the scene:

you read,
the invisible
one commands the wind
to stay in bounds

Everything shifts with “you read.” You just read that vinegrowers dig in the dark, randomly piling in the name of making an effort. Your reading resulted in you imagining a scene. With the author, you have created.

That strange thought leads to the next scene, where “the invisible one commands the wind to stay in bounds.” Prior to the garden, the word was present at Creation, governing it. The invisible logos commands the invisible “to stay in bounds,” to accept restriction and allow for differentiation.

Things actually are; this is a real world we live in. But our access to it is curious. Images are created, images which present forms which, in turn, seem to generate or define the beings around us. “Seem” is the operative word. Just as the poet digs, looking for the right words, ones which never quite match his object, the vinegrowers are all of us, not quite knowing what we’re doing. Only God matches the act of creating with a specific object. There are, for the rest of us, degrees of not knowing exactly what one is doing.

Those degrees mean that “the invisible one commands the wind to stay in bounds” has a special significance for the poet, the one thinking aloud through this problem. He’s a vinegrower too, but he knows what light can do. The last stanza:

you read,

the Open Ones carry
the stone behind the eye,
it recognizes you,
on a Sabbath

Once again, “you read.” The invisible power restricting the winds before? That was a myth you read, imagined, gave life to. It was not without consequence, though. “The Open Ones carry the stone behind the eye.” The invisible meanings from before led to a species of openness – you asked questions – and the very thing blocking your eye, forcing your reading to be a pipeline to your imagination only, has now moved behind the eye. It isn’t gone; it did not dissolve. When we truly learn, we remember how we learned. Understanding falsity is the path to knowledge. Yet we are not in control, not in the least: “it recognizes you.” True knowledge is a revelation of sorts, as we are remade and at rest in the world.