Sophie Collins, “Untitled;” Paul Celan, “Flower”

“What is the work of desire,” I ask myself, and then I have to tell myself “not that work, didn’t mean it like that.”

What I did mean follows from this thought: I’ll have moments with people which I feel matter. No further friendship or relationship will follow. I have to figure out how those moments should be valued while knowing I won’t be loved.

On the one hand, this is a practical problem with a practical solution. If my friends run into people who don’t appreciate them the way I do, I know those people aren’t deserving of my friends’ company. My friends will hear they are worthy of love, worthy of only the best—they can rest assured that whatever they gave was sincere and beautiful.

On the other hand, the problem of not understanding your own value doesn’t just link to desire. It spills over with desire and creates nothing less than an entire social order. Everyone desires, everyone finds themselves defined within an economy of desire. Sophie Collins’ “Untitled” speaks to that directly—The village is always on fire:

Untitled (from Who Is Mary Sue?; h/t
Sophie Collins

The village is always on fire.
Men stay away from the kitchens,
take up in outhouses with concrete floors,
while the women — soot in their hair —
initiate the flames into their small routines.

Amy McCauley, in reviewing Who Is Mary Sue?, uses this poem as an example of “fabular effects.” She holds these effects, over the course of a collection, allow “reality” and “imagination” to blend; the literary and mythical allusions we sense ultimately allow for staging “the ‘I’ of literature… as a series of borrowed selves.” This constitutes one attempt at understanding what it means to be a woman.

It is the case I encountered this poem while rereading Antigone. Gender roles in Ancient Greece impress my thoughts when I want to speak about it. The village is always on fire—everything here could be burned or lost. Always a crisis, and it feels like everyone around you insists on you feeling there is always a crisis. The sense of a community or social order defined by panic brings my mind to Sophocles’ Thebes, a city dealing at different times with a murderous Sphinx, a curse from an unsolved killing, or in the case of Antigone, a crisis of legitimacy brought into relief by a woman.

Of course, one should rightly question why my mind goes back to a mythic city when I can turn on cable news or just assert bluntly that the logic of modern capitalism and modern democracy depends on fear. Fear inspires competition and innovation, we are told; fear is supposed to make checks and balances effectual. Unfortunately, fear also sells, and apparently it’s easy to make lots of money indulging the dark, paranoid fantasies of people who have wealth, power, and privilege. Paranoid fantasies which result in concentration camps.

I turn to Greek thought when wondering about “The village is always on fire,” as there it seems fear and desire hold more or less equal weight as themes. Desire in the poem creates a strange division: Men stay away from the kitchens, take up in outhouses with concrete floors. Honor lovers like Euripides’ Hippolytus, who cannot even conceive why women exist, stay far away from the fire. They desire to avoid desire and in the process avoid food and their own actual houses. They fear change. Food doesn’t become nourishment, households fail to add children. This results in the men having more of each other as well as a cold, hard permanence. The outhouses with concrete floors stand, testifying to their will to build.

The Athens which produced Antigone did not treat women well—contemporary research is unclear when and how they were allowed to legally leave the house. The men here, independent of their love for each other, are blind to an understanding the women obtain by trial. Too quick a lurch to the lasting—the erection of honors, monuments—means being unable to understand how desire works. The women possess something more, but what do they have? The women — soot in their hair — initiate the flames into their small routines: singed, they work with pain and danger constantly. They aim to manage fire here and there, making flames useful for everyday life. A grand ambition, in this case, calls for a piecemeal approach; unlike the men, they haven’t responded to crisis by abandoning a situation. But does each tame fire alone, or do they possess solidarity?


I need a personal, useful answer to how desire works. I need to actually feel some small portion of comfort when trying for love or friendship. Bearing witness to a mess of a world, real or imagined, aids understanding but does not make me feel any better.

Paul Celan’s “Flower” helps a little more. He ends with the promise that one can be spoken to beautifully on more than one occasion, that building out of softness can commence—One more word like this, and the hammers will swing over open ground. For those of you who have been regular readers, who have heard me speak about whether work in general entails love, second-guessing myself all the time, or being ghosted, I should say that my being ignored is not just “boohoohoo I can’t find love.” Hang with me for a day or two and you’ll see there is a strong racial element to it. Just watch how I’m treated in some places. I guarantee you’ll pick up on things I myself haven’t seen or felt—structural racism is funny like that, it’s an actual architecture. It isn’t possible to witness all aspects of it at once.

“Flower” holds an incredible promise. Celan imagines two people each undergoing a rich inner drama:

Paul Celan (tr. Michael Hamburger)

The stone.
The stone in the air, which I followed.
Your eye, as blind as the stone.

We were
we baled the darkness empty, we found
the word that ascended summer:

Flower — a blind man's word.
Your eye and mine:
they see
to water.

Heart wall upon heart wall
adds petals to it.

One more word like this, and the hammers
will swing over open ground.

One almost receives the impression that the beloved is callous and blind: The stone. The stone in the air, which I followed. Your eye, as blind as the stone. Celan seems to have felt that way himself, at least momentarily. He confesses to chasing a stone as if it were a bird.

But in making that confession, he testifies to his own blindness. Maybe the stone actually was a bird. The beloved’s “eye” is “blind as the stone” to him. Who is to say he wasn’t loved?

He knows he was blind; he wonders if the beloved was also. He switches senses from sight to touch: We were hands, we baled the darkness empty. The imagery recalls Milton’s Eden, where Adam and Eve work at maintaining the garden. It implies a sexual encounter, but “we baled the darkness empty” lacks sensuality for this reader. Celan seems more concerned with work, discovery, and growth: We found the word that ascended summer: flower. I feel I could summarize this stanza by saying that it doesn’t matter if something physical happened or not. Both parties worked with what they didn’t know. Both potential lovers already were in love with something.

Flower—a blind man’s word. Your eye and mine: they see to water. Eyes see to water—we cry for the same reason we work, i.e. bale “the darkness empty.” We have values we want to realize. But what will result from those values? What exactly flowers, what is the result of growth? Celan can now safely say the beloved was blind, not because the beloved was callous, but because they wanted to love.

There is clarity. One must look not to the end of flight, but flight itself. Growth. Heart wall upon heart wall adds petals to it. Celan’s vision now embraces the immediate. Maybe there is only darkness, only stones. That’s fine: stones and darkness are what result from building a shelter, building a home. Their heart walls are separate, lover and beloved, but in being separate they are like petals on a flower.

I don’t think it’s really possible to do Celan’s full vision justice. His hope resides in knowing a beloved has the capacity to love. He’s worried about being loved, sure. He’d like “one more word” to begin building. But he also knows what he’s seen: the possibility is there. The possibility alone speaks to love. There is already love, even if one isn’t loved. It’s a crazy conclusion that I know can’t suffice for all the heartbreak we endure. But right now, it feels a lot better than where I started.

1 Comment

  1. “we found
    the word that ascended summer:

    I love that storyless idea that the world of the Word (as it were)
    can be crowned.

    Perhaps that’s all poetry is, ceremony where difference is described.

    Ashok, this blog of yours is ‘urgent’ in the best way. ‘Desire’, there’s a thing, now, consecrates the defined, or do I mean concentrates the mind? Either way, I love how you pulled it out of the flames.

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