but a "Schlüssel" is not a "key"

7:28 PM Posted by James Owens

Mein Schlüssel

Mein Schlüssel
hat das Haus verloren

Ich gehe von Haus zu Haus
keines paßt

Den Schlosser
habe ich gefunden

mein Schlüssel paßt
zu seinem Grab

Rose Ausländer

My Key

My key
has lost its house.

I go from house to house
but none fits.

I have found
the locksmith.

My key fits
his grave.

Trans. Eavan Boland


Rose Ausländer and Paul Celan grew up in the same city -- Czernowitz, then in Romania, now in Ukraine -- and knew each other before the war, though she was a couple of decades older. I like this poem for its spare, etched words that g(r)asp on the edge of nothingness, but I am also interested in its dialogue with the Celan poem below. Which might have been written first is hard to know. Celan's was published in 1955, Ausländer's in 1965. At least, that's when the respective books were published. I don't know about magazine publication. Celan's poems usually did not have to wait long between composition and their appearance in a book. Ausländer, though, was writing for many years and circulating poems in manuscript before this book, her first, came out when she was 64.

Influence is probably the wrong question. More important, why is this image of the key, trying to get back in to the house, so potent? Surely it has a lot to do with the impossibility of returning to the lost, destroyed world.... I have hesitated for a long time, almost deciding that these keys are really the turning sword of the angel at the gate of Eden....

Or, if Ausländer really is writing after Celan, if she has his poem in her mind, is it possible that her "Schlosser," the locksmith, could be understood as Celan himself, in the "grave" of his poetry, perhaps remembering that "grave in the air" ("ein Grab in den Lüften"), from "Todesfuge"?



sam of the ten thousand things said...

This is an amazing poem. Its compression creates such power. "Todesfuge," I would think, would be the reference. If so, that's a marelous connection. Makes me think of "Skunk Hour" and "The Armadillo". Thanks for these posts, James.

I'm still of a mind that the very nature of translation is loss, but that should not keep us from moving about there.

Antonia said...

i think it is a very seducing connection but then again....i could imagine there are countless other poems of celan with the image of the key/grave etc. to which Auslaenders poem just as good could correspond. or maybe it does not at all correspond to Celan or to someone else...the connection to Todesfuge i find a wee bit too obvious.

rather, i think, if Nelly Sachs had written the poem, such a connection to a Celan poem could be likelier, for they knew each other better than Auslaender and Celan... still, it is nice to think about all those words and to ponder all kinds of connections...

anhaga said...

Sam: I am mystified by what happens in translation. It seems to be such a straightforward process in some ways, but what it is, in essence, retreats as you draw closer to it. Loss -- almost as if the translator merely hollows out the shape of the original in a new language, as much a kind of mining as writing.

anhaga said...

Antonia: Welcome here. It's obvious that any connection between this particular poem of Auslander's and that particular poem of Celan's is speculation and might not have really existed. The idea that Auslander might have been thinking of Celan, in general, as her Schlosser might be a little better, but still beyond proof. Influence, though, it not the real point. It is still useful to place these poems side by side -- that poets (and not only these two, maybe) were using these images in these similar ways at about the same time. Not strong enough for scholars, but maybe for readers....