Unreadable Quartet

after Paul Celan [UNLESBARKEIT]

Unreadable this, unreadability of this, illegibility of this, illegible this 
world, world, world, world. All doubles, everything doubles, all things twice over, everything doubled.

Strong clocks, the strong clocks, the strong clocks, staunch clocks
accord the cleft-hour, agree with the fissure-hour, justify the splitting hour, confirm the split hour
hoarsely, hoarsely, hoarsely, hoarsely.

You, clamped in your deepest; you, wedged into your deepest; you, clamped into your deepest part; you, clamped into your depths
climb out of yourself, climb out of yourself, climb out of yourself, climb out of yourself
for ever, forever, for ever, for ever

*A remix of four translations of Celan’s untitled poem [UNLESBARKEIT], by Ian Fairley, Pierre Joris, Michael Hamburger,  
and John Felstiner  

Shoshana Olidort

What is the significance of this work to you?

It was important to me to work with a Celan poem, because Celan is one of the first poets whose work I read really deeply. It's weird to admit this, but I used to take his work with me to the beach, when I lived in New York, on summer weekends. I first came across this poem in Ian Fairley's translation of Celan's collection Snow Part/Schneepart, published by Sheep Meadow Press in 2009. Celan's work is often seen as "unreadable," impenetrable. As a German-speaking Jew who had survived the Holocaust, and who, though he would move to Paris soon after the war, went on writing in this language that was so fraught for him, a language that had been defiled but that he could not let go of, Celan felt compelled to rescue the language from the darkness into which it had been plunged when it was made into an instrument of harm that inflicted unthinkable pain and horror,  when it became a vehicle for the annihilation and destruction of so many, many lives, including the lives of his own parents. To do that, he had to break down the language, defamiliarize it almost beyond recognition. 

Like so much of Celan's work, the poem I chose to work with was dark, and the darkness is magnified in the repetition here. But it strikes a hopeful note at the end, which also is reinforced through sameness and difference. a technique I learned from Gertrude Stein, who uses repetition with variation so masterfully in her own work. Here, climbing out suggests a release from the state of being "clamped" or "wedged" into the "deepest part" of oneself. But is it really a release, if the climbing must go on "forever," over and over again? Like Celan, I leave that open to the reader, I don't want to overdetermine what people take away from the poem, I want to open up not narrow down what a poem means and can be. 

What is the significance of the form you chose for this work?

I've done some of my own translating of poems—from Hebrew, mostly, and Yiddish—and it's hard work, there are so many choices! So many consequential decisions. I'm fascinated by how a single, short poem can have so many iterations, in a single language. Each translation becomes a poem in its own right. As a graduate student and a writer and an editor it can be hard to think beyond a kind of scarcity model, where if one version is good, the other is not, where everything is stratified hierarchically—good, bad, worse. But poetry doesn't have to be hierarchical. It can be abundant and overflowing, and can contain multitudes, and that's what I think this poem does, or what I want it to be doing. 

What was your process for creating this work?

I had assembled these four translations of Celan's poem to do a kind of comparative analysis for a seminar assignment several years back, and I came back to it recently around the time of what would have been Celan's 100 birthday. I thought of creating an of amalgamation by picking and choosing from the different versions, but at some point I realized I didn't have to choose, and that I could include all of them in a single "found poem." That's what I did, I just compiled the four translations together, and watched it expand in this way that felt really powerful and a fitting tribute to Celan whose poetry continues to generate new meaning.

Shoshana Olidort is a writer, translator and critic. She is the web editor for the Poetry Foundation, and is completing her PhD in Comparative Literature at Stanford University.