By Anna Levett
Several times in Under the Dome, Jean Daive’s elliptical, poetic memoir about his friendship with the Jewish German-language poet Paul Celan, a net bag makes an appearance. I imagine it’s the kind of bag in which you would carry fruits or vegetables that you’d bought from a market—a bag made of mesh or netting. On the first page: “A recollection: near Avenue Emile-Zola,” Daive writes. “Paul Celan looks for a grocery store. He buys a lightbulb that he puts in a huge netbag. Carrying the netted lightbulb he moves on in a lordly way. And the net hangs heavy” (31).
In most other books such a small detail might escape notice, but in Under the Dome it caught my attention. The image of the net bag is a gentle, unremarked anticipation of a moment that comes a few pages later, when Daive describes how he was feeling upon his first encounter with Celan: “Being incapable of speaking had long made my life impossible when I met Paul Celan, who had written Sprachgitter (1959): a grid, language. Not of words or images, but gathering the world into a grid to elucidate it” (38). Celan’s poem “Sprachgitter” has been translated as “Speech-grille,” by Pierre Joris, and “Language mesh,” by Anne Carson, but here “grid” is chosen for the German word gitter. It’s a word that is often understood as central to Celan’s poetics, even as it provokes multiple, conflicting interpretations. Marjorie Perloff suggests that for Celan, gitter “is always associated with some sense of blockage or obstruction” (2). Carson, meanwhile, calls attention to the word’s implication of “passage…or salvaging” (30). Is gitter like a net bag that keeps things in, or like a fence that keeps things out?
These are the kinds of questions provoked by Under the Dome: Walks with Paul Celan. First published in French in 1996, then translated into English by Waldrop in 2009, the translation was reissued late last year by City Lights. The book both ruminates on and reenacts the brief but intense friendship between Celan—perhaps the most influential European poet of the post-war era—and the younger, unpublished Daive. It recounts their time together in Paris in the late 1960s, spent writing, drinking coffee, eating, talking, translating between French and German, and above all walking the city streets, in particular their beloved neighborhood around the Place de la Contrescarpe, whose chestnut and paulownia trees form the sheltering “dome” of the book’s title. Understood as a memoir, Under the Dome is a remembrance of Daive’s and Celan’s shared poetic practice. But it also registers this practice in its own language. Stated more simply, the text reads like poetry.
For Daive and Celan—and perhaps for Waldrop, too—the essential work of poetry is “gathering the world into a grid to elucidate it” (38). Yet even this image reveals the contradictions of the task. A grid is exacting and inflexible, while “gathering” suggests messiness and disorder. How can the truth of the world fit into the grid of language? For Celan and Daive, this is no mere theoretical conundrum. The publication of this new edition of Under the Dome coincides with the centennial of Celan’s birth as well as the fiftieth anniversary of his suicide. As a Romanian Jew whose parents died in the Nazi concentration camps, Celan and his poetry are rarely discussed without reference to the Shoah. The traumas of his past tug like an undertow throughout his walks and conversations with Daive. “The secret is in these leaves. The secret is perhaps within us,” Celan tells Daive. “But we cannot understand it all. The world is empty. The sky is empty.” Celan seems haunted by the fear that the world is fundamentally illegible, unaccountable. Though Daive’s past is never explicitly recounted, he, too, writes in the shadow of a familial tragedy to which he only obliquely gestures. “How could a grid contain madness?” he asks (39). The memoir circles around the question of language—what it can catch in its net, what it obstructs with its fence.
Thus we get passages like this one: “Truth does not like powder, does not try to reduce to powder. Yet that day snow is falling on us. Enormous flakes thicken the space. The world become opaque turns hard, impossible to interpret” (54). Here the language hinges on a brief meeting between the abstract (truth) and the concrete (powdery snow), between the world and poetry. Metaphor is not the right word for what Daive and Waldrop are doing. Rather, it is as if the words walk right up to the edge of figurative language—truth is not like powdery snow—before backing away, describing its own limitations. If truth is not powdery, but the world contains powdery snow, and truth is the world, then mustn’t truth be powdery? We see Daive’s struggle: “The world become opaque turns hard, impossible to interpret.” The powdery world slips through the net.
The struggles of the poets with and against language might be understood as a problem of translation. Daive and Celan are both translators in addition to poets, and the work of translation—of elucidating one language in the grid of another—is inextricable from the larger questions of poetry and language around which this memoir turns. Their friendship begins when Celan asks Daive to translate him into French. Likewise, Celan later translates Daive’s poetry into German. “The game of translation makes a grid appear before my eyes,” Daive tells us. “The way an innermost secret slowly becomes clear, can become clear to us” (39). Thus, although Under the Dome is a translation from Daive’s French, it also registers in English an ongoing dialogue that is both about translation and an act of translation in and of itself. The entire book, we sense, is Daive’s attempt to translate Celan, to ferry his imprint across the chasms of time and language. The stakes of this task weigh heavily on Daive. Perhaps alluding to the well-known Italian expression “Traduttore, traditore,” he writes, “I glimpsed the just betrayal that allowed me to find equivalence in terms of betrayal… Betrayal articulates almost every verse” (87).
If the translator seeks a “just betrayal,” then Rosmarie Waldrop’s translation of Daive into English succeeds unequivocally. She manages at once to echo Daive’s French and find the resonance of Daive’s own echo of Celan’s singular German. This is no easy task. On the first page, we read: “At the end of his life [Celan] finds in the North German vocabulary a more faithful mirror of his memory where a—wild—etymology forms with utmost acuity and violence” (31). Here the unusual use of an em dash gestures to the German-language capacity for compound nouns, but more specifically to the surprising, sometimes disturbing composites for which Celan is known (e.g. “Sprachgitter” or “Atemwende,” which Joris translates as “Breathturn”). The em dash does not create a new composite in English but rather reaches towards one, grasping, yet not quite arriving. These strange em dashes are a visual reminder of the yawning gap between all three languages. This brief stutter in the text’s fluency—what the translation theorist Lawrence Venuti might call an instance of “foreignization”—reminds us of its difference. It is not an English text, but a translation. Yet the strangeness of this moment also feels at home in the work as a whole. It calls attention to the materiality, the malleability of language, just as Daive and Celan do in their own writing.
At other points, Waldrop’s own poetic contributions to Under the Dome reveal themselves. For Waldrop, like Daive and Celan, is a poet-translator. If we conceive of Daive’s original Sous la coupole as a collaboration between two authors, then Waldrop’s quiet presence in Under the dome expands that collaboration to a work of three. Take, for example, the use of wordplay. Daive and Celan are endlessly attentive to the subtle rhymes that recur in their day-to-day lives. They remark, for instance, on the echo between Celan’s first name and the name of Daive’s mother, Paula, and the way these names in turn resound with the paulownia trees that shade their wanderings in Paris’ fifth arrondissement. As Celan tells Daive, “We’re hatched in such nestings” (162).
Waldrop sometimes contributes her own wordplays. At one point Daive and Celan pause for a hot snack from a street vendor, and Celan tells Daive, “I’ll teach you how to peel a chestnut” (77). A few pages later, as they descend separately from the hill upon which sits the Place de la Contrescarpe, Daive remarks upon “this hill without a tree, this ‘peeled’ hill” (84). He thinks back, then, on Celan’s hands: “Hands that sometimes, like today, look peeled. White and ‘peeled.’ Burned. Peeled as after a burn” (84). Here we can guess that Daive is meditating on the French word peler, which can be used to refer both to peeling a chestnut and to skin that is peeling; the adjective pelé can similarly be used to describe land, like a hill, that is bare and without vegetation. Yet what to make of the echo that occurs just after the break on the white page, when we read, “Peals, fading peals of a bell above the hill”? The words for “peal” in French–sonner, or perhaps éclater—have no aural resemblance to peler. I suspect, however, that Waldrop has drawn on éclater to forge yet another echo of peler. An éclat can be like a peal of laughter, but it can also be used to refer to skin; la peau éclatée suggests flaking, peeling skin, like Celan’s hands. What was perhaps a delicate, implicit echo in the French—from peler to éclater—is given more weight in Waldrop’s move from peel to peal.
Thus Waldrop joins Celan and Daive in their attention and devotion to language. It is as if they are holding each word in hand, turning it around and watching it catch the light from different angles. In this respect, Under the Dome is instructive not only for poets or translators, but for readers, for those of us who also seek connections between words and the world around us. Perhaps that’s why I was so struck by the image of the net bag. Its presence is a material reminder of an abstract idea—of gitter, of the net, of the grid. Perhaps I was learning to read like Celan, Daive, and Waldrop, always on the lookout for some rhyme between the page and the world.
Daive, Jean. Under the Dome. Walks with Paul Celan. Translated by Rosmarie Waldrop. City Lights Books, 2020.
Anna Levett is Visiting Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature and French at Oberlin College. She specializes in Mediterranean studies and global modernism, with particular interest in twentieth-century French, Francophone, and Arabic literature and film. Her current book project concerns the reception of surrealism in Arab literature. She is also at work on a translation of several essays by the Egyptian author Edwar al-Kharrat (1926-2015).
Perloff, Marjorie. “‘Sound Scraps, Vision Scraps’: Paul Celan’s Poetic Practice.” Reading for Form, ed. Susan J. Wolfson and Marshall Brown, Seattle: U of Washington P, 2006, pp. 177-202, www.writing.upenn.edu/epc/authors/perloff/articles/Perloff_Celan-Poetry.pdf. Accessed 8 June 2021.
Carson, Anne. Economy of the Unlost (Reading Simonides of Kios with Paul Celan). Princeton: Princeton UP, 1999.
 Waldrop translates “netbag” as one word.
 Venuti discusses foreignizing versus domesticating translations in many of his writings, with perhaps the most well-known instance being The Translator’s Invisibility (1995).