O little root of a dream

Nikolai Popov and Heather McHugh, translated from the German written by Paul Celan

copyright ©2000 Paul Celan (translated by Nikolai Popov and Heather McHugh)

O little root of a dream
you hold me here
undermined by blood,
no longer visible to anyone,
property of death.

Curve a face
that there may be speech, of earth,
of ardor, of
things with eyes, even
here, where you read me blind,

where you
refute me,
to the letter.

Notes on the Poem

How important is it to know the background and personal experiences of a poet to surmise or fully appreciate what a poem might be about? Even without biographical or explanatory notes, the reader will be fascinated and haunted by the succinct but strangely powerful "O little root of a dream", a poem originally composed in German by Romanian poet Paul Celan, translated by Nikolai Popov and Heather McHugh of the US. Whatever that root is, it firmly grasps the dreamer/narrator. References to blood and "things with eyes" suggest an undercurrent of horror. There is also desolation (is it the dreamer himself who is "no longer visible to anyone"?) and confusion and deterioration (can he be seen by the things with eyes ... is he both no longer visible, and no longer able to see himself?) Even the line breaks in the last stanza seem to suggest that the narrator's speech is slowing and disintegrating. With even just brief biographical insights, knowing that Celan was born in Romania and raised speaking and reading German, his relationship to language could inform the sense that language is breaking down for the narrator at the end of this poem. More tellingly, learning that Celan survived the Holocaust but lost his parents to it strikingly casts in a new and perhaps startling light what the root of that dream - or nightmare - could be.

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