On Company Time

ISSUE I (Sept/Oct 2006)

_ Blade Pitch Control Unit
_ A CROCK REVERIE / A Crock Reverie
_ Before and After Mallarmé
_ The Descent of Alette
_ Real.izing the Utopian Longing...
_ The Unconditional
_ Begetting Textile
_ Stretchers


Some Thoughts to One Side of Justin Katko’s
Real.izing the Utopian Longing of Experimental Poetry

By Anonymous Reviewer A
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‘Все позты жиды’ (Marina Tsvetaeva)

These days one might be tempted to update Tsvetaeva’s remark and say instead ‘all poets are Arabs’ or ‘all poets are sans-papiers’, but this would be at the risk of ignoring the specifically historical valency of her claim, that the Jews have been a people apart throughout almost all of European history, as well as the history of this expression itself, particularly as Paul Celan understood and used it.

Of course if we want to go further in contextualising this simple phrase we should note first of all that Marina Tsvetaeva herself was not Jewish. And also that the words ‘All poets are Jews’ are not strictly speaking hers, but rather Celan’s (although in Elaine Feinstein’s famous translations she retains the form that Celan adopted, thus smoothing over some of the violence in the original below. Even Celan himself maintains the cruder, more pejorative, expression zhidy, ‘yids’). Tsvetaeva had written the following lines in her ‘Poema Konca’ (‘Poem of the End’):

Гетто избранничеств! Вал и ров.
ощады не жди!
В сем христианнейшем из миров
Поэты – жиды!

(Ghetto of the chosen ones! Wall and ditch.
Expect no mercy!
In this most Christian of all worlds,
The poets – are Yids!)

Celan read this poem some time in 1960, approximately 35 years after Tsvetaeva had herself written it while in exile in Prague, a poem seemingly motivated by the end of a love affair. In turn Celan used the last line quoted above in the altered form we now know it in as the epigraph to a poem included in Die Niemandsrose (1963), ‘Und mit dem Buch aus Tarussa’ (‘And with the book from Tarussa’). Celan left the phrase in his version of it in Cyrillic and with no translation (‘Все позты жиды’), hence as an unspoken, and in the context of the West Germany where it was first published, virtually incomprehensible specimen of linguistic foreignness. In what follows I want to consider both the politics and poetics of Celan’s use of this epigraph, as well as some wider considerations of Tsvetaeva’s formulation in ‘Poema Konca’ in connexion with some of the uses and theorisations of language implied in Justin Katko’s essay Real.izing the Utopian Longing of Experimental Poetry (Unpublished, 2006).

(‘The No-One’s-Rose’) is in many ways the product of Celan’s coming to terms poetically with the fall-out of the Goll Affair, in which the wife of his late friend Yvan Goll had accused him of plagiarism and launched a public campaign through the media and courts against Celan. In the later poems of the sequence especially, he attempts to try and come to terms with his own Jewishness, through a meditation both on the place of the Jew in the classics of European literature, and from the basis of his own experiences of exile, isolation and persecution. The collection is dedicated to Osip Mandelstam. What is interesting about these poems is the close feeling of kinship that Celan demonstrates with Russia and Russian as a literary language. Not only in ‘Und mit dem Buch aus Tarussa’, but also in other poems of the sequence, the presence of Russia is both pervasive and deep-seated. It is in this poem, especially, however, that Celan most profoundly works through his long interest in Russia and Russian:

           (Kyrillisches, Freunde, auch das
ritt ich über die Seine,
ritts übern Rhein.)

           (Cyrillic, friends, that too
I rode over the Seine,
rode it over the Rhine.)

Celan first learnt Russian in 1940 when the Red Army occupied his hometown of Czernowitz (now Chernivtsi) in northern Bukovina, then a German-speaking enclave in Romania, subsequent to the signing of the Nazi-Soviet pact the year before. Near the end of the war in 1944 he returned home after several years in Nazi labour camps and briefly worked in a psychiatric ward treating Soviet airmen, thus renewing his acquaintance with things Russian. His early sympathy for Communism quickly waned, however, and he fled first to Bucharest and then in 1947 to Vienna, before finally settling in Paris in 1948 rather than going to live in the newly formed state of Israel. Nevertheless Celan maintained a lifelong passion for Russian poetry and by the time he wrote ‘Und mit dem Buch aus Tarussa’ had already translated works by Blok, Khlebnikov, Maiakovski, Pasternak and others, although nothing by Tsvetaeva herself, despite his very high opinion of her (he is reputed to have thought her untranslatable).

Nevertheless even the title suggests an engagement with Tsvetaeva. Tarussa is the town, just outside Moscow, where Tsvetaeva spent part of her childhood, and where she famously asked her daughter to bury her. Furthermore, the title of the poem refers to the book that his childhood friend Erich Einhorn had sent from Moscow in 1962, Tarusskie stranicy (‘Pages from Tarussa’), which contained forty-two poems by Tsvetaeva, signifying her partial rehabilitation after the years of Stalinist darkness (she committed suicide in Yelabuga in 1941 two years after having returned to the Soviet Union). In Celan’s poem he ignores the directly personal aspect of Tsvetaeva’s ‘Poema Konca’ (incidentally not included in Tarusskie stranicy), the end of a love affair, and instead focuses on its more impersonal background, the Jewish Prague Ghetto, the sense of dispossession and exile, the urban drifting and alienation, which still marks Tsvetaeva as the true inheritor of nineteenth century Russian Symbolism, not to say its finest practitioner. Before he had received the book from Einhorn, however, Celan had already used the epigraph from Tsvetaeva for another poem that likewise appears towards the end of Die Niemandsrose, ‘Hinausgekrönt’ (‘Crowned Out’), containing as it does a reference to the same section of her poem from which the epigraph comes:

За городом мы!

За городом! Понимаешь? За!
Вне! Перешед вал!
Жизнь, это место, где жить нельзя:
Еврейский квартал...

(Still. We are. Outside town.

Beyond it! Understand? Outside!
That means we’ve passed the walls.
Life is a place where it’s forbidden
to live. Like the Hebrew quarter)

And like ‘Und mit dem Buch aus Tarussa’, ‘Hinausgekrönt’ deals with exile as spiritual condition, and the ghetto as the physical location of this pain:

Mit Namen, getränkt
von jedem Exil.
Mit Namen und Samen,
mit Namen, getaucht
in alle
Kelche, die vollstehn mit deinem
Königsblut, Mensch, – in alle
Kelche der grossen
Ghetto-Rose, aus der
du uns ansieht, unsterblich von soviel
auf Morgenwegen gestorbenen Toden.

(With names, steeped
in every exile.
With names and seed,
with names dipped
in every
cup brimming with your
kingly blood, O man, – in every
calyx of the great
ghetto rose from which
you gaze on us, deathless from so many
deaths died on morning paths.)

Russian and German, the gentile languages of exile and dispossession that Celan knew and worked through. Indeed Celan at times called himself the ‘Russkiy poet’, as he signed himself off in letters to close friends: ‘Russkiy poet in partibus nemetskich infidelium’, a recognition, perhaps, of the ‘lost’ generation of Russian poets who disappeared into the gulag never to return (indeed for a time such was his feeling of identification with Osip Mandelstam that he believed him to be a victim of Nazi, not Stalinist, violence). Rarely has the work of poetic translation been so intimately lived.

Жизнь. Только выкрестами жива!
Иудами вер!

(The Christians have their life;
the Jews their faith.)

These lines, also from Tsvetaeva’s ‘Poema Konca’, seem a strange echo of themes developed by Marx in his critique of Bruno Bauer, On the Jewish Question (1843). Bauer had argued in his article of the same year, itself entitled ‘The Jewish Question’ (if we heard ‘problem’ we wouldn’t be far off the mark), that those who refused to recognise the right of Jewish emancipation were correct, but for the wrong reasons. The Jews had no right to ask for emancipation within the Christian state, Bauer argued, because no one was free in the German Christian state, neither Christian nor Jew. Emancipation, he continued, could only mean freedom from the very condition of being either Jewish or Christian, and any emancipation within the existing forms of religious and political organisation would be illusory, and consequently no emancipation at all. Marx countered that it was possible to be politically emancipated while still being subjectively enslaved by religion, and suggested that Bauer was confusing political freedom with full human emancipation, which is the emancipation from politics itself, the removal of the difference between political and civil life, between what he calls species-life and the individual and alienated life of private property: ‘Only when real, individual man resumes the abstract citizen [the bourgeois] into himself and as an individual man has become a species-being in his empirical life, his individual work and his individual relationships, only when man has recognized and organized his forces propres as social forces so that social force is no longer separated from him in the form of political force, only then will human emancipation be completed.’ (Karl Marx, ‘On the Jewish Question’ in Early Writings, trans. Rodney Livingstone and Gregor Benton (London: Penguin, 1992), pp. 212-41: 234; hereafter cited as JQ)

Consider, however, these observations by Henri Meschonnic, recorded at the round table discussion held with Alex Derczansky, Olivier Mongin and Paul Thibaud, and published in Esprit, 7-8 (1977) as 'Poétique et politique', and translated by Gabriella Bedetti as 'Poetics and Politics: A round table' in New Literary History, 19, 3 (1988):

‘… [I]t is remarkable that if, for example, one takes texts by Mao Tse-Tung, Lenin, or Trotsky, one cannot escape from the fact that the theory of language which holds power is inevitably an instrumentalist theory. The problems of power would constitute a reaction which, faced with the problems of language, would bind one to an instrumentalism. I want to say that language is reduced to what serves to communicate. I do not see how the instrumentalism of language cannot be continuous with what I will call an instrumentalism of the subject and of the social. The Jewish Question by Marx is an example of this. As Elizabeth de Fontenay’s analysis [Les figures juives de Marx, Paris, 1973] admirably demonstrates, Marx takes on the state of the Jewish question the moment it presents itself to him. And without changing anything in it, he uses it to turn this same question back on society. In that way he uses it as a critique against this society, in order to establish his critique of political economy. But having used it as an instrument, he has not at any moment undertaken the intrinsic historical, ideological analysis of what that question was. Therein, therefore, in my opinion, lies a pure example, the most beautiful example that I know, of social instrumentalism. Now this instrumentalism is tied to theory and to the practice of language in Marx. There is therefore a problem there, but, along with the rest of the world, I can do nothing for the time being other than dwell on this problem. (NLH, 19, 3 (1988), p.461)

To what degree is this implicit (and explicitly inexplicit) critique of Marx valid? What is the goal of Meschonnic’s argument? A remarkable feature of this text that Meschonnic points to is the way that in the second section of the essay Marx turns round the argument of the first part, and characteristically flips both his, and Bauer’s, arguments ‘on their heads’. This, possibly purely rhetorical, gesture, however, reads as nothing less than a virulent form of anti-semitism. Having argued that Bauer is incorrect to see in Judaism a purely religious question, where the Jews are hindered in their desire for emancipation by the need to overcome both their own as well as Christian philosophico-theology, Marx completely changes the polarity of the argument and suggests that ‘[f]or us the question of the Jews’ capacity for emancipation is transformed into the question: what specific social element must be overcome in order to abolish Judaism?’ (JQ, 236) Marx’s answer is that this social element is the position of the ‘everyday Jew’ in ‘the enslaved world of today’, as opposed to the ‘sabbath Jew’. He continues, ‘[l]et us not look for the Jew’s secret in religion: rather let us look for the secret of religion in the real Jew.’ (JQ, 236) The secret basis of this ‘real’ Jew, according to Marx is nothing other than practical need and self-interest, Judaism’s ‘secular cult’ of haggling and its ‘secular God’ of money. In this surprising analysis Marx equates the Jew with the spirit of communal decay, with egotism, and with the most vicious reduction of humanity to the impulses of greed and exploitation:

    We therefore recognize in Judaism the presence of a universal and contemporary anti-social element whose historical evolution – eagerly nurtured by the Jews in its harmful aspects – has arrived at its present peak, a peak at which it will inevitably disintegrate.
    The emancipation of the Jews is, in the last analysis, the emancipation of mankind from Judaism. (JQ, 237)

Marx goes on:

    Judaism has kept going alongside Christianity not simply as a religious critique of Christianity and an embodiment of doubts about the religious origins of Christianity but also because the practical Jewish spirit, Judaism [note, in particular, the equation of these two], has managed to survive in Christian society and has even reached its highest level of development there. The Jew, who is a particular member of civil society, is only the particular manifestation of the Judaism of civil society. [my italics]
    Judaism has managed to survive not despite history but through it.
    Civil society ceaselessly begets the Jew from its own entrails.
    What was the essential basis of the Jewish religion? Practical need, egoism.
    The monotheism of the Jew is therefore in reality the polytheism of the many needs, a polytheism that makes even the lavatory an object of divine law. Practical need, egoism, is the principle of civil society and appears as such in all its purity as soon as civil society has fully brought forth the political state. The god of practical need and self-interest is money.
    … What is present in an abstract form in the Jewish religion – contempt for theory, for art, for history, for man as an end in himself – is the actual and conscious standpoint, the virtue, of the man of money. The species-relation itself, the relation between man and woman, etc., becomes a commercial object! Woman is put on the market. (JQ, 238-9)

Here we have in almost undiluted form all of the typical features of European anti-semitism: the Jew as lustful money-worshipper, as devious, as an enemy of European culture, and as a pander, pimp and pornographer, undermining the natural innocence of the wider community. All the more disconcerting given the Jewish inheritance of the writer himself.

Meschonnic’s more precise complaint with Marx’s argument, however, is that despite giving the impression of a revolutionary analysis of social conditions, he in fact leaves unchanged the ‘question’ of the Jews in Europe; his argument is itself devious or illusory, therefore, shifting between levels of analysis while leaving the elements from which that analysis is constructed unexamined. So, for example, we find him starting from a theorisation of the difference between political and civil life, and political and civil emancipation, and moving towards a theorisation of the relations between Christianity and Judaism, as if the same structure of relations existed between these two sets of heterogeneous categories:

    Christianity sprang from Judaism. It has now dissolved back into Judaism.
    The Christian was from the very beginning the theorizing Jew. The Jew is therefore the practical Christian and the practical Christian has once again become a Jew.
    Christianity overcame real Judaism only in appearance. It was too refined, too spiritual, to do away with the crudeness of practical need except by raising it into a celestial space.
    Christianity is the sublime thought of Judaism and Judaism is the vulgar application of Christianity. But this application could not become universal until Christianity as perfected religion had theoretically completed the self-estrangement of man from himself and from nature.
    Only then could Judaism attain universal domination and turn alienated man and alienated nature into alienable, saleable objects subject to the slavery of egoistic need and to the market. (JQ, 240-1)

I have quoted at length from Marx’s essay to try and give some substance to Meschonnic’s remarks, and to put them into a context where they might be understood for what they are. The more general aim that Meschonnic has set himself with this critique is to show both Marx’s bad faith with his own apparently radical analysis of religion and society, and, at a more basic level, to draw attention to a flaw in that very language of critical theory itself (in the broadest sense), not only insofar as it deals with the language of poetry, but in its treatment of any theory of language whatever. Nevertheless it is in precisely this sense that, for Meschonnic, a difference between Christianity and Judaism can be made, and in which the poet is always on the side of the Jew.

Meschonnic has been most concerned in his writings to demonstrate the radical inadequacy of structuralist and poststructuralist, indeed any, theories of the sign (i.e. theories that analyse language as a system of signifiers and signifieds that together produce signs) to account for the actual practice and experience of using language, for which he would replace them with a theory of discourse, what he calls a theory of rhythm or of the historical subject. The essence of his endeavour is to have done finally with any theory that reduces language to mere meaning (or its possibility), to code, or to différance. Various ‘impasses’ exist to the completion of such a historical theory of discourse, including ‘pervasive phenomenological violence and Marx’ (Gabriella Bedetti, ‘Henri Meschonnic: Rhythm as Pure Historicity’, NLH, 23, 2 (Spring, 1992), pp. 431-450: 432). Language poetics is another such impasse.

Apropos of the above discussion, Meschonnic makes the following observations regarding the relation of language to history and politics, and the particular role of Jews and Judaism:

    As a crisis in the set of conceptions of a society identifies itself, the crisis is also a crisis in the meaning of meaning. And also in the sign’s strategy. Various powerful elements prevent a necessary critique and turn our age into an uncritical, unhistorical age: the importance of Marxism, the reign of structure and phenomenology, the dogmatism of semiotics, the eclecticism of systematics, not to mention religious revivals and extremisms. These are the powers of totalization, closed upon themselves and upon the sign as unity, identity, truth and totality. Some have looked for a way out of the sign, in archaism or exoticism. They maintain what they want to transform. Thus in language, the dualism of convention versus nature is maintained all the more when one throws oneself to one extreme or the other.
    Now democracy has been linked with the sign. Its basic scheme, the “social contract”, is of the same order as the signified versus the signifier: the first part (the majority) acts as the whole. The media increases the confusion between the general will and the majority. There is no ethics of the sign. The sign is the metrics of society. Hence the need for solidarity between rhythm and the subject. The logic of the system is at stake.
    As for the Jew, being Jewish is a fact before being a metaphor. It is a metaphor not of the “other in us” but of the signifier, subdued but maintained. It is a metaphor of the fact that rhythm is hidden by the sign as the Jew has been treated by the political theology of the sign. Any minority could be a metaphor. Yet, to begin with, the Bible turned the Hebrews into the privileged metaphor of history and turned their history into a history of metaphors. Maimonides says the events in the Bible are events of the soul. They are still considered as such by many in our culture. Moreover, the Christian world has until recently, well, aufgehoben the Jew, raising him to the state of various metaphors. No one has had as lengthy an experience of the condition of metaphor. So, saying that rhythm is the Jew of sign is a shortcut for expressing all that and waking up the reader who is dozing in the sign. Marina Tsvetaïeva once said that all poets are Jews.’ (Gabriella Bedetti & Henri Meschonnic, ‘Interview: Henri Meschonnic’ in Diacritics, 18, 3 (Autumn, 1988), pp. 93-111: 100)

Indeed Meschonnic goes as far as to use the model of the Mikra, the gathering where the corpus of the Bible is read out loud in Judaic culture, as against the strictly textual notion of Scriptura in Christian theology, to embody this difference, and this theory of discourse as opposed to sign; a writing and reading as opposed to a writing then reading. He develops this reasoning further, for example, in demonstrating that the relationship between the Old and New Testaments of the Bible is strictly speaking homologous with the relationship between signifier and signified: the Old Testament, the Jew, that is, plays the role of the signifier to the signified of Christ and the new Covenant insofar as it represents merely prophecy looking forward to concrete historical fulfilment in the incarnation of the λόγος. It is in this sense that we can say that Marx’s analysis of the ‘Jewish Question’ goes no further than the New Testament. His theory and practice of language get no further either.

We have seen that Tsvetaeva wrote from the passionate intensity of her own emotional life in a way that she inherited from Russian (and French) Symbolism, and that the ‘Poema Konca’ was a response to the end of a particularly stormy relationship that she conducted while in Prague from 1922 to 1925. The peculiar violence of the poem was not only to be found in her love life or the Prague Ghetto that Celan focussed on in his re-working of the poem’s imagery, however, but even more so in the kind of modernism that Tsvetaeva represents in Russian poetics in continuation with her Symbolist inheritance. It has often been noted for example that there is more than a passing resemblance in her approach to rhyme and paronomasia to the zaoum, or transrational, poetry pioneered by Velimir Khlebnikov and Alexei Kruchenykh among others. So Boris Pasternak, for example, noted ‘the rage of rhyme against itself’ in poems such as ‘Krysolov’ (‘The Rat Catcher’); Tsvetaeva herself said that ‘[t]hrough too much crying, bounding, rolling, I arrive at meaning.’ (Correspondence à trois, Été, 1926, trans. Lily Denis, Philippe Jaccottet, and Eve Malleret (Paris, 1983), p. 211) Meschonnic, in discussing Tsvetaeva’s work, comments that: ‘Tsvetaïeva’s rhyme is not a pun. It tends directly to the cry. … Her poetics of the cry is a poetics of orality.’ (‘Rhyme and Life’ in Critical Inquiry, 15, 1 (Autumn, 1988), pp. 90-107: 103; hereafter cited as RL) He goes on: ‘[h]er poems were written “for the voice” … The cutting of words into little pieces, frequent in her poetry, participates in [this] cry.’ (RL, 104) In other words, Tsvetaeva’s is a poetry that enacts exactly the programmatic break with the sign and its theories that Meschonnic has expounded: it is a poetry that allows ‘violence [to touch] the word’ and makes of language the ‘transrational’ material dreamed of by the Russian Futurists. ‘Rhyme [in Tsvetaeva’s poetry] is a cry because it cries a truth. Tsvetaïeva makes žizn’, “life”, rhyme with lživo, “with lie”: Žízn’, ty čaśto rifmúeš s: lživo – “Life, often you rhyme with lie”. … This extraction of truth makes an etymology of paronomasia, in order to make words say more than they do say. Out of rhetoric, Tsvetaïeva makes a writing.’ (RL, 104) Hence, she ‘makes poetry pass to a world other than the one of the sign, where aesthetics has its discourse. Rhyme is an ethic.’ (RL, 107)

To complete the analysis of the epigraph to ‘Und mit dem Buch aus Tarussa’, however, we must return to the problematic of translation in Celan’s poetics. His decision to keep the epigraph from Tsvetaeva both in Russian and in Cyrillic now gains new resonance, and the form and content of the epigraph, despite their reference to two worlds, seemingly separated by the abyssal gulf of both Nazi genocide and then the post-War Stalinist pogrom, ultimately meet and fuse in this, Celan’s own nod to zaoum. That this interpretation is valid can also be seen from his decision, only two days after reading ‘Poema Konca’ for the first time, to translate yet another Russian poem: this time it was ‘Babiy Yar’ by the young Yevgeny Yevtushenko. ‘Babiy Yar’ was motivated by the continued refusal of the Soviet government, after numerous requests, to build a monument to the victims of one of the most notorious crimes of the Nazi occupation of the Soviet Union. In less than two days in 1941 34,000 Jews were machine-gunned by German troops and SS Commandos at Babiy Yar, a ravine north of Kiev in the Ukraine. During the next two years a further 100,000 people were slaughtered and hurriedly buried at the same site. Furthermore, in retreat the Nazi army exhumed and burnt the corpses of those buried there, and even crushed their remains with stones from the local Jewish cemetery in an attempt to wipe out all trace of their crimes. In his poem, Yevtushenko attempts to outline a vision of solidarity of the Russian people with the Jewish victims of Babiy Yar, and like Tsvetaeva, imaginatively recreates in himself the historic sufferings of the Jewish people in Russia and elsewhere:

Мне сегодня столько лет,
как самому еврейскому народу.
Мне кажется сейчас –
                                     я иудей.
Вот я бреду по древнему Египту.
А вот я, на кресте распятый, гибну,
и до сих пор на мне – следы гвоздей.
Мне кажется, что Дрейфус –
                                                это я.

(Today I am as old in years
as all the Jewish people.
Now I seem to be
                           a Jew.
Here I plod through ancient Egypt.
Here I perish crucified, on the cross,
and to this day I bear the scars of nails.
I seem to be

After two more pages Yevtushenko concludes the poem thus:

Ничто во мне
                       про это не забудет!
                            пусть прогремит,
когда навеки похоронен будет
последний на земле антисемит.
Еврейской крови нет в крови моей.
Но ненавистен злобой заскорузлой
я всем антисемитам,
как еврей,
и потому –
                   я настоящий русский!

(Nothing in me
                       shall ever forget
The “Internationale”, let it
when the last anti-semite on earth
is buried forever.
In my blood there is no Jewish blood.
In their callous rage, all anti-semites
must hate me now as a Jew.
For that reason
                       I am a true Russian!)

Perhaps remembering these lines that he had so recently translated, then, Celan acknowledged features of the poem in his epigraph that other commentators on Yevtushenko’s poem at that time did not see; both the call to atonement for Russia’s own anti-semitic inheritance, as well as a specifically Russian humanism that Yevtushenko summoned from the beneath the deadening weight of the Stalinist bureaucracy which then smothered the Soviet Union. Jew – Poet – Russian. If we read the epigraph in this way it is clear that there is at least an analogy with the reading Meschonnic gives of Tsvetaeva. The epigraph represents that which cannot be read, that element of language that escapes the discourse of the sign and of signification as well as the discourse of poetic aesthetisization (anaesthetisation), and which is then a margin (a ‘minority’ we might say), at best, of language thus understood, and, at worst, that which is reviled and despised (those paralinguistic elements of discourse such as rhythm and emotive subjectivity that the theory of the sign is incapable of digesting, and which it therefore banishes from the hallowed grounds of linguistic science, and therefore from reason itself): in brief, the poetic. And it is in just this sense that poetic language is, as it were, Jewish (a dialect of Yiddish? The ideal lingua franca of Mitteleurop!), and the poet a Jew. What else could account for the discrepancy between standard translations of this epigraph, ‘All poets are Jews’ or ‘Tous les poètes sont des juifs’, and the violence of its real import, ‘All poets are Yids’? From the point of view of the theory of the sign it is true that poetic language is always a special case, a language apart: the urgency of the poetic appeal of Tsvetaeva, Yevtushenko and Celan is to demonstrate that just the opposite may be possible, i.e. that the very concept of a specifically poetic language, a ghettoised language, is utterly misguided. It is poetry that is life, and all language partakes of the poetical.

So why are these thoughts about Justin Katko’s essay? After all I feel nothing but complete solidarity with the ‘utopian longing’ of poetry, experimental or otherwise. My argument is not with the aim of Katko’s thesis, however, but rather with his use of the pseudo-Marxist poststructuralism of Language poetics as a model commensurate with the radical praxis he espouses elsewhere. If the motivation of this radical praxis (self-publishing, distributing and organising; situating poetic interventions in non-standard cultural sites; or using poetry as direct political action, etc.) is to operate within the theory of discourse, subjectivity, and historicity (hence, the theory of rhythm) that I have sketched above (I could do no more in the space available), breaking down poetry’s ghetto walls, and engaging in language arts and activities as a means of critical confrontation with the ever-increasing tendency of globalised Capital to at once totalize and utterly alienate all experience of life and humanity, then Language poetics is quite simply the wrong tool for the job.

While its practitioners aim at a thorough-going critique of the capitalist instrumentalisation of language, its commercialisation, they nevertheless fail to escape from its logic. Katko’s focus on grammar and the use of syntax as the relevant level of attention of Language poetics is revealing. While challenging language use at the level of sign or grammatical order, the very theory that promotes the constitutive split between subject and word, individual and community, labour and value, politics and life, Language poetics nevertheless adopts its assumptions wholesale. It is incapable of seeing language outside a theory of meaning, and so merely replicates the same split between signifier and signified that it inherits. Hence Language poetics blinds itself to a genuinely critical theory of language, one that situates language historically and in subjective experience, and that escapes the policing of the sign, by situating its poetics in discourse, in rhythm.

Ultimately Language poetics only succeeds in turning the theory of the sign back on to itself, and consequently shores up the very ideology that it attempts to challenge. Poetry is not a special case of language, or a series of denatured signs that interrupt meaning, as if meaning was all there was. If the uprising must begin in the ghetto, its purpose is to break out of it, not to make it stronger.

(I would like to express my indebtedness to Christine Ivanović, whose article ‘”All poets are Jews” – Paul Celan’s Readings of Marina Tsvetayeva’ provided much of the factual information about Celan’s interest in Tsvetaeva and the circumstances of his writing of ‘Und mit bem Buch aus Tarussa’)

Und mit dem Buch aus Tarussa

Все позты жиды
(Marina Zwetajewa)

Sternbild des Hundes, vom
Hellstern darin und der Zwerg-
leuchte, die mitwebt
an erdwärts gespiegelten Wegen,

Pilgerstäben, auch dort, von Südlichem, fremd
und nachtfasernah
wie unbestattete Worte,
im Bannkreis erreichter
Ziele und Stelen und Wiegen.

Wahr- und Voraus- und Vorüber-zu-dir-,
das dort bereitliegt, einem
der eigenen Herzsteine gleich, die man ausspie
mitsamt ihren un-
verwüstlichen Uhrwerk, hinaus
in Unland und Unzeit. Von solchem
Ticken und Ticken inmitten
der Kies-Kuben mit
der auf Hyänenspur rückwärts,
aufwärts verfolgbaren
reihe Derer-

einem Baum, von einem.
Ja, auch von ihm. Und vom Wald um ihn her. Vom Wald
Unbetreten, vom
Gedanken, dem er entwuchs, als Laut
und Halblaut und Ablaut und Auslaut, skythisch
im Takt
der Verschlagenen-Schläfe,
geatmeten Steppen-
halmen geschrieben ins Herz
der Stundenzäsur – in das Reich,
in der Reiche
weitestes, in
den Großbinnenreim
der Stummvölker-Zone, in dich
Sprachwaage, Wortwaage, Heimat-
waage Exil.

Von diesem Baum, diesem Wald.

Von der Brücken-
quader, von der
er ins Leben hinüber-
prallte, flügge
von Wunden, - vom
Pont Mirabeau.

Wo die Oka nicht mitfließt. Et quels
amours! (Kyrillisches, Freunde, auch das
ritt ich über die Seine,
ritts übern Rhein.)

Von einem Brief, von ihm.
Vom Ein-Brief, vom Ost-Brief. Vom harten,
winzigen Worthaufen, vom
unbewaffneten Auge, das er
den drei
Gürtelsternen Orions – Jakobs-
stab, du,
abermals kommst du gegangen! –

zuführt auf der
Himmelskarte, die sich ihm aufschlug.

Vom Tisch, wo das geschah.

Von einem Wort, aus dem Haufen,
an dem er, der Tisch,
zur Ruderbank wurde, vom Oka-Fluß her
und den Wassern.

Vom Nebenwort, das
ein Ruderknecht nachknirscht, ins Spätsommerohr
seiner hell-
hörigen Dolle:



Над Бабьим Яром памятников нет.
Крутой обрыв, как грубое надгробье.
Мне страшно.
                       Мне сегодня столько лет,
как самому еврейскому народу.
Мне кажется сейчас –
                                   я иудей.
Вот я бреду по древнему Египту.
А вот я, на кресте распятый, гибну,
и до сих пор на мне - следы гвоздей.
Мне кажется, что Дрейфус –
                                              это я.
Мещанство –
                      мой доносчик и судья.
Я за решеткой.
                        Я попал в кольцо.
И дамочки с брюссельскими оборками,
визжа, зонтами тычут мне в лицо.
Мне кажется –
                        я мальчик в Белостоке.
Кровь льется, растекаясь по полам.
Бесчинствуют вожди трактирной стойки
и пахнут водкой с луком пополам.
Я, сапогом отброшенный, бессилен.
Напрасно я погромщиков молю.
Под гогот:
                 "Бей жидов, спасай Россию!"
насилует лабазник мать мою.
О, русский мой народ!
                                   Я знаю –
По сущности интернационален.
Но часто те, чьи руки нечисты,
твоим чистейшим именем бряцали.
Я знаю доброту твоей земли.
Как подло,
                  что, и жилочкой не дрогнув,
антисемиты пышно нарекли
себя "Союзом русского народа"!
Мне кажется –
                        я – это Анна Франк,
                   как веточка в апреле.
И я люблю.
                   И мне не надо фраз.
Мне надо,
                 чтоб друг в друга мы смотрели.
Как мало можно видеть,
Нельзя нам листьев
                                 и нельзя нам неба.
Но можно очень много –
                                      это нежно
друг друга в темной комнате обнять.
Сюда идут?
                   Не бойся — это гулы
самой весны –
                        она сюда идет.
Иди ко мне.
                   Дай мне скорее губы.
Ломают дверь?
                         Нет – это ледоход...
Над Бабьим Яром шелест диких трав.
Деревья смотрят грозно,
Все молча здесь кричит,
                                       и, шапку сняв,
я чувствую,
                   как медленно седею.
И сам я,
              как сплошной беззвучный крик,
над тысячами тысяч погребенных.
Я –
каждый здесь расстрелянный
Я –
каждый здесь расстрелянный
Ничто во мне
                      про это не забудет!
                           пусть прогремит,
когда навеки похоронен будет
последний на земле антисемит.
Еврейской крови нет в крови моей.
Но ненавистен злобой заскорузлой
я всем антисемитам,
как еврей,
и потому –
                  я настоящий русский!

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Posted August 27, 2006