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  • On Breathroutes: Paul Celan’s Poetics of Breathing
  • Antti Salminen

“What’s on the lung, put on the tongue,” my mother used to say. Which has to do with breath. One should finally learn how to also read this breath, this breath-unit in the poem; in the cola meaning is often more truthfully joined and fugued than in the rhyme; the shape of the poem: that is presence of the single, breathing one.

(Celan 1999: 108)1

In the poetry of Paul Celan (1920–1970) there is an invisible but essential form of materiality that signifies, on thematic, material, and pre-syntactic levels, breathing. It is a phenomenon running through Celanian language-experience in its entirety, from human physiognomy to the spiritual realm — as Lydia Koelle argues (70) in Paul Celans pneumatisches Judentum, breathing in Celan defines a double bind of the transcendent and the immanent. This article addresses Celan’s poetics of breathing as a holistic phenomenon, not merely as a metaphor or a simile but as a force that animates both poetic and bodily corpus. Ultimately, the poeticized breathing and a breathing poem are characterized as a “Möbian space,” a space of harmonious contradictions between personal time and collective history, interpretation and recognition, immanent and transcendent form.

In Latin anima, soul, is distinguished from spiritus which means first of all breath (other meanings include courage and vigor) and which gives us a root word for inspiration, inspiritus. In Hebrew there is an analogous distinction between nephesh and ruach, and in Greek we found pneuma, a word for motile air and spirit along with psykhe, soul. In the Old Testament ruach is not only a manifestation of the godhead; it is also at work in a living creature (nephesh chayah). Ruach characterizes the breath of life in general, whether of humankind (Ezek 37:5; Isa 42:5) or animals (Gen 7:15; Psa 104:25). Gershom Scholem notes that its triple meaning — breath, [End Page 107] air, and spirit — amalgamates into the “breath of breath” of the godhead (1990: 27).2 This life-giving force figures in the first stanza of “In the Air”:

IN DER LUFT, da bleibt deine Wurzel, da, In der Luft. Wo sich das Irdische ballt, erdig, Atem-und-Lehm.

(1983, I: 290)

IN THE AIR, that’s where your root remains, there, in the air. Where the terrestrial rounds itself, clenched, earthy, both breath and clay.

(2002: 201)

These strophes of profound ambiguity form a double exposure of hope and despair. On the one hand the existence is uprooted, torn from the ground. On the other, one who breathes (a human as “Atem-und-Lehm”) has aerial roots like certain adventitious plants, and breathing is a tie that unites the terrestrial realm and sky. Through breath clay takes its shape, and exhalation inspires creation. Even when the world is inverted and when heaven has opened as an abyss, as Celan depicts the human condition in Meridian, life will continue by other means.3 A breathing human — even in the face of adversity — mediates between singularity (earth) and universality (air). This may be read as a primordial schema of interpretation, whose poetic locus for Celan is Atemwende, breathturn.

Atemwende — a Bodily Revolutus

“In the Air” is no exception, for in Celan breath is usually inscribed in the matter and natural forms. In his poems we find neologisms like breath-crystal (Atemkristall), breath-rope (Atemseil), breath-stone (Atemstein), and breath-tree (Atembaum). The sole most important of these neologisms is Atemwende, usually translated as “breathturn” or “turn-of-the-breath.” [End Page 108] It is the core figure of poeticized breathing, in which the topos of respiration reveals its full complexity. One source for the neologism is a transformative translation of Osip Mandelstam’s “second breath” — a return of inspiration — as it unfolds in his Voronezh Notebooks, in the “January poems” cycle Celan translated in the 1950s. Anna Glazova (80) traces Mandelstam’s references to breath and air in his Aerial Ways and notes that the motif is ubiquitous in this selection of late poems. In the poem “Stances,” Glazova states, Mandelstam’s life-changing turn bears a resemblance to Celan’s: “and the...


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