The Extraordinary Poetry of Two Tormented Poets and Lovers – Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan

Austrian German poet Ingeborg Bachmann (1926-1973) Photo Credit: The New Yorker and Herbert List, Magnum

The Respite

A harder time is coming.
The end of the respite allowed us
appears on the skyline.
Soon you must tie your shoelace
and drive back the dogs to the marshland farms.
For the fishes’ entrails
have grown cold in the wind.
Poorly the light of the lupins burns.
Your gaze gropes in the fog:
the end of the respite allowed us
appears on the skyline.

Over there your loved one sinks in the sand:
it rises toward her blown hair,
it cuts short her speaking,
it commands her to be silent,
it finds that she is mortal
and willing to part
after every embrace.

Do not look around.
Tie your shoelace.
Drive back the dogs.
Throw the fishes into the sea.
Put out the lupins!

A harder time is coming.

Ingeborg Bachman (1926-1973), trans. Michael Hamburger from The Ecco Anthology of International Poetry, Ecco, 2010

Thanks to an extensive article by Emma Garman online in the Paris Review this week I was reminded of the extraordinary German poet Ingeborg Bachmann. And the great impact the poem above had on my poetry mentor and friend Patrick Lane when he read it in an anthology in the 60’s. It may be that Bachmann is experiencing a real revival of interest in her work. Just a few months ago the writer Rachel Kushner profiled her late-career novel Malina in the New Yorker, calling it the truest portrait of female consciousness since Sappho.

I don’t remember all Patrick said about The Respite but its  ominous and threatening overtones created by such original images gut-punch me every time I read it.  And maybe, just maybe, I might hazard to claim that this line: Put out the lupins is one of the greatest lines of poetry I have ever read. Especially coming as it does after the lupins are introduced in the first stanza: Poorly the light of the lupins burns. The dread in this poem. The dread in so many of her poems.

Bachmann struggled with a lot of mental pain and despair in her life and her poetry is drenched with the darkness of a post-war Germany. What I didn’t know within her troubled but brilliant writing life, that ended tragically in a cigarette-caused fire in her Rome apartment, was her tempestuous on and off relationship with the great German-speaking Jewish Romanian poet, Paul Celan. Celan, who drowned himself in the Seine in 1970, was forever haunted by the Second World War and its toll on so many including his family – his parents died in the Holocaust and he endured two years as a prisoner in a labour camp. His poem Death Fugue is considered one of the most important poetic expressions of the horror of the Holocaust.

It was only in 2008 thanks to the publishing of the voluminous correspondence between Bachman and Celan that we were granted an intimate look into their lives and relationship.  How intense and tortured it was.  We also get a glimpse of their relationship through their poems. Here, first, is a poem about them by Celan and second, a poem written in response some years later by Bachmann. Extraordinary.

German Romanian poet Paul Celan (1920-1970)


Autumn eats its leaf out of my hand: we are friends.
From the nuts we shell time and we teach it to walk:
then time returns to the shell.

In the mirror it’s Sunday,
in dream there is room for sleeping,
our mouths speak the truth.

My eye moves down to the sex of my loved one:
we look at each other,
we exchange dark words,
we love each other like poppy and recollection,
we sleep like wine in the conches,
like the sea in the moon’s blood ray.

We stand by the window embracing, and people look up from
the street:
it is time they knew!
It is time the stone made an effort to flower,
time unrest had a beating heart.
It is time it were time.

It is time.

Paul Celan (1920-1970) trans. Michael Hamburger from The Ecco Anthology of International Poetry, Ecco, 2010

Darkness Spoken

Like Orpheus I play
death on the strings of life,
and to the beauty of the earth
and your eyes, which administer heaven,
I can only speak of darkness.

Don’t forget that you also, suddenly,
on that morning when your camp
was still damp with dew, and a carnation
slept on your heart,
you saw the dark stream
race past you.

The string of silence
taut on the pulse of blood,
I grasped your beating heart.
Your curls were transformed
into the shadow hair of night,
black flakes of darkness
buried your face.

And I don’t belong to you.
Both of us mourn now.

But Like Orpheus I know
life on the side of death,
and the deepening blue
of your forever closed eye.

Ingeborg Bachman,trans.Peter Filkins from Darkness Spoken Ingeborg Bachmann – The Collected Poems, Zephyr Press, 2006

Garman in her Paris Review article quotes a German reviewer from 2008: “Scarcely more breathlessly and desperately can two lovers ever have struggled for words,” marveled the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reviewer. “Little known among German literary historians, the relationship between these two poets amounts to one of the most dramatic and momentous occurrences in German literature.”

Garman then adds: Indeed, the letters reveal quite how entangled they were in each other’s work. In Celan’s Corona the speaker addresses his beloved: “we gaze at one another/we exchange dark words.” Bachmann told him in a letter that “Corona is the most beautiful of your poems: perfect anticipation of a moment in which everything turns to marble and remains so forever.” Several years later her poem Darkness Spoken responded: “And I don’t belong to you./Both of us mourn now.”

I am reminded in these two poems of another couple whose relationship was also so boldly revealed in their poems. I am thinking of the poetic conversation between the American writers, Jack Gilbert and Linda Gregg. Startling intimacies revealed. But in these two poems of Bachmann and Celan, a greater heaviness.

One of the great themes in Bachmann’s work is the inabilty of words to express the unsayable. And in the 60’s it seemed she stopped writing lyric poetry altogether.  But after her death she left a trove of unpublished poems from this period. She had not stopped writing poems! This one below talks of her struggle to write.  A struggle that I for one sure recognize in myself.

[I’ve misplaced my poems]

I’ve misplaced my poems.
I search for them in each nook and cranny.
because of pain I know nothing, not even how
one writes about pain, for I simply know nothing else.

I know only that it cannot be spoken of,
that it’s spicier, that a peppery metaphor
must occur to one. But with a knife in the back.

Parlo e tacio, parlo, I escape into an idiom
in which some Spanish appears, los toros y
los planetas
, perhaps still heard on
an old stolen record, Something in French
might also work, tu es mon amour dupuis si longtemps.

 Adieu, you beautiful words with your promises.
Why have you abandoned me? Were you not happy?
I have stashed you away in a heart made of stone.
Do something for me. Say there, compose for me a work.

Ingeborg Bachman,trans.Peter Filkins from Darkness Spoken Ingeborg Bachmann –
The Collected Poems
, Zephyr Press, 2006


  1. Allan Briesmaster
    Posted July 12, 2019 at 6:31 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for this, Richard, and for the link to the Paris Review article. I have admired her poetry while knowing little about her life or the novel.

  2. Posted July 14, 2019 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    Thank you! For Sunday poetry reading

  3. Sandy Martin
    Posted July 24, 2019 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    Richard……thank you for this introduction to these two fascinating poets….new to me.

  4. Richard Osler
    Posted July 24, 2019 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

    Dear sandy: So glad to know you are out there reading these blogs! Also to let you know I am leading another Italy retreat. Next June 11th to 21st at La Romita in Umbria!All best,


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