Nathan Goldman:Hi, and welcome back to On the Nose, Jewish Currents’s podcast. I’m Nathan Goldman, the Managing Editor of “Jewish Currents,” and I’m your host for this episode. Today, we’re celebrating the recent release of Civil Service, a book of poems by our Culture Editor, Claire Schwartz. I’m here with Claire and Chantz Erolin, the book’s editor at Graywolf Press.
Civil Service is a daring study of the violence woven into our world, from everyday encounters to the material of language itself. The poems unfold in three main sequences: a quartet of lyric lectures, a fragmentary narrative that follows a cast of archetypal figures named for the coordinates of the complicities with power–the Dictator, the Curator, the Accountant, and so on–and a series of interrogation scenes centered on a spectral, fugitive figure named Amira. The book evokes and undoes familiar forms as it works out the possibilities of a poetry oriented toward reimagined modes of reading and living. Because the book presents itself as explicitly engaged with the texts that influenced it, it includes notes and a bibliography. We also read three pieces with which Civil Service is in conversation: Paul Celan’s “Death Fugue” and “Stretto,” and Edmond Jabès’s “At the Threshold of the Book,” from The Book of Questions. I’m so excited to have the opportunity to talk with both of you about Civil Service. Claire, would you start us off by reading a poem from the book?
Claire Schwartz: “Lecture on Loneliness”:
The first woman was not burdened with firsts, only was.
Not yet bound by a name, uncalled for.
Only history makes her lonely, only after makes her first.
Of course this is an origin story –
lonely as any birth.
Loneliness: the distance
between history and what history might have been.
The thread unspools.
The umbilical, severed.
‘Why do your books
clog the doorway to the past?’
A blanket of yellow petals.
The rain: little fists
beating back the dead
who want only to braid your hair.
You built a world against such softness.
You arranged an alphabet against loneliness.
‘I scale your walls. That is my practice.’
In the schools, children line up, chant:
To be alone, among
To be without, among
To be among, without
To be without, alone
To trade your wonder for knowing, gladly.
To confuse the loss of nothing with the loss of nothing.
You knew. Then you knew more.
You diminished the world with your knowing.
The distance between you and your quiet grows.
A ladder, receding into the sky.
The first woman of your life
stitches her face into your sleep
like your grandmother
stitched coins into the lining of her coat, and ran.
You wake. Run through the woods, jingling.
The sound of your skirt accompanies you.
You forget your sisters.
You make of the hour a horse, ride off.
‘I’ve ridden those horses, your lost hours.’
The children lick honey from the letters.
The righteous man climbs the tree.
On the first branch, he cuts off his hair.
At the top, he discards his body.
A person can be with a word like they can be with a body:
Be changed by its nearness.
The woman lays all the lavender at your feet.
The browned fields balk.
You scatter flowers along the sidewalks,
paint a mural of a rain forest in a prison.
The years ascend the mirror
like sea level.
A face breaks off like an iceberg.
It is your mother’s.
The years add.
The years subtract.
You are always wrong.
‘Take me with you!’
You populate your memory with her scent and her language.
You remember so little.
You are in bed.
In a room down the hall:
words exchanged in the dark.
Distance sands the words to noise.
The room is the world.
Three daffodils later, and you’ve shed your memory like a skin.
No matter how much you water it, the stone refuses its flowering.
You strike the stone.
It withholds the river.
The letters are lanterns
and lead to no house.
The townspeople emptied their language
and could no longer meet each other there.
‘Was the language empty?
Or was it open?’
The truth lost its coordinates.
A weathered man, dusting snow from the ridge of his year.
The name of an old lover assails him.
No! The light hurts.
He closes her name like a book.
‘If you excise me from your memory,
I will enter your blood.’
Little capillaries, little trees.
Little heart governed by a solitary rain cloud.
The only laws:
Tonight, the dead light up your mind
like an image of your mind on a scientist’s screen.
‘The scientists don’t know – and too much.’
In the town square, in the heart of night (a delicacy
like the heart of an artichoke), a man dances
cheek-to-cheek with the infinite blue.
Of course, his mother’s death blooms
so much larger in his life
than her life ever did. An endless flowering,
what is gone. Scant still against what will
never be. No language
for the engulfing mouths of the not-become.
After you, no one asks.
Look how you shredded the quiet with your promises.
Look how you lost her, anyway.
Look, now – no quiet to accompany you.
Your words are sisterless.
No, no one asks after you.
the one who is asking.’
A finger plumbing the depths of your night.
It rained in your room.
You mistook the ceiling for sky.
The rain allots you just one glass.
It has to last your life.
The rain extinguishes summer.
You behead the flowers.
You forget their names.
To share what you love with one you admire,
and be scorned: fingernails along your
Every embrace, a rehearsal of separation.
Your mother’s life, halved like a peach,
the stubborn pit exposed to weather.
One morning, in a shop, you meet someone who wears your hair,
who speaks your name like the one who named you.
The bells on the door clink as you leave with your butter.
To be suspended between oneself
like the man who balanced on a wire between mountains
then tumbled toward death like a helicopter seed.
‘A burial is
a seed planted in the wrong season.’
To be the wrong season.
To work all your life in the name of family.
Each labored hour a brick
in the road leading you away.
‘A name is not a leash.
I will be in the field
watching the tulips grow.’
The women come with aprons full of hours.
The world aches, unpassed over by the eyes of the dead.
The dead have no eyes.
Lonely, lonely living.
‘Do all of your antics recover the radiance, and was it worth it?’
Go on, hang the stars from the sky.
This world is a pageant of your making.
The hour of forgetting is a brown hour.
The house of forgetting looks like any other.
The trees are dark and full of language.
The trees speak, but not to you.
First, the year without music.
Then, in a minor key, in a dead language, the woman sang this song:
We were the last people on earth.
We made a world between us.
We spent the earth.
I made my body a cloak and took you in.
In all that you, I lost myself.
I traveled the length of my interior, and there I wasn’t.
My language was a symptom of a history I couldn’t touch.
I petitioned the dead for company.
No one came.
The butterflies fell like autumn leaves.
The shells washed up on the beach, empty as G-d’s ears.
We were the last.
I called this life.
Here, a door.
And like that, we went.
Chantz Erolin: Thank you, Claire. for that. And for everybody who’s not on screen with us right now this is this is Chatnz. Claire, I was struck–reading along, as you read–by something you said at the launch event the other day, of the blatant inadequacy, of reading Amira’s voice in this poem alongside. And I find that that speaks so resonantly to what I find so compelling and intriguing about these, that it’s so difficult for my literal mind to track the voice in an ethical and moral position, right, where it oscillates between being so grounded in the world as it is, whether that’s chastizement or comfort, and also in this kind of possibility of an otherwise. And it really disrupts what I look for–which I’m embarrassed about–in what I think of as a lecture, in this kind of instruction of how to be, and it makes me have to engage with it kind of critically, in ways that I’m not always prepared for, because it seems to shift so quickly. And I wonder if you could just speak to that a little bit, into what the positioning of the speaker or speakers of these poems is, and how you intend “Lecture” as this kind of intersection of writing, and reading, and living in the world, as it is and could be?
CS: Yeah, thanks so much for that. I will just say, for anyone who hasn’t looked at the actual book, there’s four lectures that are not exactly centerpieces–they’re not central to the text in kind of organizational way–but they’re sort of nodes of thought and gathering. There’s a figure who runs down the right hand margin, called Amira, who’s sort of a fugitive figure, who I kind of thought of as someone who couldn’t exist fully, or who wasn’t able to be fully visible in the world as it was configured now.
So to me, the lectures–well, I guess I’ll just say I think a lot about the form of the lecture. I think a lot about the prescription of what people talk about, what can go into poems, and the sort of impetus not to be dogmatic in certain ways. Now, I once heard the poet Solmaz Sharif say that Americans don’t like kind of dogmatic poetry because we don’t like to be told that we don’t know things. But I think there’s another another risk of dogma, which is that the thought is kind of done for you. And sometimes that’s necessary. Sometimes there are things that just need to be said that aren’t complicated, and that are unequivocally true, and should be done for us on the level of thought. But I think there’s also a question about religious, what it means to be here together, politics on the most basic sense of the social. And so I wanted to think about these nodes–of organization, of social forms–and how we might come together differently around some of the animating concepts. And so I was interested in the idea of a lecture or something that could put forward some of these baseline, ethical positions. But also, you know, the lecture holds at its root reading, as well as speaking and being told something. So I wanted to think about reading as a kind of social practice, in a space where meaning is negotiated and worked out together.
CE: Interesting to think of the person at the lectern in a position of authority and also deferring so much–defer their authority to others, the practice of reading.
NG: Totally. I think what feels, usually, dogmatic or authoritative about the form is there’s an idea, like lecture assumes a kind of election or enunciation of a speaker, and then the cohesion of an audience to whom the speaker is instructing in a dogmatic or didactic way. But I feel like in this book, like Claire was talking about, the lectures do take that form but they also sort of undermine it. They tend to speak out into a kind of unknowing. I was struck in this reading by the line, “you diminish the world with your knowing.” This idea of like, knowledge as not just a distillation or an addition, but a kind of subtraction.
It seems to me that all of the lectures in the book–I’ll just say the titles for people haven’t read them. There’s “Lecture on Time,” “Lecture on the History of the House,” “Lecture on Confessional Poetry,” and then “Lecture on Loneliness.” I think in different ways, they all sort of feel engaged with ideas of unknowing or loss. It was making me think about, I don’t know, just the idea of the lecture as a form that we’d often think of as concerned with instruction in presence, but activating valences is that are actually about subtraction and loss. Or I was thinking about the idea of like, even going back far in the Western lineage, the treatises we have from Aristotle are thought to be the lecture notes, because most of his actual corpus is like not available to us. So thinking in one way of the way that having a lecture on the page is sort of admitting that it’s not the thing itself, in a way. If the thing of a lecture is it’s kind of unfolding in time, with an audience and space, then it’s sort of acknowledging that text is always in relation to some other thing, or is mediated, or a copy, or something like that. Which felt like that’s a motif or concern in the book, as a whole, is this idea of everything present also being a kind of absence.
CS: Yeah. I’m thinking back to what Chantz said also, about the question of the position of the speaker in the lecture poems. And there are–as you mentioned, Nathan–figures or characters who are named for their occupations who run through. And I was thinking about those positions in a certain way. And the lectures are actually where the position of the speaker is sort of dislocated, and the question about the possibilities of reconstitution in those spaces really comes up. I mean, Nathan, you mentioned the relationship between presence and loss, and I guess, just to state the obvious, loss is also the condition for reimagining what is or what could be. There’s no way, without the loss of the forms that organize our world right now, that we might actually fully move into the possibilities of an otherwise.
NG: Yeah. I think that’s something that feels so present and alive, to me, in the book. I think, sometimes, in certain kinds of political speech or political work, I feel this kind of tension between acknowledging or inviting in an engagement with loss alongside the work of rebuilding things. One articulation of it is in this slogan of like, “Don’t mourn: organize.” But I think there’s just different ways that, in certain spaces, loss is put its own thing to deal with in a separate way. But I feel like the melancholy character of a lot of the poems, to me, in Civil Service, feels like it’s existing alongside that reimaginitive impulse. It was making me think about not only the ways that reimagining involves the loss of what is, but the ways in which ordinary losses already teach us something about how mutable things are.
CS: Yeah. I like the word melancholy. Like, I appreciate that reading, and I feel like Freud talks about how melancholy has a kind of unhealthy relationship to, or the kind of pathological relationship to grief, you know, as the lost object is not properly assimilated. And I guess I’ve been thinking about the political possibilities of refusing to assimilate the loss, particularly in contexts where the violence that produces the loss is still ongoing. It feels actually really important to refuse that kind of metabolism that would have us keep recreating the conditions of that violence.
CE: But it makes me think, a lot, of Amira, of this figure that I think you feel a sense of loss for throughout the book, because of Amira’s removal and half-tension of being. And I wonder if you could talk a little bit about when Amira does get the chance to speak more fully, which I know came later in the books development, and felt like a really necessary piece, perhaps to mitigate that grief. I’m talking about the poem “Blue.” And what that means, to give Amira that space, even while holding Amira at that kind of liminal space just at the edge of the book, or the marginal space, I should say.
CS: Yeah, I think there’s a kind of narrative problem sometimes, when we talk about, I don’t know, revolution, for lack of a better word, but the sort of totalizing action that feels necessary to move from this world to the next one. I mean, it’s the narrative climax in so many ways, and often that can be the endpoint. And because there’s a question about what it means to get from here to there, and that’s a kind of social question that can only be really worked out in the process of doing it, I think it can be really hard to imagine what’s actually on the other side, you know? What’s really this world that we’re moving toward? But it felt important to me to signpost–and to not quite make tangible, because I don’t think that’s possible, and I don’t think this world has earned that kind of proximity–but to at least hold the horizon visible of the possibilities of another kind of relationship, and the relationship that might come more fully into view with a closer reading, really, for lack of a better word, with deeper tension and deeper engagement. And I wanted her to have enough space to articulate the fact of her stance, just to signpost that she’s there and that there is another side.
NG: I feel like it’s so striking, just reading the book when you come to it: it feels surprising. I think on my first readthrough the idea that there will be this little flourishing, because so much of the presence of Amira is in these glimpses–and like Chantz mentioned, is on the right margin, and also maybe it’s helpful to say that in the book, Amira’s speech in lighter type, it’s in like gray type. So yeah, I mean, I found that just like expectation-defying in a really useful way, this way that Amira does, get to speak.
I think, maybe Claire, you should just read “Blue,” because it’s short and also, I think, maybe gives a sense that it’s–I don’t know. I think there’s something about the texture of the poem itself that gives an idea of how like, even when Amira gets the slight chance to speak at length, it’s not easily cognizable. Or there’s still something about it that speaks to the sense of what you’re talking about, that Amira is coming from a place where there’s a distance or something. If you don’t mind reading it, I think it would maybe help speak to this.
came late to
thrashing the sea
was the same
sky and now
day is then
more what did
do I name
NG: Yeah, it really feels like this glimpse out into something, where you can sort of feel an intimacy but also not be able to fully articulate it or something, which feels very suited to this kind of glimpse outward. It was making me think about lines in the first lecture in the book, “Lecture on Time”: “A way out, to be with, otherwise. Who hasn’t felt freed in the presence of someone’s deep thinking?” And just this idea of like, glimpses of ways out that occur through certain kinds of presence, in another’s thinking.
CE: Yeah, and I think even though there’s so many characters with their various relationships, in most of the poems in the book, I’d say–maybe the bulk of the pages, at least–there’s a kind of removal of feeling in that. And obviously, as a reader, I mean, for me it’s a very emotional, and striking, and damning experience to read those narratives. But it’s not felt in the way that “Blue” is, or even, I think some of the lectures are. Maybe ironically, you know? I was harping on this a lot on the edits, but I’m like, “Three out of four of them contain a song within the lecture, or what I think of as a song, and I’m leaning over into hippie, sensy-moshy [sensitive-emotional] territory right now, but I’m like, “Oh, yeah, that otherwise, it is love. It is that kind of intimacy and the possibility of that, instead of this atrocity.” I think it’s complicated, and part of what’s so interesting and makes continually engaging with the book so fruitful.
CS: Thanks for saying that. I’m thinking, too, of this interview that I read with Saretta Morgan a couple of years back. And someone asked her just kind of a standard question, of what it means to like, aestheticize politics, whatever that means. And she said, something I think about a lot, which is the problem is really the anesthetic, you know? That we’re asked not to fully feel what exists, because if we could, then it wouldn’t go on. And I think part of the project of Civil Service is really to insist what I know to be true for myself, which is that thought really is a registered feeling. And thought really is a kind of texture of social engagement. It’s not mutually exclusive from sentiment, it’s really a way–at least, it’s a way that I know–to put myself close to other people and to be together.
NG: Yeah, I think that’s so interesting. I guess I’ve sometimes encountered this sort of thought, that poetry–and fiction, too–engages a mode that feels more like what people will call conceptual or intellectualized, like sort of on the other side from feeling. I feel like I encounter this a lot, just because it’s a poet that I really love, and when people talk about John Ashbury, a lot is this idea of, “Oh, it’s really abstractly intellectualized.” Which is true in one sense, but like, when I read him, I also find him to be like, a very deeply feeling poet. And so yeah, I mean, I think that’s helpful to sort of undermine that distinction. I think that unfolds a lot in Civil Service in the way that these modes of questioning and thinking feel very alive.
CE: Yeah, I mean, maybe there’s a challenge to a false dichotomy. Definitely in poetry, as I experience people talking about it, and definitely theory, they’re saying, “Oh, if it’s so intellectual, you’re not putting yourself into the book.” But like, why is it that politic, why is that intellect, not as closely so associated with that interiority, whether it’s emotional or otherwise? And I think that that distance that we have from the interiority of the Curator and Archivist, and so on and so forth, is made more palpable by the kind of relentless diving into it in the “Lectures” and in Amira’s presence.
NG: Yeah, I’m glad you brought up the seeming absence of access to interiority in the question of those figures. And I’m really interested to talk about that and ask about that, to give a little more context for people who haven’t read the book yet. Many of the poems center around this series of figures, and we get them named, like Claire said, by their jobs, basically. Which I think also tends to function as how they’re positioned in terms of power, and those names are capitalized, so they function as names. But one question I have for both of you is how to even think of them. Because I think I’ve referred to them as like characters at certain points, I heard your conversation the other day with Kamran Javadizadeh, Claire, where I think you referred to them using the word figures.
One thing it made me think about–I often am thinking about this–the novelist William Gass had this concept of character, and he had this sort of ongoing debate with a novelist John Gardner about what a character is. And he took a very philosophical, conceptual thing where he said, “Well, a character is something like a linguistic construction. That in a work, other kinds of language tend toward these like eddies of language, and that’s what a character is.” I mention it only because it’s a notion that sometimes is taken as a little callous or cold or something, versus a notion that’s like, “Oh, a character is an imagined person,” or has some relation to this more warm, or empathetic, or relatable idea. But whether or not we take them to be characters, I was sort of thinking of it in relationship to these figures, because they do feel hollowed out in a certain way, which I think, in one way, allows them to sort of fit over the world. I’m just interested in the ways that they feel like these kind of shells, or something like that. It felt to me like there’s something going on there, in the way they kind of activate, but also resist an empathetic impulse, or an impulse toward thinking of them in relation to people in the world. So I’m just interested in talking more about what you both make up those figures,
CS: I really do think of them as figures in the sense of–I think of them as locations of social configuration. I think it’s easy to assume that the job titles, which are capitalized stand-ins for their names, but I really think of them as standing in for their locations. I think of them as kind of place names, almost. There’s a kind of slippage between work and occupation, and really thinking about the kind of social spaces that are occupied through these various practices and habits that are then called jobs. And I think the question about interiority is a really interesting one. What comes to mind immediately is that they can’t have interiority because they’re sort of open to be occupied. And the question about whether or not the reader recognizes themselves or chooses to occupy those spaces, or the relationship between the world outside of the book and the world of the book, as it enters into those spaces, is really an open question. And it’s not one that can be figured in terms of the interiority of something that can be called a character, in the sense of an individual person who could be then taken out in that position would no longer exist. The position continues to be open, and the location really continues to be a question.
CE: Was there ever the thought that there would be an Editor–a capital “E” Editor–in there? Which I think would have been delightful and challenging. Maybe in Civil Service Two. But no, I think that’s so real, and that’s part of what–I mean, I’ll speak personally. I think, in really trying to get into the culpability and the complicity that the book is really confronting the reader with, for me, the first place that I had to kind of stop and look at myself was in the poems that really feature the Curator. And the way that that works, and that’s me superimposing an interiority onto that in a way that may or may not be useful in a final read of the poem, but it felt like a necessary part of the process for me. And what feels so striking–and what I think you just articulated really well, which I may be repeating–is this kind of flattening of self into these locations, and how these locations have power themselves. And actually, I would love if you would push back against this, if this is not what you’re intending, but how those positions are necessarily flattening; how those locations of power and those configurations of power relations are inhuman, in a way.
CS: That sounds right.
CS: No, that sounds right. And I think it goes back to the question of the “Lectures,” too, and helps me to articulate why I understand thought, really, as a kind of–I don’t mean human in like a humanistic, Enlightenment-tradition sense, but as a kind of practice that gets to the thickness of social life. As you’re pointing out, that kind of thickness can’t exist in these roles. It’s just helping me to understand why we need other social configurations in order to meet each other differently.
NG: That made me think of this line in the poem “Diet:” “Questions are not in the stenographer’s realm of responsibility.” The Stenographer is one of these figures, but just the idea of like, there’s these kinds of designations, like parameters of inside and outside, that feels anti-human. It feels like the mode of inquiry of the “Lectures” and of Amira contravenes those designations. And this feels really related, to me, to language itself, somehow, where a lot of the figures we meet, their position seems to be a lot about like, not only are they locations, but they are arranging things in a certain way, often to do with language. I was thinking partly about like, so one of them’s the Dictator. There’s also an Old Dictator. But how dictate contains this language meaning in itself, as well as being obviously about the kind of governance. And then we also have like a Stenographer, and the Curator, the Accountant. There are different ones who are, in a broad sense, arranging text in the world, is how I was thinking about it. So it seemed like the book feels like, in that way, it’s partly invoking this sense of language as a space of contravention and possibility, but also a space of disciplining, and hemming in, and containing the world as it is. It sort of has both of those in it. I guess it doesn’t feel to me like a book that has a utopian understanding of language, even as it’s like, material for trying to push out from a broken world is also language.
CS: Yeah. I think it feels very related to questions of grammar and syntax, as far as those are the kinds of arrangements of thought and what make certain kinds of thought and relation possible. Or, I’m thinking of Dubois’s idea of the limits of allowable thought, that are kind of hemmed in, grammatically or syntactically. The syntax of the poems, with the figures named for their occupations, is fairly standard. The syntax starts to break apart a lot more in the “Lectures.” And I think what wasn’t able to be heard when I read “Blue” is, I think it sounds, read, much more aligned with traditional sentences. But there aren’t any periods, the lines are very short, there’s a real juncture between the expected unit of the sentence and the way that the language meets the eye on the page. And I think about the possibility between those, where something else might happen in language, is the kind of space where reconfiguration might become possible. So that is where I think of Amira on one hand, and the “Lectures” as departing from what can’t happen in the space of the work of the poems.
NG: This might be a good space to talk a little bit about, or maybe read a little bit from, the Celan poems, because I feel like the transformation from one to the other feels like it’s really related to this.
CS: Sure. Really, I started this by reading “Lecture on Loneliness.” And if you’re familiar with Paul Celan’s “Stretto,” which we’ll read a little bit from, you can hear that a lot of the language comes from that, or is speaking to that poem. Should we just go ahead and read some?
NG: I think to read a little bit from each of them.
NG: Why don’t I read a little bit of the “Death Fugue,” and then if you want to read the little bit that you had marked from “Stretto”? Chantz, is that okay?
NG: Okay. So I’ll read some of Celan’s “Death Fugue.” This is in Pierre Joris’s translation.
Black milk of morning we drink you evenings
we drink you at noon and mornings we drink you at night
we drink and we drink
A man lives in the house he plays with the snakes he writes
he writes when it darkens to Deutschland your golden hair Margarete
he writes and steps in front of his house and the stars glisten and he whistles his dogs to come
he whistles his jews to appear let a grave be dug in the earth
he commands us play up for the dance
Black milk of dawn we drink you at night
we drink you mornings and noontime we drink you evenings
we drink and we drink
A man lives in the house he plays with the snakes he writes
he writes when it turns dark to Deutschland your golden hair Margarete
Your ashen hair Shulamit we dig a grave in the air there one lies at ease
NG: I know, it’s intense to read part of that poem and then like pass it over. But I think maybe what’s worth saying, at least in introduction, is that, for people who don’t know, Celan was writing in the wake of the Holocaust, in the wake of the deaths of his family. And I think this is a poem that engages pretty directly with that violence, and in a way that–I mean, I think it’s like an incredible poem–but in a way that I think you can hear, even in my bad reading of Pierre Joris’s great translation, is that it has this musicality to it, this kind of intoxicating rhythm that I think is part of what makes the poem so effective in what it’s doing. But that I know, from the way that Joris has talked about it, that this a long time later came to feel, was perhaps, poetically irresponsible. Or that because of ways that the poem was received and ended up being taught in Germany, that he felt that the euphony and beauty of the poem alongside the violence it was speaking about felt somehow irresponsible, or like it’s something that had to be undone in a different way.
CE: I think what’s kind of striking about that poem–and I’m not gonna sit here and pretend to be a scholar on Celan–but with what I know about him his work, and I think also in conversation with Civil Service, it’s kind of striking how literal it is, which is not what I associate with the kind of language-breaking quality that feels so crucial to his writing. I think within the German language and in the wake of the Holocaust, and just in everything that I connect with the poems themselves.
NG: Do you want to read part from “Stretto”? Because I think part of the idea of reading these poems together is that it was a kind of rewriting or revision of the of the “Death Fugue.” I think people will immediately hear it in the language.
CE: Yeah. This is from Pierre Joris’s, his translation of “Stretto.”
the eye go,
to the moist—
Hurricanes, from whenever,
particle flurries, the other,
know this, we
read it in the book, it was
did we grasp
And it stood written that.
put a silence over it,
silence, a sepal, a
thought of plant life hung from it—
ticle flurries, there remained
to try it with the stone—it
was hospitable, it
didn’t interrupt. How
good we had it:
gritty and stringy. Stalky,
clustery and raying; knobbly,
clumpy; loose, bran-
ching—: he, it
did not interrupt, it
liked speaking to dry eyes, before it closed them.
did not let go, held tight
in the midst, a
Came up to us, came
right through, sewed
at the last membrane,
the world, a thousandcrystal,
NG: I mean, this might be very simplistic, but just trying to think of how I respond to a poem like that–in the Celan’s poems as his like work moves in that direction, and then also how it relates to moments in Civil Service–is there’s a kind of experience of like, attempted apprehension, that gets continually disrupted. It feels to me, at times, often frustrating, and it also feels at other times, or sometimes at the same time, generative. And there’s something about that kind of opacity that has also opened, or that at various moments can feel both frustrating, in a sense of trying to say something but not being able to, or trying to understand but not being able to.
I don’t know, I think there’s a reason people sometimes talk about work like that, it’s like difficult in a negative sense. That just feels really bound up with the sense of possibility, even though sometimes a sense of frustration doesn’t feel like a sense of possibility. It just made me think, again, of this part from the “Lecture on Loneliness,” that Claire opened with: “The townspeople emptied their language and could no longer meet each other there.” And there’s a response, this is from Amira: “Was the language empty, or was it open?” Something about that idea feels related to me, to this syntax breaking kind of work.
CS: Yeah. I mean, earlier, Nathan, you mentioned the kind of social movement between the poems, and I wonder if it’s worth just staying there for a little bit, because I do feel like it has to do so much with the formal choices that Celan made in “Stretto.” So I guess just to say a little bit more about that: Celan wrote “Todes Fugue” and it was pretty immediately taken up. It was taught in German schools, it was revered by German critics, it was talked about as a kind of poem of reconciliation, sort of taught for its formal elements and extracted of its context. And obviously, this was horrifying to him. And he sort of committed to not musicalizing in the same way, as you mentioned, and I think you can really sort of hear the difference between the commitments to rhythm in “Todes Fugue” and the commitments to rhythm, which still exist, but there’s no lulling in “Stretto,” it feels differently staccato, differently contrapuntal.
And so to me, this is just kind of an amazing question, about what does it mean to revise with the world’s reading in mind? I think that can be a really dangerous prospect. But I think it also is kind of a great thing. What does it mean to make work that doesn’t lend itself to the kinds of extractive impulses that are the very condition for the violence that you’re trying to write against? And one thing that happens in “Stretto” is that he brings in Hiroshima, he kind of in-plots the fascist violence of the Nazi Holocaust in the global context in which it took place.
CS: And this was really, really important, because he started this, I think, in ’58. And this is really the moment when German society, but also French society, where he’s writing from, is really reconstituting its Nazi impulses. Maurice Papon, who was responsible for the deportation of 1,600 Jews from Bordeaux, to Drancy and to Auschwitz, is then named the Prefect of Paris that same year, and you know, three years later, he’ll oversee the massacre of probably over 200, certainly over 100 Algerians protesting the curfew and moving toward Algerian independence. So you know, you can see these kinds of fascist circuits being reconstituted, and what does it mean to make work that doesn’t just duplicate the same kinds of circuits? So I think this is really the question that’s animating the movement between those poems. And it’s really the question that I hope to take up forever.
CE: I think both of these poems reach for the kind of torrential, consistent, unending temporality of atrocity, and fascism, and this movement, as you keep saying, which I think is right. And I almost wish that I had read these aloud before we got on the pod here, because it’s striking how many points it feels like one should be able to stop in “Stretto,” in this thing that is so explicitly about this lack of interruption and about this consistency. How many interruptions and digressions there are, and how deeply disturbing and frustrating that is, both trying to penetrate that to get to the context of the subject matter and also when considering the syntactical possibility that would have been there in the constitution fascism, as you put it well.
NG: It’s really striking to me, the idea of like revisiting and revising a poem in this way at all. It’s super interesting to me, but the idea of revising, because of the social meaning of the poem and because of readings, it makes me think about, with respect to Civil Service in like two parts–I’ve been thinking of it as like paratext, but I actually don’t know if that’s quite right. Because in in the book, a part of the poetry comes even after the acknowledgments. So there’s a way in which what would normally be thought of as paratext is absorbed into text. But the acknowledgments of the book, and with a line that says, “Reader, you revised this text. Thank you,” which seems to speak back to one of the epigraphs of the book, which is by Jabes. It says, “The writer steps aside for the work, and the work depends on the reader.” So both of these are articulations of elevating the reader, or destabilizing in a similar way, in the way we’re talking about, with the lecture, the relationship between poet and reader.
I guess one other thing it makes me think about is, there’s a line when Amira is first introduced, early in the collection, that says something like, “Now you’re responsible for her.” But this idea of the reader’s responsibility to interpreting or understanding, because I think there’s one way in which Celan choosing to–I don’t know if it’s right to say like disown the poem–but to like rewrite it, seems like saying, like, “My bad, I fucked up. I wrote it this way, and that I shouldn’t have written it that way.” I don’t know if that’s how he felt about it. But there’s one way in which it’s a kind of failure of a poetics. And there’s another way in which it’s actually a failure of a reading public. And in a way, what’s the difference? In the sense of like, you’re only writing toward some public, but it’s partly in this idea of reading versus misreading. I don’t know. It’s not the interesting question exactly, like whose fault is it? But it just seems to invite that question, of if the meaning unfolds in the social encounter, in the social context, there’s just a kind of dispersed responsibility of what artworks are doing that is about an interpretive community.
CS: Yeah, for sure. I mean, I think what Jabes points to is the reader is one of these configurations, that is, the work of reading is actually one of the social positions in relation to the text. And I think the question of discourse responsibility feels incredibly important and sort of what civility primes us not to think about. There’s the idea that a couple of people are responsible for the machinations of the majority of violence, and of course, in certain ways of thinking that’s true. But I think it’s also true that, without the rest of us, this wouldn’t function. And that feels also really important to hold.
CE: Nathan, I love that you brought that up. And the exact line is, “She’s in your hands now,” and it’s in sequence in beginning of the book that, for those who haven’t seen it, as the pages turn, this line drawing develops in these different configurations of the book: in the door, in the house, and so forth. I love that sense of responsibility, and then also just that literal act of holding in your hands the book itself, and how Amira can sort of function as the place of possibility and discourse. Not to reduce the human nature.
NG: Would Amira be a character and not a figure?
CE: It’s interesting to think about the ways that she functions there.
CS: Yeah. And then right after that, it’s like, of course, Amira was wanted, which sort of poses the question to the reader about “wanted” in the state sense. Or, what do we do with desire? How does desire become a carceral form in state configurations? Or are there other ways to think about how desire may position as a relation? Obviously there are, but the question is kind of set forth as the way into the poems.
CE: Thinking about the decontextualization of the text. I mean, I think of it across any kind of leftist discourse that we have, the ability for something to be rendered toothless, or to be codified so much. I mean, it’s not lost on me, the irony that I feel in my position at Graywolf, writing about Civil Service in a grant proposal or something like that. Or, you know, attending a ceremony to celebrate the work in some kind of pageantry. Not to diminish that too much, and I want to avoid asking you too personally, and then also asking you too broadly, but how do you navigate that? Or what do you feel like the possibility of the responsibility of the book and/or the author are in this kind of nonprofit industrial complex, or whatever you want to call it through, which the work is distributed?
CS: I feel like that’s the question of everything. I mean, I feel an impulse to say something about trying to make a space within a space. But I also feel like, in some ways, these are just unreconcilable, and I actually just want to hold that and not actually try to reconcile them. I know, Chantz, that I’ve mentioned this to you before, but Robin Coste Lewis, who wrote really an incredible book, “Voyage of the Sable Venus,” always asks if her book was worth the trees. And I think to take that question seriously, in all of its configurations, feels incredibly important. And to me right now, the possibility of getting to imagine this book in its fullest form, alongside you, alongside a whole team of people who are able to think about what this might be, and that that itself is a kind of social space–that feels incredibly valuable. And that actually, I felt like was almost necessary to bring even the language of the book into the form that felt like it was able to approach the questions that I wanted to. But there are real contradictions there, and I don’t know that I’ll necessarily move in relation to them in the same way in the future. But I think right now I just want to hold the fact that those actually are contradictions.
CE: Which I think is apt, given even just the first way that we opened up the discussion, of the difficulty of finding the kind of moral authority in the text. It resists that, or it doesn’t stoop to that, in a way, which is exciting.
NG: Yeah, I think part of what really excites me about the book is that it feels so much to me about the real sense of possibility, of re- and unthinking things in directions, through poetry without–it feels really not sanguine, or necessarily optimistic, about that. This, to me, comes back to language, that language feels like mobilized through the book in ways that sort of point to these–I think it’s like the question of the way Amira intrudes, too–of these glimpses of possibility. But it’s totalizing vision feels so–I don’t know, the fact that the book doesn’t let itself fully open up into that, or I don’t know. It feels related to me to “Stretto,” in a way, where it’s like these forms that really try to rethink, and contest, and break down, but also feel very dark to me, or trapped in a way that, to me, feels resonant in a realist way, or a way that doesn’t feel like self-comforting to me. I feel it’s really an attempt to take the measure of the possibilities inherent in certain tools, without projecting a sense of total rupture, or total redemption within a broken field, or something. I don’t know if I got that– it’s very abstract, if that makes sense.
CS: Yeah, I think I just keep coming back to the word unreconcilable. I think there really is a relationship between the kind of anti-extractive impulses of “Stretto” and this kind of desire not to be able to be reconciled with a world that continues to be spectacularly violent. I mean, Joris talks about “Stretto” as the poem where Celan made you take him at his word, and that’s sort of against the colloquial meaning of being taken one’s word. I think he really means that the form and the content are completely inextricable, there’s really not a way of thinking about one without the other. And that it really would require a rearrangement of the entire world, to think about what it would mean to read that poem in any kind of harmonious sense, or in any kind of sense that it lives alongside the world at large without holding this space of refusal, without lifting up the underbelly that people want to cast aside and call the past.
NG: Puts me in mind of the motif screams that recurs through the book. To me, I was just thinking, like, “Oh, a scream is the sound of like irreconciliation.” I thought that was one interesting point of connection between your book and the Jabes. If it’s okay, I’ll read just a little bit from the from the Jabes that we read, this section that begins The Book of Questions. I’ll read the first section and the beginning of the second section. And each of these things is a quote and then an attribution.
“I gave you my name, Sarah. And it is a dead end road.” –Yukel’s Journal.
“I scream. I scream, Yukel. We are the innocence of the scream.” –Sarah’s Journal.
“What is going on behind this door?”
“A book is shedding its leaves.”
“What is the story of the book?”
“Becoming aware of a scream.”
NG: It feels connected, to me, to points in Civil Service. And there’s one in “Lecture on Loneliness,” and I know it’s also in the house lecture, and there might be others I’m not thinking of, where there are, what I was thinking of at least, as like syntactical screams, or points where there’s text blurring into itself. It made me think of a similar move at the beginning of the book Austerlitz, by Sebald, where there’s a series of just the letter A that is framed as a scream. But there’s this relationship between language and screaming. It feels to me so much like it’s speaking to that point, of speaking of the unspeakable irreconcilable.
CS: Yeah. I mean, one way that the interest in relation take shape is through the investigation of pronouns, and in particular, the I/you relationship. And in the opening poem, I’m trying to think through the “I” as a sort of umbilical gesture, and thinking a lot about this essay that M. NourbeSe Philip wrote about mothering as a kind of position of radical hospitality. And she talks about it not in a gendered way, but really in a way of thinking about, you know: What would it mean to take seriously that we have all entered the world having been breathed for? How would that position us in relation to the world as we come into it, in relation to each other? And I think that sort of idea of an origin, or that that kind of profound possibility, which is actually the space of the most intense interrelation, is really, in a very different form, I think what Jabes was interested in. It’s the space before the vessels shatter in the creation of the universe. It’s the name of God, in a Kabbalistic sense, of all of the letters of the language, all the words of a language put next to each other. And just thinking about a scream, also, as the first relationship that one has to not something that’s quite language, but voice or sound, and entering the world, that actually ruins language and might get back closer to this space of primal relation, for lack of a better way of putting it, feels like a space I’m really interested in not trying to reach, but trying to approach, or trying to move toward.
CE: I don’t want to soapbox on this too much, but I feel like my connection to that is how the book flirts with and is like a star-crossed lover of pure feeling, of that impetus and of that drive and origin story, that can only be channeled through the political, or through the poetic, or through language itself. And I want to get this tattooed across my neck, is “theory is a scream slowed by vintage technology.” And I think that that’s true of poetry, too. I forget who said this, but somebody during the uprisings in 2020 here in Minneapolis said something like, “Everybody out here would rather be making love.” And it’s like, totally. And I think I feel that way about about the rigor in the work, and about the connection to the scream and acknowledging that that’s what’s being accommodated. Or that’s a position from which the theorist, or the poet, or the activist, or the organizer is negotiating,
NG: It’s making me think about laughter, also. I was thinking about, I have twin infants who are now laughing, but not quite close to speaking. I was just thinking about how strange it is that like humans scream, as Claire was saying, and also laugh so long before we speak. And I don’t know enough to say whether it speaks to like a real sense of humor, or if people would say it’s just an autonomic biological response that gets filled in or something. But just all of these different kinds of relations to speech that precede language before things get a little more hemmed in. And I was thinking about it as, similarly, sort of disruptive or disarticulated. And also social in a certain way, there’s a way in which coming to speech is a kind of coming to connect with each other. But it’s also a kind of alienation from other forms of connection. And the book feels so alive to trying to navigate spaces of articulation where we’re together, toward rearticulations through the use of forms and techniques that are breaking down.
CS: There’s also a relationship between speech and questions about inferiority that we were talking about earlier. I don’t know, I’m thinking of Fred Moten saying, “You don’t need a voice, but you need a sound.” I don’t know, I think the voice can be taken as a sort of unmitigated or direct translation of one’s interior. And I think that’s a kind of dangerous idea, the idea that we can or should aspire to have a transparent relationship to ourselves and to each other in a way that can be fully knowable. And I think the scream, or the laugh, or other ways of voicing that are outside of speech–or sounding rather, that are outside of speech–might get at some of those social aspects, without the sort of social presumptions that structure some of these questions about relations that are really forms of distance, that pass for forms of closeness.
NG: Yeah. So I wanted to just, as we’re kind of getting to the close, go back to the set of questions around interiority and exteriority, and what is presumed to be socially mediated or not. I mean, it makes me think back to this phrase that appears in in the “Lecture on Time,” of, “a way out to be with otherwise.” And just this question of like, so much of Civil Service is located within a version of our world, of a very broken, imperial world, but oriented toward a way out. I guess it felt to me like the book feels not despairing or pessimistic, in the sense of having a real sense that there is an exterior and that we can be oriented toward a kind of future.
But it also feels very cognizant of the sense in which I always think about the last aphorism in Adorno’s “Minima Moralia,” where he talks a lot about the work of critical theory and a kind of inherent paradox of being oriented toward–he talks about the cracks in the world being illuminated by the light of redemption. And so it’s sort of illuminated toward a redeemed world, but obviously speaks from the point of view of a not-redeemed world and is plagued by that, the sense of the limitations of possibility of what even can be thought. And so yeah, I wonder what you make of, Claire, what we make of the orientation of the book toward the future or an outside. And is it one that feels like it’s optimistic, or it’s pessimistic, or it’s completely flat and realistic? Or what the role of hope or possibility is for the book.
CS: You know, I think about the distinction that the philosopher Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò makes in his book, Reconsidering Reparations, when he talks about an attachment to a practice of hope as distinct from an optimistic orientation. Optimism and pessimism, he says, are ways of presuming you stand outside the world and betting on that outcome. And hope is a way of holding that the work that you do matters and shapes the possibilities of the outcome of the world. It includes you in the future, really. In that sense, Civil Service is really a profoundly hopeful book, in the sense of trying to build a social space, or to collaborate with those who are building a social space for us to be in a future.
NG: I think that’s a great place to end. Thank you so much for listening. Please subscribe to the podcast and leave us a review, and subscribe to Jewish Currents to get our beautiful summer print issue in your mailbox soon. You can also find us at JewishCurrents.org. Claire’s phenomenal book, Civil Service is out now from Graywolf Press, and you can buy it online from bookshop.org, which we’ll link in the show notes, or at your local independent bookstore. Claire, would you mind bringing us to a close today by reading one more poem?
The Archivist walks out of the book
and into evening early. On his street, the houses
line up like good teeth. The Archivist’s neighbor
misses his wife. Thirty years ago, she quit
the house and the twilight swallowed her.
Still searching, the neighbor
opens the belly of the neighborhood cat.
The Archivist, mind fast
to his research, passes the plundered animal by.
Books clutter his seeing. The knife, a better eye.
The flowers are screaming
the old scream. The Archivist opens his mouth
to join them. The scream clarifies an elsewhere.
He saw the flowers there.
The tulips were red.