How can poetry help us mourn?

The issue of mourning is one of the core questions of psychoanalytic theory and I find its exploration via literary texts a fascinating prism through which to examine this foundational issue.

January 27, 2019 04:17
2 minute read.
How can poetry help us mourn?

Polish-born Holocaust survivor Meyer Hack shows his prisoner number tattooed on his arm during a news conference at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem June 15, 2009.. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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By many accounts, the forging of art and poetry has been one of the central responses to the encounter with death in human history. In traditional elegy, considered the poetic genre of mourning and consolation, we see the dead often mourned by ritual or at the very least buried in a tomb that bears a name. Sadly, as we know, this was not possible for many of those who were lost in the Holocaust. And yet, there are those who insisted on this vital act nevertheless. The work of Paul Celan, the Romanian-born Jewish German-language poet and Holocaust survivor, offers a compelling and unique opportunity to examine how those who received neither funerary rites nor a grave may be mourned.

Having been denied the opportunity to perform the common rituals surrounding death for those he lost in the Shoah, I argue that Celan makes burial possible through a particular use of language, a praxis of poetic burial as I call it, which acquires the status of funerary rite. As we see in early poems such as “Espenbaum/Aspen Tree” (1945) the presence of the mother figure lies silently beneath the surface of every tree, flower, cloud and star; every aspect of the natural world is laden with her being, which serves as a vessel in which the presence of his mother is contained. Reconstituted almost entirely from the memory of words, affects and scenes connected to home, his mother and the Bukovinian/Ukrainian landscape, Celan’s early poems function as a receptacle in which the presence of the dead is contained.
This use of language fashions pieces of memory -- place, word and sound -- into poems that like a grave, demarcate the prior existence of a person, a people, indeed an entire world “in which human beings and books used to live” (Celan 1958). Poetry is here, in other words, a means of burying the dead. Celan makes burial possible not only by remembering the place the dead occupied in life but goes one step further to retroactively create a place for them in death, an ancient and essential rite that was denied them. His early poetry in this sense forges a grave – by making a tomb in and from writing for those he lost, and thus poetically conferring the dignity of burial to those from whom it was taken.

Keren Shafir, Keren Shafir, PhD candidate and fellow of the Ariane de Rothschild Women Doctoral Program at Tel Aviv University.

Aspen Tree by Paul Celan, translated into English by Michael Hamburger in Poems of Paul Celan. New York: Persea, 2002 Aspen Tree, your leaves glance white into the dark.

My mother's hair was never white.
Dandelion, so green is the Ukraine.
My yellow-haired mother did not come home.
Rain cloud, above the well do you hover? My quiet mother weeps for everyone.
Round star, you wind the golden loop.
My mother's heart was ripped by lead.
Oaken door, who lifted you off your hinges? My gentle mother cannot return.

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