Paul Celan’s “Stretto”

Paul Celan.
Paul Celan.

Paul Celan’s poem “Stretto,” translated by John Felstiner:


Taken off into
the terrain
with the unmistakable trace:

Grass, written asunder. The stones, white
with the grassblades' shadows:
Read no more—look!
Look no more—go!

Go, your hour
has no sisters, you are—
are at home. Slowly a wheel
rolls out of itself, the spokes
clamber on the blackened field, night
needs no stars, nowhere
are you asked after.



	are you asked after—

The place where they lay, it has
a name—it has
none. They did not lie there. Something
lay between them. They
did not see through it.

Did not see, no,
spoke of
words. Not one
came over them.


	Came, came. Nowhere


I'm the one, I,
I lay between you, I was
open, was
audible, I ticked toward you, your breath
obeyed, I
am still the one, and
you're sleeping.


	Am still the one—

Years, years, a finger
gropes down and up, gropes
all around:
sutures, palpable, here
it gapes wide open, here
it grew back together—who
covered it up?


	Covered it


Came, came.
Came a word, came,
came through the night,
would glisten, would glisten.

Ashes, ashes.
to the eye, to the moist one.



	to the eye,

	to the moist one—

Hurricanes, from all time,
particle flurry, the other thing,
know this, we
read it in a book, was

Was, was
opinion. How
did we take
hold—hold with

It was also written that.
Where? We
decked it in silence,
poison-hushed, huge
silence, a sepal, a
thought of something plantlike hung there—
green, yes,
hung, yes,
under spiteful

Of, yes,

Hurricanes, par-
ticle flurry, there was still
time, still,
to try with the stone—it
was welcoming, it
did not interrupt. How
good we had it:

grainy and stringy. Stalky,
bunchy and radiate; knobby,
level and
lumpy; crumbling, out-
branching--: the stone, it
did not interrupt, it
spoke gladly to dry eyes, before it shut them.

Spoke, spoke.
Was, was.

would not let go, stood firm
in the midst, a
framework of pores, and
it came.

Came up to us, came
on through, it mended
invisibly, mended
on the final membrane,
the world, thousandfaced crystal,
shot out, shot out.


	Shot out, shot out.


Nights, demixed. Circles,
green or blue, red
squares: the
world sets its inmost
at stake with the new
red or black, bright
squares, no
flight shadow,
plane table, no
chimney soul rises and joins in.


	Rises and

	joins in—

At owls' flight, near the
petrified lepra,
our fugitive hands, at
the latest rejection,
above the
bullet trap on
the ruined wall:

visible, once
again: the
grooves, the

choirs, back then, the
Psalms. Ho, ho-

temples still stand. A
may still give light.
nothing is lost.


At owls' flight, here,
the conversations, daygray,
of groundwater traces.


	(— —daygray,


	groundwater traces—

Taken off
into the terrain
the unmistakable

written asunder.) 

Felstiner’s 2010 essay “‘Deep in the time-crevasse’: Celan’s Outward and Inward Landscape” is available here.

Upcoming: Sam Shepard’s A Particle of Dread

The 2013 Londonderry City of Culture production of A Particle of Dread by Sam Shepard.
The 2013 Londonderry City of Culture production of A Particle of Dread by Sam Shepard.

In November, Signature Theatre will present the New York premiere of Sam Shepard’s A Particle of Dread (Oedipus Variations), a Field Day Theatre Company production directed by Nancy Meckler. The Web page for the production describes it as a “dark, fragmented, modern-day take on Oedipus Rex,” and the show will feature Stephen Rea as Oedipus.

The play premiered at Londonderry’s City of Culture Festival in 2013. Peter Crawley reviewed it in the Irish Times thusly: “Brilliant retelling of Oedipus Rex …  Shepard has long found echoes of ancient myth in Californian avocado farms or a Mojave motel room. His fractured, briskly episodic take on Oedipus is fascinating for its arch transposition, individual focus and wry updating … More remarkably, though, he pulls the Oedipus legend up by its roots, fits it with earthy new poetry, straddles it between comedy and tragedy, and splinters characters and time frames to construct an eternal dilemma.” Shepard himself said of the play, “The thing about Oedipus to me that is so incredible is that it doesn’t have a plot. There’s no story. It’s just a situation. It’s a predicament that the central character finds himself in. And the audience knows everything. He’s totally guilty, as the audience knows, but believes himself totally innocent.” (These two quotes were drawn from this page at a Sam Shepard Web site, which has additional information about the play.)

Exact dates to be announced; more information here. No word yet on a book publication of the play.

Current events

Judging by posts from theatre professionals and critics on my Twitter and Facebook feeds, more tears were shed last week for Elaine Stritch than for the nearly three hundred people (including about one hundred children) who died in the Malaysian Airlines crash in Ukraine. Or, for that matter, the wartime deaths in the Middle East, the continuing Syrian atrocities, or the thousands of children coming over the US border seeking asylum from the crime and violence in their own countries.

Difficult as it may be to come to terms with these events, it’s nonetheless the responsibility of artists to do so. Not, I hasten to add, to produce work that has to do with one specific event or another, but to probe and draw from these events what they violently reveal about the human condition and the human spirit — this is most properly the domain of artists and philosophers rather than scientists or political commentators. An art that doesn’t do so is an art that leaves a broad swathe of human experience unacknowledged and ignored. It’s necessary to imagine not only the grief of the victims’ families, but the terror of the victims’ last moments as well, and to coldly craft and articulate the personal response to this imagination. It’s not enough to integrate the transcript of the MH17 flight recorders into a new, updated version of Charlie Victor Romeo; that’s far too easy; the experience of those on the other side of the locked cockpit door must also be imagined and acknowledged, if art is to acknowledge the full range of human experience.

For art is acknowledgement rather than explanation; for explanations one has to turn elsewhere. On Sunday, Timothy Garton Ash’s op-ed for the New York Times on the root causes of contemporary Russian nationalism put its finger on not only the Ukrainian situation but also one of the root causes of the Middle East conflict and even the US border situation. It’s an explanation that forms one of the dimensions of plays like Henry V, but not the only one — Henry V goes further, as great art does, and retains ambivalence. The role of art is not to provide solutions or explanations, or even to show audiences the hearts on our sleeves, but to bear witness to what the newspaper headlines tell us about ourselves and our condition.

The lists of artists and even dramatists who have faced this new revelation of the human condition in the twentieth century is long — Bertolt Brecht, Samuel Beckett, Paul Celan, Arnold Schoenberg, Thomas Bernhard, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, and Sarah Kane are only a few who are no longer with us that come to mind — but it seems to me that the list should be longer. It will no doubt be an art and a theatre that refuses aspirations to entertainment. But it may be the art and the theatre that would more fully acknowledge our condition and spirit, the proper sphere of aesthetics.

Richard Foreman’s Total Recall

Total Recall. Photo: Babette Mangolte.
Total Recall. Photo: Babette Mangolte.

Subtitled Sophia=(Wisdom): Part 2. Presented by the Ontological-Hysteric Theater at the Cinematheque (80 Wooster Street), New York City, December 1970–January 1971. With Mike Jacobson (Ben), Bob Fleischner (Leo), Judy Fyve (Hannah), Margaret Ladd (Sophia) and Alexandra Stone (Little Girl). In Richard Foreman: Plays and Manifestos, edited and with an introduction by Kate Davy. New York: New York University Press, 1976, pp. 33-66.

Neither the light-bringing goddess Sophia nor his wife Hannah seems to be particularly well-disposed to Ben at the beginning of Total Recall, Foreman’s third Ontological-Hysteric play. Ben himself is experiencing something of a phenomenological crisis: “Nothing seems different this morning. I sit down to breakfast. I have coffee and rolls. Then I put on my coat and go out into the street. Nothing seems different,” he says (34). But oh, it is, and even he knows it. He has some kind of revelation, and the rest of the play is an exploration of just what may have been revealed. He hopes to find it in a kind of “total recall,” a memory of what happened, but it eludes his grasp; instead, his vision doubles, redoubles, then returns to “normal” again.

This is Foreman’s first explicit experimentation with the frame as a device for perception and directing attention; apart from the proscenium opening, the frames are multiple. There is not only a window frame (through which characters fall, both into and out of the room, through the play), but also a “landscape box” and two “puppet theatres,” as well as a box which displays the goddess and her lamp, that the characters contemplate from time to time; even the perspectives within these smaller frames change. Sometimes the perspective is a landscape; at other times, Ben thrusts his hands through the curtains of the puppet theatres, hands gargantuan compared to the landscapes and whatever puppets may theoretically appear inside.

Total Recall. Photo: Babette Mangolte.
Total Recall. Photo: Babette Mangolte.

But more to the point, the body and the mind are themselves frames, and their experience is asychronous: what Ben’s body feels and what his mind perceives or thinks seem detached from each other. Wisdom inheres in being able to think with the body and feel with the mind, a wisdom that comes to Ben late in the play and even provides a means for him to erotically communicate with his rather wiser wife Hannah. The mind and the body provide frames for experience — perspectives — as well, sometimes one upon the other, and as Ben negotiates these perspectives he begins to find a new sensual life. At best, the body can emanate the same light, the same wisdom, as Sophia’s lamp. It’s maintaining that light, that wisdom, that’s the hard part.

The explicit use of landscapes in the puppet theatres is an explicit reference to Stein, but I detect a Chekhovian note here, too: an emphasis on the quotidian, as Ben describes in his opening monologue. We may as well be in a Chekhov play: it’s a family scene, with husband Ben, wife Hannah, uncle Leo, and even a little girl and a dog wandering around with seeming aimlessness. It’s an aimlessness that, in the 1970 production, transpired over three hours. As Arthur Sainer wrote in his review of the play for the Village Voice, “Foreman’s focus is on what begins as the commonplace. A plain kitchen table, a couple of plain wooden chairs, a plain bed, a plain tree, a plain husband.” Sainer also quotes Foreman’s own comment on the play: “If every moment can be clear and only itself, the stasis becomes a tremendous release from fantasy and storytelling. And delight is in everybody’s head instead of in objects and various postulated adventures.”1 The loud noise that punctuates the play, described as “the workings of an electric saw brought up to the highest decibel,” serve to shatter any sense of adventure or narrative and return the attention to the precise moment under consideration on the stage, encouraging a clear and “only itself” perspective.

Total Recall. Photo: Babette Mangolte.
Total Recall. Photo: Babette Mangolte.

The third production of the Ontological-Hysteric Theater (the text for the second, 1969′s Ida-Eyed, is not in print), Total Recall may also have been the last were it not for that Arthur Sainer review. In a 1990 interview with Ken Jordan, Foreman remembers the effect the review had on his effort:

I will be eternally grateful because for Total Recall he wrote a long review saying: Well, this is pretty hard to take, and I am against most critics who give consumer guides, and though I usually don’t do this I’ve got to say you must go see this play because it’s like nothing I’ve ever seen, and it’s terribly important. People still kept walking out, of course. But he reviewed my plays for the next couple years, and was very favorably inclined. If he hadn’t done that, I often wonder if I would have had the courage or the determination to continue, because I was a very sensitive young thing and, really, everybody walked out. Including … I had a few friends like Annette Michaelson who would direct artists to see my plays, and I remember the nights that Richard Serra and Robert Morris walked out. And that crushed me. Later, when I got to be friendly with them, they told me, “Oh, well, yeah, in those days your work was so abstract, and I’m not really interested in abstract art!” [Laughs] But at the same time, though, we thought that we had the word, and obviously these … of course these people couldn’t appreciate it, just like they couldn’t appreciate Van Gogh, or whoever you want to name. So we felt quite heroic. And fortunately there were a few people who I really believed in who thought the work was magnificent. That was enough for me.

  1. “Arthur Sainer on Total Recall,” in Richard Foreman, edited by Gerald Rabkin. Baltimore and London: A PAJ Book from the Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999, pp. 67-68. []

Monsanto is the devil

Reverend Billy‘s most recent Freakstorm video, “Monsanto is the Devil,” nicely captures both the comic hysteria and an underlying melancholy that define all of his performances, and if you haven’t seen him in action before, this is a good place to start (more New York appearances, I understand, are in the works, although their next mission is to Monsanto headquarters in St. Louis). The current Church of Stop Shopping campaign is a protest against Monsanto’s devastation of the food chain; if you so desire, you should donate to the cause. In the meantime, here’s “Monsanto is the Devil”:

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