A poem, as a manifestation of language and thus essentially dialogue, can be a message in a bottle, sent out in the—not always greatly hopeful—belief that somewhere and sometime it could wash up on land, on heartland perhaps. Poems in this sense, too, are under way: they are making toward something. Toward what? Toward something standing open, occupiable, perhaps toward an addressable Thou, toward an addressable reality.1
Hi! I know I probably don't deserve it but I am asking you to give me things. Can you please do it for me? Get back to me as soon as you can. ASAP. Whenever it's convenient. At your leisure. Please respond. I'm begging you. Right fucking now! Listen, okay? I am only asking for a moment of your time. A few hours. The whole day. My lifetime. Can you hear me? I have just a small request to make of you.
Full disclosure: I do not completely know what I am trying to say. I might be wrong (I am wrong), but I think that when I present someone a poem and ask them to read it, I am both asking for a gift and offering one. A poem is a conversation with a reader. Paul Celan, my favorite poet, says: "I cannot see any basic difference between a handshake and a poem."2
Poems speak. Celan says, "But I think . . . that the poem has always hoped. . . to speak also on behalf of the strange—no, I can no longer use this word here—on behalf of the other, who knows, perhaps of an altogether other."3 The poem is an encounter: it speaks, and it is heard. That is, it hopes to be heard. It reaches out, "en route", toward the real world, the reader, the open air that holds it when it is spoken aloud.
Joanna Klink, in her essay on Celan's "you": "The IYou relation is the irreducible structure in Celan's poetry, the condition of possibility of anything happening at all within the poem."4 Conversation is the bedrock of poems. It is the essence of the poet's task, the quest they set out on. "The poem becomes conversation—often desperate conversation. Only the space of this conversation can establish what is addressed, can gather it into a 'you' around the naming and speaking I."5
Sometimes the world harms us. Harms us so totally that we can barely speak. Sometimes God is hard to hear. "The world is gone," writes Celan, "I have to carry you."6 But God is always audible, always findable, always discovers Her way back to my ear:
With the voice of the fieldmouse
you squeak up,
you bite through the shirt into my skin,
you slide across my mouth,
midway through my
words weighing you, shadow,
When I say you it means so many things, there are so many addressable thous, yes, yes, of course. The poem's subject, the reader, the self. And yes, oh, my God, yes, I am speaking to you. I am lately speaking to you so often. We talk every morning. I kneel and I address you and I offer myself and I ask you for so much. And in the evening, I do it again. I'd tear out my rib and give it back to you, if I could. Every night I talk to you, out loud, alone, I close my door, my eyes trace your shape among the patterns on my tin ceiling, I recount my day, I tell you what troubled me, what delighted me, what hurt. "When I talk to you I am happy. Because you listen, and my words find a home."8 Mostly I say thank you. Mostly I ask you for help. Mostly I ask you to push me forward into tomorrow, so that I might have the opportunity to ask you again. And mostly I believe that I am given what I need, which is entirely distinct from what I want. Most, most, most of all, I ask you to help me learn what to ask you. This is a conversation conducted in questions. The God that I experience is an infinite series of questions.
I could write this forever. I could sink my hands deep into my books and find so many better ways to say these things. But I am in Miami, and my bookshelves are in Brooklyn, and my computer battery is low, and for some reason I can't get it to charge, and I have to finish this by March 8th, 2019, and it is already March 4th, and that is not enough time. There is never enough time, and that is one of the many million reasons I write poems, and why I talk to God, and why I fall in love, and why I eat breakfast and weep into my coffee and sit in chairs and say my name out loud and scream at the clouds, "Hello! I appreciate the way you are always moving, dear clouds, and the way that you mix with the sunlight, and how you blend and reform and grow and recede, how you bring and bestow life wherever you go, and I know that you don't do it for me, but that doesn't mean I shouldn't be grateful for it! I am so grateful, dammit, I am so grateful!"
What do we do when we pray? Maybe we are saying, please, will you look at me? Will you love me? Will you show me what I need to see? We are asking for something. When we write poems, we are also asking, requesting, demanding, pleading—to be seen, to be heard, recognized. We want our extended hand to be met. We are always needing. My own experience of being a person who writes poems involves a constant pulling, an urge, an ache, a nag, to keep going, to keep making. It is not always comfortable or healthy, but when I write, I feel full, I feel like I am receiving, touching something so real and outside of myself, that I am reaching for and I am reached for. But now I am so tired, and have not eaten a thing, so I have to go, but I want you to know that I love you. "Am I writing too often? I always want to talk to you."9
- Paul Celan, from "Speech on the Occasion of Receiving the Literature Prize of the Free Hanseatic City of Bremen," trans. John Felstiner
Paul Celan in a letter to Hans Bender, trans. Rosmarie Waldrop
Paul Celan, The Meridian, trans. Pierre Joris
Joanna Klink, "You: An Introduction to Paul Celan"
Paul Celan, The Meridian, trans. Pierre Joris
Paul Celan, "Great glowing vault," trans. Pierre Joris
Paul Celan, "With the voice of the fieldmouse," trans. Pierre Joris
Edmond Jabès, The Book of Questions
Marina Tsvetaeva to Boris Pasternak, from Letters, Summer 1926: Boris Leonidovich Pasternak, Marina Tsvetayeve, Rainer Maria Rilke