Saturday, November 26, 2011

Finding Celan in Hamburg

I am one of those people who when I am in a city for a business trip I steal an hour or two for sheer pleasure and adventure. As a business person who moonlights as a poet it is a way for me to try to remember what matters most in my life and to reconnect with a part of me that is often dormant because of the demands of the world as it is. Last week I was in Hamburg on a business trip and Waltraud my wife came along staying with a cousin who lives in that humid but quite nice town.

Waltraud is sensible in a Teutonic way while I with my Italian sense of serendipity would just wander she researches and she found for me a transcendial moment. Waltraud found via the net an antiquarian bookstore Antiquariat Pabel right across from the great St Michael's church in Hamburg. The visit was transcendental for a few reasons. Pabel was founded by a man who was also the founder of the great Chicago Book Mart in the 1940's. This man was a Prisoner of war in the US from Germany and he turned that into one of the great bookstores in fact Chicago Book Mart was the progenitor of Guild Books (sadly dead) and Seminary Co-op (Thankfully still alive).

Our visit to this great store was in short wonderful. The store is everything that a bibliophile desires. Shelves of the finest editions. a 1589 Erasmus, a Soncino Missal, Shakespeare First edition in Germany from 1709.

But what I found made my year. A 1952 first edition of Paul Celan. Celan is a poet that challenges and frustrates. He was what the Christians call a witness. Like Perpetua standing in the middle of the circus his life was a witness to a truth and his poetry was the formation of that witness. Celan was a bridge to so much from the Austro Hungarian world of Freud and Vienna to the post war world of Nuremburg he spans it all. The edition that I bought is Mohn und Gedachtnis (Poppy and Memory). It was the book that made Celan a poet and it was published by a German publisher from Stuttgart in 1952. Surely on paper and with ink that had once been used to print Nazi books and was now publishing the greatest poet, in German, in the 20th Century.

To have found this book in Hamburg. Sold to me by a wonderful bookseller who understands as he said to me that books are transitory that they are created things and that they have memory is a good answer to the iPadization of our literature. This small volume is printed as Celan wanted to be printed. It is a created thing and it sits on my shelf right next to Ezra Pound just to make sure that it inoculates the shelves.

We are entering a world of the transitory. It is only in moments like the one I had a week ago at Antiquariat Pabel that I again can feel my toes and my fingers are not numb.