The Auto De Fe Of A Second Language
–For Paul Celan
You lean forward, hands clasped, lips pursed,
as if about to say, Na ja, where have you been?
I have been waiting a long time for you, here,
where something or someone always intervenes.
Today it’s you—a respite from this necessary estrangement.
Something is close by, in the dream of a second language
at your bedroom window, an endangered species
that was sung to you, before it was spoken,
as if birdsong preceded the language of men;
that if you could somehow render,
it would call you to the long table of yesterday,
the now unbroken vessels.
It would lull and gesture over the table.
The slight of hand of a language can clean its own sequestered words,
Auto de fe and legerdemain as in light of the hand.
Here, we negotiate our reciprocal futures.
We make no demands, exact nothing,
not the easy pleasures but the coming things–
the unfinished listening that I love without distraction.
the chalk star above my door just means it’s a safe house
where you can refresh yourself until things blow over,
or a place to leave your contraband and bequests,
whatever’s too difficult or archaic to carry around,
roses bedight and perishables for safekeeping,
adorned or encumbered in the fineries of concealment–
balm and ballast in our unspokeness,
and the unanswered questions of like bodies.
I know you trust me,
but you don’t trust star-shaped things the way I do,
You think of zig-zag shadows, burning wheels,
bent stars on empty sleeves and lapels,
or whoever hung them by their pointed wings in the forest.
We lift our heads at the same moment on distant pillows,
and remember whatever haunts its own tongue.
Although you are gone, here we are—auto de fe
as in act of trust,
still in the arms of each other’s future,
in the dream of a second language at your bedroom window
that we trust in our different ways.
Special thanks to our Fine Arts Expert and Editor, Kati Szekér for associating these relevant art works of Zoltán Székács with Frankel’s poetry.
“Paul Celan was born in 1920 in Czernowitz, Bukovina, Romania, originally part of the Austrian Empire, where Jews, a third of the inhabitants, spoke German as their first language. It was called “Little Vienna” until the Nazis deported and murdered a good portion of the Jewish population including Celan’s family. He spent several years in a camp. Celan’s second language was Romanian, then Russian. He also spoke Yiddish, Hebrew, English, and became fluent in French when he moved there until his suicide in 1970. Issues of language, identity, displacement, and “estrangement” are often at the center of Celan’s work. When he left Romania, he used a kind of phonetic anagram to change his name from Anschel to Celan.
One of the concerns that informs Celan’s poetics was that his “mother” tongue, German, became the “murder” tongue employed by the Nazis. Although he lived in France his entire adult life, he wrote in German, often using antiquated, archaic diction or subtle double entendres to reclaim and “cleanse” the language that would carry his poems into memory and imagination.
The phrase “auto de Fe” (act of faith) refers to the public ritual of penance for condemned heretics and apostates, many of them Jews, during the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions. The torture, trial and testimony were conducted in secret but the ceremony was a public act. This poem might present itself as a reappropriation of this “act of faith,” written, as it were, in private, but finishing as a public act. Poetry can be a second language, and a different kind of act of faith.”
Ed Frankel divides his time between Sonoma County in Northern California and Los Angeles, where he teaches at UCLA BA and MFA programs. His poems have appeared in numerous journals and he has published two chapbooks: When the Catfish are in Bloom: Requiem For John Fahey and People of the Air, which won the New American Chapbook prize in 2008. He won first place prizes and awards in the 2015 Dogwood Journal of Poetry and Prose Competition, The 2010 Little Red Tree International Poetry Competition, the 2009 New Millennium Poetry Competition, the 2006 Winning Writers War Poetry competition, the Hackney National Poetry competition 2006, and the 2003 Confluence Poetry competition. He was nominated three times for the Pushcart Best of the Small Presses Poetry Prize and the California Book Award and was invited to read at the Strokestown International Poetry festival in Ireland.