[Nothingness as Closure] [2.11.08]

There are many adaptations of the myth of the Hebraic clay creature called a golem, but perhaps the best known is that of Rabbi Judah Loew of 16th century Prague. According to one version, Rabbi Loew creates a golem on the banks of the Vltava in order to protect the inhabitants of Prague’s Jewish ghetto from attacks by the city’s ruling gentiles. To animate the pile of clay shaped in human form, the Rabbi inscribes the Hebrew word EMET (“truth”) into the forehead of the golem. At this point, the golem comes to life, strong, mute and obedient to the letter. Eventually the danger of attacks against Jews by non-Jews dissipates, but at the cost of life at the hands of the indiscriminate golem. This forces the Rabbi to put down the creature; he does so, removing the first letter from the golem’s forehead, transforming EMET into MET (“death”).

Paul Celan, the celebrated post-WWII poet, has Rabbi Loew’s story in mind in an untitled poem translated in the collection Glottal Stop: 101 Poems by Paul Celan, which begins:

To one who stood outside the door, one

The placement of the subject just outside an open door draws attention to the conflict that exists between two choices, in the same way Rabbi Loew (here, “Rebbe”) feels conflict between protection against external threats and destruction from within. The purpose here is to effect reconciliation of that conflict.

An address by the speaker to the initially unnamed figure outside the door, the poem finds the Rebbe as he leaves to create his “twittering homunculus”:

to him
I opened my word—: off to
the ugly changeling he trudged, I saw him, to the
begotten one….(3-7)

The use of the past tense makes clear that the action has already occurred, the outcome already known; the diction – “ugly changeling,” “mis-begotten one” – indicates the speaker’s negative appraisal of that outcome. The speaker, with the surety of hindsight, then appeals to Rebbe Loew in such aggressive terms as to approach violent demand:

Rebbe, I gnashed my teeth, Rebbe
this one’s
word, write
the living
ness into
this one….(13-21)

The clipped lines reinforce the insistence on excision, but also indicate the urgency of the imperative: “write / the living / nothing- / ness into / this one.” What is unclear is whether “this one” refers to the golem, or to the speaker himself. Perhaps they are one and the same, it is not clear.

The last two lines reveal a tone somewhat softened, perhaps by dint of exhaustion, or resignation, even if the implication of violence remains:

And Rebbe, slam shut evening’s door.
Rip open morning’s, Re—“ (27-28)

The speaker wants both closure of and expulsion from the conflict at hand, but gets the former only; his request stopped as the flow of air in a blocked throat. The translators offer this explanation for the book’s title in their introduction, but it applies as well to the ominous and abrupt termination of the poem:

A glottal stop is, in Webster’s words, ‘the speech sound produced by momentary complete closure of the glottis, followed by explosive release’….If utterances issue from a gaping hole, so too does blood: the place of vulnerability is also the place of poetry. (xiii)

Celan, Paul. Glottal Stop: 101 Poems by Paul Celan. Trans. Heather McHugh and Nikolai Popov. Hanover: University Press of New England for Wesleyan University Press, 2000. 9-10.


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