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Paul Celan and the Messiah’s Broken Levered Tongue: An Exponential Dyad
Daniel Y. Harris & Adam Shechter
Cervena Barva Press

Reviewer: JoSelle Vanderhooft

          One of the most challenging collections I have ever reviewed for The Pedestal Magazine was Unio Mystica, Daniel Y. Harris’s wide-eyed exploration of Judaism and the Kabala that closed my featured look at Cross Cultural Communications in April of last year. As I did at the outset of that review, I offer once again this disclaimer and caveat: I am not Jewish, nor have I studied the Kabala in depth. Further, I have only an undergraduate history student’s understanding and insight into such monumental events in Jewish history as the Roman occupation of Jerusalem, Spain’s Reconquista, and countless pogroms, enslavements, and massacres in Europe and Asia that culminated in the Holocaust. Compared to the wealth of historical, religious, cultural, and literary knowledge of Harris (a Master of Arts in Divinity) and Shechter (founder and, along with Harris, editor of The Blue Jew Yorker), I am at several obvious disadvantages. Thus, I beg the more educated (and Jewish!) reader’s patience and pardon for the mistakes I will probably/inevitably make in analyzing Harris’s and Shechter’s dynamic, educated, erudite, and ultimately overwhelming long poem.

          I can, however, say with all confidence that Paul Celan and the Messiah’s Broken Levered Tongue is not only a dynamic, educated, erudite, and overwhelming work, but also a major work, one that I think will be (or, at least, should be) counted among the most imaginative and provocative American long poems of the 2010s. In just 60 pages, the two poets take the reader on a whirlwind journey through Jewish history, the Hebrew alphabet, the culture of the Diaspora, the intricacies of familial relationships and poetic inspiration, and the very mind and body of God.

          Our Virgils through this drama of eons are three. The first is Paul Celan, a Romanian Jewish poet and Holocaust survivor whose years in Auschwitz informed much of his work, including the notable poem “Todesfugue.” He was also profoundly influenced by the surrealist movement, a fact which can be seen in his hybridized language choices and quickly shifting imagery.

          A brief digression now, but one I promise will provide a solid map for the esoteric terrain ahead. In researching for this review I, of course, read Wikipedia’s entry on Celan (while noting with bemusement Harris’s reference to the much-criticized free encyclopedia as the “obese child” of “the google monster”). In doing so I came across a quote from a speech about the state of the German language after the Holocaust that Celan gave when accepting a literature award from the city of Bremen. I reproduce it here, because I think this quote cuts to the heart of the efforts of our two remaining Virgils, Harris and Shechter, in Paul Celan and the Messiah’s Broken Levered Tongue.

Only one thing remained reachable, close and secure amid all losses: language. Yes, language. In spite of everything, it remained secure against loss. But it had to go through its own lack of answers, through terrifying silence, through the thousand darknesses of murderous speech. It went through. It gave me no words for what was happening, but went through it. Went through and could resurface, ‘enriched’ by it all.

          While Harris and Shechter do not focus primarily or even predominantly upon the Holocaust, the language in their poem serves much this function. Language preserves Jewish culture, history, and religion from loss through its capacity to cycle through millennia and through its ability to bridge centuries. In one of the most interesting passages, for example, prophet, visionary, and excommunicant Nathan of Gaza speaks to a young (and somewhat bored) messiah named Shabbatai Tzvi, whose name plays upon that of kabbalist and later Islamic convert Shabbatai Zevi, whom Nathan proclaimed to be the messiah. In this excerpt, Nathan and Tzvi converse not only about the Kabala, but also about the collapse of the Shabbatean movement the two men founded. Note the ease with which Harris and Shechter here juggle not only Jewish mysticism, but also details from Zevi’s life (his imprisonment in the Castle at Abydos, for example) and the nature of time itself.

Nathan of Gaza

(To Tzvi)

The breastplate of your tract
is purged—acrostic formed by Torah
and backsliding bodies of demons.
The Sea of Reeds is a River of Dragons.

(To himself)

You think you’re a Lurianic
zelem? Try the butcher! The one who choked
on a leg of lamb, after eating nine borek.

(to Tzvi)

Left of the lower
golem, that is the black-purple
boils of tehiru, primordial man
was inflated by a demiurge—veiled
consort in arch and prepuce. You are imprisoned
for our good on aion in the Castle of Abydos.

Shabbatai Tzvi

Nathan, bro, lets not be too hard on ourselves
here. Don’t forget the dream. That was real
my man! I mean I think your mother must
have hidden your Zyprexa that morning,
but schizophrenics are genuine psychics just the same.

(Clearing his throat and getting serious)

Nathan, the fact of the matter is that they
used us, bro. Listen, I’m not saying that we
didn’t have good times. But they played us
for a couple of self-important jerks!

Man!!! We were the anti-psychotic medicine
for World Jewry in its completely destroyed
17th Century pogrom-ed out state. Where would
they be with out us? Do you hear me Nathan?

I am the Messiah!

          Celan also believed that, following World War II, the German language in which he wrote needed to go through a change. In Paul Celan and the Messiah’s Broken Levered Tongue, Harris and Shechter write in lively and ever-evolving English, to the limits of which they constantly strain. In this passage, for example, the poets attempt to describe the Tetragrammaton—that is, the four Hebrew letters that make up YHWH, or Yahweh, in English. This is an interesting feat, considering that those four letters—Yod, Heh, Vav (or Waw), and Heh—later became the Latinate Jehovah, or IHVH, in perhaps the ultimate transmigration and transformation of language.

          In this passage, Celan learns of his mother’s death at the hands of the Nazis. This was a significant event in his life as it was his mother who taught him German, the language in which he would later write. Harris and Shechter symbolize this linguistic gift by the “deposit” of “a mummified Yod” in young Celan’s “tiny cupped hand.”

          Here, Celan, as seen by Harris and Shechter, struggles not only with the contradiction between Semitic and Germanic language, but also with the ultimate meaning of language and the existence of God following and in the face of the Holocaust.

Paul Celan

Purified disquiet interned with idiom
at nadir’s retort, hollow
and hectic, my name
manshaped: words signal
expulsion with burnt bronchial

tubes—psaltar, in slots,
liquidates share, the copied
person pillorying since Eden.

Born into a thousand exiles,
dates are cancers—remove the amygdala,
yizkor of barbaric recall and undo birth:

Yahwhc lungs abetted by doxology,
never tissued. No writ. No gist.
No stock. No shoot.

Yod: return uber and sub to the bestiary.
Heh: return homunculus and dolt.
Vav: return Aleph to its rude cosmology.
Heh: return implode to stasis.


          As Celan struggles with the very prefixes that lead to this latest and worst attempt at exterminating the Jews—that is, the “above” and “below” in Nazi concepts such as “übermensch” and “subhuman”—Harris and Shechter struggle through the 21st Century’s own linguistic paradoxes, several of which have been brought about by the advent of the internet. The book is peppered with email exchanges between the two, in which they discuss not only their shared project and its theological and cultural ramifications, but also their family history; Harris’s grandfather Yves Oppert aided the French Resistance before being murdered by a Vichy policeman, while Shechter’s Brooklynite grandfather committed suicide after failing to live up to his ambitions. Inevitably, their communications and poetic ruminations pull them into the whirlwind history of Judaism and the Jewish people and bring them face to face with Celan himself in the poem’s enigmatic final lines.

          Like Unio Mystica before it, Paul Celan and the Messiah’s Broken Levered Tongue is not for the casual reader. Unless one is either highly educated in Jewish history or familiar with the Kabala, piecing through this dizzying and dense array of language will prove next to impossible without the aid of a few good research books and/or a good search engine. Nonetheless, it’s a journey that should be undertaken. Not only is this long poem innovative, thoughtful, disturbing, and sometimes hilarious, it’s also exciting. Harris and Shechter know how to play with language, how to break it, reshape it, and how to bring it to heel. Their journey through thousands of years of history and religious thought is nothing short of an epic.

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