Grant me the right


Gib mir das Wegrecht
über die Kornstiege zu deinem Schlaf,
das Wegrech

über den Schlafpfad,
das Recht, daß ich Torf stechen kann
am Herzhang,

– Paul Celan

Back in 1997 I published an artist’s book with translations of one of the less well known poems by Paul Celan, ‘Irisch’, ‘Irish’, which opens the fourth cycle of Fadensonnen (Threadsuns). The poem was composed in April 1967, while the poet was confined to a sanitorium for severe depression. I was gripped by the intensity of its interiorized Celtic landscape – language-scape is the term coined by the poem's renowned translator, Pierre Joris – which I attempted to further intensify by publishing a series of different translations, or versions, of the poem, following one after the other, allowing the variant phrases to accumulate page by page. It was accompanied by a series of amorphous gouaches by Sol LeWitt, and I copublished the book with my friend Peter Foolen in Eindhoven. 

In 2002 I returned to the poem, inviting each of the original translators to propose a new translator, repeating the process of sequential versions. 

from Irish (2)

Gib mir das Wegrecht
grant me the right of way
Give me the right to go
Give me the right to pass the way
Give me leave to tread
Tabhair cead mo chos dom
Give me the right of way

That penultimate line, contributed by Gabriel Rosenstock, carried the poem back beyond its imaginal source, the Irish tongue. I was recently sent a new translation of the poem by Celia Larner and, rather than quote one of the existing ones, her version will stand here – corn stooks is a pleasing catch of Kornstiege.


Grant me right of way
over the corn stooks and into your sleep,
right of way
over your sleep paths,
the right to take turf from
your heart slopes,
at day.

– Celia Larner

For this second version I selected a series of photographs of the path that leads to Wittgenstein’s house at Skjolden, Norway, by Guy Moreton. (Guy and I later collaborated on a book-length study of the influence that this mountain landscape had on Wittgenstein’s life and thought.) I also invited Tim Robinson to write about Wittgenstein and his wilderness retreat, Rosroe, Connemara. The poet Richard Murphy lived here after the philosopher, and wrote a memorial poem, 'The Philosopher and the Birds', describing 'this savage promontory' as a 'logical weapon', just as I found myself describing the plateau at Skjolden:

Here, on the plateau, perched

above the lake, the foundations
   are a man-made rock.

Stand where the verandah was
& look out over
   the grey curtain of mountains

their rippling reflections.
See the view that W chose:
   a landscape utterly simple.

In Moreton’s photographs this northern landscape exudes an aura of verdant seriousness: Skjolden shares this with Connemara, which Wittgenstein said offered him an immersion in ‘the last pool of darkness in Europe.’ Something of this atmosphere is suggested in Jeremy Millar's film The Dark Night of the Intellect (2005).

In 2012 Moreton exhibited these landscapes in an exhibition, Unrecounted, at the Solent Showcase Gallery, Southampton, further extending the encounter between a dark Germanic consciousness and northern landscapes, with the addition of two lyrical photographs of the apple orchard at Cylinders, Langdale, where Kurt Schwitters worked on his final unfinished Merzbau. (Of these more another day.) The catalogue for the exhibition includes a short essay by Robert Macfarlane, reflecting on the connections between thinking and location.

In 2012 Macfarlane published an extended essay working – walking, one might say – over the same material, published in the journal Archipelago (No. 6, 2011), in which he surveys the relationship between philosophy and reclusion, beginning with the familiar parallel between the ‘huts’ of Wittgenstein and Heidegger. To these figures he then adds a third, the mountain hut, Tvergastein, in the Hallingskarvet massif, which was built – by hand – byArne Naess, the Norwegian philosopher and author of a study on Wittgenstein’s thought.

At this point in his essay, Macfarlane makes a diversion from philosophy to introduce a figure from poetry, Paul Celan, whose clotted texts have been admired by so many modern philosophers. A familiar modest bridge – a less well-known poem of Celan’s, ‘Irisch’ – establishes the connection and, dwelling for a time within the poem’s intense landscape, we are taken on an imaginative journey between the house by the harbor at Rosroe, and the rocky wooded path that lead to the remains of the house at Skjolden. 

While he consulted Irish (2) during the composition of the essay for Archieplago, Macfarlane makes no reference to it, nor does he acknowledge the other studies dedicated to the interconnections between ‘Irish’, Skjolden, Rosroe, Wittgenstein, and Celan, published by Moreton and myself. A new bridge has replaced – renewed/voided – the old one. Here it seems to me that the spirit of collaborative reading has been mislaid.

I retain a great admiration for Macfarlane’s patient ability to return these figures to us, situating their texts within his own seeking, allowing each of his chosen greats to illuminate our relationship to place. Thought and poetry, in the process of their composition, constantly return to and reemerge from the landscape of other writers, other texts. Their words rest in our eyes. Attributed sources are tributaries in the carrying stream of creativity. Bibliographies are maps; they offer a sense of the territory covered, confirming the possibility of identifying other ways – wegrecht – that may bring new awareness to what is familiar. One does not copyright a walk. Sharing the journey, as we all do, one does not wish to assert ownership over a particular landscape. Robert is an acknowledged master of following the line of a walk to shed light on a text. 

What first drew me to Celan’s 'Irish' was a discussion with Pierre Joris, in which I suggested – out of curiosity, rather than any notion of improving his work – that, in this particular poem, ‘path’ might be the word to rest alongside ‘glen’, rather than Pierre's choice, ‘trail’ – a word which seemed to me perhaps too wide open, too full of that American quality, that Olsonian SPACE. Pierre wrote back, standing by ‘trail’ and saying, astute as ever, that he intended to translate into American.

What continues to fascinate in Celan’s poem, and in the other translators’ attempts to gain access to its ‘grainstore’ of meaning, is that quality of beseeching: the desire to gain permission, to be granted the right, the right to assert love; the right to enact a desire which is expressed so intensely as to reveal, and, in consequence, to admit, that it is out-of-kilter. The key is being forced. Being at that time so alone – and here one recalls Celan's 'I am alone on all roads' – being isolated, the path through the glen leads, inevitably, to the sharp blade that cuts peat on the moor, the slope, the brae, the scarp, of the heart. This edge is too sharp to be an instrument of shared human affection.

The cultural shift that I had suggested, toward a ‘path’, does catch the quality of walking alone, eyes cast downward to avoid puddles and boulders, following the narrow winding trods that sheep make through highland glens. There are paths which we must walk single file, but we may carry others' words with us.

This narrow way opens in poetry, momentarily, and, without due care, is once again lost from view.

die halb-

beschrittenen Knüppel-
pfade im Hochmoor

               the half-

trod log-
trails on the highmoor

'Todtnauberg', Paul Celan (tr. Pierre Joris)


Fadensonnen / Threadsuns, Pierre Joris (Green Integer, 2006)

Irish, Paul Celan, Alec Finlay & Sol LeWitt, translations by Pierre Joris, Harry Gilonis, Jerome Rothenberg, Edwin Morgan, Anselm Hollo, Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill (peninsula & morning star, 1997)

Irish 2, Paul Celan, Alec Finlay, translations by David Antin, Richard Barrett, Claudia e Kraszkiewicz, Ken Cockburn, Gabriel Rosenstock, Robert Kelly, with an essay by Tim Robinson, photographs by Guy Moreton and an audio CD by Alec Finlay and Zöe Irvine (Spacex, morning star 2002)

Connemara: A Little Gaelic Kingdom, Tim Robinson (Penguin Ireland, 2011)

Ludwig Wittgenstein: There where you are not, Alec Finlay, Guy Moreton, Michael Nedo (Black Dog, 2005)

Robert Macfarlane, Archipelago No. 6  (Clutag Press, Winter 2011)

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