Toward Babel: Poems and a Memoir

Ilana Shmueli; Susan H. Gille­spie, trans.
  • Review
By – September 19, 2014

In 1965, Ilana Shmueli met up with Paul Celan for the first time in twen­ty-one years — she was forty-five, he fifty. Both grew up in Bukov­ina, Roma­nia. Celan, by then a major Ger­man lan­guage poet, lived in France, though uneasi­ly, and Shmueli, an Israeli but not at home with the Hebrew lan­guage, had been friends before World War II — part of a lit­er­ary and artis­tic group that met reg­u­lar­ly. In 1944, the twen­ty – year-old Shmueli and her fam­i­ly escaped to Pales­tine, though not before the sui­cide of her sis­ter, two years old­er. In 1969, Celan came to Israel to read his poems, where he was fet­ed by Israeli writ­ers. His trip led to an affair between the two that contin­ued in a fevered cor­re­spon­dence in Ger­man from Octo­ber to April 12, 1970, before Celan com­mit­ted sui­cide in Paris. 

Sheep Mead­ow Press pub­lished The Cor­re­spon­dence in 2010 (Ger­man edi­tion, 1995), more than one hun­dred thir­ty let­ters that includ­ed twen­ty-five poems by Celan; the you” of the ear­li­er poems was Shmueli. In an After­word, she wrote that Celan want­ed to see in me the daugh­ter of Zion.’” 

Until Celan’s death, Shmueli may have writ­ten poet­ry but only occa­sion­al­ly — there’s no men­tion of it in The Cor­re­spon­dence. When she began in earnest, like him she wrote in their mama loshen, Ger­man. Susan H. Gille­spie has sen­si­tive­ly trans­lat­ed the poems that make up Toward Babel—it includes the Ger­man orig­i­nals — from Shmueli’s two col­lec­tions, Leben im Entwurf (2011)/​Drafting a Life and Zwis­chen dem Jet­zt und dem Jet­zt (2007)/Between Now and Now. The book also includes a forty-page mem­oir of life before World War II and an inter­view with Roman­ian- Amer­i­can writer Nor­man Manea. 

All of the poems are com­prised of short­er ones, five to fif­teen, each short poem sepa­rated by aster­isks — they are relat­ed associa­tively, not lin­ear­ly. Shmueli often address­es a you” that may shift from her­self to some inde­ter­mi­nate sec­ond-per­son to Celan him­self, for exam­ple, I too have incurred your songs / grav­el under my tongue/​I stut­ter / on/​toward the almond branch/​that you gave me.” 

While not near­ly as cryp­tic or enig­mat­ic, Shmueli’s style echoes Celan’s spare, tele­graphic lines. Her themes are exis­ten­tial — they deal with aging, with mean­ing­less­ness, with her sister’s sui­cide, and with writ­ing itself: Word streams/​hear­ing streams / simultanei­ties/​mul­ti­ple tongues/​splin­ter-lan­guage//rise up from mere talk/​art­less­ly.”

Toward Babel might not have found an Eng­lish pub­lish­er had Shmueli not pub­lished her cor­re­spon­dence with the world-famous Celan — that would have been a loss: like him, she wrote in the lan­guage of her youth that she no longer spoke reg­u­lar­ly. This may be one rea­son her work is so haunt­ing, giv­ing us evoca­tive and poignant glimpses into one who, like Celan, a Jew dri­ven from her home-lan­guage, was nev­er able to leave the past and whol­ly set­tle into a land and lan­guage that was freely offered to her.

Relat­ed content:

Mer­rill Lef­fler has pub­lished three col­lec­tions of poet­ry, most recent­ly Mark the Music. A physi­cist by train­ing, he worked in the NASA sound­ing rock­et pro­gram, taught Eng­lish at the U. S. Naval Acad­e­my, and was senior sci­ence writer at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mary­land Sea Grant Pro­gram, focus­ing on Chesa­peake Bay research.

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