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.