Friday, September 22, 2017


Catalog of woe,
no need to say;
the Book does show
costs we can’t defray,
wrongs we know
we made — but may
we mindfully sew
better seeds on our way,
share the harvest, go
lightly, kindly, fairly, and pray;
debts we can outgrow,
redeem to new day,
admitting what we owe
and honoring, lovingly, to pay.

© Elisabeth T. Eliassen

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Todtnauberg by Paul Celan - a translation

Arnika, Augentrost, der
Trunk aus dem Brunnen mit dem
Sternwürfel drauf,
in der
die in das Buch
- wessen Namen nahms auf
vor dem meinen?-,
die in dies Buch
geschriebene Zeile von
einer Hoffnung, heute,
auf eines Denkenden
im Herzen,
Waldwasen, uneingeebnet,
Orchis und Orchis, einzeln,
Krudes, später, im Fahren,
der uns fährt, der Mensch,
der's mit anhört,
die halb-
beschrittenen Knüppel-
pfade im Hochmoor,
(Frankfurt, 1. August 1967)
Arnica, eyebright, the
drink from the well with the
star-carved-die on it,
into the
into the book
—whose name did it take
before mine?—
in this book,
the penned line about
a hope, today,
for the thinker's
from the heart,
forest peat-sward, uneven,
orchid and orchid, singly,
crudeness, after, while driving,
he who drives us, the man,
he also hears it,
the half-
trod log-paved
trails on the high moor,
very much.

English rendering © 2017 by Elisabeth T. Eliassen

This poem by Celan, this very difficult poem, is a poem about place, about person, about the potential for healing and about hope unrealized. The brilliance of this piece is its economy (69 words), with at least half the words being each so pregnant with meaning that reams of commentary have been written on them.

I undertake my own variation at great risk—many, many more informed people than I have attempted to render this poem in English. My attempt is particular to me, owing to the presence and symbolism of plant life, and the fact that this poem is an entry in Celan’s internal diary.

This poem is a single-line sketch of the 1967 meeting Celan had with the philosopher Martin Heidegger at his Todtnauberg cabin retreat called “der Hütte.”

For just the barest background, Celan and Heidegger were engaged in intellectual dialogue between the years 1952 and 1970; Celan had a great deal of admiration for the work of the philosopher, discovering similar views on “truth” and “language”, “time” and “being”, and how “language speaks.” But Celan also had a great deal of ambivalence toward Heidegger because of his affiliation, collaboration with Nazism, while Rector of the University of Freiburg, for which he seemed reluctant to express public – or private – regret. For Celan, the German-speaking Jewish Romanian survivor of a labor camp, whose parents were deported and died at an internment camp, this “fact” of Heidegger’s complicity with Nazism created an insurmountable gulf, despite mutual admiration and shared dialogue, despite Heidegger’s support of Celan’s work.

Shortly after giving a Der Spiegel interview, and following Paul Celan’s July 24, 1967 lecture at Freiburg, Martin Heidegger took Celan to see his cabin at Todtnauberg. Celan signed the famous guestbook, the two men engaged in a brief conversation, followed by a short walk and a drive back to town.

Brevity is key. The poem is all too brief; in fact, it seems rushed.

The botanical surroundings, at first, breathe hope into the encounter. Arnica Montana, that bright yellow asterid, dots the landscape surrounding the cabin; so, too, eyebright, another asterid—this one’s flower is shaped like two lips. Arnica, a balm for bruises; eyebright has been used for centuries to quell eyestrain, to bring a return to visual clarity, or to relieve inflammations of the upper respiratory system. The only caveat is that eyebright grows as a semi-parasitic plant in conjunction with various grasses and other plants.

There is a tapped spring, right alongside the cabin, a source of life and renewal. A cube, carved in the shape of a star, adorns the top of the post that houses the waterspout that feeds water into a long stone trough. The poem doesn’t really indicate a cube, however—the word choice indicates that carved block is like a die. So, chance may be at work; the meeting may not be by chance, but the visitor may be taking a gamble. Even so, the scene continues to seem benign and full of potential. The visitor takes a refreshing drink of the pure mountain water.

And then he is brought into the cabin and invited to sign the guestbook, this book that has taken many names before his. Do the names of other Jews reside in these pages? The visitor cannot help but associate this taking of the name and documenting of his name; perhaps in two ways—on one side, in the Book of Life, juxtaposed on another side against the meticulous records Nazis kept with regard to atrocities and thefts against the Jewish people.

The visitor recorded this line in the guest book:

“Ins Hüttenbuch, mit dem Blick auf den Brunnenstern, mit einer Hoffnung auf ein Kommendes Wort im Herzen. Am 25. Juli 1967 / Paul Celan.”

“In the book in the cottage, with a view of the well star, with the hope of a word to come in the heart. July 25, 1967, Paul Celan.” 

In whose heart was the hope of a word, at that moment, I wonder?

In the poem, clearly the word is desired by the visitor of the thinker, the philosopher. This is a kind of pilgrimage.

But the poem does not even hint at discussion. The time in the hut seems but no time at all, and they are back outdoors, walking briefly over the damp ground, one orchid beside one orchid. The mountain orchid has been used medicinally for centuries in Europe to ease gastro-intestinal complaints; the Chinese use orchid medicine to improve eyesight and boost the immune system. More to the point, in this poem, the plants consist of a double bulb, very like testicles in shape; one German word for orchid is Knabenkraut (boy’s weed). Celan refers to orchids in other poems. I am not sure if Celan would have been aware of Zen symbolism of orchid as “poet” and “thinker”, but I will gamble on that. The poet walks alongside the thinker, but they are not joined as brothers; instead, they are just as contained and separate as they were when they arrived at this locus. Further, the ground is uneven, so they are not on the same footing, at the same level.

The pilgrimage fails to ford the chasm, despite the appearance of benignity and healing.

The visit further dispels any notion that such a transcendence of their differences can take place, with unfortunate words being uttered during the car ride back to town. It is unclear who uttered the words, but the visitor claims the driver to be a witness who can verify, leaving the implication towards the thinker, speaking without thinking, perhaps.

As they drive back to town, the occupants of the car pass by and through wooded areas, partially logged, with log covered foot trails, perhaps owing to the moistness of the landscape. The living pines stick up straight, the logs lining the path are likewise straight, like cudgels, in the soggy, peaty ground, dispelling the artifice of the semiotic presence of the benign, the healing, and the hopeful. Now, it seems as if the ground is swollen with rot; this meeting is no longer an idyll with an idol. The idol has proved himself not to be worthy – or, the pilgrim has not brought forth the purpose of his quest.

While others tend to translating “Wort im Herzen” into English more literally as “word in heart,” I chose “word from the heart” because I understand the point of the meeting to be a pilgrimage, in search of a means by which to transcend the gulf of differences into brotherhood, if the thinker could but offer a heartfelt word of some kind. Instead, the meeting seemed perfunctory, and whatever discussion exchanged is either insubstantial (at the cabin) or “crude” and “explicitly so” on the way back, in the car.

The encounter that inspired this poem did not end well; but the two men continued to communicate with one another, even if the communications were somewhat strained, until the end of Celan’s life.


Despite this pessimistic reading (really the only choice available), I suggest that implicit in the poem is the endless potential for healing, if the all important (magical?) word will be spoken. The potential for the positive and the healing is always alive, always rich, always supported. The fact that healing and transcendence were not experienced here was a matter of choice, both on the part of the thinker and on the part of the poet. Place was not the primary factor, neither was the timing. Overloaded expectations may have been a factor, as well as courage or lack thereof, toward articulating a question. Certainly, an inner struggle and perhaps a crisis of identity factored into this outcome.

Perhaps I chose to explore this poem on this day is to suggest that brother/sisterhood is always a worthy goal, and always possible – if one can bridge the chasms of ethnicity, class, race, religion, criminal record, victimhood, guilt, shyness… loneliness. And this may be at some cost, but it should never be at the cost of personhood and self-value/self-respect.

Pristine water still wells from the spring; the arnica and eyebright, the orchids still grow and bloom; the turf and the trees provide fuel and shelter. We humans pass through this land of potential, and don’t often enough use the good of what is provided. We opt instead to avoid, or worse utter the unmindful word, and tend toward the destruction of what is good.

My thought and prayer for you, for me, for all of us this day: Positive potential greets you, everyday; don’t be afraid to engage it. Don't let unrealized hope close the book on your quest.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

"Seul est mien" by Marc Chagall - a translation

It is mine alone,
the land found within my soul;
I enter it without a passport,
as if into my house,
which sees my sadness
and my loneliness.
It puts me to sleep,
blanketing me like a fragrant tombstone.

Within me, gardens bloom
with all my invented flowers;
the streets belong to me,
but there are no houses;
they were all destroyed during childhood
–their inhabitants float like apparitions
in search of a home;
they live in my soul.

That’s why I smile
when my sun barely shines
or I cry
like a soft rain
in the night.

There was a time when I was of two minds;
There was a time when these two aspects
were veiled with a lovely dew
that faded like the fragrance of a rose.

Now, it seems to me
that even as I retreat,
I move forward,
up towards a high portal
with extended walls beyond which
extinguished thunder
and broken lightning sleep.

It is mine alone,
the land found in my soul.

rendered in English by Elisabeth T. Eliassen © 2017


Marc Chagall, one of my favorite artists, wrote this poem, perhaps during his years in France; I don’t know. What an extraordinary life he led, and what a testament to life he bequeathed to the world in his art in an evolving style and color sense that boldly strode through the length of the modern period from impressionism, cubism, fauvism, suprematism and symbolist through surrealism and beyond. How difficult it must have been to write this poem, a love letter, as it seems to be, to his interior life.

I have seen many translations of this poem over the years, and felt a need to add my own sense and touch to it. So many of the versions I've seen are too literal, as if the translator knew nothing about Chagall’s life and could not see that there are references embedded in the statement.

I don’t claim to know more than anyone else, but certain choices presented themselves to me, and I take the opportunity to present them.

The soul is the one aspect of life each individual owns completely and utterly. I think this is a very stark and very true, very transparent declaration; less an allusion than a truism. Two bits that were very difficult for me to incorporate in a holistic presentation reside in the expressions, “d'une pierre parfumée,” and “Il fut un temps où j'avais deux têtes / Il fut un temps où ces deux visages.”

In the case of the phrase including d'une pierre parfumée,” I took a leap, as I am unaware of any idiom that would impart a more specific meaning. (Perhaps someone can enlighten me!) If the artist’s soul is his house, within which an entire world stretches forward, populated by nature and people, but not other structures, because they have been destroyed by war, then the soul that houses that world must be protected by something very strong. The soul can only be known, explored and owned by the individual, and when the individual dies, the world of that soul also dies. While the soul is alive, however, it needs rest and safety. This is what dictated my choices in those lines.

To some extent, Chagall never left the Liozna shtetl near Vitebsk, but he became an international figure. In 1944, a New York newspaper printed Chagall’s open letter to Vitebsk, in which he said, “I did not live with you, but I did not have one single painting that did not breathe your spirit and reflection.” It is on this point that I chose to express “j'avais deux têtes” as “was of two minds” and “ces deux visages” as “these two aspects.” A case could also be made that “j'avais deux têtes” is a reference to his first wife Bella… that is for someone else to explore.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Labor Day, To Honor Workers

Labor Day,
to Honor Workers;
a holiday,
a reason for rest,
no doubt,
a reason to party
and shout,
a reason to forget
what it’s about:
We made it a Holiday,
so we’d never have to
think about it again.

To Honor Workers
takes more than a day,
takes more than a say
in safety and pay.

To Honor Workers
takes more than a job,
more than a car-key fob,
more than a tip can swab.

To Honor Workers,
we need to know,
we need to grow,
and we need to sew
the world in our work.

To Honor Workers,
know the world is our work,
grow this job we cannot shirk;
sew us, from laborer to clerk,
in policies that truly care,
in wages that are truly fair,
in the one-to-one parity we share
because we are human individuals.

To honor Workers,
take people off the streets,
give them a job and a place;
give them a reason to be,
a community to be for,
give a damn about the people
and what they, what we, need;
we’re all here to be for one another.

Labor Day,
To Honor Workers,
this is indeed the test,
to understand the latitude,
to find the right amplitude,
build character and attitude
fitting for a world of work,
for the whole World of Workers.

© 2017 by Elisabeth T. Eliassen

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Reply to a Message from Magistrate Zhang - a translation

In these later years, I value silence;
worldly concerns no longer stir my heart.
I now move through the days with no plan
but to retire unencumbered to the woods of my youth,
where pine-scented breezes can play through my robe
whilst the moonlit mountain amplifies the music of my lute.
You ask if there are laws governing success or failure;
I say: Hear the song of the fly-fisher, rising up from the riverbank.

English rendering of this poem by Wang Wei (699–759)

© 2017 by Elisabeth T. Eliassen

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

When The Truth Is Not Enough

This is a story. It happens to be a true story. It could have happened in your community. I hope it did not. I heard this story fourth-hand, and do not know any of the people involved or even where it took place.

The family car was stolen off the street, near the home. The owners filed a police report, while joy riders drove the hotwired car down some byway until it ran out of gas. The place where the car was eventually abandoned was located in another county, whose police found it and traced it to the owners and the filed stolen vehicle report. The auto was duly inspected, towed to a tow yard in the county where it was found. The owners of the stolen vehicle, upon being informed that it had been recovered, dropped their child off with a friend, went to their local police station to handle release paperwork that would allow them to retrieve the car. Thus, the case was closed in the county of residence.

The couple took public transit and a cab to the tow yard in the other county, signed a release form and paid the towing fee. Thus, the case was closed in the county of recovery.

While they were driving back to pick up their child, the wife found solicitation letters (junk mail) wedged in the space between the passenger side seat and the door. The mail was of various shapes, sizes and colors, from various consumer outlets, and addressed to various other people than themselves.

The notion occurred: This must be evidence pointing to who stole the car!

Instead of picking up their child and returning home, the car owners took the mail to the police station and spoke with the ranking officer at the walk-up window. They told the officer their story and showed the officer the mail, saying they felt they were doing their civic duty by reporting this evidence.

The officer listened to the story, but did not touch the mail they were offering.

“Chain of evidence rules and procedures say that we cannot accept this mail; there is nothing that indicates the mail is evidence of any particular thing, per se. It would be best to take the mail to the Post Office.”

The couple was incredulous. They started telling their story again. Apparently, the officer hadn’t been listening closely, and did not understand the import of what they were trying to say.

The officer listened to the repeated story, letting consideration and a silent pause clear the air before replying.

“We have no way of knowing how this mail got into your car or if it was even placed there by the perpetrators of the auto theft. Was the mail put in the car in this jurisdiction, or in the jurisdiction where it was recovered? Was the mail picked up off the ground near the car in the tow yard and just placed inside it on an assumption? These questions do not offer clarity about the mail and do not indicate a link to the auto theft. As your stolen property has been returned to you, the case is now closed. Please take the mail to the Post Office, where they will know how to appropriately handle it.”

The couple looked at one another. Surely, this was wrong. The couple asked to speak with a supervisor. The officer went away, but came back very shortly.

“The sergeants and lieutenant are out on calls. I am the ranking supervisor, at this moment.”

The couple couldn’t believe it. They were obviously being stonewalled. They started again: This mail had to be evidence of whoever stole the car.

“Aren’t you going to do your job?” The couple said.

“I really cannot receive this mail; please take it to the Post Office.”

Back behind the window, co-workers could hear the entire exchange. They looked at one another, over their piles of files and reports. One sighed. Another decided to intervene, so they could all get back to work. That officer silently left the office, circling around to the public lobby, where the couple stood, waving the junk mail and elevating their insistent voices.

“I’ll take it. I’ll make sure it is handled appropriately.” The officer escorted the couple to the station door, waving at them as they left. When the couple was out of sight, this officer walked the mail down the street, and dropped into the mailbox on the corner. At least the addressees will receive their mail; sale ends next week. Upon that officer’s return, the entire office breathed a healing sigh, and resumed their very real and pressing work with relief.

The couple that had brought in the mail later filed a complaint against the officer who told them the mail could not be accepted as evidence. The complaint was followed by an internal procedural investigation.

To bring further clarity to this story, you need to know that the couple whose car was stolen was white. The officer they encountered at the police station, when they took the mail there, was a non-Caucasian female, nearing retirement age; she had been training a female cadet at the time of this encounter. The officer who put the mail into the mailbox was a white male who had been a civilian office worker with the department for only a few years.


Appearances are sometimes deceiving, and usually never the end of any story.

When we presume we know better, we are apt to find ourselves in the position of the fool.

The ranking officer had explained the situation, but the couple, who had no law enforcement training, for some reason did not trust her to have appropriate knowledge, did not trust her explanations. What she told them did not conform, either to what they had seen on TV or their expectations of what should be done. They heard what she said, but they didn’t like it. The way they saw it, they had gone out of their way to provide important evidence that would lead to arrest and conviction of the perpetrator of the auto theft.

The well-meaning co-worker de-escalated the situation, but probably should not have; doing so undercut the authority and knowledge possessed by his supervisor in the eyes of the couple. Ultimately, this fueled the couple’s dissatisfaction to where they made the leap that this ranking officer had shirked her responsibility.

The car had been retrieved; the case was closed; the junk mail presumably was delivered to the homes of the addressees. That should have been enough of an outcome for anyone.

The rules are the rules; procedures are procedures. If we don’t follow the rules and procedures, then of what value are they? Can we assume procedures are illogical just because we don’t understand them? Yes, sometimes we do discover that rules need to be changed; by all means, we must review all rules that truly do not make sense, and either repeal them or refine them. Perhaps rules regarding the chain of evidence are not among those in dire need of revision.

That is one issue. More than this, and primarily, I wonder what irreversible damage is done when judgments are color- and gender-coded? Actually, I less wonder than know. The short answer is that citizenship is diminished for All, and this is problematical when All is We The People.

This story, Citizens, is but one example of the struggle we face in our local communities, our counties, our states, our regions, the nation – and the world.

I hope this story provides you food for thought.

(Chew your food well and completely before swallowing, or indigestion is apt to follow.)

© 2017 by Elisabeth T. Eliassen

Saturday, August 12, 2017

"A Terrible Thing To Waste"

Sporadically, over the course of many months, I’ve been helping a friend to clear her late husband’s library and organize his academic work. I brought home a notebook of his from 2004, because I happened to leaf through it and was reminded, by notations found within, of wonderful, deep and sometimes difficult conversations we’d had over the years.

The library is a mirror to the mind of the man, and yet contains only a fraction of what is in the mind. This individual was a “big picture” kind of person – probably one reason we got on so well – and his lifetime of reading and interacting with his books, colleagues and students is an example of a life well lived, a life of mind well and truly explored. I think he chose the academic life because he loved to read. He was always reading, always writing, notating, diagramming, referring, inferring, questioning. The library, the papers, the notebooks are what is left of a magnificent mind. They are also an example of all that is precious that we lose because we can only hold onto so much, as time moves unrelentingly onward.

The books, what will become of them? He would have wanted them to find good homes; we’re working on that. He was constantly purchasing duplicates of books he thought were important; he knew where to send them, though he didn’t always get around to doing so. Hundreds and hundreds of books; a dizzying array. Book-sellers are difficult to find, apparently, for such a highly specialized, while varied, collection. My friend said, “Everyone is going to the internet, to Amazon, they tell me.”

This was of grave concern to her husband: The retention and the sharing of knowledge. The assumption made by people is that everything is digitized. If one can call up on the computer all the records from the past, who needs a book?

Or, for that matter, who needs a printed sheet of paper? Going through this professor’s teaching materials, I have been finding his own typewritten notes and cards, tying one subject to another like a spider web across a world of thought. I’ve also found photocopied pages from innumerable books that have been out of print, some of them, for over well over a hundred years. Am I confident that the materials I have been letting slip through my fingers into the recycle bin are all digitized?

No, I am not in the least confident. I am quite sure that the assumption of digitization is incorrect, and that things are landing in the recycle bin that will never be seen again. The photocopies are from books that may no longer exist as physical artifacts.

This is how generations lose sight of what prior generations thought about and understood, correctly or incorrectly. Someone decides for us what information is of value, and lets something (or even everything) else go. “Oh, that old thing; Oxford published a modern study last year, we don’t need that one from 1925.” These days, people who write papers now find all their supporting references on the internet, and they do not question these sources. (I know this because I proofread and edit such papers for clients all the time.) My old friend, the departed professor, would shake his head in dismay; the only proper way to interact with your subject is to question everything that is written about it and, further, to question your own thinking about it. Do people question their own thinking, these days? I wonder about that, as he did – he felt that most people believe there is an “inevitability” or “fate” to everything in their lives (“It must be God’s will,” for example).

Nothing is inevitable, but a people that harbors such defeatist thinking is a people that can be easily led, lied to and manipulated, just as the digital data in which they put their faith can be manipulated. The digital world, at the touch of a button, can disappear.

Who gets to choose what we keep and what we let go? Are they authorities on the subjects, or administrators with quotas? What are the criteria for retention? Is access to the resulting digital data free, or available only through privatized subscription portals? As I go through someone else’s lifetime of study and thinking and work, I remember the many discussions we had about this very topic, in light of the trends we were seeing.

Ultimately, there is a price to be paid, a freedom that is lost, when we capitulate to the notion that we don’t have to know and we don’t have to think, and that we can find references on the internet to support our beliefs. There is a price to be paid when others tell us what to think and feel about what is happening in the world around us, and we let them do it and follow what they say, without asking questions and doing our own research.

In the case of this collection of papers, I am mainly the one who is choosing, and I there is so much that am reluctantly choosing to let go.

“A Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Waste,” the slogan of the United Negro College Fund for more than 40 years, popped into my head, as I was sifting through file folders and baskets. My friend worked his mind until it could not work anymore; he was a walking encyclopedia of the history of political ideas, civil society, and collectivism. Every page of the notebook I brought home has a note of something just read, followed by notes referring to other books, articles, podcasts or other media that one needed to review (many authored by colleagues, friends or students), in order to gain a more complete picture of the problem, or a wider view of the question. I could draw Venn diagrams from the notations on most of these pages, Spirographs of overlapping themes and disciplines.

I can preserve the man’s papers, but no matter how much I wish that I could, I cannot preserve the man’s mind.

If I cannot preserve someone else’s mind, I can at least tell you a little of what the person said:

“Nothing is inevitable.”

“Question authority and everything that is illogical.”

“In a free society, there can be no double-standards.”

If these thoughts of my friend are all I manage to carry forward in this world, know that they are his legacy, bequeathed to you.

© 2017 by Elisabeth T. Eliassen