The literary event of this fall in the US has been the release of Words in the Air: The Complete Correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell. No two poets had a greater influence on postwar American poetry and their letters serve to illuminate their poems. But an equally important literary event took place this fall in Germany with the publication of Herzzeit (lit. "Heart-Time") the correspondence between Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan. This has not attracted nearly as much attention, probably because no US or UK publishing house has (so far) acquired the English translation rights. But, if anything, Herzzeit is a more significant book, since Celan's influence on modern poetry transcends that of Lowell or Bishop. Also, there is a genuine erotic undercurrent to the Celan-Bachmann letters: they were real lovers, whereas Lowell and Bishop were only pretend lovers when it suited them.
The importance of the sexual relationship is apparent already from the initial correspondence, when Celan sends Bachmann his poem In Ägypten (in Egypt) with the dedication: "For Ingeborg. To one who is painfully precise (peinlich genau), 22 years after her birth, from one who is painfully imprecise." In the poem the poet summons the spirits of the Jewish girls Ruth, Miriam and Naomi to adorn (schmücken) the "stranger" (die Fremde - the Gentile Bachmann) with whom he sleeps.
Du sollst zum Aug der Fremden sagen: Sei das Wasser.
Du sollst, die du im Wasser weißt, im Aug der Fremden suchen.
Du sollst sie rufen aus dem Wasser: Ruth! Noëmi! Mirjam!
Du sollst sie schmücken, wenn du bei der Fremden liegst.
Du sollst sie schmücken mit dem Wolkenhaar der Fremden.
Du sollst zu Ruth und Mirjam und Noëmi sagen:
Seht, ich schlaf bei ihr!
Du sollst die Fremde neben dir am schönsten schmücken.
Du sollst sie schmücken mit dem Schmerz um Ruth, um Mirjam und Noëmi.
Du sollst zur Fremden sagen:
Sieh, ich schlief bei diesen!
Thou shalt say to the eye of the woman stranger: Be the water.
Thou shalt seek in the stranger's eye those thou knowest are in the water.
Thou shalt summon them from the water: Ruth! Naomi! Miriam!
Thou shalt adorn them when thou liest with the stranger.
Thou shalt adorn them with the stranger's cloud-hair.
Thou shalt say to Ruth and Miriam and Naomi:
Behold, I sleep with her!
Thou shalt most beautifully adorn the woman stranger near thee.
Thou shalt adorn her with sorrow for Ruth, for Miriam and Naomi.
Thou shalt say to the stranger:
Behold, I slept with them!)
If Celan is the more powerful poet, Bachmann is the more powerful letter writer; she rarely holds back. Here is my translation of her letter dated June 24, 1949 (German original can be accessed here - pdf).
"Sometimes I'd like nothing better than to get away and come to Paris, to feel you touch my hand, how you touch me completely with flowers and then not to know yet again where you come from and where you are going. To me you come from India or from a more distant dark, brown land, to me you are the desert and the sea and everything secretive. I know nothing about about and that is why I am often so afraid for you, I cannot imagine that you are doing the same things the rest of us are doing here, I should have a castle for us and bring you to me, so that you can be my enchanted lord, we will have many tapestries in it and music and invent love. I have often thought that "Corona" is your most beautiful poem, it is the most perfect anticipation of a moment where everything becomes marble and exists forever. But here it is not my "time". I hunger for something that I will not get, everything is flat and vapid. tired and used-up even before it is used. in mid-August I will be in Paris just for a few days. Don't ask me why, but be there for me, for one evening, or two or three. Take me to the Seine, we want to look down into it for a long time until we've become small fish and recognize each other again. "
Not to be missed is Elfriede Jelinek's meditation on Herzzeit - Krankheit und der moderne Mann (Sickness and the modern man) - which can be found on her Web site (she does not permit publication of excerpts or translations). Here she contrasts Celan's "sickness" with the "health" of Max Frisch - Bachmann's other famous lover. Bachmann - for Jelinek - was already "sick to death". a natural state for a woman writer that Elfriede Jelinek identifies with completely.