by Paul Celan
Count up the almonds,
count what was bitter and kept you waking,
count me in too:
I sought your eye when you looked out and no one saw you,
I spun that secret thread
where the dew you mused on
slid down to pitchers
tended by a word that reached no one’s heart.
There you first fully entered the name that is yours,
you stepped toward yourself on steady feet,
the hammers swung free in the belfry of your silence,
things overheard thrust through to you,
what’s dead put its arm around you too,
and the three of you walked through the evening.
Render me bitter.
Number me among the almonds.
There are multiple translations of Celan’s work, and this is my personal favorite, from the book Glottal Stop, translated by Popov and McHugh. When talking about his work, people often turn to his Todesfugue, or Death Fugue, a poem that drips with death and loss wrapped in a Holocaust narrative, as seen here in the second stanza:
Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink you at morning and midday we drink you at evening
we drink and we drink
A man lives in the house he plays with his vipers he writes
he writes when it grows dark to Deutschland your golden hair Margareta
Your ashen hair Shulamith we shovel a grave in the air there you won’t lie too cramped
But Count Up the Almonds has always been my favorite, speaking to the space where you cannot be touched, where the last breath of loss stands hanging in a crystal clear winter night, frozen under the stars.
Losing my cat was heartbreaking, and my heart still aches daily. I don’t have children, and never will, with all likelihood. But she was like my child, or even like a soulmate, or a familiar. Saying goodbye was the hardest thing I ever had to do. It didn’t come at an easy time, but these things never do. She did wait till my comps were over, and a major presentation completed, and she gave me notice at a time when I could actually stay home for four days straight and wail and rend my clothing and walk through the house like a wraith in the night, loathing the living.
Not that I actually did that, I just cried a lot and snuggled my other animals, and mourned. I also worked on my thesis proposal, and research trip plans, and cleaned the house, and did the laundry and stacked up books to return to the library. Yesterday I actually turned in that thesis proposal, and was approved (with changes) and got registered for 6 hours for thesis writing in the spring. I proctored a final exam, and put in a call to my school’s IRB for an exempt project for my thesis research, and sent out a few emails, and so on. It’s still been busy. But while I am in Paris, I will look for the perfect container to store the ashes of my beautiful girl, something that reflects her delicate features, her imperious personality, the whisper soft paws that would smack me in the face at 3 am when she was hungry.
A friend of mine recently lost her husband, and we’ve talked back and forth a bit about the experience of grief, and she made the most beautiful point: we are all stardust – our departed, in ashes in a box, are simply a purer form of stardust, and one day, we will be the same, united again. I long for that day. My little girl is stardust, and I am stardust, and my grandmother and and grandfather, of blessed memory, are all stardust. We are numbered among the stars, and our breath is united in one unified inhale and exhale.