Celan in NW6

Although Paul Celan is my favourite poet, I was somehow unaware of his poem, “Mapesbury Road”, which refers to a street that is about five minutes from where I live in north-west London and was written in 1968 immediately after the death of Martin Luther King and the attempted assassination of West German student leader Rudi Dutschke. As I learned from a fascinating programme on Radio 4 about the short poem last week, Celan’s paternal aunt Berta Antschel – one of the few relatives of his who had survived the Holocaust – lived in a flat in the eponymous street, where Celan visited her in April 1968 and wrote the poem, which was published posthumously in the collection Schneepart in 1971. Like most of Celan’s late poems, it is incredibly dense with compound words (e.g. “Mitluft”, which Michael Hamburger translates as “co-air”) and therefore difficult to decipher. As George Steiner says in the programme, Celan’s poems are “on the other side of our current horizons”.

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