Zürich, The Stork Inn (Zürich, Zum Storchen)

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ZÜRICH, THE STORK INN (Zürich, Zum Storchen)

Poem by Paul Celan, 1960

Paul Celan's eight hundred poems established him as Europe's most significant postwar poet. He wrote in his native German as well as in other languages. He addressed literary traditions as well as theological, philosophical, scientific, historical, and personal material. Celan called his writing of poems an "encounter" where "I went with my very being toward language." His lyric poems often seek what he called "an addressable thou," which registered in a range of forms: the poet, his mother, wife, or sons, a loved one or friend, the Jewish dead, God, Osip Mandelstam, Rembrandt, Saint Francis, a stone, a word, or something mysterious and unnamable. In the case of "Zürich, Zum Storchen" ("Zürich, the Stork Inn"), Celan's addressee is his beloved friend and poet Nelly Sachs . Originally published in German in 1960 (the English translation was published in 1988), it commemorates the first meeting of the two poets in the spring of that year.

Sachs was born in 1891 into an upper-middle class Jewish family in Berlin. In May of 1940, under the threat of Hitler's Third Reich, Sachs took her aging mother and went to live in Sweden. She lived the rest of her life in Stockholm, terminally affected by a persecution anxiety that kept her from ever living in her native Germany again. In 1960 she won Germany's most prestigious honor for women poets, the Droste-Hulshoff Prize. She traveled to Germany to receive the prize, but opted to stay in Switzerland overnight. It was on that visit that she met Paul Celan, with whom she had corresponded since 1954, for the first time. "A fairytale here," she wrote on 26 May from Zürich's Hotel Zum Storchen ("Hotel at the Stork").

Once back in Paris, on 30 May, Celan wrote "Zürich, the Stork Inn" and dedicated it to Sachs. The poem displays their new intimacy and their differing stances within Judaism. It records, on the day marking Christ's ascent into heaven, an epiphany. Looking across the Limmat River toward Zürich's Grossmünster (Great Minster), Celan and Sachs together saw the church mirrored in the water that gleamed with golden sunlight. Both of them knew the force of sunlight in Jewish mysticism; they never forgot the sight.

Celan's opening sentence gives a nod to Margarete Susman, who lived in Zürich and whose 1946 Book of Job and the Fate of the Jewish People says that, in light of the Holocaust, "every word is a Too Little and a Too Much." The initial ambivalence in the poem gives way to the heart of the poem—and the encounter—"On the day of an ascension, the/Minster stood over there, it came/with some gold across the water." Although the day Celan and Sachs met was Ascension Day on the Christian calendar, Celan opens the moment to other ascents besides Christ's by speaking of "an" ascension. "Some gold across the water" offers a variation on the miracle of ascension: a particular shining that two survivors witnessed together and which impacted them for the rest of their lives. This vision gives way to a spare hope: "for/his highest, death-rattled, his/wrangling word—." The word Haderndes ("wrangling") is used in Exodus 17:2 when the people of Israel struggle with Moses.

Following the certainty of this struggle, the poem moves into meditation and ambiguity. "We/really don't know, you know,/we/really don't know/what counts … " The final linealludes to Sachs's acceptance speech. She had said that "Everything counts" in God's eyes.

Paul Celan drowned himself in the Seine in April 1970. On the day of his funeral, Nelly Sachs died in Stockholm.

—Martha Sutro