Evening Will Come: A Monthly Journal of Poetics (Affect Feature—Issue 55, July 2015)

Jessica Fisher
Winding the Musical Box

For a great many weeks a number of years ago, I sat inside as the California days dawned and dusked, trying to work out an account that would explain the particular impasse at which poets of my generation found ourselves, where voice and affect—those markers of lyric—were seen as anathema to experimental poetry. In a description characteristic of the time, for example, Lisa Sewell argued that “language-oriented writing foregrounds the material, referential, and reflexive aspects of language and promotes a collaborative notion of reading, purging the poem of origin, narrative voice and affect” (281-2). This purge seemed to me then, as now, an unnecessary one, borne at least in part from a fundamental misunderstanding of certain poststructuralist tenets, particularly regarding the relation of subjectivity to literature. How Roland Barthes’ “The Death of the Author” became a manifesto for the annihilation of the subject is not altogether clear, given his careful distancing from such a position. Nevertheless, as Marjorie Perloff demonstrates, by the time of Frederic Jameson’s Postmodernism; or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991), it was commonplace to take “the death of the author, or rather, the death of the subject, quite literally” (131). Postmodernism is thus characterized by a “waning of affect”—“there is no longer,” says Jameson, “a self present to do the feeling” (15). Jameson’s aside is meant as the obvious conclusion: if there is no self, there is no feeling; but it seems to me a fallacious one, for certainly if there is something unique about textual space, it is the ability of such space to marshal what might be taken as the signs of subjectivity—affect, for example, or voice—without either originating from or resulting in a subject. Indeed, as Barthes writes in “The Death of the Author,” “all writing is itself this special voice, consisting of several indiscernible voices, and … literature is precisely the invention of this voice, to which we cannot assign a specific origin: literature is that neuter, that composite, that oblique into which every subject escapes.”

Such a voice without origin haunts this remarkable poem by Paul Celan, here in Ian Fairley’s capable translation, which has served me as a talisman all these years in thinking through the myriad ways that subjectivity and affect might arise and dissipate within the lyric:

In den Geräuschen, wie unser Anfang,

in der Schlucht,

wo du mir zufielst,

zieh ich sie wieder auf, die


weißt: die unsichtbare,



In the noises, like our beginning,

in the ravine,

where you fell to me,

I wind it up again, the

musical box—you

know: the invisible,


inaudible one.1

Let this little poem stand for a brief spell as encompassing or describing the Spieldose—the musical box—of lyric practice. The poem achieves, in its scant eight lines, a remarkable intimacy, although what is so compelling is that it makes us cognizant of the very strangeness of that claim—intimacy, after all, usually implies closeness between persons. Although we find here the I and the you emblematic of (though not always expressed in) the lyric, we know the you addressed merely as that form of otherness that “falls to” the me—that is, into the subject as object—in a location both particular and general: “in the ravine,” Celan writes, a space of depth that is perhaps physical, perhaps metaphorical. Crucially, the recollected encounter between the you and the me comes before both the speaker’s use of the first person pronoun I and the poem’s description of present action; when the declarative phrase “I wind it up again” comes at the poem’s midpoint, the situational phrases that precede it underscore the contingency of the subject, whose “I” is predicated upon there being a “you.”

The remembered event of the “you” falling “to me” is cryptic: among other possibilities, the scene being described might be sexual, and “our beginning” the beginning of a romantic relationship, or “the beginning” might refer to a more fundamental originary moment. Neither of these readings really sticks, though, and the very attempt at finding a context for the poem demonstrates how actively it resists recuperation into narrative. The syntax of the opening lines only complicates things, as the first four clauses accumulate without the order of their modification resolving. Was “our beginning” “in the ravine”? Did the “you” fall “to me” “in the ravine” or “[i]n the noises”? Or are “the noises” and “the ravine” posited here as parallel locations—and if so, in what way are they the same? As should already by clear, Celan’s poem both declares itself as lyric and resists being read through the dominant model of lyric interpretation—a “model of poetry,” as Jonathan Culler points out, “based on representation,” which posits “a speaker character, whose novelistic situation the reader is asked to reconstruct by asking, what would lead someone to speak thus and to feel thus?” It is, as the Celan poem demonstrates inductively, a mistake to assimilate all instances of lyric voice to the model of the soliloquy or dramatic monologue, which teaches that “to interpret the lyric is to work out what sort of person is speaking, in what circumstances and with what attitude or, ideally, drama of attitudes” (“Why Lyric?” 201). Indeed, the poem itself asks something very different of the reader, namely, to borrow Keats’s famous words, to be “in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact & reason.” But, crucially, the poem nonetheless offers a dwelling of sorts: it is the placeless space of a doubly contextual emergence, dependent both on the other and on the vicissitudes of text itself.

The poem, refusing resolution, asks that we return to the evidence of the text, to the spell of reading. “In the noises, like our beginning, / in the ravine, / where you fell to me,” it begins again, hinging the cascading phrases together into a web of modification. One might say that the poem begins in media res, except that, despite what Barthes would call “the reference to a pseudomemory,” the only thing we are assured of is the medium (RL 19). Now, as my gaze falls toward the ravine at the center of the open book, it seems to me that the opening lines might refer not to some “remembered event,” as I imagined above, but rather to the act of reading. There is admittedly something contrived about this interpretation, since it poses as the speaker the poem itself, which addresses the reader from the page and creates an analogy for itself in the figure of the musical box. But the riddling nature of this reading, in which the obscured object offers a cryptic figure through which we might discover its identity, doesn’t hold; Celan’s poem ultimately refuses this, and every, resolution.

Whatever the location where the undecipherable action of Celan’s poem occurs, it is a space of undifferentiated sound, a space “like our beginning.” Indeed, “the noises” comes almost to function as a sonic locale. The contact of the subject-as-object (me) with the other (you) ushers or propels the speaker into the realm of music, but—counter to the reigning assumption about lyric practice—this lyric is not the result of the poet becoming singer. Far from that. Instead, in Celan’s metaphor, the lyric speaker merely unleashes song. “I wind it up again,” Celan writes, “the / musical box—you / know” which one, he insists. These are crucial lines, not only because they bring the poem into the present tense, in which “the noises” are transformed into melody, but also because they radically transform how we perceive the poem’s addressee. While initially the “you” is whatever particular being “fell to me,” now (because of the line break which separates the subject “you” from verb “know”) the “you” is equated in passing with the “musical box,” suggesting that what the poet winds is the reader or speaker of the poem. In this rather lovely fleeting image, then, we as readers of the poem are transformed into the modern day lyre on which the poem is played. The use of the idiomatic expression “you know” further lifts the addressee out of the deictic particularity with which the poem first spoke to the “you,” thereby making the syntactic space of the second person even more open to its readers. And we do indeed know, through that mode of lyric epistemology Keats termed “Negative Capability,” what Celan means: it is “the invisible, / the / inaudible one” that plays.

Celan radically challenges received ideas about lyric making and reading, and about the nature of the lyric poem itself, through the figure of the musical box. But that figure bears further consideration, because the way it operates in the poem is anything but clear-cut. Although I compare the musical box to the lyre in the preceding paragraph, it must be said that the two instruments differ in important ways from one another. A late eighteenth century invention, the musical box evolved roughly contemporaneously with Romantic poetry; both forms of song can be said to have emerged from the end of the Enlightenment, and are simultaneously dependent upon and deviant from it. Since the musical box was generally powered by clockwork, it trades song for time and so might be said to resist the instrumentality of its medium. Only the song is of course also a kind of temporality, as the expression “to keep time with the music” suggests. The box’s cylinder, with its pins arranged to produce the same tune each time it is wound, is a sort of proto-language, a system of signs that sound but do not signify. Perhaps the most important point to note is that, because the musical box is an automated instrument, a toy, one doesn’t have to be a musician to play it; the player unleashes the potential within the script, controlling the song’s speed but not its sound. Or, one might better say that the script unleashes the potential within the player: it is in this sense that the Spieldose functions in the séance described by Thomas Mann in “An Experience in the Occult,” where the musical box plays its “clear and childish tune with a brief recurring melody” in order to transform the man into a spirit medium, stripped of intention and desire, and therefore open to the intention and desire of something other than the self (235). This otherworldly drama of the séance that Mann witnessed is thus in a sense merely a full-dress production of lyric possession.

Celan’s little poem itself stands as a brief spell. Its mode of conjuring—its syntactic and grammatical tricks, its parallelism and figuration—teaches us something about the technical elements that work to make language poetic in an age of free verse, in the absence of meter and of the rhyme that so frequently punctuated the ends of metrical lines. But more crucial even than understanding how this poem plays with the pronoun and the preposition, say, is to see the result of that play in how the poem figures the lyric. Celan walks a fine line here: while he offers the intimate voice and particular address typical of the lyric speaker, one would be hard-pressed to name the “I” and “you” in this poem as subjects, except in a purely linguistic sense of the word. Like all personal pronouns, the “I” and the “you” are shifters, “term[s] that,” in Emile Benveniste’s words, “cannot be identified except in … an instance of discourse and that ha[ve] only a momentary reference.” The shifter occupies a chiasmic position, simultaneously indicating intimacy and anonymity, for even as it allows for the particularity of embodied perception, it also functions as a cipher through which the embodied subject slips.

Because “[t]he reality to which [the shifter] refers is the reality of the discourse,” we are doubly unmoored in a poem like Celan’s, which—existing outside or perhaps between discourse as it does—eschews the context through which we might determine its referent (226). Celan’s subjects are therefore “constituted as immediately contemporary with the writing, being effected and affected by it” (Barthes, RL 19). What is true for the subject is also true for other situational elements of the text, for example space and time. In actively pointing to the particularity of textual space, I argue, the lyric creates the “drifting habitation” of what Barthes calls “atopia” (RB 43). And, while the lyric has often been taken to task for its timelessness—typically seen to be a marker of a generic ahistoricism—we might instead posit this atemporality as resulting directly from the groundlessness of language itself, and from the fact that the text always reaches between the fictional moment of its occurrence, its moment of production, and its multiple moments of reception. Poetry’s concern with language’s materiality is, paradoxically, the very reason for its apparent immateriality.

Although the context here is purely textual, the “I” and the “you” defined only in terms of one another, the poem is nevertheless marked by feeling—it seems to me nostalgic, likely because it repeats the underlying structure of a poem like William Wordsworth’s “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey”: here, where we were, I return. The poem is every bit as intimate as Wordsworth’s; the puzzle is how that intimacy is achieved, since, reading the poem, I feel neither addressed by a speaker nor privy—to quote John Stuart Mill’s 1833 definition of poetry—to an “utterance … overheard” (12). Nor am I the poem’s speaker, though I have voiced it dozens of times while trying to describe to myself and, by extension, to you, how it works and why the way it works matters to a theory of the lyric. Even when I read the poem aloud, I am taking on the words of another, whose lines are, in Ann Banfield’s terms, “unspeakable”—that is, they would never occur in discourse, and therefore bear the mark of literary language.

Speaking the unspeakable, I am doubly estranged from myself, since I am not the I to whom I refer. For those of us who encounter this poem in translation, there is of course another layer of distance; although the English runs parallel to the German as if a reflection in the mirror, here again there is no shoring up of a single identity, but instead the continual experience of contingency and mediation. In entering the space of its music, I am rendered a medium for voice, not a speaking subject. And yet the poem eventually becomes, as Robert Duncan described it, “mine, it is so near to the heart.” Or, in this case, to the larynx. For each time I speak the poem’s central lines, “I wind it up again, the / musical box,” my attention is drawn to the grain of the voice, my voice, becoming an instrument of sound, in the service of the poem. The German original gestures even earlier to the site through which voice passes as it moves out of the body, since “Schlucht” (“ravine”) and “Schluck” (“a swallow of something”) are nearly homonyms. If we translated “in der Schlucht” instead as “in the gorge”—one of its many possible renderings—we would more closely approximate its double connotation, since “gorge” brings to mind not only a ravine, but also the throat and the act of ingestion.

The homophonic play between Schlucht and Schluck matters because swallowing and giving voice are reciprocal actions, both of which demonstrate—as, indeed, does the play of the pronouns described above—the reversibility of internal and external, subject and object, that Maurice Merleau-Ponty figures in “The Intertwining—The Chiasm”—a chiasm immediately and perhaps not incidentally brought to mind by Celan’s “Schlucht.”2 The act of swallowing incorporates—that is, embodies—what is external; inversely, the voice emanates from within yet comes into being only through its projection outward. Far from securing the speaker in place and time, voice fades even as it is uttered. That we colloquially take this disembodied and dissipating voice to be the bearer of identity—for example, in the expression “to find one’s voice”—illustrates how tenuous the construction of selfhood is, when even the most basic human experiences—swallowing and speaking, for instance—undercut the idea of the individual as self-enclosed monad.

In the case of lyric, where voice results from text, the idea of voice authenticating a particular subject becomes even more implausible. And yet voice brings us, through the circuitous route of the text, to a certain body, a paradox Barthes’ describes in his account of listening to a singer: “The voice is not personal,” he explains, “and at the same time it is individual: it has us hear a body which has no civil identity, no ‘personality’, but which is nevertheless a separate body” (I-M-T 182). The voice we find in Celan’s poem is likewise fundamentally unlocatable, because it begins not with the transcription of authorial speech, but instead with writing. Celan’s poem thematizes the simultaneous intimacy and anonymity of lyric voice; that voice, whatever it is, is not orphic, oratic, or prophetic, soliloquizing, dramatizing, or confessional. It calls the reader to be not a listener so much as a medium: as we read the lines, silently or aloud, we each fall out of our own biographical particularity to become the I who winds again the invisible and inaudible box of lyric voice. Whatever feeling is unleashed therein—well, who can say from whence it came, or to whom it belongs?


1This poem comes, as Ian Fairley writes, from Celan’s 1968 book Fadensonnen, his “sixth and most extensive collection of verse, … written between September 1965 and June 1967.” The poems in this book “comprise the last major sequence released in the poet’s lifetime” (3).
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2The essay is in Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Le Visible et l’invisible, published posthumously in France in 1964. It seems Celan would have known this work; in Paul Celan and Martin Heidegger, for example, James K. Lyon writes that “occasionally … Heidegger … ‘took the poet aside in order to have a conversation on more recent philosophical currents in France, on Camus, Althusser, Merleau-Ponty’” (204). See James K. Lyon, Paul Celan and Martin Heidegger: an unresolved conversation, 1951–1970 (Baltimore: JHU Press, 2006) for details of their correspondence.
Return to Reference.

Works Cited

Banfield, Ann. Unspeakable Sentences. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982.

Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” Trans. Richard Howard. Aspen no 5+6 (1967).

---. Roland Barthes. 1975. Trans. Richard Howard. Berkeley: U of California P, 1994.

---. Image – Music – Text. 1977. Trans. Stephen Heath. New York: Noonday Press, 1988.

---. The Rustle of Language. 1984. Trans. Richard Howard. Berkeley: U of California P, 1986.

Benveniste, Emile. Problems of General Linguistics. Trans. Mary Elizabeth Meek. Coral Gables, Florida: U of Miami P, 1971.

Celan, Paul. Fathomsuns. Trans. Ian Farley. Riverdale-on-Hudson, NY: Sheep Meadow Press, 2001.

Culler, Jonathan. “Why Lyric?” PMLA 123.1 (2008): 201-206.

Duncan, Robert. “Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow.” In Robert Duncan: Selected Poems. New York: New Directions, 1997.

Jameson, Frederic. Postmodernism; or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham, North Carolina: Duke UP, 1991.

Keats, John. Letter to George and Tom Keats, December 1817.

Mann, Thomas. Three Essays. Trans. H. T. Lowe-Porter. London: M. Secker, 1932.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. The Visible and the Invisible. 1964. Trans. Alphonso Lingis. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern UP, 1968.

Mill, John Stuart. Essays on Poetry. Ed. F. Parvin Sharpless. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1976.

Perloff, Marjorie. Differentials: Poetry, Poetics, Pedagogy. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2004.

Sewell, Lisa. “Expressive Experimentalism in the Work of Brenda Hillman.” In American Women Poets in the 21st Century: Where Lyric Meets Language. Claudia Rankine and Juliana Spahr, eds. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan UP, 2002.