by Dana Delibovi
In 1913, three years before he died a soldier in the First World War, Franz Marc (b. 1880) painted Tierschicksale. Marc coined the name, which means “Fate of the Animals,” using German’s unique and inexhaustible ability to create new compound words. The fate in Tierschicksale is to be torn apart by fiery bolts and sliced to pieces by scimitars of color. It presages the orgy of death that defined 20th century and, in a twist of human fate, killed Marc with flying hunks of shrapnel.
Marc could have named his work without resorting to a compound neologism. He could have used a German phrase like “Das Schicksal der Tiere.“ For that matter, two other German-speaking artists of the 20th century—the poets Yvan Goll and Paul Celan—could have used vernacular German phrases. Instead, they created hundreds of novel compound words for their poems, a technique that reached its zenith in their neologism-named last books: Traumkraut (Dreamweed, 1951) and Lichtzwang (Lightforce, 1970). I believe these poets created German compound neologisms because they, like Marc, had the job of saying what was unsayable in any standard idiom. To articulate the world’s descent into unspeakable death, as well as the nearness of their own deaths, they needed a whole new vocabulary.
The truest thing I feel about death is that it’s beyond words. I think about death every day, but I think in pictures, in sounds, in shivers up my spine. I think about death by plane crash, heart failure, shooting spree, and tsunami. I cannot remember a time in my life when I did not think about death. As a six year old, I stayed up all night thinking about death by atomic bomb or a maniac’s hatchet. But even with all that thinking, I am unable to say how I feel about death. Words like “grief,” “terror,” and “sorrow” don’t do justice to death. They sound like pebbles dropping into the abyss. “There are no words” or “words cannot express” are not just clichés on a sympathy card. They are the core of the semiotics of death.
Awareness of death crept up on Franz Marc. Marc painted animals all his short, prolific life. His best known paintings, created in 1911, show horses, foxes, cows and other animals alive and in primary-colored comfort. Soon enough, as the Great War loomed, he painted animals in disarray or under siege, as if he sensed the coming carnage—his own and that of millions.
Among these, Tierschicksale is an especially violent canvas. Animals appear dismembered, their parts melded into one another and into color-saturated, sharp, explosive, and flaming shapes. As the painting flows from left to right, brightly hued savagery gives way to somber shades of brown, evoking each animal body’s return to earth in death.
“Compounding” is both verbal and visual in Tierschicksale, reinforcing the mortal fate of living beings as something inexpressible. Marc named the painting by coining a new compound word, while also painting novel compounds: limbcut; headslash; bloodtriangle. Such compounds—word and image, neologism and chimera—convey death far better than the vernacular. Marc was one of 700,000 men slaughtered in the single battle of Verdun. “Sorrow” and “loss” just don’t seem to capture the collective and individual tragedies of death on that scale.
Twentieth century artists like Marc certainly had an immersion in death between 1914 and 1945, but I believe that any death at any time strains our ability to find the words. Every note of condolence I have ever written misses the mark. The poverty of my conventional vocabulary may explain why I can’t acknowledge death fully, and why the media can’t either. A million Americans died of COVID-19, but it seems I’m participating in a collective shrug. Little children and their teachers die annually in school shootings, and the news trots out the platitudes. We might need new words that shock us as we should be shocked: drownpump, lungpoison, splatterbrain.
New words abound in the late-life poems of, Yvan Goll (1891-1950) a multilingual poet who counted among his influences German Expressionism in literature and painting (a movement epitomized by Franz Marc) and French Surrealism. Goll was Jewish, but had the good fortune to live in New York during the Nazi regime, from 1939 to 1947. When Goll returned to Europe in 1947, he was dying from leukemia, and switched back to writing in German after years of work in French and English.
Goll sensed that he needed German to write as a dying man in death-stalked Europe. In his correspondence with an editor about the poems in Traumkraut, Goll said: “I have returned to the German language with devotion and a desire for renewal, and a throbbing heart. Surrealism has passed through me and deposited its salt. Yet for me it is as though this dreamweed plant is a new birth. I have returned late to Europe and find many gates black and in ruins.”
As Europe lay shattered, Goll lay in the Hôpital Americaine completing Traumkraut. His work at the terminal stage of his disease is rich with new compound words. In a brutal, 17-line poem from Traumkraut, “Die Hochöfen des Schmerzes” (“The Blast Furnace of Pain”), Goll evokes the Holocaust, the war, and his own fatal illness with multiple, searing compound neologisms, such as “der Eiterknecht” (pus servant) and der Menschenschrei (human shriek). One stanza of the poem (containing the neologisms “Salpetergärten” and “Rosenäckern”) is reminiscent of cutting and burning in Tierschicksale:
Nachtschicht allen Fleisches
Blühn die Wunden und die Feuer
Wild in den Salpetergärten
Un den heißen Rosenäckern
Night-shift of all flesh
The wounds and the fires
Bloom wild in gardens of saltpeter
And burning fields of ros
Original and translation from Nan Watkins, Dreamweed. Pittsburgh, PA: Black Lawrence Press, 2012.
As Yvan Goll was dying, a young friend was volunteering to donate blood to help him complete Traumkraut. The friend was the poet Paul Celan (1920–1970), another polyglot who lived in France but wrote most of his life’s work in German, the first language of his Romanian-Jewish home. Unlike Goll, Celan did not escape the Holocaust. His family perished; Celan, subjected to forced labor, survived.
Celan knew death intimately, through his experience of Nazi genocide and his personal struggles with depression, which led to a suicide attempt in 1967 and, three years later, his suicide by drowning in the Seine. Sadly, it appears that the widow of Yvan Goll exacerbated Celan’s mental illness by her baseless accusations that Celan plagiarized Goll.
Literary analysts have remarked that Celan remade German in his poems, estranging the language from itself to separate it from Nazi connotations. A large part of that estrangement is Celan’s ever-increasing coinage of German compound words. Celan’s compound neologisms are hermetic. Their exact meaning is sealed, yet they pulse with dread and violence; in his last book, Lichtzwang, short poems laden with neologisms create an atmosphere that is mechanistic, cruel, chilling, as revealed in these excerpts:
|Mit der Aschenkelle geschöpft
aus dem Seinstrog…
|Scooped with the ashladle
From the Beingtrough…
Original and translation of excerpts from Pierre Joris, Ligthduress. Los Angeles, CA: Green Integer, 2005.
In Lichtzwang, the power of the neologism to express death’s cold horror is proven by contrast. Every so often, the book includes a poem without neologisms, and the effect is a moment of warmth, compassion, and life. Hear it in these lines on Celan’s colleague and fellow Romanian, the sculptor Constantin Brancusi: Wenn dieser Steine einer/verlauten ließe,/was ihn verschweigt…/tät es sich auf, als Wunde (If one among these stones/were to tell/what silences it…/it would open, as a wound [Joris translation]). German neologisms are Celan’s vocabulary of death; their absence, his vocabulary of life.
I return to the sound of my mother’s passing—a breath, a breath, then none. I remember the hands of a mortally ill young friend grasping my arm, fiercely, as if pulling life to him. I imagine the smell the hospital room on the day before my grandmother died. But there my language stops—it can describe these deaths, but cannot express their meaning. Better to write: the breathcease, the gravehand, the soulvapor. When there are no words, you have to make them up.
Dana Delibovi is a poet, essayist, and translator. Her work has appeared in After the Art, Apple Valley Review, Bluestem, Cathexis, Confluence, Moria, Noon, Presence, Psaltery & Lyre, and other journals. She is consulting poetry editor for the e-zine, Cable Street, and tweets about writing at @DanaDelibovi.