Treating Paul Celan

June 1, 2006

Poetry from the June 2000 issue of Psychiatric Times.

“They’ve healed me into pieces.”
-Paul Celan

While considering Celan’s suicide
I think back to Virginia Woolf
drowning
herself and the psychiatrists who
said
her soul was too sensitive to live
in an age filled with the madness of
war,
though today we would call her
“Bipolar”
and say it was the weight of
depression
that made her fill her woolen coat
with rocks.
Paul Celan never made it to
Bloomsbury,
never starred in a Merchant Ivory
film,
but I keep rereading his “Death
Fugue” poem
and wonder if he ever learned to savor
Parisian coffee and croissants after
the war, his father dead from
typhus,
his mother with a Nazi bullet
through her neck.
I daydream I’m treating him at the
Salpêtrière,
my office window shaded by a
plane tree,
Celan seated across from me
describing
nightmares even an SSRI can’t cure.
I imagine my diagnosis, the way I
would listen,
my metaphors. But after we’ve met
for the time it takes to smoke eight
hundred
packs of cigarettes, after all the
medication trials,
the damaged sighs and side effects,
I wonder,
Would Celan still drown himself in
the River Seine?

Dr Berlin is associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester. He recently established the Gerald F. Berlin Creative Writing Award at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, one of only a few medical student creative writing prizes in the United States.