Poem a Day 2014: Paul Celan’s “Death Fugue” (#10)

Celan

Via hermannist.com/archives/458

Paul Celan was born Paul Antschel in Romania in 1920, and he became famous for his work in poetry and translation in 1960s Germany. He is one of the many Jewish writers I am studying in my class on authors in exile. Of course, when we say exile, we don’t just mean physical, political, literal exile; the language a writer chooses to write in while permanently abroad, what linguistic exile he/she chooses, is just as important as what country he/she resides in. Though he fled Romania for Vienna, only to relocate to Paris and remain there, becoming a French citizen in 1955, he consciously chose to write poetry in German throughout is life.

Though he had a near-native command of German (thanks to his Germanophile mother and the upbringing she gave him), he molded it, warped it in his poetry, particularly as a response to the horrors of the Shoah, for which there could and can be no logical or traditionally aesthetic response. We see this warping and a surreal, horribly musical quality in his most famous poem “Death Fugue,” today’s choice.

This poem is a reminder that the Holocaust was not prompted or facilitated by uncultivated barbarous monsters; culture cannot save us from our most violent impulses, and to believe so is to march towards death to the tune of a nightmarishly beautiful waltz. How can we make sense of this very real truth? I don’t know. But I agree with what Celan is quoted to have said: “Only one thing remained reachable, close and secure amid all losses: language. Yes, language. In spite of everything, it remained secure against loss.”

This translation is by Michael Hamburger, from Penguin Books:

Death Fugue

Black milk of daybreak we drink it at sundown
we drink it at noon in the morning we drink it at night
we drink and we drink it
we dig a grave in the breezes there one lies unconfined
A man lives in the house he plays with the serpents he writes
he writes when dusk falls to Germany your golden hair
Margarete
he writes it and steps out of doors and the stars are flashing he
whistles his pack out
he whistles his Jews out in earth has them dig for a grave
he commands us strike up for the dance

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink in the morning at noon we drink you at sundown
we drink and we drink you
A man lives in the house he plays with the serpents he writes
he writes when dusk falls to Germany your golden hair
Margarete
your ashen hair Shulamith we dig a grave in the breezes there
one lies unconfined.

He calls out jab deeper into the earth you lot you others sing now
and play
he grabs at the iron in his belt he waves it his eyes are blue
jab deeper you lot with your spades you others play on for the
dance

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink you at noon in the morning we drink you at sundown
we drink you and we drink you
a man lives in the house your golden hair Margarete
your ashen hair Shulamith he plays with the serpents

He calls out more sweetly play death death is a master from
Germany
he calls out more darkly now stroke your strings then as smoke
you will rise into air
then a grave you will have in the clouds there one lies unconfined

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink you at noon death is a master from Germany
we drink you at sundown and in the morning we drink and we
drink you
death is a master from Germany his eyes are blue
he strikes you with leaden bullets his aim is true
a man lives in the house your golden hair Margarete
he sets his pack on to us he grants us a grave in the air
he plays with the serpents and daydreams death is a master from
Germany

your golden hair Margarete
your ashen hair Shulamith

NPM from feministing

Advertisements
This entry was posted in Literature, National Poetry Month and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s