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Celan passport photo 1938 / © wikicommons
Celan passport photo 1938 / © wikicommons

Poet Paul Celan And The Black Fugue

Paul Celan is a masterful German-language poet and translator who was born in Romania in 1920. In his life, like many other twentieth-century artists, he bore witness to too much tragedy. Though he was born in Romania, his mother’s fervent love for German literature made it obligatory to take on this foreign tongue. His contribution to poetry is impressive no matter the language in which it is read. His wielding of words coupled with his profound reflections of WWII make him the revered writer he is today. Here’s a close look at one of his masterpieces.

 

Paul Celan wasn’t born Paul Celan. The name sounds catchier, easier to pen. He was born Paul Antschel to a Jewish family in the early twentieth century. Originally intending to practice medicine, Paul went to medical school in France and then eventually went back to Romania to study what he really loved, literature and the romance languages.  As Paul grew, his landscape started to change, not just the landscape that forms as a boy becomes a man, but all around him, the world was changing and not for the better.

In 1941, Paul, along with the rest of the Jews in Cernăuţi, Romania, were forced into ghettos and harsh living environments. Still Paul translated Shakespearian sonnets and wrote poetry amidst the social maelstrom that was unfolding all around him. Conditions worsened and he was forced into a labor camp, until 1944 when the Red Army forced Romanians to abandon their camps. This was already after he was estranged from  his parents who were taken to an internment camp and died shortly thereafter. He fled to Bucharest and eventually to Vienna. He continued to write, travel, and meet people who were able to inspire and appreciate his work.

Arguably his most notable poem, Todesfuge, or ‘Death Fugue’, captures a haunting time with lyricism and prowess.


Black milk of morning we drink you at dusktime
we drink you at noontime and dawntime we drink you at night
we drink and drink
we scoop out a grave in the sky where it’s roomy to lie
There’s a man in this house who cultivates snakes and who writes
who writes when it’s nightfall nach Deutschland your golden hair Margareta
he writes it and walks from the house and the stars all start flashing he whistles
his dogs to draw near
whistles his Jews to appear starts us scooping a grave out of sand
he commands us to play for the dance
Black milk of morning we drink you at night
we drink you at dawntime and noontime we drink you at dusktime
we drink and drink
There’s a man in this house who cultivates snakes and who writes who writes
when it’s nightfall nach Deutschland your golden hair Margareta
your ashen hair Shulamite we scoop out a grave in the sky where it’s roomy to lie
He calls jab it deep in the soil you lot there you other men sing and play
he tugs at the sword in his belt he swings it his eyes are blue
jab your spades deeper you men you other men you others play up again for the dance
Black milk of morning we drink you at night
we drink you at noontime and dawntime we drink you at dusktime
we drink and drink
there’s a man in this house your golden hair Margareta
your ashen hair Shulamite he cultivates snakes
He calls play that death thing more sweetly Death is a gang-boss aus Deutschland
he calls scrape that fiddle more darkly then hover like smoke in the air
then scoop out a grave in the clouds where it’s roomy to lie
Black milk of morning we drink you at night
we drink you at noontime Death is a gang-boss aus Deutschland
we drink you at dusktime and dawntime we drink and drink
Death is a gang-boss aus Deutschland his eye is blue
he shoots you with leaden bullets his aim is true
there’s a man in this house your golden hair Margareta
he sets his dogs on our trail he gives us a grave in the sky
he cultivates snakes and he dreams Death is a gang-boss aus Deutschland
your golden hair Margareta
your ashen hair Shulamite

The speakers in the poem are Jewish prisoners, much like Paul and his parents. The ‘black milk’ is representative of the poisonous and malnourished conditions of the camps. The fugue is like a dance; the poem is a dance with death. The repetition doesn’t just keep the poem in flow, but it creates an almost melodic code of macabre. Fugue also refers to a period of time in psychiatric terms, where someone temporarily loses their identity. The complex weaving of haunting imagery, rhythmic language, and careful representation of agony make this piece unforgettable. Scholars could dissect it to pieces if desired, but the message is quite clear without too much introspection. To capture horror is an easy game, but to retell it in a way that is contagious in its rhythm and hollowing in its verse is poetic acumen.