{ IN MEDIA RES }

Todesfuge

Posted in Poetry, Writing by netscheri on July 15, 2007

Death Fugue (1944)

Black milk of daybreak we drink it at evening
we drink it at midday
and morning we drink it at night
we drink and we drink
we shovel a grave in the air
where you won’t lie too cramped
A man lives in the house
he plays with his vipers he writes
he writes when it grows dark to Deutschland your golden hair Marguerite
he writes it and steps out of doors and the stars are all sparkling
he whistles his hounds to stay close
he whistles his Jews into rows has them shovel a grave in the ground
he commands us play up for the dance

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink you at morning and midday we drink you at evening
we drink and we drink
A man lives in the house he plays with his vipers he writes
he writes when it grows dark to Deutschland your golden hair Marguerite
Your ashen hair Shulamith we shovel a grave in the air
there you won’t lie too cramped

He shouts dig this earth deeper you lot there you others sing up and play
he grabs for the rod in his belt he swings it his eyes are so blue
stick your spades deeper you lot there you others play on for the dancing
Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink you at midday and morning we drink you at evening
we drink and we drink
a man lives in the house your goldenes Haar Marguerite
your aschenes Haar Shulamith he plays with his vipers

He shouts play death more sweetly Death is a master from Deutschland
he shouts scrape your strings darker you’ll rise up as smoke to the sky
you’ll then have a grave in the clouds where you won’t lie too cramped

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink you at midday Death is a master aus Deutschland
we drink you at evening and morning we drink and we drink
this Death is ein Meister aus Deutschland his eye it is blue
he shoots you with shot made of lead shoots you level and true
a man lives in the house your goldenes Haar Margarete
he looses his hounds on us grants us a grave in the air
he plays with his vipers and daydreams der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland

dein goldenes Haar Margarete
dein aschenes Haar Shulamith

 

– Paul Celan/Translation by Michael Hamburger

 

The rawness of this. Yet I feel that, despite what seems to be an adept translation by Michael Hamburger, many of the poem’s nuances are lost in the translation. For example, this English translation would have none of the cadences or accents that the German would have had, especially important when regarding the title of this poem ‘Death Fugue’. On the note of language (pun only-very-slightly intended), this here is from a review by Publisher’s Weekly: ‘Celan (1920-1970), who had come to Paris from Romanian Bukovina, pointedly wrote in German after WWII. His decomposition and recasting of that language, through a style that can seem dizzying in its complex poly-referentiality, was compounded by his erudition, by his own history as a Holocaust survivor whose parents were murdered in the camps, and finally by his suicide. ‘ I find that conscious decision of Celan to write exclusively in German a particularly powerful gesture – perhaps in part motivated by a desire to reshape the German language in his own way, after the reshaping of himself inflicted by the German regime during the Second World War? Though, with afterthought, that seems somewhat petty.There are so many depths to this poem, that I don’t think I even really begin to comment on them. One (far-away) day, I plan to surround myself with books on Celan (just looking at amazon.com makes me wish for time to read more on Celan). So, for now, it’ll just be my impressions. What first drew me to this poem was rhythm of those first few lines – ‘Black milk of daybreak we drink at evening/we drink it at midday/and morning we drink it at night….’ The rhythm in the words like the rhythm of music, yet the syncopation and relentless march and build-up, so like a danse macabre. And the concept of ‘black milk’ – the fusing of the black bread of the concentration camps, with the rich milk, a pollution. Also, there is also the juxtaposition of life and death – with the black bread/concentration camps/death with milk/life-giving (i.e. newborns feeding on mother’s milk)/musicians playing. And throughout all of the poem, throughout the viciousness and cruelty of the man in the house playing with his vipers, shouting at his Jews – ‘you’ll rise up as smoke to the sky/you’ll then have a grave in the clouds where you won’t lie too cramped’ – is the tenderness of the lines ‘your golden hair Marguerite’/’your ashen hair Shulamith’. This tenderness, familiarity, seems to lessen the impact of the harshness of this poem, yet at the same time, adds another level of pain. ‘Your golden hair Marguerite, your ashen hair Shulamith’

On Paul Celan: Paul Celan was born Paul Antschel (Celan is from an anagram of ‘Antschel’) in Czernovitz, Romania in 1920 where German was the most commonly spoken language. Celan studied medicine but returned to his hometown in 1939. A year later the region was invaded by the Russians and then occupied by the Nazis. Celan’s parents were consequently sent to a concentration camp and died there while he was conscripted to forced labor. He was freed near the end of the war and settled in Paris. Celan wrote poetry in German and became one of the most influential poets after the war. He drowned himself in the Seine in 1970.

On Marguerite and Shulamith: Marguerite – ‘Margareta in the poem recalls two Romantic German ideals of the feminine, the heroine of Goethe’s Faust, and the lyric poet, Heinrich Heine’s golden-haired Lorelei. Both Goethe and Heine were revered as classic voices in German literature and formers of German culture. The Lorelei is the siren who sits on a rock in the Rhine below the city of Koblenz, trying to lure sailors to their deaths through her physical beauty and the beauty of her song. The German-speaking composers, Schubert and Schumann, also set many of Heine’s lyrics to music. These associations also reflect back on the musical theme Celan establishes in the poem. ‘ Shulamith – Shulamith is the “black and comely” princess in the Song of Songs in the Old Testament, whose name holds echoes of the Hebrew words ‘shalom’ for peace and ‘Yerushalayim’ for Jerusalem. According to John Felstiner (a translator and biographer of Celan), Shulamith is often seen as the Jewish people itself.

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3 Responses

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  1. zaphodfreek said, on July 15, 2007 at 9:41 pm

    I very much agree.

  2. peterandthehare said, on July 15, 2007 at 11:19 pm

    Interesting. Odd.

  3. […] Todesfuge Iroha uta Bakumatsu Kikansetsu Irohanihoheto […]


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