Todesfuge -- Death Fugue

Paul Celan at 17
Reproduction from J. Felstiner's Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew.

Paul Celan (Paul Antschel) was born in a land which changed names many times in his lifetime. Czernowitz (Cernauti) was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of World War I. In subsequent decades in was part of Romania, Soviet Union, and now Ukraine, I believe.

Culturally, Paul Celan reflected this shifting sense of belonging: born in a German-Jewish family, his _ mame-loshen -- mother-tongue was German. Yet he lived among Romanians and his first well-know poem appeared first in Romanian. Yiddish was the language at home, and in later years he lived in Paris. I think he always struggled, as a Jew, with writing in German, the language which had been so corrupted by the Nazification of the German culture during World War II. He struggled valiantly to keep the beauty and strength of the language of Goethe and Hoelderlin. In this, I feel he shared the struggle of Benjamin as well. Meinhard Mayer spells this out quite nicely in his essay on Celan, with some nice personal notes added in. Felstiner also does an amazing job of bringing this all out in his recent beautiful book on Celan.

I want now to give you here a taste of Celan poetry, in Romanian, English, and then German.


This is from Contemporanul, May 1947, as reprinted in Felstiner's book.
 Poemul a carui traducere o publicam e construit pe 
evocarea unui fapt real.
 La Lublin ca si in multe alte "lagare naziste ale
mortii", o parte din condemnati erau pusi sa cinte muzica
de dor in timp ce ceilalti sapau gropile.
(Translation: The poem - which translation we are publishing - is based on a real occurrence.
In Lublin as in many other "Nazi death camps", some of the prisoners were forced to play longing music while the rest of the prisoners were digging graves.)
Tangoul Mortii,
    de Paul Celan
 
Laptele negru din zori il bem cind e seara
il bem la amiaz il bem si la noapte
il bem si il bem
sapam o groapa 'n vazduh si nu va fi strimta
Un om sta in casa se joaca cu serpii si scrie
el scrie 'n amurg in Germania, Aurul parului tau
                                       Margareta  
scrie si iese in prag scapara stelele 'n cer el isi
                                       fluiera ciini
evrei-i si-i fluiera el porunca le da ca sa sape o
           groapa 'n tarina porunca ne da sa cintam
pentru dans

Laptele negru din zori te bem cind e noapte
la amiaza te bem te sorbim dimineata si seara
te bem si te bem
Un om sta in casa se joaca cu serpii si scrie
el scrie 'n amurg in Germania Aurul parului tau
                                      Margareta
Cenusa parului tau Sulamith o groapa sapam in
                       vazduh si nu va fi strimta  
El striga sapati mai adinc iar ceilalti cintati
arma o 'nsfaca, o flutura, albastrii i-s ochii
sapati mai adinc iar ceilalti cintati pentru dans mai
                                               departe

Laptele negru din zori te bem cind e noapte
te bem la amiaza si seara te bem
te bem si te bem
un om sta in casa, aurul parului tau Margareta
cenusa parului tau Sulamith el se joaca cu serpii

El striga cintati mai blajin despre moarte caci
                       moartea-i un mester german
el striga plimbati un arcus mai cetos pe viori veti
                              creste ca fumul atunci
veti zace 'ntr'o groapa in nori si nu va fi strimta

Laptele negru din zori te bem cind e noapte
te bem la amiaz e moartea un mester german
te bem dimineata si seara te bem si te bem
e moartea un mester german albastrii i-s ochii
cu plumbul te improasca din plin si adinc te loveste
un om sta in casa aurul parului tau Margareta
cinii spre noi si-i asmute ne daruie-o groapa 'n
                                        vazduh
se joaca cu serpii visind e moartea un mester german

aurul parului tau Margareta
cenusa parului tau Sulamith
                         Traducere din limba germana
                            de PETRE SOLOMON

Here's Felstiner's translation, in his book:
Deathfugue
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 there 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 Margareta he writes it and steps out of doors and the stars are all sparkling he whistles his hounds to come close he whistles his Jews into rows has them shovel a grave in the ground he commands us to 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 Margareta Your ashen hair Shulamith we shovel a grave in the air there you won't lie too cramped He shouts jab the 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 jab 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 Margareta your aschenes Haar Shulamith he plays his vipers He shouts play death more sweetly this Death is a master from Deutschland he shouts scrape your strings darker you'll rise then as smoke to the sky you'll have a grave then in the clouds there 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

Here's my Yiddish version of the poem:


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I conclude with the German version, which was how Celan wrote the poem in the first place! I use Michael Hamburger's collection of Paul Celan's poems:


Schwarze Milch der Fruehe wir trinken sie abends
wir trinken sie mittags und morgens wir trinken sie nachts
wir trinken und trinken
wir schaufeln ein Grab in den Lueften da liegt man nicht eng
ein Mann wohnt im Haus der spielt mit dem Schlangen der
  schreibt
der schreibt wenn es dunkelt nach Deutschland dein goldenes
  Haar Margarete
er schreibt es und tritt vor das Haus und es blitzen die Sterne er
  pfeift siene Rueden herbei
er pfeift seine Juden hervor laesst schaufeln ein Grab in der Erde
er befiehlt uns spielt auf nun zum Tanz

Schwarze Milch der Fruehe wir trinken dich nachts
wir trinken dich morgens und mittags wir trinken dich abends
wir trinken und trinken
Ein Mann wohnt im Haus der spielt mit den Schlangen der
  schreibt
der schreibt wenn es dunkelt nach Deutschland dein goldenes 
  Haar Margarete
Dein aschenes Haar Sulamith wir schaufeln ein Grab in den
  Lueften da liegt man nicht eng

Er ruft stecht tiefer ins Erdreich ihr einen ihr andern singt und
  spielt
er greift nach dem Eisen im Gurt er schwingt seine Augen sind
  blau
stecht tiefer die Spaten ihr einen ihr andern spielt weiter zum
  Tanz auf

Schwarze Milch der Fruehe wir trinken dich nachts
wir trinken dich mittags und morgens wir trinken dich abends
wir trinken und trinken
ein Mann wohnt im Haus dein goldenes Haar Margarete
dein aschenes Haar Sulamith er spielt mit den Schlangen

Er ruft spielt suesser den Tod der Tod ist ein Meister aus
  Deutschland
er ruft streicht dunkler die Geigen dann steigt ihr als Rauch in
  die Luft
dann habt ihr ein Grab in den Wolken da liegt man nicht eng

Schwarze Milch der Fruehe wir trinken dich nachts
wir trinken dich mittags der Tod ist ein Meister aus
  Deutschland
wir trinken dich abends und morgens wir trinken und trinken
der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland sein Auge ist blau
er trifft dich mit bleierner Kugel er trifft dich genau
ein Mann wohnt im Haus dein goldenes Haar Margarete
er hetzt  seine Rueden auf uns er schenkt uns ein Grab in der Luft
er spielt mit den Schlangen und traeumet der Tod ist ein Meister
  aus Deutschland

dein goldenes Haar Margarete
dein aschenes Haar Sulamith

There are several(!) other pages dedicated to Celan. I am including Alan Ng's page.


S. Toulmin's Cosmopolis
Reproduction of cover of S. Toulmin's Cosmopolis.

(To Modernity)

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Copyright © 1995-2012 Ovid C. Jacob.