Paul Celan | Death Fugue | Corona

in the dream we sleep, the mouth speaks true.

Autumn eats its leaf out of my hand: we are friends.
We shell time from the nuts and teach it to walk:
time returns to the shell.

In the mirror is Sunday,
in the dream we sleep,
the mouth speaks true.

My eye goes down to my lover’s sex:
we gaze at each other,
we speak of dark things,

we love each other like poppy and memory,
we sleep like wine in the seashells,
like the sea in the moon’s blood-beam.

We stand and embrace at the window, they watch us from the street:
it is time, for this to be known!
It is time that the stone took the trouble to bloom,
that unrest’s heart started to beat.
It’s time for it to be time.

It is time.

Corona : From Memory Rose into Threshold Speech: The Collected Earlier Poetry (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2020) by Paul Celan, translated by Pierre Joris. Source

Death Fugue

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 Marguerite
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 orders us strike up and play 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 Margeurite
your ashen hair Shulamith we shovel a grave in the air there you won't lie too cramped
He shouts jab 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 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 Margeurite
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 then in 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 is ein Meister aus Deutschland
dein goldenes Haar Margarete
dein aschenes Haar Shulamith

Death Fugue by Paul Celan, translated by John Felstiner Source

Paul Celan, like his poetry, eludes the usual terms of categorization. He was born Paul Antschel in 1920 to German-speaking Jewish parents in Czernowitz (now Chernivtsi). Until the fall of the Habsburg Empire, in 1918, the city had been the capital of the province of Bukovina; now it was part of Romania. Before Celan turned twenty, it would be annexed by the Soviet Union. Both of Celan’s parents were murdered by the Nazis; he was imprisoned in labor camps. After the war, he lived briefly in Bucharest and Vienna before settling in Paris. Though he wrote almost exclusively in German, he cannot properly be called a German poet: his loyalty was to the language, not the nation. Source

“Only one thing remained reachable, close and secure amid all losses: language,” Celan once said. But that language, sullied by Nazi propaganda, hate speech, and euphemism, was not immediately usable for poetry: “It had to go through its own lack of answers, through terrifying silence, through the thousand darknesses of murderous speech.” Celan cleansed the language by breaking it down, bringing it back to its roots, creating a radical strangeness in expression and tone. Drawing on the vocabulary of such fields as botany, ornithology, geology, and mineralogy, and on medieval or dialect words that had fallen out of use, he invented a new form of German, reconceiving the language for the world after Auschwitz. Adding to the linguistic layers, his later works incorporate gibberish as well as foreign phrases. Source

No translation can ever encompass the multiplicity of meanings embedded in these hybrid, polyglot, often arcane poems; the translator must choose an interpretation. This is always true, but it is particularly difficult with work as fundamentally ambiguous as Celan’s. Source

Celan is one of the prominent poets of the Holocaust. He was deeply affected by the death of his mother, in an internment camp in Transnistria. Celan was constantly haunted by the guilt of not being able to be with his parents in the camp where they were murdered, the guilt of being the ‘survivor’. This, along with his own traumatic experiences in a labor camp in the old kingdom made him seek catharsis through language. He used language in the form of poetry, for the purgation of his trauma. Source

death fugue

Death Fugue, his most anthologized poem, is a description of the pathetic plight of the Jews imprisoned in a concentration camp. It talks about the mental state of a group of Jews, who were commanded to sing and dance, while their fellow-prisoners were digging graves for mass burial of Jews. “A man lives in the house he plays with the serpents he writes / he writes when dusk falls to Germany your golden hair /Margerete/ he writes it and steps out of doors…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”(lines 5-11). This is a reference to the Nazi guard, who is highly sophisticated in that he writes poetry and reads classical literature (symbolized by Margerete, the heroine of Goethe’s Faust), and at the same time inhuman and brutal (symbolized by his playing with the serpents), torturing the Jews under his command. The poem clearly shows the brutality of the SS men who talked as casually as this guard does, about the gassing of the prisoners: “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”(lines 32-34). Perhaps the most striking line in the poem is the one saying that “death is a master from Germany”, which explicitly points to the desperation of the Jews in being tortured by the prospect of death, by the ‘master race’. The drinking of “black milk” all through the day describes the dark, deprived conditions of their existence. The poem ends striking a contrast between the German ideal of femininity, Margerete (with golden hair) and the Jewish ideal, Shulamith with her ashen hair. Source

The poem is in the form of a fugue, a composition wherein the theme with which it begins is repeated frequently. The repetition of several morbid themes several times gives the poem an aura of severe pessimism. The speaker(s) of the poem, who is obviously a Jew (or group of Jews), is strangely detached from the scene. He is reporting the occurrences rather than imbibing the words with explicit feeling. The feeling of apathy of the prisoners can be seen here. The prisoners have reached a stage of de-humanization, where they do not care anymore about what happens to them or their fellow sufferers. They simply obey the guards, as their capacity to feel is lost. In the poem, Celan portrays the cruelty of the guard in a subtle, yet powerful way. The brutal torture which the Nazis perpetrated on the Jews is depicted clearly. So is the plight of the victims, who have been reduced to “walking corpses”. Source

In Death Fugue we see Celan trying to come to terms with his traumatic experiences through creativity. By projecting on to the speakers of the poem the trauma he himself had to suffer in the concentration camp, he tries to purge himself of the negativity triggered off by the brutal incidents in the camp. The poet, “through creativity, confronts and attempts to master the trauma on his own terms and, in doing so, complete the work of mourning” (Aberbach 3). The grief and terror which were suppressed earlier because of the apathetic state of the poet when he was in the camp finds expression here. He relives the experience and goes through a catharsis through his poem. Source


The relatively early Corona can be read as a poem that explores whether love is even possible given Holocaust ex- periences. This poem from Celan’s first major book, Mohn and Gedächtis (1952) is about the difficulty of loving, honestly and truly, for two people who have experienced the catastrophes of World War II and the Holocaust. The memory of disaster and the busy pressure of the time period immediately after the war affect the private life of the lovers.

The time motif is established in the first line – it is autumn. Autumn, the antithesis of spring, birth, and renewal, establishes from the outset a tone that promises to be disharmonious. Yet devoid of all irony and with something akin to quiet resignation, the lyrical voice of the poem says of this season, “We are friends”. Source

In its imitation of Rilke’s poem “Herbsttag” (Autumn Day), Celan’s poem mimics Rilke’s famous formulation “Herr: es ist Zeit” (Lord: it is time). But time in this context documents a preoccupation with temporal problems that is not necessarily restricted to the autumn. In the first stanza, the problem of time is one where the poetic voice appears to be fixated on the past. In order to go on with life, one must “shell time from nuts,” a tedious and laborious process. The lyrical voice of the poem laments that time must be taught how to go on, or to “walk,” and implies that time is something that requires transcendence. Yet all the effort is in vain. Time refuses to go on, it turns itself back into the shells, and the fixation on the past remains. This persistent hold of the past has a haunting, alienating quality, an eternal quality that infuses the poem with a sense of despair rather than hope for the future.Source

In the second stanza of “Corona,” time is alluded to more specifically. Sunday is mentioned, and its presence in the mirror is a comment on the illusory nature of existence. The mention of a dream and sleeping makes specific reference to the night, a perpetual night that is permeated with timelessness. The entire third stanza reinforces a murky aura established by the temporal framework. Night is alluded to by the lovers saying “dark things” to each other as though their words were incomprehensible, even to each other. They love each other like “poppy and memory,” an opiated state that juxtaposes forgetting and remembering. They sleep like “wine in the seashells,” another drugged state suggesting an eternal, Dionysian exhaustion. Finally, there is a last reference to the night, the sea reflecting the “blood beam of the moon,” creating an uneasy image of a serene moon that casts a blood-red beam of light, paradoxical in nature. The eternal quality related to the endless night and to the general temporal framework continues to be negative throughout the poem.Source


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