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 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

Translated by Michael Hamburger

 

In the pivotal, and well-known, modernist Holocaust dirge, “Death Fugue,” it is through the stirring and hypnotic use of repetitions and their permutations — the application of refrains, lexical recurrence, parallelism, and anaphora — in counterpoint with the reverberations of biblical and literary allusions, run-on sentences lacking punctuation, and disturbing metaphors and imagery (which have their source in the seemingly surreal, yet very horrifyingly real, universe of the Nazi death camps) that Paul Celan translates into language the contrapuntal music of the fugue, and which deepen this poem’s visceral and exigent emotional force, indelible pathos, paradoxical drama, and immediacy. Repetition here also functions as a symbol representing the fugue in another sense. In addition to the rousing, interweaving music associated with German composers such as Bach, it embodies the psychological idea of a “fugue state,” a sort of amnesia or lack of awareness suggesting the generally numbed condition of the German nation’s psyche during World War II as regards the genocide committed in its name. This “fugue state” conveyed through the poem’s sometimes stupefying repetition connotes the possibly anaesthetizing effects of the shocking death camp rituals on the prisoners themselves, the collective “we” of the poem, and can produce a likewise soporific effect on the reader, even as the recurrences, paradoxically, evoke deep feeling, and stimulate memory, functioning as a mnemonic device.

Although Celan rejected this work later in his life because he found it, along with other problems, too straightforward, and, indeed, it is one of the most literally testimonial of his poems, it transcends mere reportage, ironically dislodging its monstrous subject matters by juxtaposing them with varying vertiginous recurrences; “death is a master from Germany,” the speaker, one of the prisoners, reiterates chillingly in four different instances, finally concluding explicitly (with the only full rhyme in the poem), and with an incantatory accrual that makes it all the more frightening, “death is a master from Germany his eyes are blue / he strikes you with leaden bullets his aim is true.”

Celan himself survived a period of forced labor shoveling (as in the reiterated “digging” mentioned in the poem) in labor camps in Romania from 1942 until 1944. Although he did not experience Hitler’s death camps firsthand, he learned, upon his return to the city of his birth, Czernowitz, Bukovina, from survivors of such camps and from his reading, about Jewish prisoners being compelled to play dance tunes (tangos and fox-trots) or to sing sentimental songs while others dug graves, or were executed. This confounding atrocity (the camp commandant “whistles his Jews out in earth has them dig for a grave / he commands us strike up for the dance”), and the “black milk of daybreak” (the metaphor suggesting the dark fog of human ash that constantly rose in the sky from the crematoria), are the subjects of the repetitions and their braiding in “Death Fugue,” repetitions that also represent the systematic mass murders perpetrated to such an extent that their methodical recurrence was both shattering and numbing to both perpetrators and victims. The poem, thus, simultaneously focuses on and makes dizzying and diffuse the unspeakable essence of what occurred and reoccurred in Nazi death camps, while insinuating that the genius of Germany’s artistic culture was born of the same imagination that committed incomparable genocide. This can be understood when the poem’s speaker reiterates through anaphora and lexical repetition (stressing “death,” which recurs five times in the work), “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.”

Celan wrote “Death Fugue” in 1944 or 1945, and through it seems both to anticipate and challenge, with the work’s daring and necessarily “terrible beauty” (as Yeats writes in “Easter, 1916”) Theodor Adorno’s admonition “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” The opening, terrifyingly beautiful and ugly metaphor “Black milk of daybreak,” paradoxical refrain, is repeated four times in the seven stanzas of the poem, first as “Black milk of daybreak we drink it at sundown,” then as “Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night.” It signals, through its ironic sonorousness, that the reader is entering a forbiddingly reversed and perverse world in which nourishment is voided, establishing from the outset what will be a mesmerizing refrain juxtaposed with what seems to be its lexical opposite: horrifying subject matter. This refrain is extended by another, the “we drink,” which is repeated nineteen times throughout the poem, and five times (twice as instances of anaphora and three times as parallelism) in the first stanza alone. This staccato phrase introduces another kind of unrelenting and stupefying music of reoccurrence, the effect of which simultaneously pierces and anaesthetizes the reader as it suggests the incessant appearance of the smoke from the crematoria’s chimneys, and the endless agony and drudgery of the prisoners’ days and nights, as well as their obsessive desire to survive stressed by the word “dig,” which is repeated three times in the poem, and the word “grave,” repeated five times: “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.”

Repeated throughout the poem and creating yet another unrelenting and punctuating stream of music that extends the ubiquity of the “black milk,” and both moves and benumbs the reader are the seemingly innocuous words “noon” (reiterated four times), “sundown” (four times), “morning” (three times), and “night” (four times). The anaphoric repetition of “he” — “he writes,” “he writes,” “he whistles,” and “he commands” — in the concluding lines of the first stanza (the “he” reiterated as anaphora throughout the poem), suggests the commandant’s paradoxical nature (symbolically representing the paradoxical nature of Nazi Germany) as someone who is both cultured and tyrannical (“he writes,” “he strikes,” “he sets his pack on to us”) and highlights his persistent and sadistic presence. Later, the speaker states, repeating “jab deeper” to emphasize the prisoners’ harrowing digging of their own graves to music: “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.”

The first stanza introduces yet another refrain: the ironically pretty “your golden hair Margarete,” which significantly alludes to Goethe’s Margareta in Faust and to an Aryan ideal of beauty. This refrain recurs five times throughout the poem, and is coupled three times later on with the equally ironic “your ashen hair Shulamith,” referring to both the German-Jewish Heine’s Lorelei, and to the Shulamite of the “Song of Songs,” the woman who represents the Jewish people as God’s beloveds. The “ashen” describes not only the darker (and to the Nazis the inferior) color of the Jewish woman’s hair (again a reference to the biblical Shulamite who says she is “black”), but suggests the ash of burnt human flesh. Although the poem’s final couplet poignantly links the tragedies of both Margarete and Shulamith (“your golden hair Margarete / your ashen hair Shulamith”), it is the latter who is given the final consideration after she is already poignantly addressed twice.

Other lines of terrifying music repeated precisely twice in the poem are “A man lives in the house he plays with the serpents he writes / he writes when dusk falls to Germany your golden hair Margarete,” which describe the death camp’s commandant, who, again, is both cultured (“he writes … your golden hair Margarete”) and iniquitous, playing with the diabolic and duplicitous serpent of Genesis. The refrain “A man lives in the house,” also implicitly contrasts the living conditions of the commandant with those of the prisoners who barely survive in scant barracks. By the middle and toward the end of the poem, the refrain permutes to the shorthand of the starker, “a man lives in the house your golden hair Margarete,” as if to emphasize the shocking concept that the privilege of living in humane conditions can only be granted to those who belong to the nation of the golden-haired Margarete.

Thus, the paradoxically poignant and simultaneously anaesthetizing repetitions in Celan’s “Death Fugue” enacting through language the contrapuntal music of a fugue and the numbing effects of a “fugue state” function in counterpoint with the poem’s biblical and literary allusions, and chilling metaphors and imagery to heighten the work’s emotional force, unforgettable pathos, paradoxical drama, and immediacy.

_____

Works Cited

Celan, Paul. Poems of Paul Celan. Trans. Michael Hamburger. New York: Persea Books. 1995. Print.

edited for clarity 12:17 October 5


Yerra SugarmanYerra Sugarman is the author of two poetry collections: Forms of Gone and The Bag of Broken Glass, both published by The Sheep Meadow Press. She was awarded a 2011 National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship for Poetry, the 2005 PEN/Joyce Osterweil Poetry Award, a “Discovery”/The Nation Poetry Prize, and awards from the Canada Council and the Poetry Society of America. She is a PhD candidate in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Houston.