Vox Populi

A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature

Paul Celan: Death Fugue

Black milk of dawn we drink it in the evening 
we drink it at noon and in the morning we drink it 
    at night 
we drink and drink 
we dig a grave in the air where you’re not closed in
A man lives in the house who plays with snakes and 
    writes
he writes to Germany as it darkens
your golden hair Margareta
 
He writes it and walks from the house and the stars 
    flash
he whistles for his dogs
he whistles for his Jews let’s dig a grave in the 
    earth
he orders us to play for the dance
 
Black milk of dawn we drink you at night 
we drink you in the morning and at noon we drink you 
    in the evening 
we drink and drink 
A man lives in the house who plays with snakes and 
    writes
he writes to Germany as it darkens
your golden hair Margarete 
your ashen hair Sulamith 
 
we dig a grave in the air where you’re not closed in
 
He shouts you here dig deeper into the earth and you 
    over there
sing and play
He grabs the iron in his belt he swings it his eyes 
    are blue
You here push the spades deeper you others keep playing 
    for the dance
 
Black milk of dawn we drink you at night 
we drink you at noon and in the morning we drink you 
    in the evening 
we drink and drink 
a man lives in the house your golden hair Margarete 
your ashen hair Sulamith he plays with snakes
 
He shouts play death more sweetly death is a master 
    from Germany 
he shouts play the violins darker then you will rise 
    as smoke in the air 
then you’ll have a grave in the clouds where you’re 
    not closed in
 
Black milk of dawn we drink you at night 
we drink you at noon death is a master from Germany 
we drink you in the evening and in the morning we drink 
    and drink 
death is a master from Germany his eye is blue 
he hits you with the leaden ball he hits you point blank 
a man lives in the house your golden hair Margarete 
he sets his dogs on us he gives us a grave in the sky
he plays with snakes and dreams death is a master from
     Germany 
 
your golden hair Margarete 
your ashen hair Sulamith

Translated by Michael Simms. With thanks to Eva-Maria Simms for her suggestions.


Todesfuge

Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken sie abends
wir trinken sie mittags und morgens wir trinken 
    sie nachts
wir trinken und trinken
wir schaufeln ein Grab in den Lüften da liegt man 
    nicht eng
Ein Mann wohnt im Haus der spielt mit den 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 seine Rüden herbei
er pfeift seine Juden hervor läßt schaufeln ein Grab 
    in der Erde
er befiehlt uns spielt auf nun zum Tanz

Schwarze Milch der Frühe 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 Lüften da liegt man 
    nicht eng

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

Schwarze Milch der Frühe 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 süßer 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 Frühe 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 Rüden auf uns er schenkt uns ein Grab 
    in der Luft
er spielt mit den Schlangen und träumet der Tod ist ein
    Meister aus Deutschland  
 
dein goldenes Haar Margarete 
dein aschenes Haar Sulamith

Paul Celan (1920–1970)

Paul Antschel, who wrote under the pseudonym Paul Celan, was born in Czernovitz, Romania. The son of German-speaking Jews, Celan grew up speaking several languages, including Romanian, Russian, and French. He also understood Yiddish. He studied medicine in Paris in 1938, but returned to Romania shortly before the outbreak of World War II. His parents were deported and eventually died in Nazi labor camps; Celan himself was interned for eighteen months before escaping to the Red Army.

After the war, he lived in Bucharest and Vienna before settling in Paris in 1948 to study German philology and literature. He took his Licence des Lettres in 1950, and in 1952 he married the graphic artist Gisele de Lestrange. They had a son, Eric, in 1955.

Celan’s first book was published in 1947; it received very little critical attention. However, his second book, Mohn und Gedaechtnis (Poppy and Memory, 1952), garnered tremendous acclaim and helped to establish his reputation. Among his most well-known and often-anthologized poems from this time is “Death Fugue” which offers a stark evocation of life in the Nazi death camps.

In 1959, Celan took a job as a reader in German Language and Literature at the University of Paris, a position he would hold until his death in 1970. During the 1960s he published more than six books of poetry and gained international fame. In addition to his own poems, he remained active as a translator, bringing out works from writers such as Henri Michaux, Osip Mandelstam, Rene Char, Paul Valéry, and Fernando Pessoa. In 1970, Celan died by suicide. He is regarded as one of the most important poets to emerge from post-World War II Europe. [adapted from Academy of American Poets]


Paul Celan
Prisoners break up clay for the brickworks at Sachsenhausen-Oranienburg, in 1939. Photograph from Akg-Images

Translation and compilation copyright 2020 Michael Simms. Original poem in German copyright 1952 Paul Celan. Included in Vox Populi for educational uses only.

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