Poem: Fugue of Death – Paul Celan

Paul Celan

Paul Celan (1920-1970) is a major German-language poet of the post World War II era. He was a Romanian who lived most his life in France teaching German literature and translating French and English poets into German. His style is characterised by unconventional imagery and unique metaphor and this is where his originality lies. From a Jewish family himself, both his parents perished in Nazi death camps. He survived and lived with an anguish which spills into his poems every now and then. The following poem, which comes from his collection Mohn und Gedächtnis (1952),  is one of his masterpieces. It’s titled Fugue of Death – the song of death, and I absolutely love it.

Translated from German by Christopher Middleton.

Fugue of Death

Black milk of daybreak we drink it at nightfall
we drink it at noon in the morning we drink it at night
drink it and drink it
we are digging a grave in the sky it is ample to lie there
A man in the house he plays with the serpents he writes
he writes when the night falls to Germany your golden
hair Margarete
he writes it and walks from the house the stars glitter
he whistles his dogs up
he whistles his Jews out and orders a grave to be dug in
the earth
he commands us strike up for the dance

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink in the mornings at noon we drink you at
nightfall
drink you and drink you
A man in the house he plays with the serpents he writes
he writes when the night falls to Germany your golden
hair Margarete
Your ashen hair Shulamith we are digging a grave in the
sky it is ample to lie there

He shouts stab deeper in earth you there and you others
you sing and you play
he grabs at the iron in his belt and swings it and blue
are his eyes
stab deeper your spades you there and you others play
on for the dancing

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at nightfall
we drink you at noon in the mornings we drink you at
nightfall
drink you and drink you
a man in the house your golden hair Margarete
your ashen hair Shulamith he plays with the serpents

He shouts play sweeter death’s music death comes as a
master from Germany
he shouts stroke darker the strings and as smoke you
shall climb to the sky
then you’ll have a grave in the clouds it is ample to lie
there

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink you at noon death comes as a master from
Germany
we drink you at nightfall and morning we drink you
and drink you
a master from Germany death comes with eyes that are
blue
with a bullet of lead he will hit in the mark he will hit
you
a man in the house your golden hair Margarete
he hunts us down with his dogs in the sky he gives us a
grave
he plays with the serpents and dreams death comes as a
master from Germany

your golden hair Margarete
your ashen hair Shulamith.

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One thought on “Poem: Fugue of Death – Paul Celan

  1. Pingback: Selected Poems – Paul Celan | Readings

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