Paul Celan on my mind

Paul Celan has been on my mind, particularly his most known poem, Death Fugue. The Romanian poet and translator wrote in German, but lived and died  in Paris. I came to know his writings when I took a class on Eastern European writers, and never looked back because I found a lot in common with African writing. Imagine working in a language ‘that’s not your own,’ (you and/or the language have to break), whose politics you despise, professing a religion that casts you among the hated and hunted, living in a country you can no longer call home, and being in a place that’s shifting under your feet until you’re forced, for strategic reasons, to take on multiple identities, including changing your name. Familiar?

No wonder he wrote mainly about the holocaust, as if propelled by some inner force to focus on a central thing that wasn’t changing, but was part of his history and also part of what had ‘robbed’ him of his being. So he gave us this quote, in addition to his admirable poems. “There is nothing in the world for which a poet will give up writing, not even when he is a Jew and the language of his poems is German.”

I’ll leave you to reflect on his two poems: Death Fugue, and my favorite, Tenebrae, with its chilling and acerbic quality. Apparently, Tenebrae is Latin for ‘shadows’ or ‘darkness.’ It might also mean the ‘religious ceremony of gradual extinguishing of candles while readings and psalms are chanted or recited.’

Enjoy.

Death Fugue

translated by Jerome Rothenberg

 

Black milk of morning we drink you at dusktime

we drink you at noontime and dawntime we drink you at night

we drink and drink

we scoop out a grave in the sky where it’s roomy to lie

There’s a man in this house who cultivates snakes and who writes

who writes when it’s nightfall nach Deutschland your golden hair Margareta

he writes it and walks from the house and the stars all start flashing he whistles his

dogs to draw near

whistles his Jews to appear starts us scooping a grave out of sand

he commands us to play for the dance

 

Black milk of morning we drink you at night

we drink you at dawntime and noontime we drink you at dusktime

we drink and drink

There’s a man in this house who cultivates snakes and who writes

who writes when it’s nightfall nach Deutschland your golden hair Margareta

your ashen hair Shulamite we scoop out a grave in the sky where it’s roomy to lie

He calls jab it deep in the soil you lot there you other men sing and play

he tugs at the sword in his belt he swings it his eyes are blue

jab your spades deeper you men you other men you others play up again for the dance

 

Black milk of morning we drink you at night

we drink you at noontime and dawntime we drink you at dusktime

we drink and drink

there’s a man in this house your golden hair Margareta

your ashen hair Shulamite he cultivates snakes

 

He calls play that death thing more sweetly Death is a gang-boss aus Deutschland

he calls scrape that fiddle more darkly then hover like smoke in the air

then scoop out a grave in the clouds where it’s roomy to lie

 

Black milk of morning we drink you at night

we drink you at noontime Death is a gang-boss aus Deutschland

we drink you at dusktime and dawntime we drink and drink

Death is a gang-boss aus Deutschland his eye is blue

he shoots you with leaden bullets his aim is true

there’s a man in this house your golden hair Margareta

he sets his dogs on our trail he gives us a grave in the sky

he cultivates snakes and he dreams Death is a gang-boss aus Deutschland

 

your golden hair Margareta

your ashen hair Shulamite

 

Tenebrae

 

We are near, Lord,

near and at hand.

 

Handled already, Lord,

clawed and clawing as though

the body of each of us were

your body, Lord.

 

Pray, Lord,

pray to us,

we are near.

 

Wind-awry we went there,

went there to bend

over hollow and ditch.

 

To be watered we went there, Lord.

 

It was blood, it was

what you shed, Lord.

 

It gleamed.

 

It cast your image into our eyes, Lord.

Our eyes and our mouths are open and empty, Lord.

 

We have drunk, Lord.

The blood and the image that was in the blood, Lord.

 

Pray, Lord.

We are near.

 

 

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