Monday, December 31, 2012

Todesfuge



 This morning, my wife cut my hair just before my shower.

We always use a pair of electric clippers. While I was sitting there, naked, watching the hair fall to the ground, I was reminded of the way that Jews had their hair shaved off on their way to the gas chamber, and realized that I was undergoing the same set of physical sensations.

My nakedness and the loss of my hair seemed to represent being shorn of everything I was; the fact is that whether we are being marched to the gas chamber or not, we all inexorably approach death throughout this life, and only the humility of being shorn of my outward aspects—ego, pride, all the things that are attached to this world—may remind me of the need for real inner work and effort.

 After my shower, I pondered the poem I read last night, Celan's Todesfuge, and decided to do some work of my own on it. I studied this poem in German literature at college; it made an impression on me that was still with me when I found it in my collection of Celan's verse last night.

This relentlessly uncompromising poem stands as one of the great masterpieces of the 20th century, and perhaps any century.

A free translation of Paul Celan's Todesfuge.

I've taken liberties with some meanings:
Notably, Celan uses Lüften the first two times he mentions air, which means, literally, airs. I chose to interpret this rather as an alternative meaning, to give air to, to reveal, which is to say, roughly speaking, to inhabit what is seen. He uses the singular version Lüft (twice) later in the poem, suggesting the difference between the two is intentional. The interpretation is consistent with the overall quality of the poem, which is above all a witnessing; an opening of graves through acknowledgment.

The word Meister would generally be translated as master, but I have chosen to emphasize the musical aspects of the verses where the word Meister is used, offering a vision not just of mastery, but control; the mysterious figure who plays with snakes and sets his dogs on us is certainly a controlling figure, not just one who displays mastery. Hence my choice of the word conductor, which implies one who orchestrates Celan's music of death.

Celan has personalized the agency of death in this poem, and I've chosen to emphasize that by saying a man lives in his home, not at home. This emphasizes both the comfort that our agent of death feels in his role, and his ownership of it (also implied by his mastery.) I think it's consistent with Celan's overall intention, if not his literal words.

I can offer no excuses for my parsing of Celan's phrasing into an alternate verse structure. It just looks right to me this way, and some things in poetry must be done based on gut feeling alone.

Todesfuge


Black milk of the morning we drink in the evening,
We drink noon and morning, at night
We drink and we drink;
We shovel a grave in what's seen
Where one lies unencumbered

A man lives in his home, he plays with the serpents, he writes
He writes in the shadows to Germany:
Your golden hair Margaret
He writes it and steps to the front yard the stars are like lightning
Calls his dogs to his side
Calls his jews orders a grave in the dirt
Orders us music to dance

Black milk of the morning we drink you at night
We drink morning, noon, we drink in the evening
We drink and we drink;
A man lives in his home, he plays with his serpents, he writes
He writes in the evening to Germany:
Your golden hair Margaret
Your ashen hair Sulamith
We dig a grave in what's seen
Where one lies unencumbered

He calls out, dig deeper in earth's kingdom
come one and come all, sing and play
He grasps sword from his belt and swings it
His eyes are blue
Dig the spade deeper, come one and come all,
and dance onwards

Black milk of the morning we drink you at night
We drink you at midday and morning we drink you in evenings
We drink and we drink
A man lives in his home
Your golden hair Margaret
Your ashen hair Sulamith
He plays with his serpents
He says, sweeten death with a song,
Death is a conductor from Germany
Stroke violins darkly, you'll rise up as smoke through the air
You'll have graves in the clouds where one lies unencumbered

Black milk of the morning we drink you at night
We drink you at midday;
Death is a conductor from Germany
We drink you evenings and mornings,
We drink you and drink you
Death is a conductor from Germany, his eye is blue
He hits you with bullets, precisely
A man lives in his home
Your golden hair Margaret
Unleashes his dogs on us, gives us a grave in the air
He plays with his serpents and dreams
Death is a conductor from Germany  

Your golden hair Margaret
Your golden hair Sulamith

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.