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Paul Celan

1920–1970

Paul Antschel, who wrote under the pseudonym Paul Celan, was born in Czernovitz, in Romania, on November 23, 1920. 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.

In 1945, he moved to Bucharest and became friends with many of the leading Romanian writers of the time. He worked as a reader in a publishing house and as a translator. He also began to publish his own poems and translations under a series of pseudonyms. In 1947 he settled on the pseudonym Celan—an anagram of Ancel, the Romanian form of his surname. He lived briefly in 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. His second book, Mohn und Gedaechtnis (Poppy and Memory), however, garnered tremendous acclaim and helped to establish his reputation. Among his most well-known and often-anthologized poems from this time is "Fugue of Death." The poem opens with the words "Black milk of daybreak we drink it at evening / we drink it at midday and morning we drink it at night" and it goes on to offer 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 L'École Normal Superieure of the University of Paris, a position he would hold until his death in 1970. His poems from this period grew shorter, more fragmented and broken in their syntax and perceptions. In 1960 he received a Georg Buchner Prize. 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.


Selected Bibliography

Poetry

Glottal Stop: 101 poems (2000)
Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan (2000)

Paul Celan

By This Poet

16

O Little Root of a Dream

O little root of a dream 
you hold me here 
undermined by blood, 
no longer visible to anyone, 
property of death.

Curve a face
that there may be speech, of earth, 
of ardor, of
things with eyes, even
here, where you read me blind,

even 
here, 
where you 
refute me, 
to the letter.

Death Fugue

translated by Pierre Joris

Black milk of morning we drink you evenings
we drink you at noon and mornings we drink you at night
we drink and we drink
A man lives in the house he plays with the snakes he writes
he writes when it darkens to Deutschland your golden hair Margarete
he writes and steps in front of his house and the stars glisten and he whistles his dogs to come
he whistles his jews to appear let a grave be dug in the earth
he commands us play up for the dance

Black milk of dawn we drink you at night
we drink you mornings and noontime we drink you evenings
we drink and we drink
A man lives in the house he plays with the snakes he writes
he writes when it turns dark to Deutschland your golden hair Margarete
Your ashen hair Shulamit we dig a grave in the air there one lies at ease

He calls jab deeper into the earth you there and you other men sing and play
he grabs the gun in his belt he draws it his eyes are blue
jab deeper your spades you there and you other men continue to play for the dance

Black milk of dawn we drink you at night
we drink you at noon we drink you evenings
we drink you and drink
a man lives in the house your golden hair Margarete
your ashen hair Shulamit he plays with the snakes

He calls out play death more sweetly death is a master from Deutschland
he calls scrape those fiddles more darkly then as smoke you’ll rise in the air
then you’ll have a grave in the clouds there you’ll lie at ease

Black milk of dawn we drink you at night
we drink you at noon death is a master from Deutschland
we drink you evenings and mornings we drink and drink
death is a master from Deutschland his eye is blue
he strikes you with lead bullets his aim is true
a man lives in the house your golden hair Margarete
he sets his dogs on us he gifts us a grave in the air
he plays with the snakes and dreams death is a master from Deutschland

your golden hair Margarete
your ashen hair Shulamit


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

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 andern 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
er 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

Corona

translated by Pierre Joris

Autumn eats its leaf out of my hand: we are friends.
We shell time from the nuts and teach it to walk:
time returns to the shell.

In the mirror is Sunday,
in the dream we sleep,
the mouth speaks true.

My eye goes down to my lover’s sex:
we gaze at each other,
we speak of dark things,

we love each other like poppy and memory,
we sleep like wine in the seashells,
like the sea in the moon’s blood-beam.

We stand and embrace at the window, they watch us from the street:
it is time, for this to be known!
It is time that the stone took the trouble to bloom,
that unrest’s heart started to beat.
It’s time for it to be time.

It is time.

 


Corona

Aus der Hand frißt der Herbst mir sein Blatt: wir sind Freunde.
Wir schälen die Zeit aus den Nüssen und lehren sie gehn:
die Zeit kehrt zurück in die Schale.

Im Spiegel ist Sonntag,
im Traum wird geschlafen,
der Mund redet wahr.

Mein Aug steigt hinab zum Geschlecht der Geliebten:
wir sehen uns an,
wir sagen uns Dunkles,

wir lieben einander wie Mohn und Gedächtnis,
wir schlafen wie Wein in den Muscheln,
wie das Meer im Blutstrahl des Mondes.

Wir stehen umschlungen im Fenster, sie sehen uns zu von der Straße:
es ist Zeit, daß man weiß!
Es ist Zeit, daß der Stein sich zu blühen bequemt,
daß der Unrast ein Herz schlägt.
Es ist Zeit, daß es Zeit wird.

Es ist Zeit.

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