Deathfugue
Deathfugue
by Paul Celan

Sound Check

Read this poem aloud. What do you hear?

We can think of no better way to describe the sound of this poem than to call it a circus carnival gone terribly wrong. Think of a merry-go-round that people are forced to ride, on which you see the most horrible sights imaginable. As the poem goes on, the merry-go-round swings faster and faster, until it finally comes apart and the pieces fly everywhere…

The sound is defined by the "fugue" form. A fugue is a musical piece that begins with some theme and then returns to rework that theme a bunch more times. One of the most well-known classical music pieces, Pachabel's Canon, is similar to a fugue. In "Deathfugue," the first theme is "Black milk of daybreak" and the second theme is "A man lives in a house." Each of the four cycles of the fugue return to both themes. All of this repetition is like a dance. Indeed, the Nazi guard orders the prisoners to "play on for the dancing" (line 19). But it's not a happy dance, more like a "Dance of Death." The "Dance of Death" is a genre of classical music that usually has an upbeat rhythm but scary melodies.

The poem has no standard rhythm, but it was originally written in German so the rhythm we hear in the English translation is only an approximation. Still, you can get a sense of the choppiness of the language and of the disorientation. Celan doesn't use a lot of big or fancy words. In fact, his favorite motif in this poem is a simple subject-verb combination: "we drink," "he writes," "he shouts," "he jabs," "we shovel," and so on. This pattern reminds us that the prisoner's lives have been reduced to a series of unrelated, largely meaningless actions. What's more, the total lack of punctuation and the frequent use of run-on sentences (your English teacher would be so mad!) create a fragmented sound, as in line 16: "your ashen hair Shulamith we shovel a grave in the air there you won't lie too cramped." There is never a time to catch your breath in this poem. In all, reading "Deathfugue" aloud is a draining experience – emotionally and physically – that reproduces in language the exhaustion of the Jews in the camp.

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