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by Paul Celan

Stanza 1 Summary

Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.

Lines 1-3

Black milk of daybreak we drink it at evening
we drink it at midday and morning we drink it at night
we drink and we drink

  • The speakers, a group of Jewish prisoners in a concentration camp, describe how they drink black milk all day and all night.
  • Picture people forced to drink glasses of thick, sticky crude oil and how disgusting that would be.
  • The Jews have no choice in the matter, they are forced to keep taking in this toxic substance.
  • The image of "black milk" is not supposed to be literal. It is a symbol for life in the camps, which is both physically and spiritually unhealthy. Creamy white milk would be the ultimate symbol for health and nourishment, but "black milk" inverts (or turns inside out) the symbol to mean the opposite.
  • In the Hebrew scriptures (which includes what Christians call the Old Testament), the "land of milk and honey" was a way of describing a kind of paradise or promised land. "Black milk" ironically makes us think of this reference. Instead of a paradise, the prisoners drink bitter milk in an earthly hell.
  • Think also of all the connotations that milk has with nurturing and parenthood. The Jews in the camp are not being nurtured at all. They have been orphaned by their European "fatherlands," like Germany.

Line 4

we shovel a grave in the air there you won't lie too cramped

  • The Jews carry out forced labor. They dig graves where those who are killed by the Nazis will be unceremoniously dumped.
  • There are many harrowing stories and images about the use of mass graves during the Holocaust. They are one of the iconic images of the period.
  • The grave is not in the ground as you would expect; it is "in the air." It is an imaginary or figurative grave.
  • The last part of the line – "there you won't lie too cramped" – is ironic. It's as if someone were trying to convince them that dying will actually be good for them. Or maybe it is the Jews themselves who are looking forward to death as a way of escaping the cramped and horrible conditions of the camps.
  • Celan is probably alluding to the fact that many Jews were cremated during the Holocaust, particularly those killed in the infamous gas chambers.
  • The Nazis didn't even want to take the time to give their victims a proper burial. It was more convenient to just burn the bodies in huge crematoriums. In this sense, the victims had their graves "in the air."

Lines 5-7

A man lives in the house he plays with his vipers he writes
he writes when it grows dark to Deutschland your golden hair Marguerite
he writes it and steps out of doors and the stars are all sparkling

  • The poem introduces a new character, who is generically referred to as a "man."
  • But it is clear that this man is really a camp guard, and therefore a member of the Nazi S.S., which ran the concentration camps.
  • Unlike the prisoners, who are stuffed in the barracks, he lives in a house like any person would under normal circumstances.
  • He has a dark and sinister side – he plays with "vipers" or snakes. Think of all those negative connotations about snakes, like sin, betrayal, and the loss of innocence.
  • The guard fancies himself a writer and a man of culture. By day he is a sadistic guard, but "when it grows dark" he becomes this wannabe Romantic poet.
  • He's a nature lover and takes the time to appreciate things like the twinkling of the stars. This is all very lovely, but when you remember that these stars are shining over a death camp, you can't help but realize how twisted and messed up the guard has become. A humane person would probably not be able to appreciate stars while knowing that people were dying gruesome deaths just on the other side of a fence.
  • He obsesses over and idealizes the blond or "golden" hair of Marguerite, a literary character from the great epic poem Faust by Wolfgang von Goethe.
  • Faust might just be the most famous and celebrated poem written in German, and so it represents the heights that the culture achieved about a hundred years before Germany started murdering millions of people under Hitler.
  • In Goethe's poem, a scholar named Faust essentially sells his soul to Satan in return for power and knowledge. Along the way he seduces a poor sweet German girl named Marguerite.
  • Remember the Halloween episode of The Simpsons where Homer sells his soul to Ned Flanders/Satan for a doughnut? That is taken right out of the Faust legend. (Those Simpsons writers know their world literature!)
  • Marguerite's blond hair is a symbol of the Nazi racial ideal – also known as the "Aryan race."

Lines 8-10

he whistles his hounds to come close
he whistles his Jews into rows has them shovel a grave in the ground
he orders us strike up and play for the dance

  • Now that we know how "cultured" and Romantic the guard is, we learn how cruel and barbaric he is, too.
  • When he's not writing about Marguerite, he abuses Jews. He threatens them with his dogs. He forces them into line up into rows, as if they were only tools or instruments. He makes them dig graves and orders them to play music.
  • The music is the "Deathfugue" of the title. In real camps like Auschwitz, Jews were sometimes forced to play music, perhaps a way of calming the other prisoners, or perhaps just to be cruel.
  • Notice that now Celan has switched from the imaginary image of graves "in the air" to a literal image of "a grave in the ground."
  • Obviously, the guard's education has not prevented him from turning into an absolutely rotten human being. If you think of him as a representative of Nazism or maybe even German culture as a whole, you see where Celan is going with this…

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