Study Guide

Deathfugue Suffering

By Paul Celan

Suffering

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 (lines 1-3)

We've likened "black milk" to drinking sticky crude oil, a symbol that captures the prisoners' lack of power (they are forced to drink it), their sickly state (black milk can't be good for you), and their immense suffering. It's just a tremendously powerful image – can you think of a natural substance that looks "whiter" than milk? And then Celan just completely turns the image inside out, and the blackness of the milk corresponds to the images of ash and smoke that appear throughout "Deathfugue."

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 (lines 6-7)

The total obliviousness of the guard to the suffering around him is one of ideas presented in these lines. Imagine if there were a concentration camp right next to Yosemite National Park – would you still want to go out hiking and admire the stars and all that? Of course not. But the guard is able to separate the horrible deeds he commits during the day from his Romantic dreams at night.

your ashen hair Shulamith we shovel a grave in the air there you won't lie too cramped (line 16)

There are many layers of suffering in this poem, but one of them is the annihilation of the Jewish people and their traditions. Shulamith's "ashen" hair is a great image because it gives us both the literal reality of the racial differences – like dark hair – that set the Jews apart from the Nazi ideal, and also the metaphorical reality that the European Jews are being murdered and burned to ash.

he shouts scrape your strings darker you'll rise then in smoke to the sky
you'll have a grave then in the clouds there you won't lie too cramped (lines 26-27)

Another kind of suffering faced by the prisoners is humiliation and loss of dignity. No doubt the Jewish musicians who play the "Death Tango" love music. But from now on their thoughts of music will be associated with graves and executions. To force the prisoners to dance while they dig grave is to make them do what is most painful and least appropriate. It was all part of the Nazi method of dehumanization.

he shoots you with shot made of lead shoots you level and true
a man lives in the house your goldenes Haar Margarete
he looses his hounds on us grants us a grave in the air (lines 32-34)

Notice how the poem draws the reader in here: he shoots you. We are placed alongside the Jews in the line of fire. These prisoners have suffered so much that the execution scene can only be understated and ironic. There is nothing to be shocked by anymore. Instead of "he murders us," which is the reality, the speaker says that he "grants us a grave in the air."

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