Wherever People Suffer, They Drink Black Milk

Here is the post I had originally intended for Friday, March 11. It seems even more poignant now, in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan and as the fighting continues in Libya. Whenever a poet uses a specific event upon which to build his poem, it is never about just that event, no matter how personal it may be. Good poetry never fails to touch the universal. “Todesfuge” is about suffering and wherever people suffer, they drink black milk:

This will be the last post about poetry, for a while . . . maybe.

By the way, Adam at Fly Like a Crow, has a nice poetry post. He discusses his appreciation of Theodore Roethke, one of the major American poets of the 20th Century. Please read it.

I think it would be cool if every so often Buddhist bloggers (and any other kind) had a Poetry Day where everyone posted a poem they liked or was especially meaningful to them.

Celan's passport photo, 1938

A few years ago I discovered Paul Celan. I am surprised it took me so long, because his stuff is right up my alley. Celan’s poetry is non-hermetic, surrealist, existentialist, mystical . . . Like e.e. cummings he played with language (a Romanian, he chose German for his poetry). He would make up new words (“ensouling”) or put words together (“angelstuff”). Many of Celan’s poems are very short, like this one:

Out on a rained out track,
the small sham ministry of silence.

It is as if you could hear,
as if I loved you still.

Celan was Jewish and the wounds left by his experiences during the Holocaust are very apparent. His parents were taken to an concentration camp in Transnistria, where his father died from typhus and his mother shot dead after collapsing from exhaustion. Beginning in 1942, Celan himself passed through a series of Romanian labor camps. He managed to escape in 1944.

That same year, he composed an early version of his most famous poem, Todesfuge. According to Wikipedia, after its first publication in 1947 “additional remarks had to be published explaining that the dancing and musical performances of the poem were realities of the extermination camp life.”

Here is a description of the Auschwitz Orchestras from auschwitz.org:

Camp orchestras functioned in various parts of Auschwitz from 1941-1945. They served many advantageous functions for the camp administration, above all by improving marching discipline when the labor details left for work and returned. In Birkenau, the orchestras helped deceive the victims being led to the gas chambers. The orchestras gave concerts for the SS men and their families on Sundays and holidays, and played at dance evenings and social events. There were men’s orchestras in the Main Camp, Birkenau, Monowitz, and several sub-camps, including Jawischowitz and Fürstengrube. The sole women’s orchestra played at the women’s camp in Birkenau.

Today we note a dark anniversary: On March 11, 1942, the 1st deportation train left Paris for the Auschwitz Concentration Camp.

Paul Celan’s Todesfuge or “Death Fugue”:

Black milk of daybreak we drink it at sundown
we drink it at noon in the morning we drink it at night
we drink it and drink it
we dig a grave in the breezes there one lies unconfined
A man lives in the house he plays with the serpents he writes
he writes when dusk falls to Germany your golden hair Margarete
he writes it and steps out of doors and the stars are flashing he whistles his pack out
he whistles his Jews out in earth has them dig for a grave
he commands us strike up for the dance

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink you in the morning at noon we drink you at sundown
we drink and we drink you
A man lives in the house he plays with the serpents he writes
he writes when dusk falls to Germany your golden hair Margarete
your ashen hair Sulamith we dig a grave in the breezes there one lies unconfined

He calls out jab deeper into the earth you lot you others sing now and play
he grabs at the iron in his belt he waves it his eyes are blue
jab deeper you lot with your spades you others play on for the dance

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink you at at noon in the morning we drink you at sundown
we drink and we drink you
a man lives in the house your golden hair Margarete
your ashen hair Sulamith he plays with the serpents
He calls out more sweetly play death death is a master from Germany
he calls out more darkly now stroke your strings then as smoke you will rise into air
then a grave you will have in the clouds there one lies unconfined

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night
we drink you at noon death is a master from Germany
we drink you at sundown and in the morning we drink and we drink you
death is a master from Germany his eyes are blue
he strikes you with leaden bullets his aim is true
a man lives in the house your golden hair Margarete
he sets his pack on to us he grants us a grave in the air
He plays with the serpents and daydreams death is a master from Germany

your golden hair Margarete
your ashen hair Shulamith

Translated from German by Michael Hamburger

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4 thoughts on “Wherever People Suffer, They Drink Black Milk

      1. …And perhaps that observation was obvious to an elephantine extreme. 🙂

        I struggled with poetry for years — still struggle with it — because its aesthetics seem murky. What makes good poetry? What makes Wallace Stevens and his red wheelbarrow better/worse/equal to Whitman or Browning or Shakespeare? I have made my living with words, yet I have no idea. Today I look for primal impact, the kind of slap upside the head that “one-hand-clapping” or “dog-with-Buddha-nature” provides. Roethke provides that impact, in spades. Stevens’ impact is gentler, more sneaky. Whitman whirls you around in vast circles before flinging you into the ether. Shakespeare… is all of the above. IMNSHO.

        If I understood poetry’s aesthetics better, I might write some. But I don’t even understand the aesthetics of prose, so I leave well enough alone.

        1. No, not obvious. I had never thought of it exactly that way before.

          Poetry is an acquired taste for some, and I don’t think it’s a question of better, worse or equal. People respond to different things. I do think that everyone possess the capacity to understand poetry’s aesthetics . . . a poetic nature, somewhat like a Buddha nature.

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