Tuesday, May 17, 2005

more on Celan - TODESFUGE

This is me trying to interpret the poem.
*Repetition of abends, nachts in 1st 2nd 3rd and 4th stanzas causes feeling of inescapability, unavoidability, just as night falls without fail. There is no daylight in this poem, only a sense of the light is constantly disappearing: the repetition of dunkelt, dunkler reinforces the night-time imagery.

*The repetition of abends, nachts becomes rhythmic, so we expect them to continue at similar intervals but are surprised in the 4th stanza when it is interrupted by Tod, Meister, Deutschland. Thereby associating nightfall (a kind of ending), Tod (ending) with Meister and Deutschland.

*A few points about the repetition of Wir trinken..., Wir trinken..., Wir trinken und trinken
-begins first with Sie as the object, later shifts to Dich, which involves the reader more personally: an accusation?
-They drink it mittags, morgens, nachts, abends, and are constantly consuming it. Like a meal, swallowed, used up, burnt up. Repeated and repeated, because author is talking about millions of people.
-They drink without choice. No one would choose to drink Schwarze Milch der Fruhe, the black milk of daybreak.

*Schwarze Milch der Fruhe:
-is it der Fruhe as a contrast to the night-time and darkness in the rest of the poem?
-At daybreak, the prisoners have no 'new day' to look forward to, their experience will be the same as the day before, so their new day is rotten, like black milk.
-Contrast also in that milk has connotations of mother, care, something fed upon when dependent. So this black milk is their starvation rations, the sick milk of their captors who ironically, their dommed lives now depend on.
-it is also simply an image of sickness, impossibility. How can you drink black milk, there's no such thing? = How can this have been allowed to happen?

*Ein Mann, "er", becomes the actor in the first stanza. He gives orders. By the 4th stanza, Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland. We associate this man and death, Death is giving orders.

*When the image is first presented, "Wir schaufeln ein Grad in den Luften da leigt man nicht eng", sounds free. Free in the air, my first impression was of the freedom in death. "Nicht eng" could be as in the camps' dormitories. "Nicht eng" = Lebansraum, so a connotation of National Socialist imagery and propaganda. How ironic that there was room for so much death.
-In the 1st and 2nd stanzas, 'We shovel a gave in the air', then in the 4th stanza, 'We have a grave in the clouds'. So the verb changes from shovel schaufeln to have habt. They dug their own graves, sometimes literally, sometimes metaphorically.
-'Wir" schaufiln ein Grab in den Luften: compared to Er pfeift seine Juden hervor laesst schaufeln ein Grab in der Erde. So, 'we' shovel in the air, but when the image is more solid, of digging graves in the ground, it is no longer 'we' but "his Jews", acting under 'his' orders.

*seine Ruden herbei: seine Juden hervor - all are his possessions, he is clearly superior. But he prefers his dogs to be closer to him than his Jews.

*Deutschland = goldenes Haar Margrethe
Doomed Jews = aschenes Haar Sulamith
In the 1st stanza, it could be a soldior writing to his beloved, a golden haired Aryan.
Aschenes Haar in the 2nd stanza importantly introduces the idea of burnt hair. Ironic in calling it 'Aschenes'. God that's terrible genius.
-golden hair juxtaposed with Deutschland; ashen hair juxtaposed with grave digging.

More later on playing and the snake, writing and the house...

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Wislawa Szymborska - Could have (poem about Holocaust survivors)

It could have happened.
It had to happen.
It happened earlier. Later.
Nearer. Farther off.
It happened, but not to you.

You were saved because you were the first.
You were saved because you were the last.
Alone. With others.
On the right. On the left.
Because it was raining. Because of the shade.
Because the day was sunny.

You were in luck - there was a forest.
You were in luck - there were no trees.
You were in luck - a rake, a hook, a beam, a brake,
A jamb, a turn, a quarter-inch, an instant...

So you're here? Still dizzy from
another dodge, close shave, reprieve?
One hole in the net and you slipped through?
I couldn't be more shocked or
how your heart pounds inside me.

More accurately I s'pose, this is a poem about the author being moved by the stories of survivors. How can you begin to express it...? I think Wislawa does a pretty good job though. She won the Nobel prize in 1996, and this link http://nobelprize.org/literature/laureates/1996/
has a bio etc.

Paul Celan - Death Fugue

Black milk of daybreak we drink it at nightfall
we drink it at midday and morning we drink it at night
drink it and drink it
we shovel a grave in the air there you won't lie too cramped
A man in the house he plays with the serpents he writes
he writes when it grows dark to Deutschland your golden hair
he writes it and walks from the house the stars glitter he whistles his dogs up
he whistles his Jews out and orders a grave to be dug in the ground
he orders us strike up and play for the dance.

TODESFUGE von Paul Celan

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
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
er befiehlt uns spielt nun zum Tanz.

That's the first stanza. This poem speaks volumes. To Primo Levi, the German language itself was ugly because he associated it with torture, orders, Auschwitz. It was the language of THEM. After the war, Celan, writing in his grief, reclaims the language. It is not only the language of a barked order or bureaucracy.

German is an awesome language. The following is one of my favourite poems, not only for its imagery but because it is a pleasure to speak it:
Herbst (Autumn)- by Rainer Maria Rilke.
Die Blätter fallen, fallen wie von weit,
als welkten in den Himmeln ferne Gärten;
sie fallen mit verneinender Gebärde.
Und in den Nächten fällt die schwere Erde
aus allen Sternen in die Einsamkeit.
Wir alle fallen. Diese Hand da fällt.
Und sieh dir andre an: es ist in allen.
Und doch ist Einer, welcher dieses Fallen
unendlich sanft in seinen Händen hält.

...here's a good English trans of the last 2 stanzas (don't know who to credit for it)...
We are all falling. This hand's falling too.
All have this falling sickness none withstands.
And still there's always One whose gentle hands
This universal falling can't fall through.

I wonder if Primo Levi ever heard Rainer Maria Rilke's poetry?

I am a little bit obsessed with the Holocaust, because (although it was certainly a unique phenomenon in terms of the way it happened) it could happen again. Not in the same way (and certainly not in Germany...?) but in a place like Australia for instance. Here we have a similar praise for bullies, similar absurd meaningless political language, dramatic changes in the form of nationalism being used by the state over the last decade, and several small groups (ethnic and linguistic) which the media thrives on demonising. We have strong links to the US and UK(which can be to some extent attributed to the language we share, and the media and our history) and the current government is supporting their view of the world unhesitantly. I feel like I'm living in a colonial, antipodean outpost of some larger unstated empire. I'm not an America-basher.

So the question is, if Hitler got going by making life fun for all the German kiddies doing role plays in youth groups, telling them they were the future and encouraging toughness, how far off is our own culture? I'm not saying that's exactly where we are right now, but I do think our culture is compatible with the kind of thinking that got the NAZI party into power.

I don't hope anyone reads this and thinks I'm trying to say that all anyone needs to do to heal their wounds is read poetry. (Or maybe I am. There could be just a little bit of truth in that. For me at least.) But then, didn't I also read that Celan took suicide? So there goes that theory. I suppose once you've lost your family through war, feel like no one really gets it and they aren't listening, all you see is the world keeping on turning, and you lose your faith in humanity, then a little bit of comfort from some sublime poetry isn't going to be sufficient to keep you from killing yourself.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

small-town police experience

I had a run-in with the police yesterday.

I was riding the antique peugeot push-bike down the main street in the little town where my folks live to collect the papers. I had been chatting happily to the man in the shop, and came outisde, and as I did I saw a dark shark-like suit from the corner of my eye - it was noneother than Senior Constable Langheim and his book.

He opened with a classic, "Just before you get on your way, there," he might have added 'lassy' for effect, "are you aware that all the school children manage to ride to school with their helmets on? And did you know you can only ride on the footpath if you're under twelve? And you're not under twelve, are you? It doesn't set a very good example when the grown-ups can't follow the laws and its a $50 fine for each infringement..."

By that stage I was so embarrassed I was giggling, blushing and saying, "No officer, sorry officer". He said if I promised to walk the bike home he would not fine me. "Yes officer, sorry officer, thankyou officer," I said. As it happened, my back tyre had a slow leak, so I would have had to have walked anyhow. I kept giggling all the way, and when I was almost back to my destination which was about ten minutes walk away, he drove past to check-up on me!

That's small-town police for you.