“Death Fugue,” or “Todesfuge,” remains Celan’s most popular poem, although he at one time repudiated it, refusing to anthologize it further or to read it aloud. In this poem, Celan treats his subject, the Holocaust, directly and graphically. He wrote “Todesfuge” in 1944 or 1945—critics disagree—and it was first published in 1947 in Romanian, not German, having been translated by Celan’s friend, Petre Soloman. This poem was immediately and immensely popular, as it expressed in unshakable images the Jewish experience under Adolf Hitler.
Celan indicated that the poem arose from the Nazi practice of forcing Jews to play dance tunes while prisoners were executed; in one camp where this was done, the entire orchestra was shot after the performance. His first name for the poem was Todestango (death tango), and it was first published under the Romanian equivalent of this name. The bleak, obsessive repetitions and the music of the lines suggest the death dance. The poem also has qualities of the musical form of the fugue, in which a theme or themes appear again and again in differing patterns. The theme of the blond-and dark-haired women, the black milk, and the death-dealer are repeated throughout the poem, the repetitions themselves creating a musical effect. Changes appear in the repeated lines, as variations on the theme.
In the poem the “we” who narrate describe the “black milk of daybreak we drink it at evening”;“we,” perhaps the voiceless, annihilated Jews, are destroyed...
(The entire section is 624 words.)