anselm kiefer’s “your golden hair, margarete”

 

 

Your Golden Hair, Margarete, 1980
Anselm Kiefer (German, born 1945)
Watercolor, gouache, and acrylic on paper; 16 3/8 x 21 7/8 in. (41.6 x 55.6 cm)


In the early 1980s, Kiefer made more than thirty paintings, painted photographs, and watercolors that refer in their titles and inscriptions to the Romanian Jewish writer Paul Celan’s "Todesfuge" ("Death Fugue"), a poem composed in German in late 1944 and 1945. Celan’s parents, along with many other Jews from Czernowitz, Romania, where he had been raised, were killed in the Trisnistria camp in eastern Romania in 1942. Celan himself endured two years of forced labor under the Germans, after which he exiled himself to Paris until his suicide in 1970.

 

Celan’s "Death Fugue," widely read and anthologized in postwar Germany, is set in an extermination camp. Its narrative voice, in the first person plural, is that of the camp’s Jewish inmates who suffer under the strict watch of the camp’s blue-eyed commandant. Singing "your golden hair, Margarete / your ashen hair, Shulamith," the narrators contrast German womanhood, as personified by Margarete, to whom the commandant addresses letters at night (she is named after Goethe’s heroine, Gretchen, in Faust), and Jewish womanhood (Shulamith was King Solomon’s dark-haired beloved in the Song of Songs). Here, as in most of Kiefer’s Margarete works, the German heroine is depicted only by the synecdoche of her "golden hair," in the form of sheaves of wheat in the countryside.

 

"Anselm Kiefer: Your Golden Hair, Margarete (2000.96.7)". In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/kief/ho_2000.96.7.htm (October 2008).

 

 

Paul Celan, “Death Fugue”

 

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

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

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

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

 

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night

we drink you at morning and midday we drink you at evening

we drink and we drink

A man lives in the house he plays with his vipers he writes

he writes when it grows dark to Deutschland your golden hair Margeurite

your ashen hair Shulamith we shovel a grave in the air there you won’t lie too cramped

He shouts jab this earth deeper you lot there you others sing up and play

he grabs for the rod in his belt he swings it his eyes are blue

jab your spades deeper you lot there you others play on for the dancing

 

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night

we drink you at midday and morning we drink you at evening

we drink and we drink

a man lives in the house your goldenes Haar Margeurite

your aschenes Haar Shulamith he plays with his vipers

He shouts play death more sweetly Death is a master from Deutschland

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

 

Black milk of daybreak we drink you at night

we drink you at midday Death is a master aus Deutschland

we drink you at evening and morning we drink and we drink

this Death is ein Meister aus Deutschland his eye it is blue

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

he plays with his vipers and daydreams

der Tod is ein Meister aus Deutschland

dein goldenes Haar Margarete

dein aschenes Haar Shulamith

 

 

(Translated by John Felstiner)

 

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on keeping language unsplit

The greatness of Paul Celan’s poetic achievement is largely untranslatable, but we can catch glimpses of it now and then. One of Celan’s themes, I think, was how we use language to objectivize the political dilemmas surrounding us, forever isolating us from one another, and whether we can sufficiently purify and revitalize language so that we can, if only for a while, truly apprehend others, and ourselves.
 
Speak, You Also

Speak, you also,
speak as the last,
have your say.
 
Speak —
But keep yes and no unsplit.
And give your say this meaning:
give it the shade.
 
Give it shade enough,
give it as much
as you know has been dealt out between
midnight and midday and midnight.
 
Look around:
look how it all leaps alive —
where death is! Alive!
He speaks truly who speaks the shade.
 
But now shrinks the place where you stand:
Where now, stripped by shade, will you go?
Upward. Grope your way up.
Thinner you grow, less knowable, finer.
Finer: a thread by which
it wants to be lowered, the star:
to float farther down, down below
where it sees itself gleam: in the swell
of wandering words.

Paul
Celan, Poems of Paul Celan (translated by Michael Hamburger)