"Todesfuge" was probably written in 1944. It was Celan's (Antschel/Ancel, his given name, is an anagram of Celan) first published poem, & it is framed by the macabre practice in one of the death camps to have a group of Jewish fiddlers play the tango, circling another group that was digging (in effect) their own graves. An alternate title of the poem is Death Tango (used in the first publication, in Romanian). So this is echoed in the rhythm you hear.

Schwarze Milch der Frühe wir trinken sie abends
Black milk of early we drink it at evening

Frühe / Führer
Muttermilch (mother milk) / and muttersprache

Margarita is presumably an allusion to Faust's heroine (Goethe) & Shulamith is the lover/beloved in The Songs of Songs (which is also understood to be addressed to God) .

The rhythm of the poems speeds up and slows down like a top, wobbling as it comes to the end of its spin.

--CB, 2005

re Julia's post; from OED for fugue:

[a. F. fugue, ad. It. fuga lit. flight:L. fuga, related to fugere to flee.]

   1. A polyphonic composition constructed on one or more short subjects or themes, which are harmonized according to the laws of counterpoint, and introduced from time to time with various contrapuntal devices (Stainer and Barrett). double fugue (see quot. 1880).

    2. Psychiatry. A flight from one's own identity, often involving travel to some unconsciously desired locality. It is a dissociative reaction to shock or emotional stress in a neurotic, during which all awareness of personal identity is lost though the person's outward behaviour may appear rational. On recovery, memory of events during the state is totally repressed but may become conscious under hypnosis or psycho-analysis. A fugue may also be part of an epileptic or hysterical seizure. Also attrib., as fugue state.


The Lyric, History, and the Avant-Garde:
Theorizing Paul Celan

Shira Wolosky

You can read the whole article via Project Muse. It is from Poetics Today.

In “Todesfuge” Celan (1983, 1:41) famously calls Death a Master from Germany, “Der Tod ist ein Meister aus Deutschland.” Twentieth-century history ran a course that threatens history itself, destroying traditions of initiation toward mastery. The avant-garde’s assault on traditional forms takes a particular turn in Celan. He need not assault past forms as a radical aesthetic project; in his post-Holocaust world, this has been accomplished by history itself. But the poem does ask: What exactly are the claims of mastery, what may be their relation to destruction and death? In Celan mastery also implicates artistic mastery when conceived as totalizing composition displacing all contingency.
Formal radicalism remains in many ways the visible signpost of avant-gardism, marking and launching the plunge into process, mutation, militant advance, which the very term avant-garde announces.2 Renato Poggioli [End Page 652] (1962: 131–32, 145, 213), identifying the “experimental factor” as basic in his Theory of the Avant-Garde, duly warns that, like any given stylistic feature, experimentalism does not necessarily have “the same motivation, the same purpose, an always unique and equal meaning.” But most discussions of formal radicalism assume it projects a nonrepresentational art whose effect is self-enclosure. Formal experiment is characteristically regarded as breaking representational conventions, throwing the artwork back on itself in reflexive self-reference. This tends to be the case on both sides of the critical divide, the historicist as well as the formalist. It persists into apparent revolts against symbolist formalism such as occur in certain modes of deconstruction, notably Paul de Man’s.

The roots of such self-reflexive ideology go back to symbolist theorists, particularly Stéphane Mallarmé, although it also finds articulation among art historians of experimental painting. Thus E. H. Gombrich (1959: 238) describes cubist painting as presenting the artwork as a “man-made construction, a coloured canvas. . . . If illusion is due to the interaction of clues and the absence of contradictory evidence, the only way to fight its transforming influence is to make the clues contradict each other and to prevent a coherent image of reality from destroying the pattern in the plane.” These aesthetic claims are elaborated by, for example, Rosalind Krauss, who sees avant-garde art as a radicalization of antireferential tendencies. She thus interprets the grid, which she identifies as a central form among many avant-garde painters, as a relentless assertion of “the autonomy of the realm of art,” a realm she sees as “anti-natural, antimimetic, unreal” (1991: 9). The grid, she concedes, does in some sense point outward to compel “our acknowledgement of a world beyond the frame,” but it does so in an ambivalent and even schizophrenic manner, ultimately “introject[ing] the boundaries of the world into the interior of the work . . . the content of which is the conventional nature of art itself” (ibid.: 19–20). The grid thus remains “antidevelopmental, antinarrative, antihistorical” (31). She similarly sees the collage as poised against an aesthetic of reference despite “the presence of the actual objects” it incorporates. Collage becomes a “metalanguage of the visual” whose “referent is an absent meaning, meaningful only in its absence” (37–39). [End Page 653]

Theories of the lyric tend to pursue this antirepresentational understanding. Sharon Cameron (1979: 196), in Lyric Time, generalizes an atemporal and ahistorical impulse as a condition of lyric as such, claiming that “language in the lyric dispenses with the time that threatens to destroy it.” Bürger’s Theory of the Avant-Garde (1984) does treat history but mainly in terms of changing social functions of art as an institution and as a development toward increasing self-reference. Avant-garde art is thus defined as the “ever-increasing concentration the makers of art bring to the medium itself,” which, even if it exposes and critiques, still “assents to the aestheticist’s rejection of the world” (ibid.: 27, 49). Even efforts toward bringing formal and historical analysis of the avant-garde to bear on each other often illustrate the challenges involved in doing so. Thus, although Williams (1982: 148) is committed to extending historical reflection to formal considerations, he devotes his fullest excursus into concrete analysis of how “certain forms of social relationship are deeply embodied in certain forms of art” to drama rather than lyric.3

Marjorie Perloff (1985: 181) perhaps goes farthest toward accommodating both experimental and historicist impulses in her discussions of avant-garde lyric, which she sees as “a new poetry that wants to open the field so as to make contact with the world as well as the word.”4 Lyric experiment with collage “incorporates directly into the work an actual fragment of the referent, thus forcing the reader or viewer to consider the interplay between preexisting message or material and the new artistic composition that results from the graft.” This she opposes to a “modernism that was to turn increasingly elitist and formalist in its concern for self-sufficient structures and aesthetic distance” (1986: xviii). Yet her core notion of a poetics of indeterminacy as itself an “irreducible ambiguity” remains ambivalently poised between such historicist incorporation and the artwork’s “attempt to block the construction of meaning” (1983: 34; cf. 49). As she writes of collage in The Futurist Moment (1986): “Each element . . . has a dual function: it refers to an external reality even as its compositional thrust is to undercut the very referentiality it seems to assert” (49).

In this ambivalence between history and theory, reference and self-consciousness, the case of Paul Celan emerges as pivotal exactly because [End Page 654] his poetry is extreme and is so in both apparently opposed directions. For history-minded critics Celan is above all a Holocaust poet. But for lyric theorists his texts are par excellence autonomous, self-referential language structures, abnegating a relation to any world outside them. This tendency appears in grotesque form in once-existing classroom instructions to teachers to prevent discussion of Celan’s most famous poem, “Todesfuge” [Deathfugue], from digressing from formal considerations into discussions of concentration camps (Demetz 1972: 81). But it persists in various ways through much writing on Celan. Adorno serves here as both paradigm and source. Adorno (1974: 58, 61) gives aesthetic autonomy a paradoxical turn by making poetry’s self-constitution “according to its own particular laws” exactly its mode of historicity, that is, making aesthetic resistance into a negative reflection of the world. In his Aesthetic Theory (1970), Adorno specifically makes Celan an epitome of such anti- or negative-historicist historicism. Citing Celan as “the greatest exponent of hermetic poetry in present-day Germany,” Adorno immediately complicates his notion of the hermetic. It is a “total isolation of the work of art from empirical reality,” which yet requires “one . . . to hypothesize a connection between it and society.” The “connection,” however, is a negative one, in which “art maintains its integrity only by refusing to go along with communication.” This results finally in “windowless creations,” which, in the case of Celan, issue in the negativity of silence. Recognizing that “art is unable either to experience or to sublimate suffering, Celan’s poems,” writes Adorno, “articulate unspeakable horror by being silent, thus turning their truth content into a negative quality” (443–44). (Adorno’s famous remark calling poetry after Auschwitz barbaric in fact made special reference to Celan, who responded that in poetry “we know at last where to seek the barbarians” [Glenn 1973: 73]).5 Adorno’s stance generally reconfirms the tension between a theorized textual status as against “empirical reality” and “society,” as he puts it, such that even their rapprochement remains paradoxically oppositional. And even this paradoxical (anti-) reference dissolves in the theorizing of Paul de Man. For de Man (1979: 48), Celan’s poems are “constellations of figures that are inaccessible to meaning and to the senses, located far beyond any concern for life or for death in the hollow space of an unreal sky.” Inaccessible to meaning, empty of sense, beyond concern for life or death, the poem takes place in an unreal space defined only by itself.
It is then part of the poem’s project to recall, deform, and recreate other linguistic events, both intertextual and extratextual. Celan, for example, clearly echoes Stéphane Mallarmé’s 1945 title “Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard” [A throw of the dice will never abolish chance]. Celan himself called his poetic project Mallarméan, a way of “thinking through the consequences of Mallarmé to their end” (1983, 3:194). But he carefully distinguished his own position from what he called the “French,” saying that his poetry “doesn’t glorify, doesn’t poeticize, but names and places, attempts to measure the realm of the given and of the possible” (ibid.: 167). If Mallarmé’s (1982: 80) dictum that “all earthly existence must ultimately be contained in a book” intends a closed, glued, self-referring textual realm, then Celan indeed points in other directions.7 He projects an open, even wild, unpredictable, and constantly deforming course of language.

This penetrates his practice of intertextuality itself. In Celanian language theory, words carry with them prior usages, inevitably and constitutively, from within texts as also from outside texts.