“Black milk of morning we drink you at night”

A series of six paintings (gouache, charcoal, graphite, ink and mixed media on A3 paper) and a recording of what Walter Kaufmann called probably the greatest German poem since World War  II. Article 2 and the first few lines of Article 3 of the Paris Agreement appear in #4. The poem line “Black milk of morning we drink you at night” (“Schwarze Milch der Frühe trinken dich nachts”) appears in all but the last painting in the series, which reads instead: “Black shore of fact we reach you but in wreck.”

Already I can no longer remember which came first: the Kaufmann reading that sent me looking for the poem (he couldn’t get a reply from the widow to publish it in his bilingual collection of German poetry), the discovery of many lovely Anselm Kiefer paintings dealing with it, or the itch to make more poem-paintings like I used to, years ago… An itch that has been growing stronger since seeing Sharka Hyland’s Textzeichnungen (text drawings) at Galerie Dittmar (Berlin) on the heels of reviewing the Schirn’s ongoing Magritte exhibit (Frankfurt). Some artists and philosophers (e.g., Magritte and Plato) have wanted to put primary on images or words, but they go together like sustainable civilization and a habitable planet.

After President Trump’s withdrawal last week of the U.S. from the Paris Agreement, positivists can more or less agree that civilization as we know it is doomed from climate change. Its use as a marker is heuristic; we were already pretty much there. Paris was widely criticized as too weak (and unenforceable), but the Overton window remains too far right for that discussion to be widespread right now. Like Hegel’s owl of Minerva flying at dusk, we drink the black milk of the knowledge of our demise when it is too late to do much more than hope to later have the political power and technological capacity to mitigate the catastrophic effects of climate change and poverty—particularly their joint, vastly disproportionate impacts on the global south, which are likely to kill at least an order of magnitude more people than Hitler did.

“Death Fugue/Todesfuge
By Paul Celan, trans. Jerome Rothenberg

 

Black milk of morning we drink you at dusktime
we drink you at noontime and dawntime we drink you at night
we drink and drink
we scoop out a grave in the sky where it’s roomy to lie
There’s a man in this house who cultivates snakes and who writes
who writes when it’s nightfall nach Deutschland your golden hair Margareta
he writes it and walks from the house and the stars all start flashing he whistles his
dogs to draw near
whistles his Jews to appear starts us scooping a grave out of sand
he commands us to play for the dance

Black milk of morning we drink you at night
we drink you at dawntime and noontime we drink you at dusktime
we drink and drink
There’s a man in this house who cultivates snakes and who writes
who writes when it’s nightfall nach Deutschland your golden hair Margareta
your ashen hair Shulamite we scoop out a grave in the sky where it’s roomy to lie
He calls jab it deep in the soil you lot there you other men sing and play
he tugs at the sword in his belt he swings it his eyes are blue
jab your spades deeper you men you other men you others play up again for the dance

Black milk of morning we drink you at night
we drink you at noontime and dawntime we drink you at dusktime
we drink and drink
there’s a man in this house your golden hair Margareta
your ashen hair Shulamite he cultivates snakes

He calls play that death thing more sweetly Death is a gang-boss aus Deutschland
he calls scrape that fiddle more darkly then hover like smoke in the air
then scoop out a grave in the clouds where it’s roomy to lie

Black milk of morning we drink you at night
we drink you at noontime Death is a gang-boss aus Deutschland
we drink you at dusktime and dawntime we drink and drink
Death is a gang-boss aus Deutschland his eye is blue
he shoots you with leaden bullets his aim is true
there’s a man in this house your golden hair Margareta
he sets his dogs on our trail he gives us a grave in the sky
he cultivates snakes and he dreams Death is a gang-boss aus Deutschland

your golden hair Margareta
your ashen hair Shulamite

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