By John Felstiner
Celan was a Romanian Jew who wrote in German and drowned himself in Paris in 1970. His parents died in the camps in World War II. His poem, "Deathfugue," with its black, insistent rhythms and wicked imagery, is justly famous as the voice of the victims. He has that quality of greatness that changes your sense of what language can do—in his case, in circumstances of appalling difficulty. John Felstiner's excellent biography is full (as good biographies of poets should be but so often aren't) of the poems themselves, both in German and in Felstiner's own excellent English translations. They are not easy poems, but Felstiner makes us see how they work and how they came to be.