Revelation Freshly Erupting:
The Poetry of Nelly Sachs
These lines date from February 1957.6 In general, Sachs’ work of the 1940s deals specifically with the trauma of the Shoah; but by the later 1950s she is, more and more, intent on eliciting the universal significance of that experience. ‘Behind all the crashing-
One of her Swedish neighbours once rather nicely remarked that Nelly Sachs was ‘egocentric but not egoistic’.8 And this simple formula, I think, takes us straight to the core moral paradox informing her poetry. On the one hand, the same quality of egocentricity that so tragically exposed her to the torments of paranoia was also just what generated her personal compulsion to bear witness, and moreover to do so in such very distinctive personal fashion. Without her (always latently paranoid) egocentricity, she surely would not have written; would not have felt that defiant need to bear anti-
In her egocentricity, Sachs was a natural dissident. She was never a participant in any form of organised religion; her spiritual worldview was, instead, a form of (not in fact especially scholarly) syncretistic mysticism. In Ember Riddles she invokes Christ, but also the Hasidic rabbi known as the Seer of Lublin, and the Buddhist sage Tsong Khapa. She read Simone Weil with enthusiasm; also Jakob Böhme; Martin Buber’s Tales of the Hasidim were important to her. And in 1950, as she was working through her grief after her mother’s death, the rabbi of the Stockholm synagogue gave her a present: Gershom Scholem’s translation of, and commentary on, the opening chapter of the classic late 13th century Kabbalist text, the Zohar, on Creation. She was fascinated by this, not least by the Kabbalists’ breaking down of the text of the Torah, letter by letter; their high-
His pen, his scalpel cut.
The writer of the Zohar surgically drew blood,
pulsing, from the unseen circulation
of the stars, gathered in a cup
the words, the homesick sparks.
The grave split open, the alphabet arose,
each letter was an angel, each a crystal shard,
each held refracted droplets dating from Creation.
These sang. And there, within, glowed
Ruby, jacinth, lapis lazuli,
so many scattered seedlings
not yet stone.
And night, the blackest tiger,
roared; and wounded day
lay writhing there,
in pools of light.
The shining was a mouth tight shut.
An aura, only, showed God hid within the soul.9
The poet gathering the ‘homesick sparks’, the exiled relics, within each human soul, of God’s primordial creative word, ‘Let there be light’: this is core Kabbalist imagery.
‘The shining was a mouth tight shut’: Sachs’ poetry, which begins in an urgent refusal to be silenced, increasingly evolves into an evocation of ecstatic silence. In 1939 she and her mother were compelled by Nazi regulations to sell their flat and provide the authorities with an inventory of its contents. It was probably on this occasion that the incident occurred which she records in her brief lyrical memoir Life Under Threat, when a gang of local Nazi thugs, members of the SS or SA, along with their wives, burst into the flat, and then, right before the eyes of its defenceless owners, proceeded to plunder it. She describes the effect on her of this:
For five days I lived under a witches’ spell, speechless. My voice had taken flight, gone to swim with the fish. It had deserted the body’s other members; they were left standing, in horror, turned to salt. Such was its bewilderment, all real utterance being forbidden, the power of speech abandoned me.10
Why did she so dedicate herself, in exile, to writing? One may see it, very much, as an act of defiant recovery from that traumatic experience of being, in the most literal fashion, silenced by her enemies. But the integrity of her writing, at the same time, represents another silencing; now, on the contrary, one that is internally enacted. For here she herself sets out to silence the clamour of the merely egoistic ego – so as to let the otherwise submerged voice of the soul emerge from underneath.
That which she seeks to suppress does not easily submit. The onslaught of her paranoia is, perhaps, its furious, panicky revenge. Nevertheless, the resultant poetry remains quite unequivocal in its aspiration.
Accordingly, her work embodies the very fiercest possible antithesis to any sort of mere propaganda ideology, appealing to impulses of corporate egoism. The experience of the Shoah caused Paul Celan to lose his faith in God; not so, Sachs. Why not? I think the reason is simply that Sachs’ faith had never, in the slightest degree, been associated with the sort of evangelistic propaganda-
As an outsider to conventional piety in general, Sachs labours to develop a fresh idiom for her faith. What she comes up with is a folkloric sort of style, alternating between the macabre and the tender; one that mixes the very darkest melancholy with a light swirl of fantasy which, notwithstanding that darkness, renders it at times quite unnervingly akin to literature for children. Even when reviewing the most terrible potential arguments for despair, this poetry never loses its childlike buoyancy. It echoes the teaching of Jesus: ‘Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven’. These are poems essentially written for natives of that kingdom.
They are indeed so many little compressed sermon-
Many readers, products of a literary culture filled with an acute suspicion of all preaching, will no doubt tend to have something of an allergic reaction to her rhetoric: ‘Don’t preach at me!’ In a world of mass communications, where authentic poetry finds itself ever more embattled against the language-
Peoples of the earth,
who wrap yourselves around with power
of unknown stars like rolls of thread,
who sew and then unpick again,
who climb your Babel towers
sometimes stinging sometimes being stung –
Peoples of the earth,
do not destroy the universe of words,
nor sever, with your knives of hate,
the voice, coeval with the breath of life.
Peoples of the earth,
let none plan death, and speak of flourishing –
and none, when saying ‘cradle’, mean to kill –
Peoples of the earth,
do not forget what words are for.
But let them nudge our gaze
around to very heaven.
Let them –
folded as a screen behind which gapes the night –
attend the birthing of new constellations.11