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Revelation Freshly Erupting:

The Poetry of Nelly Sachs

Page 2

   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-down screens’: the ‘screens’ that she has in mind surely include all forms of religion infected by a will to anaesthesia, when it comes to the most difficult realities. Her poetry, as a whole, enacts the downfall she invokes here. The poem speaks of mute victim-grief: the ‘pearly eyes of the fish’ are, for her, a recurrent image of this. (Since their environment is salt water, they are associated with tears; and through the ichthys symbol, also, with the crucified Christ.) As one finds throughout her writing, such grief is juxtaposed here to a series of images representing defiant creative hope. But, chiefly, she is stepping back. The immediacy of encounter with the other person, and hence with God, is framed by a contemplation of vast elemental processes: the suffering of the fish is seen precisely as belonging to ‘so many seas’. And then the constellations – she is forever returning to the vastness of the night sky. Indeed, both aspects are typical: both the urgent direct engagement with the grief of the Other, and yet at the same time the bid for distance, the perspective from eternity. This is the moral-healing process of her work, in the sense of a struggle to rise above the temptations of resentment, by setting aside the immediate earthly concerns of the injured ego.7

   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-anaesthetic witness. Yet here, on the other hand, we have an intense egocentricity sublated into the most radical turning away from egoism. That is from the egoism equally informing both the necessary moral anaesthesia of the persecutors and that of their cowed victims as such, each recoiling into private silence.

   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-sacramental sense of God’s indwelling presence within each individual letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The anonymous author of the Zohar became for her a pre-eminent symbol of poetry, in its most sacred calling:

 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-assurance which such a trauma might be supposed to invalidate. No matter how great the suffering she reports, it is never for her an argument against faith. A number of her poems refer to the biblical figure of Job as a symbol of the very utmost affliction; none of them, though, echo Job’s complaint that almighty God has treated him unjustly. Indeed it does not seem that she conceived of God as being almighty, in this sense, at all. There is no egoism in her tragic faith, no element of laying claim to promised rewards. On the contrary, that is just what it means to call such faith ‘tragic’. It is equal to even the greatest tragedy: a purely ego-transcendent, and therefore in principle unwavering, affirmation of the world’s ultimate loveliness, as God’s creation, come what may.

   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-fragments. This poetry dedicated to the overthrow of the egoistic ego is forever pointing beyond the particularity of the poet’s own personal experience. With magnificent egocentricity she immediately seeks to transform her experience, preacher-fashion, into a direct representation of the most universal moral themes. Hence, I guess, her resolute secrecy as to the actual identity of the ‘dead bridegroom’. There is a literary logic to this: for the purposes of her poetry, her love for the ‘bridegroom’ is significant only insofar as it is rendered archetypal. So too, in her Jewish-religious work of the later 1940s and 1950s, she reproduces the classic, foundational manoeuvre of the Kabbalist tradition, to interpret the whole historic fate of the Jewish people in archetypal terms. The particular Jewish experience of exile appears here as paradigmatic for the universal exile, from Eden, of post-Adamic humanity generally. It is, in that sense, a revelatory vocation.

   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-habits of mere propaganda, resistance to the crudely prescriptive nature of propaganda-speak may well spill over into an altogether more general preference, in principle, for non-prescriptive modesty, moral obliqueness. But Sachs represents the rhetorical opposite. She does so, indeed, with sublime shamelessness. And this, above all, is what constitutes the distinctive spiritual quality of her work; as it nevertheless still remains so absolutely, in the proper sense, anti-propagandistic. As, for instance, appears with especial directness in the following address to the ‘peoples of the earth’, written in 1946:

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

like beehive-builders, and patrol

the sweetness

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