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Revelation Freshly Erupting:

The Poetry of Nelly Sachs

Page 3

   So she prophesies, against the spirit of propaganda in general. This is what one might term her preaching voice.

   But there are I think, behind all of her major work, two basic impulses more or less in tension with one another. On the one hand: the prophetic or preaching impulse, tending towards flamboyant rhetorical appeal. And on the other hand: a counter-impulse, giving rise to a more chastened voice. Here, in ‘Peoples of the earth’, the former impulse prevails. The counter-impulse appears only in the characteristic slashing of the text with dashes, its marked catches of breath.

   In her later writing, however, the counter-impulse tends to grow stronger. Her voice becomes quieter. Silence, more and more palpably, swells around it. The poems seem increasingly like found objects, fallen branches, whittled into shape but still fragmentary; epiphanies, presented at an ever greater remove from discursive argument; speech acts essentially opening up to, and celebratory of, attentive listening. Thus, compare in particular the much later poem, from Ember Riddles, ‘These millennia’:

 These millennia

 puffed up

 and ever circling round some angry catchword

 out of the sun’s beehive

 second after stinging second

 savage aggressors

 secret torturers

 Never a breathing space as once in Ur

 where a childish people tugged white ribbons

 in their game of sleep-ball with the moon –

 Along the street a woman

 runs at breakneck speed

 wanting medication for her infant child

 Vowels and consonants

 cry out in every language:


   Gisela Dischner has highlighted the specific contrast between ‘Peoples of the earth’ and ‘These millennia’: linked as they are by the imagery of the beehive, for the corruption of propagandist language.13 The reference to the Tower of Babel in the former is replaced, in the latter, by the curious description of the ‘childish’ people of Ur playing their ‘game of sleep-ball with the moon’. Ur is the birthplace of Abram / Abraham, the Babylonian city from which he first departed on his primordial quest for freedom. So its pagan moon-cult becomes for Sachs a symbol of the ultimate antithesis to freedom in general, totalitarian mindlessness – only in a more primitive, less frenzied form than modern totalitarianism. However, it is not only the imagery that has evolved, over the twenty years or so that separates the one poem from the other. The direct exhortation that fills ‘Peoples of the earth’ has also receded. Not that the later poem by any means rescinds the moral urgency of the earlier. But it preserves it by stepping back to observe it in action, as if from some altogether quieter place, beyond. Human language as a whole is a sick child, in immediate need of medicine. True poetry, maternally clamouring for God’s aid, is that medicine: it is Pentecost, reversing Babel. The earlier poem participates in the clamour; the later one observes and affirms it, but does so from elsewhere.

   For my part, I actually discovered Sachs’ work quite by chance, browsing one day through a bookshop in Marburg an der Lahn, during a year I spent there, 1983—4, as a postgraduate student on a scholarship from the World Council of Churches. I started translating it just because, I have to confess, my German is not good enough properly to appreciate German poetry without that little bit of extra effort; and have been at it, off and on, ever since. Much of her work has appeared in earlier translations, divided between Michael Hamburger, Ruth and Matthew Mead, Michael Roloff, and Christopher Holme: most of her lyric poetry, and her verse play Eli, although not yet any of her several other dramas.14 My own approach as a translator, however, is different from theirs, in that I am rather more concerned (I think) to try and make my translations sound so far as possible like poems originally written in English. The earlier translations, by contrast, seem deliberately to advertise their nature as translations, sticking a good deal closer than I do to Sachs’ own German speech patterns. This approach in my view actually works better in Hamburger’s translations of Paul Celan. But my project here has been to try and render Sachs’s work into the most straightforward English I can.15

   In her short acceptance speech when receiving the award of the Nobel Prize, Sachs chose to read one short poem as a representative example of her work as a whole. Written in 1957, these lines perfectly encapsulate her distinctive sense of poetic vocation:

For the fugitive

what wealth of welcome

on the way –


in the cloth of winds

feet fixed within the prayer of sand

which never reaches its amen  

for it must pass

by way of fin to wing

and then beyond –

The ailing butterfly’s

no stranger to the sea –

This stone

inscribed with insect-speech

was placed into my hand –

Deprived of home  

I hold the transformations of the world – 16

   The thought here follows a sort of hieroglyphic logic. In the bourgeois world of Sachs’ childhood it was common practice for people to collect amber, with the fossilised remains of insects in it, for a hobby. Likewise, this poetry offers itself, long term, as the fossilised imaginative record of a lost form of life. It is, in essence, ‘fugitive’ poetry: fleeing cruelty, and therefore also fleeing the concomitant distortions of everyday speech. But the flight is, equally, an ascent. It reproduces the evolution from ‘fin to wing’. Again, ‘fin’ evokes the image of the hooked fish, as a symbol of mute affliction. The whole work of this poetry is to sublate intensities of grief into equivalently intense affirmations of ever-resurgent ‘winged’ hope.

   Yet, how can resurgent hope, in such a context, be preserved from lapsing into, and being tainted by, dreams of revenge? In a sense, this question is really Sachs’ central moral preoccupation as a poet. How to purify potentially toxic memory: bearing witness to experiences of fantastic cruelty, without being at all corrupted, in so doing, by the natural mimetic influence of what is remembered? When for example, in September 1948, the UN peace envoy to Palestine, Swedish diplomat Folke Bernadotte was assassinated by Israeli militants belonging to the Lehi group she responded with a poem framed as a prayer, ‘that the persecuted should not become persecutors’. How best then, in general, to mix grieving commemoration of one’s own victim people with the spirit of that urgent injunction?15 The question is a constant lurking presence, in the background to her thought. And here it breaks through, by implication at least, fore-grounded in the image of the ‘sick butterfly’. Thus, the ‘sick butterfly’, as it submerges into the sea – that is, into the universal – is precisely an ideal symbol of grief-rendered-hopeful which does not, after all, insist upon its particularity. Or therefore upon what it is owed: its particular entitlements, either in terms of reward or revenge.

   The fugitive poet stands with her ‘feet in the prayer of sand’. One may think of the sand of Sinai, and hence of the Exodus story; or of Jesus withdrawn into the desert, and confronting the Devil, on the eve of his public ministry. Sachs repeatedly also speaks of the sand in an hour glass, sifting sand, as an image of mortality. This is poetry addressed to each one of us in the desert where we have to face our own mortality. I have said that I find Sachs’ work ‘revelatory’. It is revelatory, in the first instance, just by virtue of its witness-bearing proximity to such vast historic trauma; events that, in themselves, cast so lurid a light over the whole history of Rabbinic and Christian religious tradition, to the extent that everything appears transformed in it. But that is not all. For at the same time, of all the witnesses, Sachs is (to the best of my knowledge) unique in the particular quality of contemplative prayerfulness that she brings to bear on the events.

   Thus her writing rests, with singularly elemental power, on a double refusal. Not only does she refuse, come what may, to lapse into soft anaesthetic despair. But also she refuses to let her moral resolve snap, in fury. Indeed, she writes not least, I think, precisely so as to establish that, after all, her afflictions have not broken her, either way: she can still write, to the same intent.

   To begin with, that basic double refusal serves to inform a tender commemoration of the murdered. Then, in her later work the same double refusal appears, so to speak, stripped bare; presented for its own sake. And it is rendered, there, all the more poignant by the sheer severity of the damage that she has, by now, in actual fact sustained. Her writing self remains, right to the end, a little citadel of sanity. Or rather: a far-flung outpost of God’s truth, inserted deep into enemy territory, and still holding out, even though as time goes by it grows ever more beleaguered. In ‘For the fugitive’, she describes this outpost, the site of her poetry, as being


 in the cloth of winds.

   It lies equally exposed to the winds of a harsh fate and the breathing of the Holy Spirit; all mixed up together.

   Reading her, I am simply moved to salute her tragic faith.