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Revelation Freshly Erupting:

The Poetry of Nelly Sachs


 1. See the discussion in Elaine Martin, Nelly Sachs: The Poetics of Silence and the Limits of Representation  (Berlin / Boston: Walter de Gruyter, 2011).

2. ‘What Is Truth?’ Towards a Theological Poetics (London: Routledge, 2001).

3. See Aris Fioretos, Nelly Sachs, Flight and Metamorphosis: An Illustrated Biography, English translation by Tomas Tranaeus (Redwood City, Cal.: Stanford University Press, 2012).

4. Letter to Gisela Dischner, 12. VII. 1966. See Gisela Dischner, ‘Zu den Gedichten von Nelly Sachs’, in Bengt Holmqvist, ed., Das Buch der Nelly Sachs (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1977), p. 311.

5. On the concept of ‘tragic faith’: see Vincent Lloyd and Elliot Ratzman, ‘Secular Faith as Tragic Faith’, in their co-edited book, Secular Faith (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, Cascade Books, 2010).

6. Originally published in the collection Und Niemand weiß weiter, 1957. See Nelly Sachs, Werke, ed. Aris Fioretos, Vol. 2, ed. Ariane Huml and Matthias Weichelt (Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2010), pp. 50-51.

7. This ultimate austerity, essentially, is what links her to Simone Weil; whose work she discovered in 1952, when Weil’s Gravity and Grace was first published in German. In a letter to Walter Berendsohn dated 7 June 1952, she writes: ‘For several days and nights I was completely submerged in Simone Weil, until with beating hard I finally had to desist, since [her work] is such potent wine, in the end it is almost life-threatening’ (Berendsohn, Nelly Sachs Darmstadt, 1974, p. 197; and see also pp. 169—70.) Of course, she recoils from Weil’s harsh anti-Judaism. And yet, in a brief essay entitled ‘Stille and Schmerz’ (‘Silence and Pain’) she nevertheless acclaims Weil as ‘a new saint for a new age’. And remarks, ‘The new saint has stripped herself of the cheapened and worn-out garments of consolation and pity’. Thus, for Sachs, Weil pre-eminently represents a form of faith altogether purged of consolation, or religiously licensed self-pity. Against Weil, she protests that this is also, absolutely, a major element in Jewish religious tradition as such; notably present for instance in the Kabbalism of the Zohar, of which Weil remains oblivious.  And yet, with that one crucial proviso, she otherwise enthusiastically endorses Weil’s metaphysical world-view. See Erika Schweizer, Geistliche Geschwisterschaft: Nelly Sachs und Simone Weil – eine theologische Diskurs (Mainz: Matthias-Grünewald-Verlag, 2005). Schweizer includes the full text of ‘Stille und Schmerz’, pp. 485—7; also a commentary: pp. 92—6; plus a close reading of Sachs’ poem ‘In Wüsten gehn’, dedicated to Weil’s memory, pp. 477—84.

8. Fioretos, Nelly Sachs, Flight and Metamorphosis, p. 231.

9. From Und Niemand weiß weiter; originally written at some point in 1950—2. Werke, Vol. 2, p. 39.

10. Fioretos, Nelly Sachs, Flight and Metamorphosis, pp. 99—101.

11. From Sternverdunkelung, 1949. Werke, Vol. 1, ed. Matthias Weichelt (Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2010), pp. 91—2.

12. Werke, Vol. 2, pp. 183—4.

13. Dischner, ‘Zu den Gedichten von Nelly Sachs’, in Holmqvist, Das Buch der Nelly Sachs, pp. 348—53.

14. Nelly Sachs, O The Chimneys: Selected Poems, including the verse play, ELI (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1967); The Seeker, and other poems (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1970). Bilingual texts.

   These two volumes cover most, but not quite all, the poems included in the various collections Sachs published in her lifetime. They leave out the lyric poetry in her posthumously published collection, Teile dich Nacht, ed. Margaretha Holmqvist and Bengt Holmqvist (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1971); as well as the poems in the collected Werke, Vol. 2, published in magazines but not included in larger collections; and the unpublished verse in Werke, Vols. 1 and 2.

   Sachs’ dramatic works were originally published in two volumes: Zeichen im Sand (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1962) and Verzauberung. Späte szenische Dichtungen (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1970).

15. See also the admirable translations by Catherine Sommers: Poems of Nelly Sachs in English: Beauty for Ashes; https://nellysachsenglish.wordpress.com.

16. From Flucht und Verwandlung, 1959. Werke, Vol. 2, pp. 73—4.

17. In Sternverdunkelung, 1949. Werke, Vol. 1, pp. 49—50.

   Later, too, in the same spirit she quixotically petitioned David Ben-Gurion, as President of Israel, against the execution of Adolf Eichmann; not because she in any way doubted Eichmann’s guilt as an agent of the Shoah, but rather because, in general, she looked for long term reconciliation in symbolic gestures of non-vengefulness. The intervention was complicated by her circumstances at the time: in March 1962, when she despatched the letter, she was still undergoing treatment at Beckomberga psychiatric hospital. Nor does it seem that any of her friends supported her. ‘Such egocentricity!’ they thought. (See Fioretos, Nelly Sachs, Flight und Metamorphosis, pp. 254—6.) But her standpoint is at any rate consistent. And her ironic anticipatory comment, perhaps, on her friends’ opposition is to be found in the poem ‘Everywhere Jerusalem’, which she dated to the day when the Eichmann trial started, the previous year; and to which she also added the superscription ‘In mourning’. Thus, the poem (included in Noch Feiert Tod das Leben, 1961, Werke, Vol. 2, p. 148) speaks of a sick prophetess. But it concludes with the line:

 There in the scattering of her wits lies hidden gold –