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Fahrt ins Staublose


Wer von der Erde kommt

‘This realm of dust’: the transience of everyday banality. The ‘colonies’, the associations of spiritually minded humanity, ‘need no great wharfs’: the literal meaning of the original is that they do not ‘land on the oceans of addicted blood’. This I understand to mean that they properly eschew the addictions associated with glamour, of any kind; the libido dominandi which, for St. Augustine, is the generative principle of the earthly, as opposed to the heavenly, city.

Du in der Nacht

Sachs presented this poem to Paul Celan when they met in Zürich on 25 May 1960, saying, ‘This poem is your poem, it refers to you’. A handwritten version of it dated 8 June 1962, on the other hand, dedicates it to her Swedish friends Bengt and Marrgareta Holmqvist: ‘Margareta – Bengt this is the death-poem of my mother. Tomorrow the 9th is her birthday …’

Mund saugend am Tod

The title, which is also the first two lines, literally rendered, means: ‘Mouth / sucking on death’. I take this to refer to the infancy of the re-born soul. Compare for instance St. Paul’s argument in Romans 5—8 on the general theme of dying in order to live, new life in the Spirit being enabled by a certain death. In the original the closing lines literally mean: ‘whilst the drama of Time / is consecrated / tight-wrapped beneath its icy sweat-cloth’. The allusion, of course, is to the legend of St. Veronica, wiping Christ’s face in his way to crucifixion; so that the cloth then bore the imprint of his features.

Vergebens verbrennen die Briefe

The ‘bonfire’: one may well think of Nazi book-burnings. The crackling flames from the thornbush, however, come from Moses’ encounter with God in the burning bush: Exodus 3: 2. The ‘shadow-show’ I take to be an allusion to the parable of the cave at the beginning of Book VII of Plato’s Republic. In Sachs’ original, the final lines evoke Genesis 1: 1. I have added the reference to ‘the Word’, which evokes John 1: 1.

Ich weiß nicht mehr

‘White-hot bubblings–up of hidden bitterness’: the original literally refers to ‘the flaming almond-kernel of the earth’. The bitterness of the almond is perhaps a specific reference to the Holocaust. But this was written in the autumn of 1960, a time when Sachs was, in any case, mentally very ill.

Der Umriss /The Outline

‘The void before Creation’: Genesis 1: 2. Why ‘prophetic’ waterways? I think of Hölderlin’s river-poems; Sachs certainly loved Hölderlin’s work Or is it simply that water, here, becomes an image of divine truth: at first tolerably contained between banks, but then flooding out, with catastrophic effect? And who is the ‘you’ at the end? It might be her mother; or, possibly, the ‘dead bridegroom’ of In the Habitations of Death.

In diesem Amethyst

Sachs’ father was a collector of geologically notable stones. The collection was lost when she emigrated; and in her post-War application for compensation, as a victim of Nazi expropriation, she makes particular reference to an exceptionally large violet-coloured amethyst that he had had. After his death in 1930, whilst she was still in Berlin, each year on his birthday she used to go and lay a violet on his grave.