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Flucht und Verwandlung:


Wer zuletzt hier stirbt

Unless otherwise remarked, all the poems in Flucht und Verwandlung date from 1958. This is one of the exceptions: written in late 1957.

   Here the representative suffering of Christ (‘mortal torment … hammered home into eternity’) is projected forwards onto the figure of the representative last human individual at the end of time.

   But then Noah’s ark appears, as a symbol of humanity’s primordial condition of exile, our not-being-at-home in the world; as Noah was driven from home by the Flood. This is the primordial exile which is recapitulated in Nelly Sachs’s own experience of exile, and more generally in the exile of the Jewish people. First, it is vastly projected onto the heavens. For it is, in general, the primary context of divine revelation: God is revealed to those who are shaken out of being-at-home in the world. But then it is abruptly shrunk. The ark mutates into a shoe, filled with water, in which a tiny fish is swimming. The fish, in Sachs’s poetry is always a symbol of dumb, silenced victimhood. And the sudden spectacular shift in scale, from the heavens to an old shoe, surely represents the way that she, in her poetry, is working through the great trauma of the Holocaust. She sets this trauma, immediately evoked by the image of the fish, into the very largest possible context: here, the whole history of humankind, inasmuch as she contemplates the end of that history as a whole. And by so doing, she is as it were shrinking the unmanageable trauma itself, by contrast to the vast context. She wants to escape the survivor’s acute temptation to soul-destroying sheer bitterness and vengefulness; in that sense, she seeks a degree of contemplative detachment from the trauma. Her poetry is a project of viewing the world, with all its horrors – in Spinoza’s phrase – sub specie aeternitatis, from the perspective of eternity. The fish swimming in the shoe is, then, an image encapsulating that whole project.

Dies ist der dunkle Atem

Again, this poem consists of a series of images encapsulating Sachs’s poetic enterprise as a whole: responding to the primordial corruption of humanity, represented by Sodom and Nineveh, as it is resurgent in the present day; yet, nevertheless still upholding a chastened faith (as Nineveh, in the book of Jonah, unlike Sodom, in Genesis, did after all repent); and resolutely facing up to the reality of horrors from which one would far rather avert one’s eyes.

   Laocoon was a Trojan priest who warned his people to beware the wooden horse apparently left behind by the Greeks, in which a host of soldiers had in fact been hidden. He and his sons were strangled by two snakes; the subject of a famous Greek statue (c. 50 BCE). Here, this statue becomes a symbol, artistically representing the artistic representation of human misery, generally. Such representation is itself, at one level, repellent. Yet, it is surely also a necessary discipline of compassion.

Wie leicht wird Erde sein

Here Sachs simply projects one major element in the mix of her poetry as a whole – her pursuit of detached contemplative serenity – to its ultimate extreme.

Jäger mein Sternbild

In this poem, juxtaposed no doubt for the sake of contrast to the serenity of the preceding one, we have another no less primary element of her work: a projection, onto the heavens, of her experience of exile. The constellation of the Hunter is, of course, Orion. But Sachs writes from the standpoint of the Hunted.

So weit ins Freie gebettet

Sleep, in Sachs’s poetry, represents both a lovely respite from harsh reality – and also a spiritually deadly temptation (therefore) of flight from her poetic calling to bear witness. Here the first aspect gives way to the second. The foaming sea represents her poetic calling; in pursuit of which, however, she is immediately re-exposed to the anguish encapsulated in the image of the sower-sun.

Heilige Minute erfüllt vom Abschied

Sachs’s work as a whole begins with mourning. Here, this mourning is linked to three signs of the zodiac: Aries, the ram, the first sign (March 21 – April 19); Pisces, the fish, the last sign (February 19 – March 20); and Leo, the lion, (July 23 – August 22), traditionally associated in ancient mystery cults with the reign of the sun. As in the immediately preceding poem, exposure to the sun here, in the first instance, represents exposure to grief. Yet, that is immediately reversed, as the lion’s paw becomes a hand, working a spindle, spinning a protective cocoon of sleep. Thus, this poem is a companion piece to So weit ins Freie gebettet: following a reverse movement. For poetic insight surely requires both exposure and shelter.

In der Flucht welch großer Empfang

When Sachs (jointly with Shemu’el Yosef Agnon) received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1966 this was the poem she chose to read at the award ceremony. It dates from late 1957. ‘For the fugitive / what wealth of welcome’: literally of course, and especially in the Swedish context of that event, this might be applied to the refuge that she herself had found in Stockholm. But in a letter of 10.9.1965 to Hilde Domin she had in fact specifically written, ‘It has nothing at all to do with my living in Sweden’! First and foremost she is thinking in the most universal terms of fallen humanity’s exile from Eden. The ‘prayer of sand’ is the prayer of fallen humanity as such: sand is an often repeated image in her work for human finitude and mortality. This prayer, as represented in her poetry, passes ‘by way of fin to wing’: it begins in the experience of silenced victimhood represented by the dumbness of a hooked fish; before evolving, as it were, into the soaring flight of imaginative creativity. The image of the wing shifts into the image of the butterfly, and then into that of the insect, preserved as a fossil in a stone. The butterfly is ‘ailing’: it represents a creativity infused with yearning for release from the constraints attendant upon human fallenness as such. This release – ambiguously, both into death and into eternal life – is represented by the sea. Collecting fossils was a very widespread practice amongst the well-to-do bourgeoisie of Berlin, in the time of Sachs’s youth. The stone with the fossil in it is ‘placed’ into the poet’s hand: this surely represents the poem itself. It is a poem which celebrates the ‘transformations of the world’, which it imaginatively reflects.

Tänzerin bräutlich

Again: a poem dating from late 1957. Dancer, bride, mother, nurse, milkmaid: all of these are surely images for a certain sort of ideal artistic creativity.

Kind kind im Orkan des Abschieds

This is another work of late 1957. One might relate this poem to the saying of Jesus in Matthew18: 3, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (also Mark 10: 15, Luke 18: 17). Thus, its central metaphor is another image for the artistic creativity which it, in itself, also exemplifies. In this case: a faintly comic image, to begin with. ‘Inadvertently’ is, admittedly, my own addition, not quite there in the German original. Nevertheless, I think it does fit.

Zwischen deinen Augenbrauen

The poet addresses herself; refuses self-pity.

Sieh doch sieh doch

Here is the Kabbalistic figure of Adam Kadmon – the flawed-divine giant, representing the spiritual ideal of universal humanity as such – transposed into a modern urban context.

Aber vielleicht haben wir vor Irrtum Rauchende

The poet addresses God – and celebrates, in effect, what Hegel calls ‘the cunning of Reason’. (Not that she actually has Hegel in mind! Sachs is not an academically minded poet.) Again, this poem dates from late 1957.

Im Alter der Leib wird umwickelt

This poem, one might say, contrasts two forms of troubled passivity: that which belongs to the order of nature and that which belongs to the order of grace. The last line (in the original, ‘Wieder ist Gott reisefertig’) actually reappears in a letter Sachs wrote to her friend, the German-Jewish literary scholar and fellow-exile in Sweden, Walter A. Berendsohn, dated 13. 10. 1960. There she links it to the pathos of Hölderlin’s poem, ‘An Landauer’: a celebration of domestic bliss, glimpsed by the tormented solitary poet in the home-life of his friend, which he shared for some months in late 1800, the last real respite in his life before his final wanderings, and descent into insanity.  

Uneinnehmbar ist eure nur aus Segen errichtete Festung

Here Sachs defines the essence of her particular poetic vocation: as a process of ‘Durchschmerzen’ (‘suffering-through’, line 22). No amount of poetic skill or flair will ever suffice without this.

David erwählt

For the story of David bringing the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem, and dancing before it, in defiance of the contempt for him that this evoked, for instance, in the heart of Saul’s daughter Michal: see 2 Samuel 6: 12—23. The story vindicates David in this instance. Yet, he remains a great sinner: as is illustrated above all in his subsequent plot to bring about the death of Uriah the Hittite, so as to marry Uriah’s widow Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11: 1  – 12: 14). Due to the mythic attribution of the Psalms to him, David is also, of course, the primary Biblical symbol of poetry as such.

As regards the great cry of Jesus: see Matthew 27: 50—4; Mark 15: 33—9; Luke 23: 44—7.

Einer wird den Ball

The star-imagery in Sachs’s poetry, in general, is a key part of her strategy for both monumentalising the trauma of the Holocaust, and yet also seeking to set it in the largest possible context, so as to gain the requisite emotional distance to rise above a response of mere vengeful bitterness. The ‘reapers’ here I take to be the angels of the Last Judgement.

Mischung dieser Mutter

After the principled affirmation of defiant hope in the preceding poem, in this one by contrast we taste a sweet despair.

Gerettet fällt vieles

Again, distancing herself from the immediacy of her people’s plight, Sachs places herself in a distant future, looking back upon it in the manner of a fossil collector. The experience is solidified: on the one hand, as a stone; on the other hand, as a glass-blown sculpture, showing a representative scene of concentration-camp grief. And the breath preserved in the glass is the breath of the Holy Spirit.

So ist’s gesagt

The Hebrew myth of the Fall of Adam mutates into a Chinese work of art, a mandala image designed as an aid to meditation. Why a Chinese mandala? I suppose: just because of Chinese culture’s remoteness from specifically Hebrew culture. For the truth to which the Hebrew tradition, at this basic point, bears witness is after all an envisioning of the universal human condition, a radically trans-cultural reality.

Vertriebene aus Wohnungen

A group of fugitives: a scene from the Holocaust, or indeed from any other historic moment persecution. ‘Their prayer’s as skinned / and sightless / as was Job’s’ – compare, in particular, Job 19: 25—6. This was written in late 1957.

Kleiner Frieden in der durchsichtigen Stunde

A moment of respite, in a cemetery: fragmentary memories of comfortable bourgeois life from before the catastrophe of the Holocaust. But the moment is transitory.

Hier ist kein Bleiben länger

A literal translation of the final two lines would be: ‘It’s time to fly / only with our body’.

Mutter Meerzeitgeblüh

Writing my slightly loose imitation of this poem, as a Christian priest, I felt it to be addressed to the Blessed Virgin Mary; the ‘lark-like outcry’ referring to the insurrectionary spirit of the Magnificat.

Und überall der Mensch in der Sonne

I have imported the name ‘Abel’ into the first stanza of this poem; nevertheless, I think it is implicit in Sachs’ original. The ‘detritus’ of the second stanza I take to be, in general, religious and ethical traditions unequal to the task of responding to a catastrophe such as the Holocaust. By contrast, Sachs’s work itself participates quite directly in the agitation of the ‘four winds’ scarf’ in the third and fourth stanzas. What I refer to as a ‘literary picnic’ Sachs herself refers to as a strawberry-picking expedition; the scarf being filled with strawberries. But she describes it as an expedition in the ‘forests of language’, so ‘literary picnic’ is hopefully not inappropriate. (And I somehow find myself thinking of Manet’s great, albeit rather silly, painting, ‘La déjeuner sur l’herbe’!) In a letter of 12. 7. 1966 to Paul Kersten, Sachs rejects his suggestion that she has drawn the imagery here from Kabbalist tradition: “This is my own image for the present day world, and has nothing at all to do with Kabbala”. Yet, there is a striking contrast between the imagery of the second stanza and the Kabbalist strategy of investing every single letter of the sacred Hebrew texts with rich meaning. As regards the cherub (a ‘weather-cherub’, Wettercherub, in the original) who knots the scarf: note that the angels whom God posted at the gates of Eden after Adam and Eve’s expulsion (Genesis 3: 24) were cherubim.