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Flucht und Verwandlung:

Notes - Part 2

Lange sichelte Jakob

This poem refers centrally to Rembrandt’s painting, ‘Jacob blesses his grandchildren Ephraim and Manasseh’ (1656). The biblical story is to be found in Genesis 48: on his deathbed the patriarch blesses the two sons of Joseph, born to Joseph’s Egyptian wife Asenath, incorporating their descendants, alongside the descendants of Joseph’s brothers, into the twelve tribes of Israel. He crosses his hands: lays his right hand on the head of the younger, Ephraim, and his left on the head of the older, Manasseh, so giving priority to the former. Joseph seeks to correct this, in traditional terms, mis-direction of the blessings. But Jacob obstinately persists.

There is also an allusion to Pharoah’s dreaming in Genesis 41: the seven withered ears of grain which follow the seven good ones. As Joseph rightly interprets the dream, these of course refer to seven years of famine, affecting the people of Egypt and their neighbours, following seven years of plenty. But here the seven years have become ‘many centuries’ (in the German indeed Jahrtausende, ‘millennia’). And the harvester is specifically Joseph’s father, representing the people of Israel in general. So the image becomes a symbol for the whole exile-aspect of Jewish history; especially, after the destruction of the second Jerusalem Temple by the Romans in 70AD.

The story depicted in Rembrandt’s painting was perhaps originally an allegory for the relationship between the northern and southern kingdoms of Israel and Judah. But it invites further allegorical readings; and has notably sometimes been taken as an image for the relationship between rabbinic Judaism and Christianity. Is this what is intended by Sachs? The last two lines of the poem – read in conjunction with the millennial metaphor of the withered grain – certainly seem to suggest it.

So what then are we to make of the mis-direction of the blessing here? Jacob’s blindness is surely intended as a metaphor for traditional Judaism’s impervious rejection of the sort of worldly wisdom represented by Joseph: its refusal to assimilate to the Christian or Islamic cultures within which it found itself. The outcome is represented by lightning and wildfire. But the poem is not exactly an invitation to lament. Is it not, rather, an invitation to celebrate Jacob’s heroic visionary ferocity?

Hallelujah bei der Geburt eines Felsens

The epigraph is from Job 5: 23. In the German original, however, Sachs has it in an extended form not to be found in any actual translation: ‘Selbst die Steine umarmen wir – / wir haben einen Pakt mit ihnen geschlossen’, ‘We embrace even the stones – / we have made a pact with them’.

Commenting on this poem in a letter of 24. 2. 1967 to Robert Kahn, Sachs writes, ‘The poem “Hallelujah” is a cosmic poem, it has nothing at all to do with other things, such as the literal birth of a rock. And where I add Biblical or Hasidic epigraphs, these are not meant to define the whole point of the poem’.

In a letter of 17. 7. 1958 she writes to Peter Hamm, ‘I’m so troubled by everything, and now this failing of the gift for peace-making between nations. This gift [instead] for devising new weapons of mass destruction. At which, out of sheer despair, I find myself turning again and again to the glorious power of Nature, its sheer irrepressibility, as in “Birth of a Rock”’.

The irrepressibility, above all, of human nature, in its better possibilities: hence, the sea-birds’ nests along the cliff metaphorically become ‘a sanctuary / for singed and light-bewildered / fugitives / or for the shivering alchemist’. The latter image is my rendering of two lines more literally translated by Ruth and Matthew Mead as ‘chemistry dead with cold / in secret conversation of decampment’. But is not Sachs herself, indeed, both fugitive and alchemist: transmuting the base metal of her refugee-existence into the gold of poetry?

The medusa is the final stage in the life-cycle of jellyfish; named after the Medusa, the gorgon slain, in Greek mythology, by Perseus. She had venomous snakes for hair. To gaze directly upon her was to be turned to stone. Perseus cut off her head; then laid it down on a bed of seaweed. The seaweed instantly turned into blood coral.

Schon reden knisternde farbige Bänder

The rainbow is the heavenly sign of hope signalling God’s new covenant with Noah and his children, after the Flood, in Genesis 9: 1—17. Sachs eagerly welcomed whatever signs she could see of a new generation appearing in Germany, with quite different moral attitudes from those which had prevailed during the Nazi period; that great Flood of modern times. In the period of the Cold War, especially with its associated nuclear proliferation, on the other hand, her hopes are qualified. Hence, the shining of the night sky here becomes the glitter of a vast casino. Hope and despair are juxtaposed, in unresolved tension.

Schlaf webt das Atemnetz

The words of Holy Scripture, or indeed any other revelatory literature, are here envisaged in quasi-Australian terms as the corporate ‘dreaming’ of a whole culture. As such they are a potential net for catching truth – but what, then, does it take for that potential to be fulfilled?

Es springt dieses Jahrhundert

In normal times civility contains the potentially demoralizing experience of other people’s death within a ‘funerary shell’; not so in the world of Auschwitz.

‘Berenice’s hair’ (coma berenices) is the name of one of the 88 constellations, according to modern reckoning. It is adjacent to Leo, within which it was formerly incorporated. The name actually derives from the legend of Queen Berenice II of Egypt (267 or 266 – 221 BCE); after whom the Libyan city of Benghazi is named. She is said to have cut off her long hair as an offering to Aphrodite, for the goddess to protect her husband, on an expedition to Syria. But the hair mysteriously disappeared from Aphrodite’s temple at Zephyrium near Tarsus; whereupon a flattering courtier put about the story that it had been carried to the heavens and placed among the stars. The reference here, however, is perhaps alludes to quite another Berenice. Namely: the 1st century Jewish princess Berenice, daughter of King Herod Agrippa I of Judaea, whose name may well stand for all manner of disastrous entanglement in the inter-relationships of Jew and Gentile. For she became the lover of Titus, the Roman general, later Emperor, who commanded the army which in the year 70 AD, having decisively defeated the last great Jewish rebellion against Roman rule, and reconquered Jerusalem, then destroyed the Second Temple.

‘Old Adam’ in this context is not the Adam of the book of Genesis; but the pre-existent giant Adam Kadmon, who plays a major role in Kabbalist mythology. ‘The eagle bears its offspring in its beak’: such is the prevalent state of disorder, even the greatest of predators lives in mortal fear.

Wie viele ertrunkene Zeiten

In her Briefe aus der Nacht (Letters from the Night), a series of prose-poetic meditations written by Sachs in the period 1950—3, on the death of her mother, her allusions to her own childhood are strongly imprinted with the memory of feverish nightmares.

Kommt einer von ferne

Here we have Sachs at her most folk-loric; her most Chagall-like.

Weiter weiter durch das Rauchbild

In a letter to Joachim Moras dated 20. 10. 1958, Sachs writes, ‘On and on: this theme of being-imprisoned, with the raging wish to break out of the circle, was and is the germ of all metaphysical longing’.

Ohne Kompaß Taumelkelch im Meer

This poem, about a young motor-cyclist, portrays a human type rare in Sachs’s poetry, which mostly features women, children and old men. (Had she seen James Dean in Rebel without a Cause? That film had come out in 1955, three years before the poem.)

Weit fort von den Kirchhöfen

Where I have written ‘shrine’, the original is actually more specific: ‘churchyards’, Kirchhöfen. But then the imagery shifts to the mortuary cults of ancient Egypt. The concluding two stanzas contain a series of metaphors (I think) describing Sachs’s poetic enterprise as a whole; set over against the more contained mourning processes of formal religion.

Wo nur sollen wir hinter den Nebeln

The poet gazes into the clouds, and sees there a procession of suggestive shapes. She reflects on the basic moral task to which her poetry is dedicated.

The second stanza is enigmatic. In the original it speaks of an event long preceding humanity’s ‘entry into the clay’. On the one hand, this latter image recalls Genesis 2: 7, God’s primordial creation of Adam ‘from the dust of the earth’; on the other hand also, Jeremiah 18: 1—11, in which God appears as a potter, moulding humanity, breaking and reshaping nations. I take it to be a general reference to the deliberate operation of social forces, seeking to cultivate moral conscience in us. Such educational work is preceded by the child’s primordial experience of being thwarted, not having everything his or her own way. (In the original the child is specifically an ‘orphan’, as the cloudy image of a face in the first stanza is ‘motherless’; the dripping flowers reflect the child’s tears, when the loving embrace she imagines and anticipates does not materialize.) First we learn to cope with such disappointment, the simple frustration of our egoism; and then the disciplines of morality go on to develop that initial coping. At least, that’s how I understand these lines. The original is less clear than I have rendered it.

The explicit reference to the story of Aaron and the Golden Calf (Exodus 32) is my interpolation. The original refers only to the glorious image of a ‘bull’. The ancient Middle East was home to several sacred-bull cults: most notably, Moloch in Canaan, and Apis in Egypt. The story of the Golden Calf evidently reflects the participation of the people of YHWH in the worship of Moloch, syncretistically mixed with YHWH-worship. So it represents everything against which the ‘crazy’ prophet of the following stanza is protesting.

Linie wie lebendiges Haar

Sachs’ mother had died in 1950. This poem belongs amongst the stream of others flowing from that trauma.

Der Schlafwandler kreisend auf seinem Stern

In Sachs’s poetry, all sorts of different meanings are projected onto the night sky. Here, in this nightmare-poem as if written for children, it is simply a splattered mess: the moon is a violent spatter, and so by implication are all the other stars. (This is rendered more explicit in the translation than in the original.) The sleepwalker is a personification of the earth as a whole. Snowberries are the small berries, mildly poisonous if eaten, of a genus of honeysuckle shrub; which when broken open are seen to contain a fine, sparkling white granular substance. Why is the background ‘agate’? Agate is a very hard rock, which fits the image of the ‘smash’. And it is typically patterned with swirls somewhat reminiscent of distant galaxies, viewed through a microscope.

In her letter of 20.10.1958 to Joachim Moras, Sachs refers to this poem as ‘the sort of fleeting vision that comes to one at the moment of waking’.

Weiße Schlange Polarkreis

The ‘White Snake’ is number 17 of the Household Tales (Kinder- und Haus-Märchen) originally published by the Brothers Grimm in 1812. The premise of the story is that by eating the flesh of a white snake human beings may obtain a magical ability to understand the language of other animals. So, by extension, the white snake here perhaps represents a gift of empathy with the oppressed in general; the gift that Sachs’s poetry most fundamentally seeks to express and celebrate.

The line of the white snake’s body shifts round into that of a ‘polar circle’: outlining a zone of desolation. And there follows a series of images relating Sachs’s poetic enterprise, as a whole, to its emotional background.

Finally, there appears one of the humblest of animals. The snail, carrying its home on its back, may well be seen as representing a refugee existence. Its slow contemplative pace becomes the ticking of a bomb: the existential threat posed to the existing order by the very different values of the kingdom of God, in which ‘the first shall be last, and the last first’ (Matthew 19: 30; 20: 16; Mark 9: 35; 10: 31; Luke 13: 30).

Welche Finsternisse hinterm Augenlid

As a Christian theologian, I am inclined to read these lines as a sort of commentary on Paul’s words in Romans 6: 1—11.

Wenn der Atem die Hütte der Nacht errichtet hat

This surely is another formulation for the basic inspiration of Sachs’s poetry: focussing on the collaboration it involves, between the soul, yearning for its lost home, and the flesh, delighting in the sensuousness of rich imagery and language. For Jacob’s ladder, see Genesis 28: 10—17.

Wie viele Heimatländer

In a letter of 27.2.1961 to Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Sachs writes, ‘In your Catalogue I found a sentence from Wittgenstein which stunned me – the very sentence that I, untutored as I am, had penned in Flucht u. Verw., p. 55 – Our life has no end. […] I meant here – as he also meant – that everything’s connected, in some subterranean fashion, with everything else – and this moreover in a sense that, perhaps unconsciously, for anyone who’s experienced the sort of horror I’ve endured, is bound to do us good – inasmuch as we all intuit it alike: namely, as a work of love’.

In the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus 6.4311, Wittgenstein had written, ‘Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death. If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present. Our life has no end in just the way in which our visual field has no limits’.

Ende aber nur in einem Zimmer

‘Our life has no end’, Sachs writes in Wie viele Heimatländer. Here, again, she speaks of ‘an end / but only as regards this earthly room’. The two poems hang together. I have interpreted this one with Isaiah 6 in mind: the prophet’s terror at having been vouchsafed a vision of God, such as, without a special gift of divine grace, would have meant his instant death. The images here of ‘being-tied’ and ‘being-sieved’ are then equivalent to the angel’s action, in Isaiah, of touching the prophet’s lips with a burning coal. And in this case what begins with the prospect of death ends with a divine / human wedding.

Tod Meergesang spülend um meinen Leib

One moment the poet is addressing God; the next, she is invoking Death. Indeed, the two modes of prayer, perhaps somewhat disconcertingly, shade into one another.

Schon mit der Mähne des Haares

I have written ‘saviour’ here, where Sachs, a little less specifically, has ‘Göttliches’, ‘[the] divine’. But the allusion is surely to the story of Jesus walking on the water, through the midst of a storm, then climbing aboard his disciples’ ship, and stilling the storm: Matthew 14: 22—33; Mark 6: 45—52.

Inmitten der Leidensstation

Again, as in the preceding poem, Sachs uses Christian imagery; albeit, in the context of an essentially trans-confessional spirituality.

Angeängstigt mit dem Einhorn

The biblical references here are to Isaiah 21: 11, ‘Watchman, what is left of the night?’; Isaiah 40: 2, where God commands the prophet to declare to Jerusalem that (as the Authorized Version has it) ‘her warfare is accomplished; and Genesis 19: 26, where Lot’s wife, escaping the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, disobeys the command not to turn back and look – and is instantly turned into a pillar of salt.