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Nelly Sachs

In den Wohnungen des Todes /

In the Habitations of Death

1947 - part 2

Wenn ich nur wüßte

If I only knew

On what your last look rested.

Was it a stone, some stony eye, blind drunk already

From having returned

So many other last looks?

Or was it earth,

A shoe’s freight of dust,

Or black mud, churned up

By so much parting,

So much slithering death?

Or was it your last way,

Wishing you a fond farewell

From all the ways you’d ever walked before?

A puddle, maybe, a reflective glint of metal,

The belt-buckle of your enemy,

Some such little fortune-teller, eloquent

Of heaven?

Or did this earth,

Ever loving to those who are leaving,

Send, through the air, a bird-sign

Addressed, in that inferno of flesh,

To your still flickering soul?

Deine Augen, O du mein Geliebter

   I saw that he saw – JEHUDA ZVI

Your eyes, O my love,

Were antelope eyes:


As after God’s storms have gone by –

In them, bee-like, aeons of prayer had

Stored up

Holy-night honey, glimmers of Sinai fire –

O you

Transparent doors into inwardness, hidden behind

Such mounds of desolate sand,

So many miles of, O, anguish for God –

O you, now, lifeless eyes,

Your visionary power has returned

To the golden amazements of heaven –

Sunk, so far removed, at the back of our dreams.


Chor der Geretteten

We rescued ones,

Out of whose hollow bones, already, death has carved its flutes,

And through whose yearning, also, death has drawn its bow –

Our grieving bodies make a mutilated music.

We rescued ones,

The nooses still hang ready for our necks, dangling

In the blue air, there, before us.

The hourglass is still filling with our blood.

We rescued ones,

Fear-worms still nibble at our entrails.

Our night sky’s a tomb of dust.

We rescued ones,

We beg of you:

Reintroduce us slowly to your sunlight.

Teach us, step by step, which star is which.

Be gentle, while we relearn life.

Else at a snatch of birdsong

Or the splashing of a bucket at the well

Our ill-sealed pain may well burst free

And wash us quite away –

We beg of you:

Don’t show us any biting dog –

For it might happen

That we’d then dissolve in dust.

Before your very eyes we might dissolve.

Our thread is worn so thin.

We, whose breathless souls

At midnight, long before

They hauled our bodies up onto the momentary ark,

Had taken flight to God,

We rescued ones,

We press your hands,

We look into your eyes –

But our communion’s in being-parted.

Dust to dust,

Our only gift to you is our bereavement.

Chor der Wandernden

We migrants,

Who bear on our backs all the weight

Of the ways that we’ve come –

Dressed in rags that show where we paused –

We feed from a tear-salted

Stew-pot of tongues.

We migrants:

See, we dream forever of a door

That opens to a murmuring forest-world, where

Solitary roedeer, fellow-exiles, flit concealed.

We dream of golden fields where high exalted larks exult.

Beside us, when we knock, there laps

A tide of desolation.

O you sentries with the flaming swords,

The dust-clouds stirred up by our migrant feet

Are seeding a ferment.

See, from so much knocking at doors and doffing of hats,

We migrants –

We’ll set stars ablaze.

Asleep, our bodies lie like measures, made

To scan your hearts’ capacity –

O, we migrants, crawling worms for coming shoes to crush:

Our deaths will desecrate the threshold

Of each door

You would not open!

Chor der Waisen

We orphans,

We plead with the world:

Our branch was cut down

And thrown in the fire –

Our protectors were treated as kindling –

We orphans are laid in the open alone.

We orphans,

We plead with the world:

When it’s dark our parents play hide-and-seek games.

We see their faces,

They peek from the black folds of night,

We hear them speak,

They tell how the woodcutter took them.

But they say that their eyes have been made


They say that they see us, they gaze

Through the black folds of night.

We orphans,

We plead with the world:

Stones are our toys, in stones we see faces, of father and mother,

Stones will not wither like flowers –

Nor will they bite, as beasts do –

Nor will they burn, like tinder tossed in the oven.

We orphans, we plead:

World, why have you taken away our soft mothers?

Why? And our fathers, who said: My child, you’re like me!

We orphans are like no one else on this earth any more!

O world,

We accuse you!

Chor der Toten

We, from the black sun of dread:

Holed like sieves, and

Sodden with death sweat –

Our bodies wear their violent deaths like wreathes,

Festoons of withered hedgerow flowers, windblown onto dunes.

O you, that are still friends with dust

And, talking sand-talk, say to sand

I love you,

To you we say,

See how they’re torn to shreds, the old dust-mysteries:

Air in which we could no longer breathe,

Fire in which they burnt us,

Earth they shovelled over our remains.

Water, beaded with the sweat of our alarms, flows

Trickling out, and now begins to catch the light.

Thus, star by star, the age-old trek of Israel’s dead

Goes on,

Into the dark on dark of God.

Chor der Schatten

We shadows, O we shadows!

Hangmen, your shadows

Hang around the dust-heaps of your crimes.

Victims, your shadows

Silhouette your fate along a wall.

We helpless grief-moths, caught here

On a star that calmly keeps on burning,

Are commandeered to dance in hell,

Our puppeteers are hooked on horror.

Golden nurse, feeding us

Such despair,

Sun, turn aside

To release us –

Or give us to mirror some baby’s

Jubilant uplifted fingers,

Some moment of dragonfly frailty

Over the rim of a well –

Chor der Steine

We stones,

When you lift us,

There in your hand you hold age upon age –

You’re lifting

The Garden of Eden –

You’re lifting

The knowledge of Adam and Eve

And the sweet-talking, dust-eating snake.

When you lift us,

There in your hand you hold

What survives the regular bloodshed of dusk.

God plants us on earth

To commemorate

All that’s been lost.

We’re containers crammed full of lived life.

Here you hold the hard fact of death.

Yet, seed of Jacob, we’re also your pillow,

We shelter the roots of your dreams

So that ladders, like tendrils of beanstalk, may sprout up

From earth into heaven.

Touch us, and think:

Here’s wailing-wall stuff.

Your lament is a diamond, it slices,

Until our hearts soften, we crumble –

As you turn to stone.

Think: here are the crossroads of midnight,

Ringing with death and rebirth.

When you throw us –

Behold, it’s the Garden of Eden –

The wine of the stars –

Loving glances, love betrayed –

When you throw us in anger

It’s aeons of heartbreak

And butterfly silk.

So take care, take care never

To throw stones in anger –

Think rather: here slumbers a spirit

That may even now

Be kissed back to life.

Chor der Sterne

We stars, we stars,

We wandering, bright, singing stuff –

What, we wonder, is the matter with our sister, Earth?

It seems she’s gone blind –

Her panic interrupts

Our heavenly song –

Once so fiercely given to her dusty work

Of angel-fashioning,

Her glories were hidden

Like gold in a stream –

Now, though, she’s splashed out in the night

Like wine on a pavement,

Sulphurous yellows at play where she lies.

O Earth, Earth,

Star of stars,

Shot through with sparks of

God-given homesick desire –

Have you none, there,

Who remember your youth?

No divers


For the death-rich sea?

None yet angel-ripe enough

To rise like dandelion seed, and fly?

Earth, Earth, have you truly been blinded?

Your sisters, the Pleiades anxiously wonder.

Libra looks on in concern.


Israel’s killers gave her to hold

An earthenware mirror.

Earth, O Earth,

Star of stars,

One day you’ll find a starry mirror –

And then, O Blind One, then you’ll see again!

Chor der unsichtbaren Dinge

Wailing-wall night!

On you the psalms of silence are engraved.

The footprints filled

With ripening apple-death

Have circled back to you.

The tears that moisten your black moss


For here’s the basket-bearing angel

Come to gather things invisible.

Here for ever, gently garnered, lie

Those other burgeoning worlds, the heaven-hopes

That once lit up the eyes of lovers torn apart, and

Here is laid the murdered children’s sleep, where,

Dark and warm,

Fresh glory-longings germinate.

Out of unfathomed sighs

Still-unsung songs of peace may germinate.

Wailing-wall night,

The lightning of a prayer has power to pierce you through.

Behind your falling masonry, at last,

Whoever’s over-slept God’s advent must

Awake to him.

Chor der Wolken

We’re full of sighs, full of gazing,

We’re full of laughter,

At times we wear your faces.

We’re not so far removed from you.

Who can say to what extent your disembodied blood

Has floated up to stain us?

And who can tell what role our sympathetic tears have played

In helping you to weep? Or how much longing shaped us?

We play at dying.

It’s a gentle lesson for un-practised you.

If night can’t do the job, then let us be your teachers.

So many angels you’ve been sent,

And yet you fail to see them.

Chor der Bäume

O, all you on earth that are hunted!

Our speech, like yours, is mixed

From springs and stars,

Our limbs are crooked like your alphabet.

As climbing fugitives ourselves,

We know you well –

All you on earth that are hunted!

Today it was the breathless man who clambered up our branches,

And yesterday, the roedeer staining with roses the meadow around us –

Your fear’s last footprints vanish in our peace,

Our shadows, played about with birdsong,

Point the way for you –

All you on earth that are hunted!

They point towards

The very deepest mystery of night –

Chor der Tröster

We’re gardeners who lack the necessary flowers,

The healing herbs we might, with hope, transplant

From past to future time.

The sage has faded in the cradles –

Sweet rosemary fails in face of so much death –

Not even wormwood-bitterness will do.

We’ve no bloom left with power enough

To salve the sobbing of a single child.

New song-seed may be growing somewhere

In nocturnal souls,

But who can offer comfort now?

At the bottom of the deep defile

From past to future time

The cherub stands.

Grief-lightning crackles from his grinding wings.

His hands, however, hold apart the rock

Of past and future time

As if it were the edges of a wound

That mustn’t, closing, heal

Too soon.

Insomniac grief-lightning plays its memory games

Upon the flooded fields.

But who can offer comfort now?

We’re gardeners who lack the necessary flowers,

And simply stand upon a shining star

And weep.

Chor der Ungeborenen

We, the unborn,

Are starting to itch.

The bloodlines await –

We’re emergent, like dew, into love.

The shadows of time

Unsettle our secrets.

Hear, you that love,

You that yearn,

You bereaved:

In your eyes’ desire our life begins,

In your hands our breakthrough, to the blue air –

We’re there in the smell of the dawn.

Already you’re breathing us in,

We enter your sleep,

Strike root in the dream-soil.

Funereal night

Then nurtures our growth, till

Our eyes open to yours.

And we cry.

Like butterflies

Caught in the nets of your yearning –

Like birdsong trafficked to earth –

We’re there in the smell of the dawn.

We come to inherit your grief.

Stimme des heiligen Landes

O my children,

Death has travelled through your hearts

As through a vineyard

Painting Israel red on every wall.

So, now, what future

For my drift-sand memories of God?

Hear, softly piping from afar,

The voices of the dead:

Go, lay your weapons in the ground.

Go, bury all your fantasies of sweet revenge

Beneath the plough-turned loam,

Where iron’s kin to grain –

What future

For my drift-sand memories of God? –

The child they murdered whilst asleep

Gets up, and grasps the ancient Tree.

He bends it down, pins to its top

The whitely breathing

Star of David, then lets go –  

Spring back, he cries, and mark once more

The passage-way of tears to our transfiguration!