Noch feiert Tod das Leben
These poems all date from 1960—61. From August to December 1960, and again from March to September 1961, Sachs was being cared for in various psychiatric institutions. Der versteinerte Engel, Vor meinem Fenster, Wunder der Begegnungen, Hinter der Tür, Diese Schneeblume gestützt am Stab, Sehr leise im Kreislauf gleitet, Auf der äußersten Spitze der Landzunge and Niemand unter der Zuschauenden were originally published together in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung: these eight poems, directly responsive to life in hospital, all date from November 1960, a return of creativity in the immediate aftermath of the most severe crisis of all, for which she had received electric shock treatment.
Der versteinerte Engel
Vor meinem Fenster
Outside Sachs’ room at Beckomberga there was in fact a patch of sand which was being used as a rubbish tip.
‘Some crazy songbird’: in the original, a Trauervogel, a ‘grief-
The Orestes is a tragedy by Euripides dating from 408 BCE. Sachs’ poem actually refers to the Oresteia, the trilogy covering the same basic story by Aeschylus, written fifty years earlier: Agamemnon, The Libation-
Eine Schöpfungsminute im Auge des Baalschem
Here is a poem like a Chagall painting.
Rabbi Israel ben Elieser (1700—1760), generally known as the Baal Shem Tov (Master of the Good Name), was the founder of the modern Hasidic tradition within (originally Polish / Ukrainian) Judaism.
‘The high Himalayas of his anguish’: the Chinese Communist suppression of Tibet began in March 1959. Sachs had recently read the Tibetan Book of the Dead with sympathetic interest. The ‘old woman’ of verse three is perhaps as much a Tibetan shaman as an eighteenth century Hasid; although also, I take it, an image for Sachs herself. ‘The mass grave, sleep’ in verse four is perhaps an allusion to Tibetan refugees who had recently frozen to death as they fled.
Sehr leise im Kreislauf gleitet
A manuscript of this poem is dedicated to Margaretha Lindh: ‘For Margaretha with love! Beckomberga. Written in the very uttermost spiritual extremity’.
Niemand unter den Zuschauendenen
‘Oceana’: this weaver-
The closing lines in the original refer, literally, to ‘the royal road of mystery’ which leads to ‘where the first ones of the landless dwell’. Sachs is perhaps thinking quite specifically of Jewish exiles gathered in Palestine. But I have rendered it more general. Compare Matthew 5: 3, Luke 6. 20.
Im eingefrorenen Zeitalter der Anden
This poem refers to the discovery, in the southern Peruvian Andes, of the frozen, mummified body of a young girl, not more than twelve years old, who had evidently been a victim of ritual sacrifice, perhaps five hundred years ago. ‘An undissolved initiate / into the Father’s dark domain’: in Sachs’s imagination this figure becomes more or less identified with the Shekhinah. See below, the commentary on Wortlos spielt sie mit einem Aquamarin.
Wortlos spielt sie mit einem Aquamarin
In Kabbalist tradition the Shekhinah is a feminine divine principle indwelling the people of Israel, especially as exiles. ‘She’ is the most earthly level of divine revelation. The corruption of humanity having damaged religion, she represents the authentically divine inasmuch as this has become victim to corrupted authoritarian, patriarchal notions of ‘God’.
Here, however, her indwelling is no longer confined to Israel. In effect, she has become a feminine manifestation of what Hegel calls ‘Geist’: latently indwelling all of afflicted, powerless, inarticulate humanity, just by virtue of its being afflicted, powerless and inarticulate. Not that Sachs is thinking of Hegel! But the Shekhinah, in her conception, is the ‘that of God’ inherent in every soul, simply to the extent that one remains, pre-
Anders gelegt die Adern
The poet surveys the whole of her life, essentially, as an evolving impulse to creativity. It’s not, in fact, altogether clear in the original who the ‘sister’ is; whom here I take to be her younger self, but who in the original might perhaps, alternatively, be a fellow-
Rückgängig gemacht ist die Verlobung der Heimgesuchten
‘A cancelled calling’: in the original, a cancelled betrothal; perhaps an allusion to Sachs’s own disastrous adolescent love affair. ‘Waves ascending undivided’: unlike the waters of the Red Sea, when Moses parted them: Exodus 14: 21—22.
Im Park Spazierengehen
The ‘park’ in question is the one to be found in the grounds of the Beckomberga hospital. ‘Thus David danced’: see 2 Samuel 6: 1—5. ‘Vast emptiness … before God spoke’: Genesis 1: 2.
Und die blindgewordenen Leiber
‘The catacombs of Ur’: there are royal graves at Ur, in Mesopotamia, dating from the 26th century BCE. Ur was the city from which Abraham originated, before migrating to Palestine. Sachs wrote two dramas about this, with Ur rendered generally symbolic of all that approximates to totalitarianism: Abram im Salz and Der Mann von Ur. The ‘buried treasure’ here evidently represents whatever wisdom may be drawn from the experience of suffering under a totalitarian regime.
Die beiden Alten
I take it that Sachs is thinking here of her own parents. Her father had died in 1930; her mother, with whom she had shared the early years of her exile in Sweden, in 1950.
‘Bewitched into a paper-
The rosemary shrub was classically associated with Aphrodite, goddess of love. These lines are enigmatic. But perhaps the meaning is that the cock’s crow – to release us from our nightmares – will only come once all real possibility of love has been swept away by floods. No hope in sleep, and none in waking either!
Sachs had a life-
The ‘fish’: throughout her poetry, symbol of silent affliction.
In ihren Schlafleibern
‘The Mother’: the Shekhinah.
Die Urkunde vor mir aufgeschalgen
Sachs actually speaks of a ‘marble stairway’. But she also speaks of fish-
‘That which brooded once’: see Genesis 1: 2, ‘The earth was a vast waste, darkness covered the deep, and the spirit of God hovered over the surface of the water’. Here we have the ‘anarchy’ of before-
Scene from the play ‘Nachtwache’ (Nightwatch)
The play in question, a lyric-
This describes one of Sachs’s fellow-
Eine Negerin lugt
Here we have little study in ambivalence. To begin with: the ‘promise of eternity’ immediately provokes a sequence of nightmare-
The dedication is to two recently deceased friends: the Swedish translator Bertil Nydahl (1916—1961), and the German intellectual Joachim Moras (1902—1961).
The 11th April 1961 was the date on which the trial of Adolf Eichmann, in Jerusalem, began. Sachs, due to her psychological frailty at that time, became very anxious about the trial; and, already before it began, had written a letter to President Ben-
So einsam ist der Mensch