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Nelly Sachs

Sternverdunkelung


NOTES


AND ALL’S A VIOLENT RUSH


Cycle written in 1947.


Auf daß die Verfolgten nicht Verfolger werden

The title is a later addition, linked in a letter of Sachs to Gudrun Dähnert dated 9 October 1948 to two events: (a) the murder of Count Folke Bernadotte, Swedish UN mediator in Palestine, by the Zionist militant group Lehi on 17 September 1948; (b) the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, on 30 January the same year. Bernadotte had been active as a diplomat during World War 2, securing the release of some 31,000 prisoners from Nazi concentration camps. (The leadership of Lehi in 1948 included the young Yitzhak Shamir.)

The same letter to Gudrun Dähnert also refers to a young Jewish couple from Poland, recently moved in to Sachs’ previous block of flats, both of whom had been in concentration camps and had lost children and numerous other family members and friends in the Holocaust. In relation to all the horror especially brought home to her through her encounter with this couple, Sachs writes,


I’ve tried, in my new poetry collection, to grasp this apocalyptic time; but to do so, also, with the eternal mysteries shining in the background. Our time, bad as it is, must like every other historic time find its artistic expression. Only, this will have to be ventured by new means, since the old ones no longer suffice.


O du weinendes Herz der Welt

Although this poem pre-dates Sachs’ particular engagement with the Kabbalist imagery of the first Chapter of the Zohar – which she first ‘discovered’ in 1950 – it has a distinctly Kabbalistic feel to it. So, it reads very much like a Kabbalistic invocation of the Shekhinah: i.e. God’s dwelling, or most intimate abiding presence, in creation; a feminine projection of the divine; exiled, in a scattering of sparks, from God; latent, in human souls; and yearning, eventually, to be reunited with God.


O ihr Tiere

The story of Balaam’s ass: Numbers 22: 22—35.


Golem Tod

‘Golem’: Hebrew for ‘unformed shape’ or ‘lump’; also, ‘embryo’; in general, that which is unready. The legend of Rabbi Löw of Prague (1525—1609) tells of how he magically created, out of clay, a monstrous artificial man (predecessor of Frankenstein’s monster). This monster had the Hebrew word for ‘truth’, אמת (emet), inscribed on his forehead; but disintegrated as soon as the word was changed to ‘die’, מות (mut).


THE SEA-SHELL HUMS


A number of the poems in this cycle are listed in a document of 12 November 1946 (attached to a letter to Kurt Pinthus) as having already been written: Abraham, Jacob, Wenn die Propheten  einbrächen, Job, Daniel, Sinai, Saul. The others date from the spring or summer of 1947.


Abraham

The patriarch’s original wanderings, first from ‘Ur of the Chaldeans’ to Haran, and subsequently from Haran to the Land of Canaan, are recorded in Genesis 11: 31 – 12: 6. The chief cult of Ur was a worship of the moon-god Nanna. Sachs’ dramatic work Abram im Salz (written, and re-written, over the period 1946—56; published 1962, in the collection Zeichen im Sand / Signs in the Sand) focuses on Abram’s departure from Ur; with the latter, ruled over by Nimrod the Hunter, directly symbolizing Nazi totalitarianism and everything akin to it.

   The association of ‘butterfly’ and ‘soul’ is a feature especially of Ancient Greek.



Jacob

The allusions here are to the twofold story of Jacob usurping his first-born twin-brother Esau’s ‘priority’: (a) Genesis 25: 27—34; (b) Genesis 27: 1—45. And to the story of his wrestling with God in the form of an angel: Genesis 32: 22—32; in the course of which he acquires the name ‘Israel’, ‘God-struggler’ (see also Genesis 35: 10).


Wenn die Propheten einbrächen

In a letter to Ragnar Thoursie dated 25 June 1947 Sachs reports reading the Buber – Rosenzweig translation of Isaiah:


Then I saw: the Bible is originally hymnic in form like the choruses in Greek drama; with, in both cases, Babylon shimmering behind. And so I look way back to the earliest origins of the ‘black answer of hate to Israel’s existence’. And see the prophets with their ‘heads wreathed in horror, circled by the zodiac of demon-gods’.


Aber deine Brunnen

‘When he’d been digging in Beersheba…’: see Genesis 21: 25—34. ‘Behold, the saviour-angel bending…’: Genesis 21: 9—19. ‘Behold, the rocks at Marah’: Exodus 15: 22—25.


Sinai

The necessary veiling of Moses’ face, when he descended from Mount Sinai: Exodus 34: 29—35.


David

‘The expedition found him…’: 1 Samuel 16: 1—13.


Saul

See 1 Samuel 28.




SURVIVORS


Two of the poems in this cycle pre-date 12 November 1946: Verwelkt ist der Abschied auf Erden and Welt, frage nicht die Todentrissenen. The remainder all date from summer 1947.


Zahlen

The murderers, in the Nazi death camps, branded their victims with numbers in order to help dehumanize them. For them, this belonged to a strategy of trivializing the suffering involved. Poetry does the opposite: it affirms the eternal significance, no less, of that suffering, and seeks to give it monumental expression. Symbolically, thus: it projects the whole process (the act of numbering included) onto the constellations.


Verwelkt ist der Abschied auf Erden

‘Elijah’s solemn parting from Elisha’: 2 Kings 2: 1—18.


Wir sind so wund

In a letter of 25 September 1947 to Ragnar Thoursie Sachs refers to a series of incidents in which gangs of South Stockholm youth had smashed the windows of new immigrants in the neighbourhood where she and her mother had settled, by throwing stones at them. On one occasion, she says, an arrow was also shot through her already broken window. Her mother regularly sat in the window – but had fortunately escaped injury. Some six poems were attached to this letter, amongst them Wir sind so wund and also Welt, frage nicht die Todentrissenen, with the remark that they’d been written in response to that experience.


LAND OF ISRAEL


This cycle dates from spring 1948. The State of Israel was officially founded on 14 May 1948, and these are poems relating to that event. Later, from around 1957, Sachs was to express increasing unease at what she came to see as the tendency of some amongst those most enthusiastically engaged in promoting her work – notably, the literary critic Walter Berendsohn and the composer Moses Pergament – to co-opt it to the service of their own, rather more conventional Zionism. She herself had no interest in contributing to the propaganda-rhetoric of any political movement; an attitude which, in the period of her psychiatric sickness, merges with paranoid terror at the idea of being publicly identified as representing such a movement. What she celebrates here is precisely the ideal of an ‘Israel’ altogether exalted above any merely propagandist ideology.


Land Israel

For the story of Elijah’s initial encounter with Elisha – how he approached and threw his mantle over Elisha as the latter was ploughing – see 1 Kings 19: 19—21. ‘Hyssop’ was a herb regularly used in antique rituals of purification. (In fact, biblical ‘hyssop’ does not appear to have been what is nowadays called ‘hyssop’, but may have referred to various herbs: oregano, marjoram, thyme.) In any case, the poem here juxtaposes the exceptional greatness represented by Elijah and Elisha with the everyday ritual life of the common people, as such.


It concludes with the figure of Ruth: symbol of the outsider, in general, warmly received into the community; as the book of Ruth tells of a Moabite woman’s integration into the people of Israel, to become one of the direct ancestors of King David himself.  Inasmuch as Sachs herself was never fully integrated into the Jewish religious community, there is a sense in which Ruth here represents a category to which she too belonged.


Aus dem Wüstensand

Beth-El: the place of Jacob’s dream, in Genesis 28: 10—22, in which he saw angels ascending and descending a ladder, to and from heaven.


Frauen und Mädchen Israels

‘Sarah, laughing’: Genesis 18: 1—15. ‘The magic mandrake in the cornfield’: Genesis 30: 14—16.


Über den wiegenden Häuptern der Mutter

‘The temple’s death by fire’: the first Jerusalem Temple was destroyed by the Babylonian army of Nebuchadnezzar in 587 BCE; the second, by the Roman army of Titus in 70 AD.


ENFOLDED IN THE MYSTERY


Three of these poems – O meine Mutter, Du sitzt am Fenster and Am Abend weitet sich dein Blick – predate 12 November 1946. Two – Wohin O wohin and Hasidic Writings – predate 4 October 1948. The rest were written in the following winter.


O meine Mutter

‘The mystery through which Elijah went’: c.f. Verwelkt ist der Abschied auf Erden. The ‘wooden chariot’: an allusion, perhaps, to the chariot of the sun-god Helios, in Ancient Greek mythology?


Am Abend weitet sich dein Blick

‘The light upon a foetus’ brow…’: imagery drawn from the Zohar, by way of Martin Buber, ed., Chassidische Bücher (1927). See her letter to Walter Berendsohn, dated 23 May 1946.


Hasidische Schriften / Hasidc Writings

Again, the main themes here derive from Buber’s work. ‘As when the ark of the covenant drove its attendants over the Jordan’: see Joshua 3.



CONNECTED WITH STERNVERDUNKELUNG


These final four poems were not included in the original 1949 edition; but were added, under this heading, in the 1962 collected edition of Sachs’ poetry, Fahrt ins Staublose, Out From This Realm of Dust. The second, Völker der Erde, predates 12 November 1946. The others were written in the winter of 1948. As regards Völker der Erde, see the discussion in the essay on this website: ‘Revelation Freshly Erupting: The Poetry of Nelly Sachs’.


Wenn im Vorsommer

Lines 11-12 are deliberately somewhat mistranslated:


  Welt, man hat die kleinen Kinder, wie Schmetterlinge,

 flügelschlagend in die Flamme geworfen –


More literally rendered, this would be:


  World, they threw the little children, like butterflies

  with beating wings, into the flames –


But here surely is a case in which the element of fantasy tends (somewhat grotesquely indeed) to diminish the actual horror of what is being spoken about! The poem as a whole, on the other hand, sets up a dream-world, and then invokes a disruptive critical voice. I have simply extended that disruption; tried to render it more decisive, more self-critical.

See Ehrhard Bahr, Nelly Sachs (München: Verlag C. H. Beck, 1980), pp. 82—6. Bahr contrasts these lines, very strikingly, with lines by Pablo Neruda, on the Spanish Civil War:


 y por las calles la sangre de los niños

 corría simplemente, como sangre de niños


  and through the streets the children’s blood

  was flowing, simply like the blood of children


He observes that the couplet to which he takes exception was in fact one of the most quoted passages from Sachs’ work, amongst 1960s West German critics primarily concerned with questions of German guilt; and suggests that they were indeed attracted by the very quality he is criticizing. Bahr gives Sachs credit for not including the poem in Sternverdunkelung. It was, in fact, first published in the 1961 edition of her Collected Poems, on the insistence of Hans Magnus Enzensberger, as editor of that volume.

   (Bahr refers here to Theodor Adorno’s notorious pronouncement: ‘To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’. And, in this context, he also expresses some misgivings about another of Sachs’ poems often quoted by the same 1960s critics: the very first poem of In den Wohnungen des Todes: ‘O die Schornsteine’ / ‘O the chimneys’; especially the second stanza:


 O the chimneys!

 Jeremiah and Job, their dust, their release –

 Who contrived you, who built, stone on stone,

 For fugitives, this path of smoke?


In the German here the chimneys are called ‘Freiheitswege’, ‘freedom roads’: might this not, Bahr wonders, be misunderstood as a consolatory suggestion that, in a sense, the ‘contriver’ and ‘builder’ in question is actually, at some level, God? Bahr is very much a friendly critic. But the development of Sachs’ poetry, away from the relative populism of In den Wohnungen des Todes, is not least, I think, driven by her own awareness of the general risks intrinsic to that approach.)