The poetic work of Nelly Sachs is great and mysterious: two attributes that literary critics seldom have reason to give in our days. You are old-fashioned. Let’s explain about their importance. Greatness has nothing to do with talent; nor with the bourgeois concept of genius, which wants to make the creator of a work an absolute exception and take him away into the incomparable. The poet as superman, prince of spirit, Olympian, Titan belongs to the repertoire of the nineteenth century and has faded with it; greatness is of older origin, it can walk on dove’s feet. It is not earned and not rewarded, least of all by the premiums that our society suspends: by success or "celebrity". Greatness remains alien in the world, and the world can make no other rhyme for it than that of fame, which is itself an ancient replica. Fame, and silent fame at that, has also accrued to Nelly Sachs in recent years, late and unawares. But as much as greatness is attached to the person, not only to the work, it is not exclusive; on the contrary, it cannot be thought without a moment of substitution. She intercedes for others and their cause; from her mouth speaks more than herself. But that thing is nameless, not determined. This has to do with the mystery of this work, which is always, with God’s word, a revealed mystery, without comparison with mystification and murky depths.
The poems of Nelly Sachs are of this kind: hard, but transparent. They do not dissolve in the lye of interpretations. Easily, at the first go, they are not to be read. That it is difficult, one is accustomed to say of modern poetry as a whole and, as it were, unseen, and this gladly in the tone of reproach, as if it were only up to the authors to express themselves a little more accommodatingly. It is easy to forget where .the difficulty lies. In Nelly Sachs it is never of technical origin; she has neither alienation nor calculation in mind, her poetry is neither code writing nor conundrum; we are dealing here with riddles that do not dissolve in their solution, but retain a remainder – and it is this remainder that matters. There interpretation comes easily too early. The work demands less acumen than modesty from the reader; it does not want to be captured, not to be translated, but to be experienced patiently and precisely. Not what it means, then, would be to say here; at most we can allow ourselves hints, suggestions, to set the reading on its way – on a possible way.
Gottfried Benn has spoken of his poems as if they understood themselves individually, each for itself: precious, in the case of luck "bequeathable entities", detached from any context and self-sufficient. Not so Nelly Sachs, whose poetry cannot be thought of as a series of individual artifacts. Since her first collection of poems, published in 1946 In the dwellings of death she writes at the bottom of a single book. This primacy of the whole over the individual is not a formal peculiarity; it does not express itself in the law of construction, in composition, as a cyclical or epic structure; it is rooted more deeply. The idea of the book that underlies this work is of religious origin. Beda Allemann has shown in his essay "Hinweis auf einen Gedicht-Raum" that it takes the Kabbalah as a model, and especially the Book of Sohar, a commentary on the Pentateuch.
There wrote the writer of the Sohar
And opened the vein network of words
And introduced blood from the stars.
Thus begins a series of poems by Nelly Sachs, entitled "Sohar: Chapters of Creation", in which this succession is witnessed. Book and writing, document and alphabet: these are concepts that recur in her poetry. They do not denote anything literary; rather, they take the old idea of the book of nature at its word and turn it around, as it were:. the writer does not copy in the poem the signs of the nature, she takes them up to design future patterns:
The corpse of the alphabet rose from the grave,
Angel of letters, ancient crystal,
Enclosed with drops of water from creation…
And unwraps as if they were linen cloths,
In it birth and death is wrapped,
Buchstabenleib, the butterfly doll
Out of green, red, white darkness.
The book Nelly Sachs unfolds, gradually, with its language. Nothing in it stands isolated; from poem to poem the concrete detail says itself further up to the cosmic connection. One of the images that will be varied and unfolded throughout the book expresses this process itself: the image of the butterfly. The work itself is "letter body" and "butterfly doll". For the first time, the summer bird appears in the early poem "Chorus of the Unborn," though still as a seemingly conventional simile, a mere metaphor:
We are caught by the henchmen of your desire –
In a later poem from the circle "And no one knows further" the image is continued:
Ready are all lands to rise
From the map..
Ready the last weight of gloom
To carry in a suitcase, this butterfly chrysalis
On whose wings they travel once
What was, as it were, pupated in the picture from the beginning, finally frees itself and enters into one of the central themes of Nelly Sachs’ poetry, the theme of transformation:
What a great reception
On the way – ..
The sick butterfly
White soon again from the sea –
With the inscription of the fly
Has given itself into my hand –
In place of home
I hold the transformations of the world.
The words and images of the book Nelly Sachs are subject to this law of transformation, as are the appearances. One of the most perfect among his poems, "Butterfly" becomes both theme and title. It states:
What a beautiful beyond
Is painted in your dust.
What royal sign
in the mystery of the air.
The image of the butterfly and the idea of creation as a sign and inscription are combined here with another basic word that runs through the entire work from its beginnings, the word "dust". Let us follow, for example, how to read in this book, its path and its transformations from the first to the last poem.
At the beginning of this path there is not a metaphor, but the darkest reality of our epoch. Thus begins the first poem published by Nelly Sachs:
O the chimneys
On the sensibly conceived dwellings of death,
When Israel’s body went up in smoke
Through the air..
O the chimneys!
Freedom paths for Jeremiah and Job’s dust –
Dust, ashes, smoke stand fearfully exact and concrete over the incinerators of the German concentration camps. This is the beginning, which through all the transformations of the dust asserts, is always thought of and never forgotten. It is expressly delivered "To you who build the new house":
Ah, it is the walls and the devices
Like the wind harps receptive
And like a field in which your sorrow grows,
And feel the dust related in you.
Build, when the hour clock trickles,
But do not cry away the minutes,
With the dust together,
Who hides the light.
Dust is also the sand in the hourglass; it becomes the sign of temporality in general. Dust is not only man, but the whole earth, and with it all creatures; dust, in which the living leaves its imprint, its sign, its writing as a trace, to be read like the figure from the wing of the butterfly:
But who emptied the sand from your shoes,
When you had to get up to die?
The sand that Israel brought home,
His wandering sand?
Burning sinai sand,
Mixed with the throats of nightingales,
Blended with the wings of the butterfly…
As sand, the dust is at home in the desert, that is, where there is no shelter at all. The homeland in the homelessness of the desert is baptized in the name of Israel. Nelly Sachs is the last poet of Judaism in the German language, and her work is nowhere to be understood without this royal origin. She experienced, in her Stockholm refuge, the genocide of the "Final Solution" more closely than we who lived near the camps, and her book has remained the only poetic testimony that can hold its own next to the speechless horror of the documentary accounts. As incomparable as this poetic act is, the work of Nelly Sachs cannot be limited to it. Whoever wants to reduce it to this testimony, to this lament, in the end even to saving information for "overcoming" what no violence can overcome, does him an injustice. Whoever would have it in mind and nothing else, could not truly speak of how Nelly Sachs. To her, as to the ancient sacred writings, Israel is representative of the history of salvation and disaster of the whole creation. Dust, smoke, ashes are not the "past" that can be disposed of, but are always present. Even today and everyday it is said:
Black flags the chimneys
The Grave of Air.
Has said ‘Ah
An even candle
Into the night.
And even the stone has its part in the "transformations of the world". "The sun commands halt to the travelers",
While the cricket scratches finely
In the invisible
And the stone its dust
Dancing turns into music.
The path that the book traverses begins as a flight and ends as a "journey into the dustless": this is the title of a late collection of poems that the poet wrote about her complete poetic oeuvre. As tangible, as naked reality as the ashes and smoke in the extermination camps, so concretely does the journey begin, as exile, dispossessed exile, flight from the henchmen of 1940 into pacified Sweden, and like the dust, so the journey ends as cosmic, as a world figure.
Writing, butterfly, transformation, flight: like these elements of her poetry, all the words in this book unfold and branch out. Wherever the reader begins, with the image of the hair and the fire, the hunter and the hunted, the sea and the wing, or the finger and the shoe: from each point, "the network of words" will open up to him, and even the most daring foreshortening of expression, the most cryptically omitted verse, will become transparent to him as he traces the diversity of this coral bank of images. This poetry is Kabbalistic also in this linguistic sense: as the work of a magical "ars combinatoria", which still knows how to grasp the monstrous the further the more weightless.
In this way, the "King’s word written far away" may become readable, even though the book,
This chain of riddles
Wrapped around the neck of the night,
will assert its revealed secret against anyone who reads it, and thus live on.
Postscript. The thirty poems that make up the circle of "Glowing Riddles" were written in the summer of 1962. They are published here for the first time.
Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Afterword
About the poetry of Nelly Sachs,
which is presented here in a concentrated selection, Hans Magnus Enzensberger wrote: "Adorno uttered a sentence that is one of the harshest judgments that can be made about our time: After Auschwitz it was no longer possible to write a poem. If we want to live on, this sentence must be refuted. Few are able to. Nelly Sachs belongs to them. Something saving is inherent in her language. By speaking, she gives us back, sentence by sentence, what we were in danger of losing: Language."
Suhrkamp publishing house, blurb, 1963
Nelly Sachs: Selected Poems
As 18. Volume of the series Edition Suhrkamp Hans Magnus Enzensberger gave the 1963 book Selected poems by Nelly Sachs (1891-1970). The selection begins with the poems, followed by Enzensberger’s eight-page afterword, a short biography of Nelly Sachs, and finally a table of contents that also identifies the volumes from which the poems are taken.
The work comprises 54 poems, which Enzensberger characterizes as "hard, but transparent". According to him, they require careful reading and analysis, the reader must neither be impatient nor fixated to translate and interpret the poems exactly. In them there is always a rest that remains mysterious, and that makes the work of Nelly Sachs. She stands up for others and lends them a voice, figuratively speaking. Enzensberger describes Sach’s multi-layered work as a single book that she spent many years writing, the origin of which is a religious one. Keywords such as "book," "script," "document," and "alphabet" characterize her work as a reference to biblical models. Enzensberger notes several elements that recur throughout the poems: The first image Enzensberger mentions is the butterfly, which is a sign of evolution and transformation and yet sameness. The aspect of escape also seems to be important, because this also appears in many poems. Enzensberger repeatedly supports his theses with quotations from the texts, which gives the epilogue a very catchy, rounded character and makes it easy for the reader to follow the argumentation structure.
The selection of the poems is not justified in more detail, but their contextual connection is emphasized several times. Thus, at the end of his epilogue, Enzensberger describes the "book", i.e. the entire work of Nelly Sachs, as a path, as an escape and as an arrival and as a "network of veins" connected to each other at all points.
Julia Schocke, enzensberger.germlit.rwth-aachen.de, 2006
Between the Worlds
– Sketch about the location of Nelly Sachs. –
1 – when I visited Nelly Sachs in Stockholm a few months ago, she said at parting, after asking me to come back soon, "We are family, after all." By this she meant our common starting point and certain parallels of our paths. We both come from a Berlin milieu in which the German was more important than the Jewish. Both of us came into contact with Hasidism at an early age, and both of us were saved to Sweden, where the same people became our friends. It is from this personal perspective that I write my remarks about her location.
2 – When National Socialism took power in Germany, I was ten years old and went to high school To the Grey Monastery in Berlin. A school friend, son of Rabbi Landau and grandson of Besoiner Raw, took me to his grandfather’s "shul". For the first time I experienced the power of ecstasy, felt how prayer completely closed off the emaciated little tailors and merchants from the outside world, where the boots of the SA thundered on the pavement and the shout "Juda verrecke!" rose again and again anew. It was then that I first sensed that brute force could destroy that nondescript prayer room, which it did a few years later, but that the spirit in that room was beyond the reach of the persecutors.
From this experience I experience the poetry of Nelly Sachs. Her poems have invaded my life since I first read about them almost twenty years ago on In the apartments of death wrote and her letters began to arrive, with poems that no one wanted to print for so long. I think of the first edition of Eli, which was published in 200 copies in Malmo, because I knew a printer there, reminds me of Nelly’s life in silence and of the first honors. I see in gratitude a bouquet of fresh flowers from Nelly and a poem in her thin, steep letters lying in front of my mother’s open grave, on a cold November day in southern Stockholm, two years ago.
3 – Much, and good, has already been written about how Nelly Sachs has shaped the suffering of Israel, and Israel in her work is a symbol of the existence of the persecuted in general and of the linking of the divine and the human. The Swedish friend who called her a sister of Kafka was probably thinking not only of the common Jewish origin and the German language as the only real home of Nelly Sachs and Franz Kafka, but first and foremost of the fact that Nelly Sachs had written in a book like In the dwellings of death drew a reality that Kafka had foreseen. One can also compare the external situation. Kafka was a German among Czechs and a Jew among Germans, and this double strangeness is familiar to the Jewish poet of German tongue with the Swedish passport. But Kafka did not experience the nearness of God, but his distance. He could not find his way to the great Jewish tradition and never became a spokesman for the Jewish community. He sought the piety of a Nelly Sachs, who in of her Loneliness shapes the martyrdom of Israel and draws from the sources of Jewish tradition.
However, Nelly Sachs does not tie in with Conservative Judaism, which is unwavering in its adherence to strict ordinances and exact interpretations of texts. She is a sister of those prophetic figures in the history of Judaism, whom the historiography mentions, if at all, only in passing, and who have nevertheless contributed substantially to the renewal of Judaism. Her poetry is nourished by the teachings of Kabbalah and Hasidism.
When I think of Nelly Sachs in the small apartment in Stockholm where her works have been created for decades, the story of Simon Bar Jochai comes to mind, one of the first Kabbalists who, at the beginning of the second century n. Chr. lived in Palestine. At the time of the persecutions of the Jews by the Romans, he kept himself hidden for thirteen years with his son in a grotto, buried in the sand, with dates and carob as his only food. In the grotto he said to his son: "Dai le-olam ani weatta" – "To the world I and thou suffice". He contrasted the spiritual life he led in his grotto with the world of persecution. When he left his hiding place, he and his son cleansed the city of Tiberias of the bones of the dead, who were the silent witnesses of the great murder of that time. Are not the existence of Nelly Sachs and the theme of her poetry anticipated here?? In its chamber "the universe kneels as everywhere / to be redeemed / from invisibility -"
4 – Martin Buber has said: "The wandering and the martyrdom of the Jews have again and again put their souls into the vibrations of the last despair, from which the lightning of ecstasy so easily awakens." The connection between persecution and mysticism, as expressed in the work of Nelly Sachs, ties in with an old line in the spiritual development of the Jews. Two figures from the Hasidic world, the "Baal Shem Tov," the "Master of the Good Name," and his great-grandson Rabbi Nachman, appear directly in her poems.
I quote from the legend of the Baal Shem as given by Martin Buber:
In ecstasy, all that is past and all that is to come is brought together in the present. Time shrinks, the line between eternities disappears, only the moment lives, and the moment is eternity. In his unshattered light everything that was and what will be appears simple and collected. It is there as a heartbeat is there, and is revealed as it is.
Nelly Sachs states:
The moment abandonment
from which time fell away
killed from eternity.
5 – In defining Nelly Sachs’ position, let us not forget what can only be hinted at here, namely, the correspondence between her spiritual attitude and what the great Neo-Hebrew poet Bialik has to say about "revelation and veiling in language". In Nelly Sachs, as in modern New Hebrew poetry, the richness of associations of the biblical and prophetic tradition resonates between the words.
6 – Nevertheless Nelly Sachs stands alone, by her language outside the New Hebrew poetry; on a lonely height in German poetry.
Nowhere do you find visions that correspond to her visions. Her personal fate and the tragedy of living and dying under threat have been given timeless validity in her work. Again and again the mysticism of the Eternal illuminates their daily life, never forgetting the suffering of Israel:
the road I walk
The vehicles I dodge
Stowing away what has been bought
all clear-sighted excursions into your areas –
Stumbles my foot – hurts
a detour to your apartments –
Deborah was stabbed by stars
and yet sang songs of victory
as the mountains melted
and on white shining donkeys like fortune tellers
the cavalcade of riders
But silence is where victims live
7 – In the Talmud it says:
He that walketh and learneth in one way, and interrupteth himself in his study, and saith, How beautiful is this tree, how beautiful is this field, reckoneth it unto him in the verse of Scripture, as if he had sinned against his soul.
Bialik writes that the aesthetes have wasted all their arrows against this poor passage,
but whoever pays attention to the spirit will also hear from it, between the lines, the murmur of the heart and the trembling concern for the future fate of a people that "goes on its way" and has nothing more of its possessions in its hand than a book, and whose entire inner connection with any of its sojourning countries rests only on its spirit.
With this explanation in my ear, I read in Nelly Sachs that even the colors of the evening sky are homeless, that "instead of home" she holds the "transformation of the world". Jean Amery asks: "How much home does man need??" and looks for a "Heimatverurzelung" after twenty-seven years in exile. For Nelly Sachs, "all countries… have rooted under my foot / their great terrors". She says:
A stranger always has
its home in the arm
like an orphan
For which it may be nothing
than looking for a grave
8 – The theme of "flight and transformation" is not to be understood only Jewishly. The flight of the pursued through a hostile world and the transformation of the earthly through contact with the cosmos are central themes of our time. In Nelly Sachs, Francis stands next to Baal Shem and the nameless Jewish pious man next to Jacob Boehme. In her "landscape of screams" she shows the skeletons of Maidanek and Hiroshima. She knows what it means to be "dispossessed" in every way, and speaks of the featurelessness of dying and sleeping. As a shaper of the human condition in this time, she stands alongside a poet like Beckett with the ruthlessness of depicting an unspeakable reality. Still it is on the way to new depths, to a new condensation.
At Sohar it is said: "There are rooms in the sky above us that open only to the voice of song."
Such a voice belongs to Nelly Sachs.