Poems

NELLY SACHS
from Flight and Metamorphosis
translated by Joshua Weiner with Linda B. Parshall

Flight & Metamorphosis by Nelly Sachs
translated from the German by Joshua Weiner with Linda B. Parshall
forthcoming from Farrar Straus Giroux in Fall 2021

The Jewish-German (naturalized Swedish) poet, Nelly Sachs, was born in 1891 in the Schöneberg district of Berlin, to a bourgeois and assimilated family. Frail of health and sheltered for much of her childhood, Sachs wrote poems and stories that show the deep influence of German Romanticism, an influence she would later distill and refract through more modernist techniques and perspectives into some of the first powerful responses in poetry to the Holocaust, poems in which she discovered her mature voice as a poet and made her reputation. As a young woman she absorbed at some remove the fin-de-siècle atmosphere around the Stefan George circle, her poetry and prose appearing in local newspapers including, after the Nuremberg race laws of 1935, Jewish community publications; her marionette plays from this time also found modest production. Sachs never really took much part in the Berlin literary scene around figures such as Gottfried Benn and Bertolt Brecht, but lived in the familiar margin, like most writers, of being both known and unknown. (Readers of German lyric poets such as Gertrude Kolmar and Else Lasker-Schüler may detect some influences there, though Sachs’ later turn from lyric conventions sets her apart). The story of her narrow escape from Nazi Germany to Sweden in 1940 with the help of close friends in Berlin; the last minute aid of powerful friends from afar (such as the Swedish Nobel laureate, Selma Lagerlöf, also an influence on her early writing); and even a sympathetic police officer who told her to avoid the trains, reads like a 1940’s Hollywood script. The reception of the poems she wrote in the 1940s, in which she takes on the personae and speaks through voices of the Shoah’s murdered Jews, has a history complicated by the politics of reconciliation (between Jews and Germans) after World War II, East Germany being more receptive than West to grappling with the immediate crimes of the Nazi state; these have also become, paradoxically, the poems most readers know, and the most widely anthologized in English translation. But such poems don’t define the force of Sachs’ oeuvre. A poet whose voice was forged in the Holocaust, she is not a “Holocaust poet,” per se, but one who wrote her way through the horror of the Shoah and into a poetry of the eternal refugee, a poetry influenced as well by her studies in Jewish Kabbalah. It was these poems of the 1950s and early 1960s that became more widely read in Germany thanks to the advocacy of younger poets such as Hans Magnus Enzensberger; a broader recognition was thereby launched that culminated in her receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature, an honor she shared with the Israeli fiction writer, S.Y. Agnon, in 1966. Sachs died in 1970, the day her dear friend, her “brother” survivor, the poet Paul Celan, was buried. 

The poems in this selection are all drawn from Nelly Sachs’ 1959 volume, Flucht und Verwandlung / Flight and Metamorphosis, which marks the culmination in a period of her development as a poet. (The original order of the poems is maintained here). In this book-length sequence of poems, Sachs turns from speaking through the murdered of the Shoah to speaking more for herself, her own condition of being a refugee from Nazi Germany—her loneliness living in a small Stockholm flat with her elderly mother, her exile, her alienation, her feelings of romantic bereavement, her search for the divine, even as she sees with visionary power the state of continual flight and asylum-seeking as a historical, political, spiritual, and legendary experience that shapes the lives of Jews through time—although in the period before and immediately after World War II, it was no more an exclusive condition than it is now. In these poems, we hear a Nelly Sachs who is closer to us today than she was twenty or even forty years ago.

                                                        —Joshua Weiner

from Flight & Metamorphosis

Selbst die Steine umarmen wir—
wir haben einen Pakt mit ihnen geschlossen—
– Hiob

HALLELUJA
bei der Geburt eines Felsens—

Milde Stimme aus Meer
fließende Arme
auf und ab
halten Himmel und Grab—

Und dann:
Fanfare
in der Corona des Salzes
ozeangeliebtes
wanderndes Zeitalter
stößt granitgehörnt
in seinen Morgen—

Halleluja
im Quarz und Glimmerstein

beflügelte Sehnsucht
hat ihren Schlüssel himmelwärts gedreht
Tief-Nacht-Geburt
aber schon Heimat für eines Seevogels
Ruhesturz

Feuerflüchtlinge
aus blinden Verstecken entflohen
ausgewinterte Chemie
in geheimer Unterhaltung des Aufbruchs—

Sonnensamen
aus geöffneten Mündern der Offenbarung

Halleluja
der Steine im Licht—

Versiegelte Sterngewänder
durchbrochen
und der Himmel mit der ziehenden Sprache
öffnet Augen an umweinter Nacktheit—

Aber
im Mutterwasser
saugende Algen umklammern
den füßehebenden Dunkelleib
Fische in Hochzeitskammern
wo Sintflut bettet
reigen besessen

gefolterte Träume gerinnen
in der Meduse atmend Saphirgeblüh
und wie mit Wegweisern zeigend
Blutkorallen aus schläfrigem Tod—

Halleluja
bei der Geburt eines Felsens

in die goldene Weide des Lichts—

We embrace even the stones—
with them, we have made a pact—
– Job

HALLELUJAH
at the birth of a rock—

Mellow voice of the sea
flowing arms
up and down
hold heaven and grave—

And then:
fanfare
in the corona of salt
ocean-beloved
wandering epoch
pushes granite-horned
into its morning—

Hallelujah
in the quartz and glimmering stone

winged desire
has turned its key heavenwards
deep-night-birth
yet home already for a seabird’s
soft plunge

refugees of fire
fled from blind hiding places
winter-killed chemistry
in secret talk of departure—

sun-seeds
from opened mouths of revelation

Hallelujah
of the stones in the light—

Sealed-up star-garments
perforated
and the heavens, with drifting speech
open eyes on lamented nakedness—

But
in the motherwater
sucking algae clasp
the footlifting darkbody,
fish, obsessed, dance round
in wedding chambers
where the flood is bedded down

tortured dreams congeal
in the sapphire-blossom that breathes the medusa
and blood corals
like signposts
show the way
out of drowsy death—

Hallelujah
at the birth of a rock

into the golden pasture of light—

~


SCHON
reden knisternde farbige
Bänder
fremde Münder
neue Heiligensprache.

Schon
rollen unter den Flügeln der Adler
die Sterbelaken der Horizonte fort
denn auch des Todes Drama
schmerzt seine Zeitläufte ab
weiß
hinter dem Vorhang
um neuen Beginn.

Hier aber
mit gekrönten Haaren
die Herrscher zwischen Sternenhaufen
im Ei der Nacht
verspielen mit gesetzten Tafeln
weissagende Fernen
in die drehenden Scheiben der Windrose.
Besprechen Wunden mit Salz
bis Luft weinend nach Hause zieht
Musiktüren schließend.

Dunkelheit
verwitwet
schmerzgekrümmt
gewittert der Fruchtbarkeit
langen Klageruf
in brandgeschatzte Himmel

bis
die neue Sonnenblume
tränengeätzt
den Trauermantel der Nacht
anzuknospen beginnt—

ALREADY
crackling, colored
ribbons are speaking
strange mouths
new language of saints.

Already
the horizons’ death shrouds
unwind under the eagles’ wings
because even the drama of death
survives its painful timecourse
knows
a new beginning
behind the curtain.

But here
with crowned locks
the sovereigns, between star clusters
in the egg of night
and with tables set
gamble away prophetic distances
into the spinning disks of the compass rose.
They cast spells
heal wounds with salt
till the air goes home weeping
pulling closed the music-doors.

Darkness
widowed
bent over in grief
thunders the long
painful cry of fertility
in ravaged skies

till
the new sunflower
scored by tears
begins to bud
on the morning robe of night—

~

SCHLAF WEBT DAS ATEMNETZ
heilige Schrift
aber niemand ist hier lesekundig
außer den Liebenden
die flüchten hinaus
durch die singend kreisenden
Kerker der Nächte
traumgebunden die Gebirge
der Toten
übersteigend

um dann nur noch
in Geburt zu baden
ihrer eigenen
hervorgetöpferten Sonne—

SLEEP WEAVES THE BREATHNET
holy scripture
but no one here can read
except for the lovers
fleeing
out through the singing circling
dungeons of the nights,
dreambound, rising over
the mountains
of the dead

only then
to bathe in the birth
of their own
hand-thrown sun—

~

ES SPRINGTE
dieses Jahrhundert
aus seinem abgeschuppten Todkalender—

Es pfeift um das Haar der Berenice
ein Peitschenblitz—

Es hat sich Adams Haupt geöffnet
empor steigt zuckend
in den dünnen Strich der Luft:

Die sieben Tage Schöpfung.

Es sprießt ein Samenkorn in Angst
schnell auf einem Menschenfinger.
Der Adler trägt im Schnabel seinen Kinderhorst.

Einen Kuß gab noch der Bienensaug der Mädchenlippe
dann sichelt der Tod das Windgetreide.

Entgleiste Sterne werden nachtschwarz angestrichen
erlöst sprühen die fünf Sinne wie Leuchtraketen auf—

Und Schweigen ist ein neues Land—

THIS CENTURY
springs
out of its molted calendar of death—

A whip’s flash whistles
round starlit Berenice’s Hair—

Adam’s head has opened
rises flickering
into the thin streak of air:

The seven days of creation.

In fear, a seed sprouts
quick on a human finger.
In his beak, the eagle carries his children’s aerie.

The white nettle kissed the girl’s lip
before death scythed the wind’s harvest.

Derailed stars are painted nightblack,
released, the five senses spark like flares—

And silence is a new land—

~

WIE VIELE
ertrunkene Zeiten
im rauschenden Schlepptau des Kinderschlafes
steigen ein auf hoher See
in die duftende Kajüte
spielen auf mondenen Gebeinen der Toten
wenn die Jungfrau mit der nachtgesprenkelten
Sonnenlimone
hineinblendet
aus Schiffsuntergang.

Hilflos
auf und zu
schlagen der Augenblicke Schmetterlingstüren
unverschließbar
für die goldenen Lanzen
die mordbrennenden
in das blutende Schlachtfeld der Kinderangst.

Was für Umwege sind zu gehen
für Herzschritte
bevor endlich
das Errinerungsboot
das tagfahrende
erreicht ist—

Wie viele traumumspülte Grenzen der Erde
sind auszuziehen
bis Musik kommt
von einem fremden Gestirn—

Wie viele todkranke Eroberungen
müssen sie machen
ehe sie heimkehren
Mondmilch im Munde
in die schreiende Luft
ihrer hellbewimpelten Kinderspielplätze—

HOW MANY
drowned epochs,
in the rushing wake of childhood sleep
on the high seas,
enter the fragrant cabin,
play on the moon-white bones of the dead
when Virgo, with the nightspeckled
sun-lemon,
dazzles down
from the sinking ship.

Helplessly
swinging open and closed
the butterfly-doors of these moments
cannot be sealed shut
against the golden lances,
murderburning,
into the bleeding battlefield of childhood fright.

What detours still lie ahead
for heart-steps
before
the memory boat
traveling by day
is finally reached—

How many dreamlapped borders of the earth
are yet to be traced
till music comes
from a strange star—

How many conquests
must they make, sick unto death,
before they return home
moonmilk in the mouth
into the clamoring air
of their brightly bannered playgrounds—

Joshua Weiner is the author of three books of poetry, most recently The Figure of a Man Being Swallowed by a Fish (University of Chicago Press, 2013). His translation (with Linda B. Parshall) of Nelly Sachs’s Flight & Metamorphosis is forthcoming from Farrar Straus Giroux.

Linda B. Parshall‘s publications include scholarly articles and translations focused on German literature, landscape theory, and art history from the medieval to the modern period. Most recently, she edited and translated Letters of a Dead Man by Prince Hermann von Pückler-Muskau (Dumbarton Oaks, 2016).