Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1633
“In the Blue Distance” is a haunting meditative lyric poem that presents intense images in free verse. Like most of Nelly Sachs’s painfully beautiful poems, it is a variation on the basic theme of the Holocaust. This poem searches for a way to go on afterward, reflecting the theme revealed in the title of the collection in which it first appeared, Und niemand weiss weiter, which translates as “and no one knows how to go on.” The poem’s travelers look toward “the blue distance,” where “longing is distilled” or where one can recognize and find deliverance from longing. Exactly what one longs for (peace, forgiveness, love, death?) is not specified in the poem, but the mood of the work is one of acceptance. The mood of quiet reconciliation in the last stanza offers the possibility of transcendence from hate and bitterness. That offer is perhaps made with reference to the suffering of the Holocaust, if only implicitly.
The first stanza presents a vista—a metaphorical view from a valley. Those who live below can see far away a row of apple trees with “rooted feet climbing the sky.” In this image, the juxtaposition of “rooted” and “climbing” suggests a tension between two longings, perhaps. One is to remain earthbound, and the other looks toward the blue distance, skyward. In Sachs’s vocabulary, flying—one way to interpret “climbing the sky”—often signifies transcendence or re-creation. “Those who live in the valley” might feel some comfort knowing that a higher realm exists.
The apple trees in one sense signify the hope and abundance of such a spiritual place. Perhaps it can be as simple as those on earth wishing to see heaven, or simply to know one exists. The poem in stanza 1 thus seems to consider another way (among all the ways in Sachs’s poetry) for those hurt by the insanity of the war to expiate their terrors and to relieve longings intensified by the losses they suffered.
“Rooted” and “climbing” may also allude to the magic of organic growth—the magic that all plants possess. Such organic growth, or regeneration, would mean, in human terms, spiritual healing. Apple trees also are heavily laden with mythology: Apples have long been equated with the forbidden fruit of the tree of knowledge, but apple trees also bring blossoms in spring, and thus hope. Stanza 1 thus suggests the necessity for those who are suffering from their pasts to find some way to regenerate their spiritual balance and inner peace, the way plants grow anew after they have been cut back. There seems to be a yearning for some way to grow toward the sky, out of the low valley.
The image of “the sun, lying by the roadside” in stanza 2 is, on one hand, a simple description of the sun lying low on the horizon, at sunset; on the other hand, this image may be seen as frightening: If the sun really lay by the roadside, like some suffering or ambushed traveler, such eerie displacement would suggest the worst kind of chaos. The “magic wands” mentioned in this stanza could suggest that this sun is an impostor, a prankster, or a sorcerer. If this is so, perhaps the travelers are being deceived; perhaps even nature is not to be trusted in a world so prone to chaos and pain.
In a lighter and more positive interpretation, these magic wands could simply suggest the regenerative magic of the natural world, of which the sun is a part. It provides light, so basic to life, and, in a figurative sense, knowledge. Perhaps the stanza reflects the wrenching uncertainty of life during the Holocaust—the command “to halt” could come at any time, from any quarter. Life during the Holocaust had become so unpredictable, so unnatural, one might not be surprised to see the sun collapse and become earthbound.
In stanza 3, the travelers have halted, although they seem alone “in the glassy nightmare.” One cannot be sure why or for whom they have stopped. This lack of certainty compounds the eeriness that arose in the second stanza. “Glassy” lends an apt sense of distortion and again, uncertainty, to the poem’s increasingly nightmarish atmosphere.
An image from the natural world characteristically rescues people from the nightmare and barely breaks the silence of this poem. A cricket “scratches softly at the invisible”—a beautiful and redeeming, although practically inexplicable, image. The mystical quality of Sachs’s work is exemplified here in that the relief this profound image bestows on the reader must be felt rather than understood. No easy explanation exists for “the invisible” (eternity? the unknown? the deity?), and any attempt at explanation dilutes the power of the image itself, which is effective primarily in its emotional impact.
The poem ends with a second such image, which, again characteristic of Sachs’s poetry, relies on emotion to complete what it communicates. “Stone” and “dust” reverberate in their earthboundness back to the tension in stanza 1 between being rooted and “climbing the sky.” In Sachs’s poetry, images of earth, dust, and sand often signify the past—specifically, here, the human suffering of years past. In the transcendent spirit-filled final lines of this poem, the stone does fly—it dances and “changes its dust to music.” The transformation signifies that out of suffering, upheaval, or even death can come a spiritual insistence on life and beauty, only two ideas that “music” might suggest here. The stone thus dances a dance of renewal and life, not of death.
“In the Blue Distance” is highly imagistic. Its impact comes from the visual intensity of its metaphors as well as from their eerie, mystical reverberations. In this sense it is similar to most of Sachs’s work.
Known for its enigmatic quality, Sachs’s poetry is not “easy” to read. Whatever difficulty the reader confronts, however, is not attributable to the technical devices of the poems. They are not written in encoded language, nor are they riddles to be solved. Readers may experience difficulty laying aside their demands to have the “meaning” of “In the Blue Distance” made easily comprehensible. Sachs’s concentrated and emotional language, its allusions and metaphors, unfold only slowly, and the reader must be prepared not to rely on a need for explicit meaning but to experience the mystery of the poem. That is, as with the cricket image, one feels Sachs’s poetry better than one can hope to understand it in the analytic sense.
Sachs uses masterful craftsmanship in her poetry. The earthy images in “In the Blue Distance” manage to root the poem as though in good warm soil. The poem’s movement from section to section seems almost, again inexplicably, like natural growth. Each stanza has an image central to its movement and to the “narrative” movement of the poem. The climbing apple trees, the “lying” sun, the cricket scratching, and the dancing stone are simple pictures, yet they are profoundly intriguing and suggestive. These images, one to a stanza, move the poem forward with sure, quiet steps, as if the delicate thread of emotion spun stronger by each new line is being handed carefully along.
Sachs also employs personification; it lends an eerie yet somehow friendly quality to otherwise mysterious images—the cricket scratching “at the invisible” and the stone dancing. As the stanzas are not regular in number of lines or line length, the images that reside within the poem provide its form. The interplay among the images unifies the poem.
Sachs speaks in simple language, and the rhythm of “In the Blue Distance” is relaxed and unassuming. In fact, the low-key, conversational tone of the poem is amazing given the otherworldly intensity of the images. That the work breaks down into three relatively simple sentences shows Sachs’s ability to comb away the wool surrounding an emotion she wishes to convey and to find a beautifully simple correlation in the imagery. The poem’s concrete images are the key to this fertile simplicity.
“Death gave me my language,” Sachs said. “My metaphors are my wounds.” Such a statement implies an intensely private poetry, and there is perhaps a sort of arrogant folly in searching for “meanings” in images whose very strength comes from their wildly errant suggestiveness. Sachs’s images suggest many directions, many meanings, but her statement also simplifies a discussion of meaning. The poet’s basic theme, the Holocaust, leads her to explore all avenues of thought and emotion in terms of the great mystery, death.
One may read “In the Blue Distance” as a meditation on arriving at the edge of death. The stillness, approaching silence, at the heart of this poem certainly suggests that the travelers teeter between worlds—where language becomes unnecessary. The momentary yet strong break in movement after stanza 2 (“The sun . . . commands the travelers to halt”) suggests an interface between the worlds of life and death. In the “glassy nightmare,” the travelers are fairly on the edge of a world. The “invisible” at which the cricket scratches suggests an entrance point, if one follows this theme, into the next world.
Death, however, is neither fearsome nor terrible in this poem. In a sense, it has already happened, for there is no escape from the sun. The poem is really a reckoning, an acceptance of the inevitable event of death, which seems to approach almost tenderly—as softly as the cricket scratches at the door. Sachs wrote a number of harshly accusatory poems about the Holocaust, but this is not one of them. Her work has been called forgiving, and the calm lyricism of this poem certainly demonstrates that quality. In it, even death seems forgiving. The stone is cold and hard, but “dancing,” transforming dust, and the past with all its anguish, to music.
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