The Poem

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Last Updated on May 16, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 547

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“Hasidic Scriptures” consists of twenty-nine lines divided into tercets, couplets, and one quatrain, all written in free verse. The title refers to the teachings of Rabbi Israel Ba’al Shem Tov (1700-1760), the founder of Hasidism, and draws the reader immediately into the context of Jewish mysticism. An epigraph preceding the poem comments on the mystical relationship between the Law of the Commandments and man’s physical experience. The first line, “All is salvation in the mystery,” which repeats throughout the poem, indicates Nelly Sachs’s belief that it is inappropriate, if not impossible, to attain spiritual truth through logic. The poem unfolds as a meditation on this relationship between the Creator and the created world, in which Sachs transforms theological and metaphysical concepts into a deeply personal artistic vision.

The poem’s first eleven lines place the reader at the beginning of Creation as light is born of darkness in the protective, nurturing matrix of the universe. The entire process is distilled into images of night, stars, water, and sand. For Sachs, who was inspired by mysticism, the agent which initiates and sustains the Creation is language: “and the word went forth/Names formed/ like pools in the sand.” These “names” refer to the formative power of language and recall man’s role in naming the animals (Genesis 2:20), which implies a personal participation in language. In the syntax of the poem, the names’ arrival follows an undefined longing felt by all creatures. The reader is led to make the connection between this longing and the attempt by man to share through language in the creative process, thereby becoming one with the Creator.

The next eight lines both close the Genesis material and introduce the next phase of the poem, which depicts the experience of exile and the promise of the covenant (as in the biblical Exodus and Deuteronomy). This section presents images of death connoting the expulsion from Eden: bones, bleeding veins, sunset, and pain. Yet upon these images are superimposed the concepts of the Commandments and laws which transcend individual mortality. Memory, the foundation of tradition, offers another way to transcend death, the death caused by forgetting. In Sachs’s poetry, forgetting and remembering are always functions of the Holocaust’s historical burden.

The final ten lines interweave images from God’s promise to Abraham, Jacob’s vision, and the exodus from Egypt into a composite vision of the Jewish experience. The biblical incidents are arranged in a backward chronological order that represents the reversal of the journey away from God. Sachs first records the crossing of the Jordan and the transport of the Hebrew laws and Scripture, which together imply the end of national exile. Following is a description of a barren wilderness of stones, quicksand, and darkness. Even here, God’s presence, the flash of revelation, is immanent: “the dwelling place of buried lightning.” The poem closes with the image of the sleeping Jacob, known as “Israel, the fighter of horizons,” after his battle with God, dreaming the promise of a nation born “with the seed of stars,” which signifies the promise to Abraham. The writing of this poem coincided with the development of Israel’s nationhood, and the final lines bespeak a political and historical hope as well as a spiritual one.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 16, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 471

Hans Magnus Enzensberger wrote in his introduction to O the Chimneys (1967) that Sachs’s poems are “hard, but transparent. They do not dissolve in the weak solution of interpretations.” The most powerful aspect of her poetry is her use of symbols and metaphors in which are concentrated layer upon layer of meaning drawn from her life’s experiences and Jewish mysticism. The complexity of her system of signs is further enriched by the associations brought to it by her readers. Her translators face the difficult task of selecting words that evoke at least some of the many nuances found in the original texts. They are further challenged by the complicated and ambiguous syntax of her verses: New clauses begin without markers, subjects and objects are blurred, and inserted modifiers distend the sentence’s structure. These strategies alter the pace of reading. The reader is sometimes slowed and sometimes propelled by the use of anaphora (here, the repetition of “and” at the beginning of eleven lines) in a chain of associations.

The broken rhythm of Sachs’s syntax is replicated in the arrangement of her lines of verse. The repetition of the poem’s first line, “All is salvation in the mystery,” weaves through an irregular pattern of couplets, tercets, and a single quatrain creating an unpredictable emphasis. Another unifying element is the recurrence of simile after each repetition of the opening line.

The simile is only one of the many forms of metaphor encountered in this poem. Metaphor, especially metaphor developed from biblical or mystical imagery, is the cornerstone of Sachs’s system of poetic expression. She has observed of her own poetic craft: “Images and metaphors are my wounds. Death has been my teacher. I wrote to be able to survive.” (She escaped the fate of her fellow Jews in the concentration camps by fleeing to Sweden in May, 1940.)

In this poem, darkness and light have universal significance, but Sachs expresses her hopeful belief in transformation when she imagines the night giving birth to the stars. Dark and light, good and evil, are not in perpetual conflict; rather, one can engender the other. Similarly, she transforms the image of the stone—hard, lifeless matter and symbolic of exile in the barren desert—into a petrified darkness that still contains the promise of divine movement and light. Even threatening quicksand becomes a metaphor of the potential for change on the most elemental level. In conjunction with the final images of fertile seeds and stars, sand assumes yet another dimension inspired by the Bible: God promises Abraham, “I will shower blessings on you, I will make your descendants as many as the stars in heaven and the grains of sand on the seashore” (Genesis 22:17). Sachs allows the conventional, sometimes negative connotations of certain images to stand while exploring the promise hidden within.