It is difficult to speak of development in Nelly Sachs’s poetic works, inasmuch as she was well beyond fifty years old when she produced her first significant poems. It is true that she had published lyric poetry before the 1940’s, but this early work has little in common with that of her mature years. Most of the poems from the 1920’s and 1930’s are thematically quite distinct from the later work, devoted to musicians such as Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Jean-Philippe Rameau, and Luigi Boccherini or dealing poetically with certain animals, such as deer, lambs, and nightingales. The Nelly Sachs archives in Dortmund and in Stockholm have copies of a substantial number of these early efforts.
In den Wohnungen des Todes
In contrast, the work of Sachs’s last twenty-five years concerns itself largely with existential problems, particularly with topics related to the Holocaust and rooted in personal experiences of flight, exile, and the death of friends. Her first collection of poems, In den Wohnungen des Todes (in the habitations of death), refers in its title to the Nazi death camps and is dedicated to those who perished there. It is a mistake, however, to perceive her work solely in the context of these historical events. Her topic is on a larger scale—the cycle of life itself: birth, death, rebirth—and Sachs develops various metaphors and ciphers to express the agony and the hope of this cycle.
While it is desirable to interpret Sachs’s work separately from the context of specific historical events, it is almost impossible to analyze an individual poem without relying on information gained from a broader knowledge of her work. This difficulty is the result of her frequent use of ciphers, poetic images that can be “decoded” only by reference to other poems in which the same images occur. Such a cipher in Sachs’s work is the stone. Its properties are chiefly those of inert matter: lack of emotion, or lifelessness. The cipher may depict human callousness, death, or desolation in different contexts, and it is related to similar poetic images such as sand and dust—decayed rock—which signify the mortal human condition.
The poem “Sinai” from the collection Sternverdunkelung (eclipse of the stars) contains entirely negative images of the stone. Sachs compares the ancient times of Moses, in which humanity was still in intimate contact with the divine and thus vibrantly alive, with the present state of lifelessness; there are only “petrified eyes of the lovers” with “their putrefied happiness.” Recounting Moses’s descent from Mount Sinai, Sachs asks: “Where is still a descendent/ from those who trembled? Oh, may he glow/ in the crowd of amnesiacs/ of the petrified!” The eyes of the lovers turned to stone signify the death both of sensibility and of sensuousness, and the inability to recreate or reproduce. It is ultimately a death of humankind. The call is for one perhaps still alive among the multitude of those dead in mind and body.
In “Chassidische Schriften” (“Hasidic Scriptures,” from Sternverdunkelung), Sachs writes: “And the heart of stones,/ filled with drifting sand,/ is the place where midnights are stored.” “Drifting sand” is sand blown skyward by the wind; thus, while it is inert matter, it has lost this inertia momentarily on the wings of the wind. The dead has come to life. Midnight, on the other hand, represents the end of one day and the dawning of the next, a time of rebirth. Sachs contends that the stone, dead as it is, is imbued with the desire for rebirth and transubstantiation. Another possibility for the stone to attain a semblance of life is offered in “Golem Tod!” (“Golem Death!” from Sternverdunkelung). There, “The stone sleeps itself green with moss.” The suggestion that the stone is merely sleeping, not dead, and that it is capable of producing living matter (moss) is also an affirmation of the possibility of renewal of life after death.
“Melusine, If Your Well Had Not” and “Chorus of the Stones”
Scarcely less negative is the stone cipher in the poem “Wenn nicht dein Brunnen, Melusine” (“Melusine, If Your Well Had Not”), from Und niemand weiss weiter: If it were not for the possibility of transformation and escape, “we should long have passed away/ in the petrified resurrection/ of an Easter Island.” Easter Island’s petrified statues are merely reminders of an extinct civilization, not a resurrection from the dead. Still, the poem indicates that transformation is possible (the symbol for it is Melusine). In the poem “Chorus of the Stones,” from In den Wohnungen des...
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