O the Chimneys

by Leonie Sachs

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Nelly Sachs’s O the Chimneys contains several collections of loosely connected free-verse poems, some preceded by quotations from the Old Testament, written to give voice to the horror and tragedy of mass murder. Each collection is set off by a thematic title, such as “In the Habitations of Death,” “Eclipse of the Stars,” or “And No One Knows How to Go On.” As the series continues, titles indicate a progression toward tired, wistfully sad resignation and recognition that profound tragedy can never be explained. Representative titles are “Death Still Celebrates Life” and “Glowing Enigmas I, II, and III.” Within the larger units, individual poems, usually eighteen or twenty in each group, carry descriptive titles indicating their content. Also included in the book is the verse drama Eli: A Mystery Play of the Sufferings of Israel, which was first produced in 1962.

The collection, which begins with the title poem “O the chimneys,” includes such thematic designations as “O the night of the weeping children,” “Even the old men’s last breath,” “A dead child speaks,” and “Chorus of the Unborn.” The poem “O the night of the weeping children,” for example, is divided into two parts deriving their effectiveness from paradox and contrast. The poet speaks of the night, but one in which sleep is impossible, and of nursemaids who do not foster life but sow death, suckling the children on panic instead of mother’s milk. In the second half of the poem, the author uses such concrete items as “the doll with cheeks derouged by kisses” and a stuffed toy to recall the happier, innocent time that she terms “yesterday,” but the poem ends with abandoned toys and the image of nightgowns blown over children’s hair “that no one will comb again.” Sentimental evocations are overpowered by death in this poem, with that word reiterated three times in the space of nineteen lines.

The free rhythms contain cadenced lines and strophes of uneven length that are entirely unrhymed. They customarily contain rhetorical devices, such as repetition, parallelism, calls to an unseen force, rhetorical questions, and other technical devices from the tradition of speech, debate, or drama; likewise, the position of words, especially at beginnings and ends of lines or verses, carries significant weight.

Sachs’s poems are characterized by rich poetic imagery; by echoes of biblical cadences; by such classical evocations as references to oracles or to Mars, the ancient god of war; by animal references, as to wolves, calves, dragonflies, various kinds of birds, and butterflies (the latter two often symbolic of the soul); by a preponderance of references to astronomical entities, such as stars, the sun, constellations, and the heavens in general; by botanical references, as to dandelions, seeds, or bindweed; and by multiple references to images having to do with time, such as clocks (“the clock face of ages”), dust, stones, and the sands of time. Family relationships also play a significant symbolic role in the work of this compassionate and often-anguished poet. The critic Harry Zohn has drawn attention to Sachs’s use of images drawn from Jewish mysticism.

Few women achieved fame in German literary history before the late twentieth century. In 1966, Sachs shared the Nobel Prize in Literature, specifically for her poetry, with the Israeli writer S. Y. Agnon. Her importance in the German lyric tradition is limited, although she is a significant voice for the Jewish experience in World War II Germany and the immediate postwar years.

Eli: A Mystery Play of the Sufferings of Israel is fairly unknown in the twentieth century German dramatic tradition. Sachs wrote it in the space of...

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a few nights in 1943 after receiving news of the atrocities in Nazi Europe. This verse drama contains a series of seventeen scenes but no formal acts, a large catalog of anonymous characters, variously described disembodied voices, and four named characters. It features dream dialogue, fragmented memories or flashbacks to the destruction of the Polish village in which it takes place, and the music, dance, mysticism, and miracles expected in a mystery play. Like her poetry, it is replete with images of building and tearing down, death (including graves, blood, and decay), animals, plants, seeds, clothing, family relationships, stars, time, Jewish tradition, isolation, retribution, and rebirth.

Similar in form to plays of the expressionist period in literature (1910-1925) and to post-World War II dramas of such writers as Wolfgang Borchert, as well as to traditional religious drama, Eli retells the death of an innocent child and the tracking of his murderer after the war by a Jewish seer. Parallel to this content is the rebuilding of the Polish village on the site and memories of its destruction during the war. In both instances, the task, built on pain and actuated by the necessities of the time, is successful, thus redressing injury, reestablishing the balance in society, and reaffirming a traditional moral order.

The poetry collections subsumed under the title O the Chimneys are dedicated to “my dead brothers and sisters”; they give voice to the agony of the realization that six million Jews were put to death in concentration camps during World War II. The poems make Nelly Sachs, more than other lyric writers, a poet of the Holocaust and a voice for persecuted peoples of every time and place. The vivid evocation of the chimneys in the death camps, whose smoke is the bodies of her fellow Jews, is the most poignant image among the many pictures woven into and unifying the poetry of this collection. An identification with her Jewish compatriots informs Sachs’s poetry, even though she wrote from exile while they suffered in a world either indifferent to their martyrdom or unable to save them. This poetry illustrates significant ways in which all humanity, if not the very universe itself, participates in the infliction of suffering as well as in the redemption of a martyred group.

Indeed, despite the mute witness of the heavens, the depictions of death, separation, bereavement, shoes left behind as symbols of truncated hopes, and orphaned survivors struggling to rebuild their lives, this poetry bespeaks the necessity for striving toward transformation. It envisions rebirth and a place in the world for every group of people, however immutably the present time has been transformed by the flagrant example of genocide. For example, the poem “Whither o whither,” from the cycle “Eclipse of the Stars” uses a series of short, mournfully elegiac lines, seventeen in all, to depict a new process of evolution taking place out of the “chrysalis” of sorrow and longing. This evolution results in the rebirth of the soul, which will emerge from “under the ice of the death mask.” Such anthropological and biological, but hopeful, depictions are typical of Sachs’s tone and imagery. Peter Demetz terms such poems “dirges and psalms,” which captures their often paradoxical quality as well as their derivation from poetic forms typically found in the Old Testament. Furthermore, the faith implied in the poetry of Sachs is touching in its instinctiveness and its inaccessibility to reason. As Demetz has observed, the poet suggests that “theological questions do not require definite answers.”

The verse play Eli shares with the poetry a witness to the senseless death of innocent people, particularly children, and attempts to reconcile the irrevocable past with a future built on hope as well as memories. The flashbacks to wartime events are balanced by a community effort to rebuild this village on the very site of its previous destruction. The role played by Michael is central; he is at once a mysterious folk hero of the Jewish faith, a fellow villager and sufferer, the agent for retribution, and the symbol of hopeful change. The fact that he can reduce the former Nazi soldier to his constitutive atoms and is then taken up into heaven while still remaining a very human Jew is immensely positive. One is left with the certainty of a society rebuilt along traditional lines under the eye of a beneficent deity who has seen the anguish of the people and redressed their suffering.

O the Chimneys does not address women’s issues alone, but rather the shared martyrdom of all humans. There are, however, tragic aspects of suffering, death, and rebirth that pertain specifically to women, such as intense feelings of loss for children and husbands. The poem titles “Princesses of sadness” and “Mouth suckling on death” are indicative of this subject. The poems “O sister” and “Forgive me my sisters” indicate another common theme: the shared feelings of women, who are united in a sisterhood of support in suffering. The play Eli also contains these ideas. Likewise, both the poetry, as in the collection “Flight and Metamorphosis,” and the drama contain encouragement specifically for women to go beyond losses of the past into a future that women are instrumental in shaping because of their procreative powers, understood both literally and figuratively.

The Jewish culture of the earlier part of the twentieth century was strongly patriarchal, as is witnessed by the leading roles played exclusively by men in the poetry and the drama. Even such traditionally female concepts in Western thought as the earth and angels are masculine in Sachs’s writing—“Earth, old man of the planets” or Michael in the play. The roles ascribed to women are the traditional ones or procreation, support for children and male authority figures, baking, washing, and (all too often) mourning.