The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 781

“Thus I Ran Out of the Word” was first published in Nelly Sachs’s Flucht und Verwandlung (1959; “flight and metamorphosis”). The book’s central theme is transformation, and this poem, the last in the book, describes one person’s transformation becoming complete. The “I” of the poem charts her passage from one world into another toward a “homecoming.” The poem could be interpreted as a meditation on one’s passage into death.

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The first line is an abrupt decree, and it suggests a summing up. In fact, the speaker begins this poem practically in mid-sentence. In the line “Thus I ran out of the word,” the reader senses resignation, acceptance, and a readiness to enter the “night/ with arms outspread.” “The word” certainly has biblical connotations (“In the beginning was the Word”), but here “word” might refer primarily to the speaker’s self—that which she had been trying to create. To run out of words—language, communication, ideas—is essentially to lose one’s identity. In this sense, the speaker’s transformation begins with giving up ego, or consciousness of self.

The second stanza suggests some sort of preparation for the transformational journey taking place. “A piece of night” indicates partial reckoning with the night (death’s representative?), and the “arms outspread” make a welcoming gesture. In another metaphor, however, the outstretched arms are imagined as a scale, the type with a dish on each side for balancing opposing weights. The scale “weigh[s] flights.”

The motif of flight (both fleeing and soaring) is a common one in Sachs’s poetry, but here “only a scale to weigh flights” is perplexing. This mysterious phrase could suggest that the night, personified, weighs (judges) the hardships of a person’s life. Flight as escape is a recurring theme in Sachs’s poetry and is possibly evoked here with reference to the many flights from persecution the Jewish people have had to endure. Is the traveler’s past being examined to determine the reason for this next departure?

Perhaps to “weigh flights” is to gauge the extent of suffering. The calm voice of this stanza makes the speaker seem willing to accept what arrives with the night, as well as what has been lost, including “the word.” Such unquestioning acceptance allows her to consider death—hers or that of others—without the prolonged and purposeless anguish that becomes in the end only frustrating.

In “this star-time/ sunk into dust/ with the fixed tracks,” one finds a reference to a painful past. Dust and stars, recurring images in Sachs’s poetry, symbolize the past; and the most important past event influencing her work is the Holocaust. Furthermore, the rigidity of “the fixed tracks” indicates an immobile, unchanging past: It cannot be undone, nor can (nor should) its suffering be forgotten. Nevertheless, Sachs’s poem seems to suggest that in order to have a loving life and a death that is graceful, one must reconcile oneself with the past—not to forget it, but to absorb it, and thus be delivered from its painful hold.

Given this knowledge, it is right that stanza 2, describing the moment of transition, should lead to a state “without gesture of burden.” The lines describe in their quiet tones a peaceful passing between worlds. In fact, the speaker seems fairly to be melting away. Her body disperses: “my shoulders . . ./ sail away.” The harmony and balance are so apparent—“The lightness leaves me/ and the heaviness as well”—that this particular “homecoming” seems to be a welcome event, not a death to be feared at all. That it is “deep and dark” seems only to ease the transformation.

The last line feels like a weary traveler’s sigh of relief to be home again. “Home,” in the end, could be read as death, or perhaps only death of the ego—slipping into a different consciousness; it could even describe one of the simplest and most common transformations we experience: falling asleep. This intensely personal yet haunting poem, spoken in an almost ecstatic voice, attempts to describe a profound change in consciousness. It seems apparent from her poetry that one such moment in Sachs’s life must have been when she summoned the strength to forgive death and its engineers for the suffering she witnessed while living through the Holocaust.

The paradox of the poem is that the poet must deal with language to communicate what her imagination has discovered, even after the opening line has announced that “the word” and its power are gone. The poet attempts to do what in the end is impossible: that is, to convey a moment of silence and nothingness by using her only tool, language.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 363

In “Thus I Ran Out of the Word,” Sachs uses devices common to all of her poetry. One immediately notices the poem’s imagery, its intense yet enigmatic metaphors and symbols. The prominent symbol in this poem is night—personified perhaps as death, perhaps simply as a presence that indicates another realm of consciousness.

Present too in the imagery are two of Sachs’s recurring images: stars and dust, as well as the “fixed tracks” and the scale—deeply intriguing images which do not easily yield to interpretation. Stars and dust in Sachs’s poetic cosmology allude to the past, and perhaps “fixed tracks” does, too: events—history—that are fixed in the past and cannot be undone or denied. This interpretation fits the poem into the central theme of Sachs’s canon: the Holocaust and how to deal with memories of it, and that it happened.

In this poem, Sachs tries to achieve a mood and tone that balance precariously between feverish cries and hushed, thoughtful pronouncement. The shortness of the lines helps achieve a feeling of immediacy, as does the absence of punctuation and capital letters. (Only the ends of the stanzas and the first and last lines of the poem are punctuated.) Thus the poem sounds as if it were being delivered almost breathlessly, excitedly, quickly before time runs out. The short lines create an agitated rhythm.

The stanza beginning “Now it is late” provides a good example. The sentences are run together in a rhythm of hurry and amazement. Use of the first person also enhances the feeling of intimacy and immediacy. The speaker is very much present, not withdrawn.

Sachs often uses cyclic forms in her work. “Thus I Ran Out of the Word” is a cyclic poem; it begins and ends with night, suggesting the process rather than the result of transformation. If content determines form, the poet’s interest in a circular form makes sense. In her way of thought, neither state—life or death—has an ending; they flow into and out of each other. Life and death inform each other. Therefore, “The color of homecoming is always deep and dark.” Homecoming can be repeated.

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Themes