In Flight and Metamorphosis by Nobel Prize winning poet Nelly Sachs, a
stunning German to English translation by Joshua Weiner with Linda
Parshall, the reader enters a universe of displacement, disruption, and
disorientation. Weiner states in his introduction that if an American reader
knows anything at all about Nelly Sachs (1891-1970)
, that familiarity centers on her 1966 Nobel Prize
and most famous poem "O die Schornsteine" ("O
the Chimneys") from her 1947 book In den
Wohnungen des Todes (In the Habitations of Death). The Nobel committee stated that she received the
award "for her outstanding lyrical and dramatic
writing, which interprets Israel's destiny with touching strength." Weiner
is quick to point out that while the reader might find the poem to be
"Holocaust kitsch"—those habitations are perversely the death ovens.
Sachs was the first to write imagery of the Holocaust into German poetry
several years after gas chambers and crematoria were revealed by Allied
O the Chimneys
And though after my skin worms destroy this body yet in my flesh shall I
see God.—Job, 19:26
O the chimneys
On the ingeniously devised habitations of death
When Israel's body drifted as smoke
Through the air—
Translation by Michael Roloff. Nelly Sachs O the Chimneys (Farrar,
Straus and Giroux, 1967)
Sachs escaped with her elderly mother in 1940 by flying from Berlin to
Stockholm with the help of Swedish poet Selma Lagerlöf. Sachs had been
warned against traveling by train. Before that flight, she, as a non-
observant Jew, had been interrogated by the Nazis. Her lover, a resistance
fighter, had been killed, possibly in front of her (according to Weiner).
Sachs is pigeon-holed for her German Romanticism in her Holocaust work
which Weiner calls static (after all, it is and was poetry about the past).
However, this postwar volume Flight and Metamorphosis, first published
in 1959 in German, soars with a modernity that evokes the nowness of
such enigmatic writers as Stéphane Mallarmé and Gertrude Stein.
Living in poverty and experiencing several nervous breakdowns, Sachs
translated contemporary Swedish poets, such as Johannes Edfelt, Harry
Martinson, and Erik Lindegren and later published her translations in an
anthology entitled Von Welle und Granit (From Wave and Granite).
According to Weiner, these younger poets had already absorbed modernist
innovations from such poets as T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. Sachs'
translation work caused her (per Weiner) to "[listen] intently at the level of
syllable and word."
If one slips into the mindset of the Modernists, one can discover Sachs'
flight of fantasy in the first stanza of "Just Look" (p. 31). Sachs' lover (der
Mensch in the German/human being in the English) is escaping from
Berlin (die große Stadt/the great city) by airplane taking off (on rubber
tires) just as Sachs did.
the human being breaks free
in the middle of the marketplace
do you hear his pulse beating?
And the great city
girds his body
on rubber tires—
lifts itself up
on his breath.
The difference between the poems that won her a Nobel and her later work
reveals a present tense energy—Israel's body drifted as smoke (dead body)
versus do you hear his pulse beating (the alive and breathing human
"But Maybe" (p. 33, first two stanzas) moves from the euphemistic errors
of Earth into the unstable cosmos which we have imagined (created) and
which embrace birth—the bud of the embryo—and death—a smokecloud of
error. That smokecloud of error could well be the incinerated victims of
Hitler's extermination camps who were released into Earth's air as eternal
refugees and whose persecutors, as well as neighbors, (the veritable we of
this poem) have disturbed the orderly whole (cosmos) with words
(language) like Heil Hitler.
in a smokecloud of error
created a wandering cosmos
with the language of our breath—
time and again
sounded the fanfare
of the beginning
shaped the grain of sand
quick as wind
before, once more, there was light
above the bud of the embryo?
As with many other poems in this collection, in both "Just Look" and "But
Maybe", the reader can experience metamorphosis and flight. Both poems
offer a mystical view of human existence where logic is suspended and
some other energetic force reigns, such that a human being can gird his
body on rubber tires and fly, such that there was light allowing us to sound the fanfare of another day despite our errors against our own humanity.
While the word birth appears over a dozen times in Flight and
Metamorphosis, the five poems using the word resurrection provides an
overarching curve of lost time "Sacred minute" (p. 15), lost youth
"Between" (p. 29), loss of God "In old age" (p. 37) but then a flood of births
in the face of death "Already" (p. 125), and the miracle of overcoming grief
"Deep inside" (p. 127).
"Deep inside" has decidedly Christian (crucifixion of Christ) imagery in its
reference to "the station of suffering." Stanza one might be addressing the
Nazi interrogators with "their mouths full of god-deformed words".
Although longing still is felt, the narrator of this poem decrees "love no
longer wears a shroud". The last image might be a reference to Saint
Sebastian, an early Christian saint shot with arrows who lived despite his
the station of suffering
possessed by a smile
who question in the shadows
their mouths full of god-deformed words
from pain's distant past.
Love no longer wears a shroud,
space is spun
in the thread of your longing.
back from your eyes
softly turning to char
but over your head
Stella Maris, lodestar of certainty,
glows ruby red
with the arrows of resurrection—
We see love [personified] wearing a shroud in "So far out, in the open,"
(p. 13), a poem that has the feel of magic realism with its depiction of
"a butterfly-zone of dreams." Sachs employs the butterfly as a symbol of
both metamorphosis and flight. Modern day Kabbalists talk about the
Butterfly Effect from Chaos Theory. Sachs seems to presciently point to the
atmospheric and cosmic disturbances caused by the butterfly in dreams
"like an open parasol/ held up against truth."
So far out, in the open,
cushioned in sleep.
In flight from the land
with love's heavy luggage.
a butterfly-zone of dreams
like an open parasol
held up against truth.
stretching its emptiness
while space expands
from dust without song.
with prophetic tongues of spray
over the death shroud
till sun again sows
each second's blaze of pain.
This is the first time the entire collection Flucht und Verwandlung (Flight
and Metamorphosis) has been translated. Weiner took several years,
making his draft English translations and then consulting with Linda
Parshall. Parshall is professor emerita of German language and literature
at Portland State University and a literary translator with roots in medieval
scholarship. As an award-winning poet, Weiner's goal was to create an
English translation that was like Sachs' original German version. He points
out that Sachs' German is strange and Linda Parshall's medieval
scholarship was an extra layer of help.
Each poem in Flight and Metamorphosis is a treasure trove of imagery
that provides avenues of exploration for a reader to meditate on and puzzle
through without end. For those even with the least bit of German
comprehension, they can enjoy this bilingual edition which shows how the
translator has worked with Sachs' compound words that go beyond the
expected compounding in the German language. Except for the lack of a
poem index (based on either title or first line), this attentive and sensitive
translation will be undoubtedly a durable resource for poetic excellence
and satisfying appreciation.