July 2022

The Steiny Road to Operadom | Karren LaLonde Alenier | www.scene4.com

Beyond the Nobel:
Nelly Sachs and Her Soaring Modernism

Karren Alenier


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. JoshuaWeinere-crWeiner 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 troops.



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.


Just look

just look

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—

because fate

has cloaked

time's wheel—

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.


But maybe

in a smokecloud of error

we have

created a wandering cosmos

with the language of our breath—


have we

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 wounds.



Deep inside

the station of suffering

possessed by a smile

you answer


who question in the shadows

their mouths full of god-deformed words

hammered out

from pain's distant past.


Love no longer wears a shroud,

space is spun

in the thread of your longing.

Stars ricochet

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.




nightdress body

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.


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Scene4 Magazine — Karren Alenier

Karren Alenier is a poet and writer. She writes a monthly column and is a Senior Writer for Scene4. She is the author of The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas. Read her blog.
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