Nelly Sachs: 5 of Her Mystic Poems Translated Into English
Nelly Sachs, honored on Monday with a Google Doodle, won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1966. The award came just two decades after her first volume of poetry, In den Wohnungen des Todes (In the House of Death) was published and at the time, she was commended for her “outstanding lyrical and dramatic writing, which interprets Israel’s destiny with touching strength.” Sach’s poems reflected her role as a witness and victim to the Holocaust; her work was a marriage of mourning and memory.
The poems which gained her acclaim also emerged when Sach was in exile. Born in 1891, Sach and her mother escaped Berlin in 1940 and arrived as refugees in Sweden. While she published a few poems in German magazines as a young woman, Sach’s later work reflected the persecution and death she witnessed inflicted by Nazis. Metaphorical language is infused within her poems, and recurring images like butterflies, stars, and the presence of a beloved are stalwart.
Below are five of her poems translated from German to English, each capturing her dual motifs of life and death. The Jewish Women’s Archive notes that her writing was “linked to the mystical,” testimonial poems that appeal to the grace of humankind.
“Glühende Rätsel II” (“Glowing Puzzles II”)
Plunge straight into the extreme \n Not playing hide-and-seek with pain \n I can only seek you if I take the sand into my mouth \n So I can taste resurrection \n For you have all abandoned my grief \n And you are isolated from my love, dear ones
“Immer noch um die Stirn geschlungen” (“Still Looped Around His Forehead”)
Still looped around your forehead \n sickness’s stern horizon \n with the rushing rebellion of battle — \n the rescue rope thrown into the abyss \n to catch those drowning in night
O-A-O-A \n cradled in a rolling sea of vowels \n words have all gone headlong
“Die gekrümmte Linie des Leidens” (“The Crooked Line of Suffering”)
The crooked line of suffering \n tumbling along the godfired \n geometry of the universe \n forever on the trail of light leading to you \n and dimmed again in the falling sickness \n impatient to reach the end —
Diese Nacht” (“Last Night”)
Last night \n as I was walking down a dark side street \n around the corner \n my shadow lay down \n in my arms \n This weary garment \n wanted to be carried, \n and the color nought appealed to me \n You are beyond the pale!
“Hier und Da” (“Here and There”)
Here and there the lantern of compassion \n should be lent to the fishes \n where the hook has been swallowed \n or choking been well practiced. \n That is where the stars of torment \n have grown ripe for redemption. \n Or there, where lovers hurt each other, \n lovers \n who are forever close to dying.