Best Known as a Holocaust Poet, Nelly Sachs Deserves Another Look


This will disorient readers accustomed to Anglo-American lyric epiphany — but that’s the point, and a good reason to read Sachs. Weiner first encountered some of the poems in “Flight and Metamorphosis” when he was in Berlin in 2015 to write a prose book about the refugee situation there. It is easy to see why he found them resonating with the present moment’s catastrophic human displacements. But their work is not in telling the story straight. Sentence fragments open a poem early in the sequence (these poems don’t have titles; each first line is capitalized):


cushioned in sleep.

In flight from the land

with love’s heavy luggage.

In those lines we may find the refugee’s flight, love’s burden, sleep as respite, exposure. Also emotional and perhaps spiritual displacement, a “flight” with no rest. Instead of orienting its readers, the poem next turns inward to “a butterfly-zone of dreams/like an open parasol/held up against the truth,” then poses the eternal against the quotidian body:



nightdress body

That stack of nights agitates in a way it wouldn’t if it were laid out, meditatively, on one line. Even in the “cushion” of sleep, night disturbs. “Nightdress body” is contrastingly intimate, and vulnerable — the shock of the half-undressed body in contact with enormity. Without that, the poem would be impossibly remote, hopelessly ethereal. The final stanza zooms out again. A “prophetic” sea “rolls/over the death shroud” — that’s sand, or Earth itself — but the poem rejects death’s finality. Instead, “sun again sows/each second’s blaze of pain.” Other poets’ suns provide sustenance and renewal. Not Sachs’s, a sun for oppressing refugees of war and of the spirit.

The effect of all this linguistic diaphanousness and metaphysical maelstrom is that individual poems don’t stick in the mind. Instead the poems accumulate consequence, gaining traction if one reads attentively, straight through “Flight and Metamorphosis.” This is not a book for sampling, but (to mix metaphors) a journey, or maybe a journey’s middle, with no beginning or end. Praise gives way to despair gives way to peace, then the cycle repeats. But there is development. Moments of glancing dramatization increase. “And again, God is ready to depart,” concludes a poem a third of the way in. Later still, we encounter “the human in the sun/throwing the black bloodletting, guilt/onto the sand” and a “weather-cherub” who “ties/the four-winds scarf/not to pick strawberries.” However, well, weird they are, these are specific entities captured midaction, as if arising from a void.

“Flight and Metamorphosis” opens with ending (“WHO DIES/here last”) and ends by opening (“SO I POURED FORTH FROM THE WORD:/a piece of night/with arms outstretched/just a set of scales/to weigh the fleeing.”) The first-person speaker registers not so much as human as it does a being half-divine in its power to weigh, half-emerging from the divine word. But other moments land as personal, even confessional:

Now it is late.

The lightness is leaving me

and also the heaviness

Sachs arrives, finally, at restless resolution:

Deep dark is always the color of longing for home