Nelly Sachs won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1966. In Europe, Sachs is, as translator Joshua Weiner describes her, “a cultural symbol” primarily of “so-called Jewish reconciliation,” but in the United States she has been largely forgotten. Weiner’s new translation with Linda B. Parshall of her 1959 book, Flight and Metamorphosis, returns Sachs to English-language readers through this mature volume of meditative lyrical poetry.
Presented side-by-side with the original German, the poems of Flight and Metamorphosis demonstrate both contemplations that consume Sachs and also her mastery of lyricism. As Weiner notes, for English-language readers, Sachs has been confined to being a “voice of Jewish suffering,” partially resulting from the wide availability of her poems in translation from the 1940s. Sachs’s most famous poem, “O the Chimneys,” invites parallel readings Paul Celan’s “Deathfugue.” Comparisons between Sachs and Celan are certainly merited — and their correspondence is among the great ones of the twentieth century—but this work is only part of her oeuvre. As readers will discover in this new translation, Sachs’s work soars in the mid-century, informed by Shoah experiences while also peering into an array of philosophical traditions.
Keen observations of the natural world combine with meditations on the nature of human existence to form brief, highly charged lyrics in Flight and Metamorphosis that demonstrate the energy and transformation that the title of the volume suggests. In one poem, Sachs writes of “a moment of peace” when “the next world trumpets in the red of sunset.” She declares, “O deep wide ocean in the little ear!” and “O minuet of love / waferlight book of hours.” Sach’s evocations of human consciousness through light and darkness, time, sunset, and textures lead to conclusions that dazzle in their combined simplicity and profundity.
Multiple poems within the volume draw from these image banks and grapple with philosophical and lived paradoxes. In one poem, Sachs’s writes: “On you, the heavens practice / destruction. / You dwell in grace.” The balance between an understood destruction, which is both specific but opens to broader experiences, and the potential for grace for shared experiences of humanity, is artfully deployed by Sachs throughout these poems.
Readers will especially appreciate this translation of Flight and Metamorphosis for Weiner’s capacious and engaging introduction; he situates Sachs and her work broadly in twentieth-century literature. At the end, the translator notes other available work of Sachs as well as opening her highly allusive poems to readers wishing to research her work further and explore the stories that shaped the poems.
Reading Sachs’s poems, as we collectively roar through the twenty-first century, the resonances of her work are deeply meaningful. Sachs’s poems provide succor as we watch continued refugee crises resulting from both politics and climate catastrophes. She examines evil and finds compassion. The gathering of these poems invites us to embrace our humanity.
Julie R. Enszer is a scholar and poet. She is the author of four collections of poetry: Avowed, Lilith’s Demons, Sisterhood, and Handmade Love, and is the editor of The Complete Works of Pat Parker and Milk & Honey: A Celebration of Jewish Lesbian Poetry.