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Critical Essay by William H. McClain
SOURCE: "The Imaging of Transformation in Nelly Sachs's Holocaust Poems," in Hebrew University Studies in Literature, Vol. 8, No. 2, Autumn, 1980, pp. 281-300.
In the following essay, McClain examines the "images of transformation" in Sachs's Holocaust poems, and discusses poems which provide insight into the personal losses the Holocaust imposed on her.
One of Nelly Sachs's most revealing comments about her writing is her statement in an early letter to her friend Walter Berendsohn that her aim as a poet was "… die Verwandlung der Materie in das uns jenseitig Verborgene" ("the transmutation of the material into that which is hidden from us in the beyond"). One of the ways in which she sought to realize this aim technically was to transpose into various images of transformation her intuitions of the connections between the visible world and an invisible higher reality. She created several of these images for the holocaust poems and dramas which she wrote during her first exile-years in Sweden. Because she employed them again and again in modified form in later poetic works, however, they gradually became fundamental modes of expression in her poetic vocabulary, as several scholars have pointed out. In this paper I have attempted to show how in the poems for which they were initially created these images fulfill not only a representational function but also function in a subtle way as rhetorical devices. To make clear this dual function I have selected from Nelly Sachs's two collections of holocaust poems, In den Wohnungen des Todes [In the Houses of Death] in 1947 and Sternverdunkelung [Star's Darkening] in 1949, six poems in which the images of transformation serve both as a means of evoking the aspect of the holocaust experience with which the poem deals and of persuading the reader to accept the point of view from which the experience is represented.
For Nelly Sachs the only way of living with the anguish of witnessing the holocaust as an outsider was, as she told her Swedish friend Olof Lagercrantz, to write about it. Although her holocaust poems are rooted in profound emotion, their tone is restrained and controlled. Geneviève Bianquis aptly characterized the attitude reflected in them as "la plus noble inquiétude," and it is beautifully exemplified by the first poem in In den Wohnungen des Todes, "O die Schornsteine" ("O the chimneys"):
Und wenn diese meine Haut zerschlagen sein wird, so werde ich ohne mein Fleisch Gott schauen
(And after my skin has thus been destroyed, then without my flesh I shall see God
O die Schornsteine
O die Schornsteine
Auf den sinnreich erdachten Wohnungen des Todes,
Als Israels Leib zog aufgelöst in Rauch
Durch die Luft—
Als Essenkehrer ihn ein Stern empfing
Der schwarz wurde
Oder war es ein Sonnenstrahl?
O die Schornsteine!
Freiheitswege für Jeremias und Hiobs Staub—
Wer erdachte euch und baute Stein auf Stein
Den Weg für Flüchtlinge aus Rauch?
O die Wohnungen des Todes,
Für den Wirt des Hauses, der sonst Gast war—
O ihr Finger,
Die Eingangsschwelle legend
Wie ein Messer zwischen Leben und Tod—
O ihr Schornsteine,
O ihr Finger,
Und Israels Leib im Rauch durch die Luft!
(O the chimneys/ On the ingeniously conceived houses of death, / When Israel's body rose as smoke / Through the air—/ Was welcomed as a chimney-sweep by a star / That was blackened, / Or was it a ray of sun? // O the chimneys! Ways to freedom for the dust / of Jeremiah and Job—/ Who conceived of you and built, stone upon stone, / The way for refugees turned into smoke? // O the houses of death, / Prepared invitingly / For the host who was formerly a guest—/ O fingers, / Laying the thresholds / Like a knife between life and death—// O chimneys, / O fingers / and Israel's body as smoke through the air!)
The prefatory verses from Job [19.26], which recall the inscrutable ways of God toward man as exemplified by one of the most perplexing episodes in the Bible, dispose us to read "O die Schornsteine" more dispassionately than we otherwise might by encouraging us to think of the events in it in relation to earlier examples of seemingly meaningless suffering. In keeping with this seeming desire to put us in a dispassionate frame of mind the speaker in the poem softens the initial impact of the crematoria by first directing our line of vision upwards to the chimneys and the smoke coming from them rather than to the doors through which the corpses were passed. Like the prefatory verses, the mention of Jeremiah and Job also causes us to think of the most recent Jewish suffering in relation to earlier times of persecution and anguish. Only in the fifteenth verse does the speaker finally focus attention on the doorways. Here, too, however, the emotional impact is lessened by the use of metonymy in referring to the builders of the houses of death simply as "Finger". Also conciliatory is the earlier reference to "Freiheitswege" which suggests that in designing these ingenious structures the persecutors unwittingly provided access to a higher, spiritual form of existence.
In spite of its grim subject matter "O die Schornsteine" might be said to offer a vision of the holocaust which is at least in a limited sense hopeful. This sense of hopefulness is communicated mainly by what we might call its "positive" images of transformation, which collectively suggest that the smoky remains of the victims ascend from the chimneys of the crematoria into a space which is redeeming space, as the startling metaphor of the chimney-sweep welcomed by a star so strongly implies. By thus evoking an impression of a process of transfiguration the images of transformation also become a means of suggesting that the mass suffering in the houses of death may have an as yet inscrutable meaning. Their power to persuade us to share the vision of the speaker in the poem stems mainly from their vividness and their dynamism, which enable the poem as a whole to generate momentarily the illusion that the mysterious process of transformation of which it speaks may actually be happening before our very eyes.
One of Nelly Sachs's most shattering exile-experiences was the news that the man with whom she had been in love as a young woman had died in a concentration camp. The most direct expression of her grief are the ten poems in In den Wohnungen des Todes entitled Gebete für den toten Bräutigam [Prayers for the Dead Betrothed]. The third of these prayers strikingly exemplifies her ability even in her early poems to evolve boldly original images of transformation:
Vielleicht aber braucht Gott die Sehnsucht, wo
sollte sonst sie auch bleiben,
Sie, die mit Küssen und Tränen und Senfzern füllt
die geheimnisvollen Räume der Luft—
Vielleicht ist sie das unsichtbare Erdreich, daraus
die gluhenden Wurzeln der Sterne treiben—
Und die Strahlenstimme über die Felder der
Trennung, die zum Wiedersehn ruft?
O mein Geliebter, vielleicht hat unsere Liebe in
den Himmel der Sehnsucht schon Welten geboren—
Wie unser Atemzug, ein—und aus, baut eine
Wiege für Leben und Tod?
Sandkorner wir beide, dunker vor Abschied, und in
das goldene Geheimnis der Geburten, verloren,
Und vielleicht schon von kommenden Sternen,
Monden und Sonnen umloht.
(But perhaps God needs the longing, where else should it stay / The longing that fills the secret spaces of air with kisses, tears, and sighs—/ perhaps it is the invisible earth-realm from which the glowing roots of stars grow—/ Or the light-voice that summons to reunion over fields of separation? / O my beloved, perhaps our love has already brought forth entire worlds into the heaven of longing—/ As our breath, in—and out, forms a cradle for life and death? / We are both grains of sand, dark because of our leaving, and who have already lost their way into the golden secret of births / And perhaps already reflect the light of coming stars, moons, and suns.)
Because of the long lines, the subtly shifting rhythms, and the many dashes, the regular ab ab cd cd rhyme-scheme of the prayer may not at first be noticed. Structurally, however, the rhyme-scheme fulfills an important function by linking and thus emphasizing keywords. In form the prayer might be likened to a mystical monody about the possibility that longing, in this case the longing of a living lover for a dead beloved, might perhaps form a spiritual bridge between the visible world and the invisible beyond. No rational reason is offered for believing in such a possibility. The poem opens with a conjecture which is supported only by a second one in the form of a question. With these two as their sole logical foundation three further conjectures are proposed. A sense of the speaker's uncertainty is also imparted by the long, slowly progressing lines, the recurrent dashes, and the frequent repetitions of "vielleicht." Only in the seventh verse does the speaker indicate assurance with the assertion that she and her dead betrothed are "Sandkörner" and that both are "dunkel vor Abschied." This latter enigmatic formulation suggests both that the speaker looks forward to her departure and that it may be imminent; and it also intimates her awareness that her dead betrothed shares her anticipation of the journey, which will ostensibly take them deeper into the realm in which the dead beloved waits, and in which the union they could not enjoy on earth will be perfectly consummated as a spiritual union.
As an expression of longing for supra-earthly existence, through its central theme of reciprocal longing of living and dead as a possible means of bridging the gap separating this world from the beyond, and also as an anticipatory vision of the afterlife, Nelly Sachs's third prayer recalls the final stanzas of Novalis's sixth hymn to the night and thus offers an opportunity to compare one of her early exile-poems with a major work by the poet who, as she herself admitted, was one of her most important literary models. When one compares the two works, however, one discovers differences that are even more striking than the similarities.
In the sixth of the Hymnen an die Nacht the speaker longs for death because it promises reunion with his dead betrothed; and, as though in response to the intensity of his longing, he receives reassuring signs of various kinds from the beyond, as he ecstatically proclaims in the closing stanzas:
Unendlich und geheimnisvoll
Durchströmt uns süsser Schauer—
Mir däucht, aus tiefen Fernen scholl
Ein Echo unsrer Trauer.
Die Lieben sehnen sich wohl auch
Und sandten uns der Sehnsucht Hauch.
Hinunter zu der süssen Braut,
Zu Jesus, dem Geliebten—
Getrost, die Abenddämmrung graut
Den Liebenden, Betrübten.
Ein Traum bricht unsre Banden los
Und senkt uns in des Vaters Schoss.
(Infinite and mysterious, / A sweet shudder courses through us—/ It seems as though from afar resounds / An echo of our grief. / Doubtless our loved ones long for us too / And send us the breath of their longing. // Downward to the sweet bride, / To Jesus, the beloved—/ be consoled, the twilight grows gray / For lovers and those who grieve. / A dream bursts our bonds asunder / And lowers us into our Father's arms.)
From Novalis's use here of the present tense, from his inclusion of the reader in the speaker's experience through the use of the first person plural pronoun, from his direct appeals to the reader's visual and auditory senses, and also from his speaker's final exhortation, we may conclude that he wished to impart in these final verses the impression of a moment of higher revelation as it is taking place. The images of transformation,—the striking oxymoron portraying the beginning of eternal night as dawning twilight and the dream of release from earthly bonds,—also seem to have been designed to impart a sense of the immediacy of the mysterious events taking place. The speaker's obvious confidence in the validity of his epiphanic experience, which recalls noetic experiences of mystics, is even reflected in the metrical pattern of alternating masculine and feminine rhymes which communicates a sense of certainty on the sound level of the poem by generating a rhythmical impression of movement toward a point where dissonances will be harmonized and dichotomies overcome.
In Nelly Sachs's prayer, on the other hand, the long, slowly moving lines, the silences indicated by the frequent dashes, and the tentative qualities of the formulations are more suggestive of a groping toward meaning than of meaning apprehended. Even more striking than these differences, however, is the fact that Nelly Sachs's persona receives no reassuring echo from the beyond. This silence is significant as a reminder that a century and a half after Novalis poets like Nelly Sachs were no longer able to acquire the same degree of understanding of self in relation to the larger process of being.
Although tentative in its formulations and conclusions, Nelly Sachs's third prayer to the dead betrothed reflects poetic skill comparable to Novalis's; and because of the unique way in which it combines lament and affirmation it is also comparable to his sixth hymn in affective power. Because it is far more a meditation on the possibility of belief than an expression of belief, it is not surprising that the persona speaking in it makes no attempt to involve us in her experience or to persuade us of its validity. And if we feel consoled by what she says, it is only because it recalls the solace that hope can offer.
Death and transfiguration is also the main theme of the third of Nelly Sachs's Grabschriften in die Luft geschrieben (Epltaphs written on Air) in In den Wohnungen des Todes, and for this poem, too, she created striking images of transformation to portray the experience:
Die Tänzerin [D.H.]
Deine Füsse wussten wenig von der Erde,
Sie wanderten auf einer Sarabande
Bis zum Rande—
Denn Sehnsucht war deine Gebärde.
Wo du schliefst, da schlief ein Schmetterling
Der Verwandlung sichtbarstes Zeichen,
Wie bald solltest du ihn erreichen
Raupe und Puppe und schon ein Ding
In Gottes Hand.
Licht wird aus Sand
(Your feet knew but little of earth, / They wandered in a sarabande / Up to the very edge—/ For longing was your gesture. // Where you slept there slept a butterfly / Most visible sign of metamorphosis. / How soon you were to reach Him / Larva, pupa, and already a thing // In God's hand. / Sand is transmuted into light.)
The epitaph, in memory of a young dancer who died in the holocaust and who is identified simply by the initials D.H., conjures up before the imagination a space filled briefly by a dancing figure who exists now only in the memory of others. As remembered here by the speaker, however, she seems almost to live again for a moment. Her dancing, as she moves through the carefully planned choreography of the poem, expresses the intense love of life which artists with the potential of becoming fine performers often manifest; and the affective power of the poem as a lamentation stems mainly from this impression of a gifted individual of great potential who is cut off prematurely. The sadness thus evoked is alleviated, however, by the assurance in the final verses that the young dancer lives on in transfigured form in the beyond.
On the sound-level the rhyme-scheme serves as a means of conveying a sense of connections between visible and invisible reality by linking keywords associated with both domains ("Schmetterling" and "Ding" and "Hand" and "Sand"). The short, rapidly moving lines function equally effectively as a means of creating a rhythmical impression of the young dancer's speedy attainment of transfiguration.
The initial image of dancing feet scarcely touching earth and the characterization of dancing as longing enable Nelly Sachs to convey in a few words the impression that the dead girl's dedication to her art and also the nature of that art itself may have facilitated her transition from material to spiritual existence. The image of the butterfly vividly expresses the idea that the longing for transfiguration is a universal longing present in all creatures. And by thus recalling the longing of all living forms to become something higher and more beautiful, the image prepares us for the final mysterious image of sand transmuted into light by means of which the poem conveys an actual impression of the process of transfiguration which has recently taken place. Again, as in "O die Schornsteine" and the third prayer for the dead betrothed, the experience of transfiguration is expressed verbally in the form of an image which is an oxymoron, as though to imply that the paradox may be the only means of conceptualizing the ineffable.
To express the mass suffering of the holocaust victims, Nelly Sachs wrote a series of poems in choral form. Because of their dramatic quality and the point of vantage from which the speakers comment in them on the holocaust experience many of these Chöre nach der Mitternacht (Choruses after Midnight) recall the choruses of Greek tragedies. Particularly reminiscent of the choral laments in Greek tragedy is the Chorus of the Stars:
Wir Sterne, wir Sterne
Wir wandernder, glänzender, singender Staub—
Unsere Schwester die Erde ist die Blinde geworden
Unter den Leuchtbildern des Himmels—
Ein Schrei ist geworden
Unter den Singenden
Sie, die Sehnusuchtvollste
Die im Staube begann ihr Werk: Engel zu bilden
Sie, die die Seligkeit in ihrem Geheimnis trägt
Wie goldführendes Gewässer
Augeschüttet in der Nacht liegt sie
Wie Wein auf den Gassen
Des Bösen gelbe Schwefellichter hüpfen auf ihrem Leib.
O Erde, Erde
Stern aller Sterne
Durchzogen von den Spuren des Heimwehs
Die Gott selbst begann
Ist niemand auf dir, der sich erinnert an deine Jugend?
Niemand, der sich hingibt als Schwimmer
Den Meeren von Tod?
Ist niemandes Sehnsucht reif geworden
Dass sie sich erhebt wie der engelhaft fliegende Samen
Erde, Erde, bist du eine Blinde geworden
Vor den Schwesteraugen der Plejaden
Oder der Waage prüfendem Blick?
Mörderhände gaben Israel einen Spiegel
Darin es sterbend sein Sterben erblickte—
Erde, o Erde
Stern aller Sterne
Einmal wird ein Sternbild Spiegel heissen.
Dann, o Blinde wirst du wieder sehn!
(We stars, we stars / We wandering, glistening, singing dust—/ Earth, our sister, has gone blind / Among the constellations of heaven, / She has become a strident cry / Among the singers—/ She, richest in longing, / Who began in dust her task of forming angels, / She who carries bliss as a secret within her / Like streams bearing gold—/ Now lies in the night / Like wine spilled on the streets—/ And over her body evil's yellow lights flicker. // O earth, earth / Star of stars / Veined by the traces of homesickness / Initiated by God Himself—/ Have you no one who remembers your youth? / No one who will surrender himself as the swimmer / To the oceans of death? / Has no one's longing ripened / So it will rise like the angelically flying seed / Of the dandelion? // Earth, earth, have you gone blind/ Before the sister eyes of the Pleiades / Or Libra's scrutinizing gaze? // Murderers' hands gave Israel a mirror / In which it saw its own death as it died—// Earth, o earth / Star of stars / One day a constellation will be called mirror. / Then, o blind one, you will see again!)
The intricate pattern of accented and unaccented syllables in the opening lines conveys on the sound-level the impression that the stars are moving through space along their orbital paths as they lament over their fallen sister. The frequent dashes, on the other hand, suggest that they are at times so overwhelmed by distress that they cannot speak for a while. To the reader familiar with Nelly Sach's poetic vocabulary and ontological outlook, the stars' initial reference to themselves as glistening, singing dust indicates that in contrast to earth they are not fallen planets, but are still close to the state of things at Creation when all was bright and harmonious. Their mention of their sister's blindness suggests, by recalling well-known instances of individuals blinded for their transgressions, that her present affliction may be a form of punishment. In speaking of her as a dissonant cry, however, they also move us to pity her by causing us to visualize her as deranged and unhappy as well as helpless. Their startling simile likening their fallen sister to wine spilled on dark streets, a striking example of Nelly Sachs's use of grotesque combinations to evoke the distorted world of the holocaust, conjures up ugly images of violence, depravity, and shame. To these impressions is added that of perdition by the mention of the yellow lights of evil which flicker on earth's fallen body.
The unusual metaphor of earth's body veined by vestiges of homesickness midway in the poem is reassuring, on the other hand, in that it suggests the possibility of redemption as long as a vestige of earth's longing for God remains. The questions which follow imply that an agent of salvation must be found, as in past instances when the earth was in need of redemption. They also imply that, like the redeemers of the past he will have to be a human being who "remembers" past innocence.
Through its bold negative images of transformation, the chorus of stars communicates an unforgettable impression of the holocaust as an event which reduced fallen earth to the point where all hope of redemption seemed futile. The final prophecy of metamorphosis encourages us to hope nevertheless by suggesting that those who died so horribly at the hands of murderers may have paid through their suffering the price for the redemption of all of us.
Nelly Sachs's second collection of poems, Sternver-dunkelung, also includes poems that deal with the holocaust. The character of the volume as a whole, however, is different from that of In den Wohnungen des Todes because three of the five sections in the volume contain poems which are either unrelated to the holocaust or touch upon it only indirectly. Among the latter are eleven poems on Biblical subjects in the second section and six poems on the newly founded state of Israel in the fourth section.
In the group of poems on Biblical subjects "Hiob" (Job) is a striking example of Nelly Sachs's skill in adapting received material to her own poetic purpose:
O du Windrose der Qualen!
in immer andere Riehtungen der Unwetter gerissen;
noch dein Süden heisst Einsamkeit.
Wo du stehst ist der Nabel der Schmerzen.
Deine Augen sind tief in deinen Schädel gesunken
wie Höhlentauben in der Nacht
die der Jäger blind herausholt.
Deine Stimme ist stumm geworden,
denn sie hat zuviel Warum gefragt.
Zu den Würmern und Fischen ist deine Stimme eingegangen.
Hiob, du hast alle Nachtwachen durchweint
aber einmal wird das Sternbild deines Blutes
alle aufgehenden Sonnen erbleichen lassen.
(O Windrose of suffering! / Continually buffeted by primordial storms / into different zones of bad weather; / even your South means loneliness. / The navel of suffering is wherever you stand. // Your eyes are sunken in your skull like cave-birds in the night / which the hunter fetches out blind. / Your voice has become silent, / from asking "why" too often. // Your voice has diminished to the muteness of worms and fishes, / Job, you have wept through all nightly vigils / but one day the constellation of your blood / will cause all rising suns to pale.)
The speaker's manner of deploring Job's wretchedness in the opening verses causes it to seem present rather than past. These lines impart an impression of total exposure to suffering. The magnitude of his misery is then vividly evoked by the startling metaphor of the navel of pain, which suggests that it is equivalent to the totality of the pain experienced by all human beings at birth. While the navel-metaphor recalls the Biblical Job's cursing the day of his birth, the bold simile likening his sunken eyes to cave-dwelling birds tracked down by hunters stirs recent memories by recalling that holocaust victims were sometimes hunted down in similar manner. The abjectness and passivity of Nelly Sachs's Job and also his muteness in consequence of having too often asked "why?", also evoke associations with contemporary history by recalling drawings and paintings of "Moslems" by concentration camp artists.
Because Nelly Sach's Job is mute he needs an interpreter. And in her poem, significantly, it is not God speaking from the whirlwind, but this spokesman who proclaims that Job's descendants will be transformed into a constellation in compensation for his suffering. Like the cryptic reference to sand transformed into light in the epitaph to the dancer D.H., this prophecy is also expressed in the form of a contradictio in adjecto which in this poem, too, seems to have been employed as a means of suggesting the ineffable mystery of cosmic justice.
Through the final prophecy of transformation, which is entirely her own invention, Nelly Sachs creates in her poem a new Job-myth. Like the Biblical Job, hers too is a man whom we can visualize as a kind of epitome of suffering; but unlike his Biblical counterpart, who demonstrates his faith at the end of his trials by humbly acknowledging God's infinite power and wisdom, her Job remains to the last silent and passive. His only consolation (and ours in reading the poem) is the final prophecy, but even that consolation seems hollow when we reflect that the only authority on which the prophecy rests is that of the voice that proclaims it.
From the six poems on Israel in Sternverdunkelung one might easily conclude that Nelly Sachs was as strongly influenced by Martin Buber's views on Zionism and on Israel's obligations as a state as by his poetic-philosophical writings. For from the poems it would seem that for her, too, the larger meaning of Zionism was the opportunity it offered the Jewish people to renew the historical Judaic tradition. Her hope that the new state would set an example for others by the ethical quality of its nationalism is expressed in the first of her Land Israel poems:
deine Weite, ausgemessen einst
von deinen, den Horizont übersteigenden Heiligen.
Deine Morgenluft besprochen von den Erstlingen
deine Berge, deine Büsche
aufgegangen im Flammenatem
des furchtbar nahegerückten Geheirnnisses.
für den himmlischen Kass!
nun wo dein vom Sterben angebranntes Volk
einzieht in deine Täler
und alle Echos den Erzvätersegen rufen
für die Rückkehrer,
ihnen kündend, wo im schattenlosen Licht
Elia mit dem Landmanne ging zusammen am
der Ysop im Garten wuchs
und schon an der Mauer des Paradieses—
wo die schmale Gasse gelaufen zwischen Hier und
da, wo Er gab und nahm als Nachbar
und der Tod keines Erntewagens bedurfte.
nun wo dein Volk
aus den Weltenecken verweint heimkommt
und die Psalmen Davids neu zu schreiben in deinen
und das Feierabendwort Vollbracht
am Abend seiner Ernte singt—
steht vielleicht schon eine neue Ruth
in Armut ihre Lese haltend
am Scheidewege ihrer Wanderschaft.
(Land of Israel, / your expanse measured formerly / by your saints who stood out on your horizon. / Your morning air named by the first creatures of God, / your hills, your bushes / consumed in the fiery breath / of the mystery that came so frighteningly near. // Land of Israel / starry spot chosen / for the celestial kiss! // Land of Israel, / where your people, singed by death, / is now moving into your valleys / and all echoes call down the ancestral blessings / on those returning, / making known to them where in the shadeless light / Elijah walked on the side of the farmer as he ploughed, / where hyssop grew in the garden / and already at the wall of Paradise—/ where the narrow lane ran between Here and There / where He gave and received as neighbor / and Death had no need of a harvest-wagon. // Land of Israel, / now that your people / having cried all their tears, come home from all corners of the earth / to inscribe the psalms of David anew in your sand / and sing, as they prepare to rest, the word: accomplished / on the evening of their harvest—// perhaps another Ruth already stands / gleaning in her poverty / at the crossroads of her wanderings.)
Although we are supposed to imagine the landscape in the poem as a present landscape to which people are returning, the speaker's manner of characterizing it as a place hallowed by history almost causes us to stop thinking of it as a present reality. Of the present expanse of Israel we learn, for example, only that it has been measured by saints who walked there in the past; and its atmosphere is characterized only as air named by the first creatures of God. Its bushes and mountains seem significant only because they recall God's covenants and His nearness to his people in the early days of their history. The past seems present everywhere to those coming to live and work in the new state. As they pass through its valleys they hear in the echoes ancestral blessings, and the echoes also remind them of hallowed regions in their new country, such as the place where hyssop grew, or where Elijah sought out Elisha. A sense of the continuity between past, present, and future is imparted by the assertion that the new inhabitants of Israel have come to inscribe the psalms of David anew in its sands. The reference to peaceful harvests suggests that the new psalms will also be songs of thanksgiving. That they may be songs of thanksgiving for deliverance from the holocaust is implied as well by the earlier allusion to the diaspora, the mention of the returning survivors singed by death, and the touching assurance that in the new homeland Death will no longer need a harvest-wagon. The allusion to the new Ruth in the final verses is an effective way of recalling that the divine plan of salvation was from the beginning a plan requiring the cooperation of human beings. For we are reminded here that Ruth, as the grandmother of Jesse, became the ancestress of David, and through him of Christ. With this suggestion that Israel's future may be a time of peace like that portrayed in the Book of Ruth "Land Israel" concludes on a hopeful note. What makes it profoundly moving, however, is its implication that the people who in our time have borne the heaviest afflictions may have founded the nation which will restore to a darkened world the light of humanitarian values.
In the holocaust poems for which many of them were initially evolved, and also in the later poems in which they recur, Nelly Sachs's images of transformation offer striking evidence of the richness of her poetic imagination and of the boldness of her experiments with poetic language and poetic effects. With these images as her main poetic means she succeeds in evoking for, and hence, in sharing with the readers of her holocaust poems the intuitive perception of the possible higher meaning of human existence which had helped her overcome the near despair to which she was reduced by the experience of the holocaust. And if we assess rhetorical effectiveness in terms of the ability to stir our psyches as well as in terms of suasive power, we must also conclude in light of the examples considered above that her images of transformation are not only powerfully evocative but also highly efficacious as rhetorical devices. For they touch deep-seated longings in us. Doubtless it is this latter capacity that prompts us to consider them indispensable. Without them, we feel, her poems would not be able to offer, as they do, the kind of creative experience we have come to expect of poetic works of high quality, that of inducing us to conceive of new possibilities. Poems cannot explain the holocaust any better than history can. But they can evoke its atmosphere in such a way as to compel us, as Nelly Sachs's holocaust poems do, to try to discover for ourselves the implications of the terrible events they recall.
As a poet Nelly Sachs may be said to have realized an important aim of the Hassidic mystics in whose writings she found such strong spiritual support during her exile-experience, that of learning the secret melody, "the holy song that merges the lonely, shy letters into the singing of the spheres." Out of the lonely letter of the language she took with her into exile, she created poetic works in which, even while they lament the darkening of the world during the time of the holocaust, one can hear, even though only faintly, the singing of the spheres. For while her works sadden us, they also hearten us by encouraging us to hope that the infinite capacity of life to renew itself may enable the fallen world of the present to regain one day the place it lost so long ago in the harmonious order of the heavens.
This section contains 5,368 words
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