Nelly Sachs | Critical Essay by Hamida Bosmajian

This literature criticism consists of approximately 19 pages of analysis & critique of Nelly Sachs.
This section contains 5,551 words
(approx. 19 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Essay by Hamida Bosmajian

SOURCE: "'Landschaft aus Schreien': the Shackled Leaps of Nelly Sachs," in Bucknell Review, Vol. XXI, No. 1, Spring, 1973, pp. 43-62.

In the following essay, Bosmajian presents a deep analysis of "Landschaft aus Schreien," emphasizing Sachs's use of imagery and symbolism.

Nelly Sachs's poems disprove and confirm Theodor Adorno's statement that "after Auschwitz we cannot write poetry." The conjunction of Auschwitz and poetry seems an obscenity, for what has the cruel reality of the camp to do with lyricism?

The poems of Nelly Sachs do not reproduce that reality with documentary exactness; they fail to reveal the essence of evil. This failing is not new, for the makers of verbal universes have always revealed little about the essences with which they have concerned themselves. Dante envisioned the essence of evil as a corporeal and grotesque image of a trinity immobilized in the icy pit of hell, and he could do no more than humbly sing the praises of the eternal moving light of goodness. Nelly Sachs knows that evil is real and manifests itself in millions of grotesque examples which in aggregation reach cosmic if not metaphysical dimensions. Again and again her poems come to a point of demonic epiphany beyond which beckons the glimmer of a very uncertain hope. This is the case in Zahlen ("Numbers") where she describes the future of the numbers that were branded into the arms of the condemned:

     erhoben sich Meteore aus Zahlen
     gerufen in die Räume
     darin Lichterjahre wie Pfeile sich strecken
     und die Planeten
     aus den magischen Stoffen
     des Schmerzes geboren werden—
     (meteors of numbers arose
     beckoned into spaces
     wherein light-years expand like arrows
     and the planets
     are born of the magic matter
     of pain—)

Her whole work is a search for the reason of suffering, for the source of peace, and it is also a struggle against the forgetfulness of man. In her poems, suffering and the need for transformation and liberation extend into time and space, but the simple and comforting belief in an afterlife is not part of her faith, which rests primarily on what Martin Buber has called "holy insecurity." Perhaps death is no more than a liberation from physical agony, as in her famous poem

     O ihr Schornsteine,
     O ihr Finger,
     Und Israels Leib im Rauch durch die Luft!
     (O you chimneys,
     O you fingers,
     And Israel's body in smoke through the air!)

There is a yearning for spatial expansion in her poetry, a desire for an energy that would lift her upward and away from a gruesome reality. The speaker of her poems is often like the dreamer in a nightmare who wants to fly but is pulled back by what he fears. The condition is well expressed in the agonized cry of Marlowe's Faustus: "I'll leap up to my God, who pulls me down?" Nelly Sachs also yearns for a peace that surpasses understanding, but she is shackled by the knowledge that to have such a peace in one's lifetime would be wrong: "Erde, Planetengreis, du saugst an meinem Fuss / der fliegen will." (Earth, senile man of planets, you suck at my foot / that wants to fly). Her commitment to life is stated in a letter to Walter A. Berendson, (May 15, 1946): "I will not stop following step by step the path of fire and flame and star of our people and I will bear witness with my poor being." Only the dead are free, while the living must restrain their desire for flight. Her act of faith and her only escape lie in the tracing of the crooked line of suffering through the use of a language that she hopes will be free from the corruption of her time.

Nelly Sachs, however, made one great flight. The order to report for a camp was already in her pocket when she flew with her mother to Stockholm on May 16, 1940, after she had been granted asylum there through the intercession of Selma Lagerlöf. She had thus lived under the Hitler regime for quite some time until she was sorted to the "Chor der Geretteten," the chorus of the rescued "aus deren hohlem Gebein der Tod schon seine Flöten schnitt" (from whose hollow bones death already whittled his flutes). She had seen much of the nightmare spectacle created by the "schrecklichen Marionettenspieler," the terrible puppeteer who moved

     Arme auf und ab,
     Beine auf und ab
     Und die untergehende Sonne des Sinaivolkes
     Als den roten Teppich unter den Füssen.
     (Arms up and down
     Legs up and down
     And the setting sun of Sinai's people
     As a red carpet under their feet.)

For the living there remained "am ziehenden aschgrauen Horizont der Angst / Riesengross das Gestirn des Todes / Wie die Uhr der Zeiten stehend" (on the receding ash-grey horizon of fear / The constellation of death gigantic / Looming like the clock face of ages.) The names of the murderers and even their particular deeds are not found in her poetry; what is emphasized is the feeling of the sufferer. She said: "We have to believe that suffering is meaningful, this has nothing to do with 'faith.' It is simply necessary." There is an absurdity in her belief that almost seems to justify it. Besides, her survival leads her to a sense of guilt and the need to assuage that guilt by suffering spiritually and by recording the suffering she had escaped. She shares the paradox of all writers who survived the Nazi terror: the silenced victim of terror cannot bear witness, but the witness can only imaginatively project himself into the ultimate reality of the victim.

Like Job, whom she much admired, she is caught between two extreme forces that reduce her to helplessness and at the same time wrench from her a passionate elemental outcry. Beda Alleman has pointed out that "the scream as the ultimate utterance and its opposite silence are the boundaries of her use of language." These boundaries are often fused in what Kenneth Burke has termed the "mystic oxymoron": the silent scream, the insect in crystal, the stone angel, the shackled leap—each combining yearning and restraint. When she does mention documentary material such as the shoes of the dead, the buckle of the executioner, or the wind that blows over the hair of dead children she usually links such details to a transcending vision. Many of her poems combine the effects of the fearful grotesque and the terrifying sublime, as is evident in the puppets, red carpet, and sunset of the above quoted lines. Though the grotesque and the sublime seem opposites, they both point to something beyond the natural. The seeming nonsensical distortion of the grotesque is akin to the nonsense of the sublime. The grotesque in her work springs from a shattered world, from an intensely real yet unnatural and artificial nightmare. When she adds to this terror an energy toward transcendence, the terror takes on aspects of the sublime that leads at times to the mystic's vision of divine No-Thingness. Her poem "Landschaft aus Schreien" (landscape of screams) is such a fusion of the grotesque and the sublime. We rarely find the sublime in contemporary literature that deals with historical events, for the modern writer tends to portray the atrocities of man either with documentary exactness or as grotesque allegories of the "banality of evil." Nelly Sachs's use of the sublime is justified by her infinite yearning into infinite space.

There is much in her poetry that reminds the reader of the poetry of Blake, and this is not surprising since she shared with Blake an admiration for the Christian mystic Jakob Boehme, whose vision is akin to that of the Zohar, the Judaic work that began to exert its influence on her when a friend gave her a copy of Gershom Scholem's Jewish Mysticism.

Her study of the Zohar not only enriched her use of symbols but also showed her the need for the preservation and regeneration of language, as can be seen in her poem "Da schrieb der Schreiber des Sohar."

"Landschaft aus Schreien" is a forceful and even aggressive poem about the universality of suffering written in a language that forces the reader to meditate on the symbolic essences of the words. On one level the poem is a horizontal journey through a landscape of pain that extends from Genesis to the New Testament, from Hiroshima to Maidanek. From this horizon of pain and fear, however, the scream moves vertically upward into infinity. Though the poem is steeped in the tradition of Jewish and Christian mysticism, it is also a very modern poem, especially in its openendedness, which reminds one at times of the Orphic vision of Rilke in the Duino Elegies, where we also see no end to the wanderer's yearning in the landscape of pain. Before I discuss "Landschaft aus Schreien" in detail, I will quote the poem in its entirety since the arrangement of lines and the grotesqueness of the German compounds create a visual impact that aids the reader in understanding this poem.

     In der Nacht, wo Sterben Genähtes zu trennen beginnt,
     reisst die Landschaft aus Schreien
     den schwarzen Verband auf,
     Über Moria, dem Klippenabsturz zu Gott,
     schwebt des Opfermessers Fahne
     Abrahams Herz-Sohn-Schrei,
     am grossen Ohr der Bibel liegt er bewahrt.
     O die Hieroglyphen aus Schreien,
     an die Tod-Eingangstür gezeichnet.
     Wundkorallen aus zerbrochenen Kehlenflöten.
     O, o die Hände mit Angstpflanzenfinger,
     eingegraben in wildbäumende Mähnen Opferblutes—
     Schreie, mit zerfetzten Kiefern der Fische verschlossen,
     Weheranke der kleinsten Kinder
     und der schluckenden Atemschleppe der Greise,
     eingerissen in versengtes Azur mit brennenden Schweifen.
     Zellen der Gefangenen, der Heiligen,
     mit Albtraummuster der Kehlen tapezierte,
     fiebernde Hölle in der Hundehutte des Wahnsinns
     aus gefesselten Sprüngen—
     Dies ist die Landschaft aus Schreien!
     Himmelfahrt aus Schreien,
     empor aus des Leibes Knochengittern,
     Pfeile aus Schrein, erlöste
     aus blutigen Köchern.
     Hiobs Vier-Winde-Schrei
     Und der Schrei verborgen im Ölberg
     wie ein von Ohnmacht übermanntes Insekt im Kristall.
     O Messer aus Abendrot, in die Kehlen geworfen
     wo die Schlafbäume blutleckend aus der Erde fahren,
     wo die Zeit wegfällt
     an den Gerippen in Maidanek und Hiroshima.
     Ascheschrei aus blindgequältem Seherauge—
     O du blutendes Auge
     in der zerfetzten Sonnenfinsternis
     zum Gott-Trocknen aufgehängt
     im Weltall—
     In the night where dying begins to sever all seams
     the landscape of screams
     tears the black bandage open,
     Above Moria, the cliffs falling off to God,
     hovers the flag of the sacrificial knife
     Abraham's Heart-Son-Scream
     caught at the great ear of the Bible.
     O hieroglyphs of screams,
     carved into the entrance gate of death.
     Wound-corals of broken throat flutes.
     O, o hands with finger plants of dread
     dug into wildly rearing manes of sacrificial blood—
     Screams, locked in the tattered mandibles of fish,
     woe tendrils of smallest children
     and the gulping train of breath of the old,
     slashed into burned azure with burning tails.
     Cells of prisoners, of saints,
     tapestried with the nightmare patterns of throats,
     feverish hell in the doghouse of madness
     of shackled leaps—
     This is the landscape of screams!
     Transfigured ascension of screams
     from the bony grate of the body,
     Arrows of screams
     freed from bloody quivers.
     Job's Four-Wind-Scream
     and the scream concealed in Mount Olive
     like a powerless insect caught in crystal.
     O knife of sunset tossed into throats,
     where the trees of sleep surge blood-licking from the earth,
     where time falls off
     the skeletons in Maidanek and Hiroshima.
     Ashen scream from the seer's eye tortured blind—
     O thou bleeding eye
     in the tattered eclipse of the sun
     hung up for God-drying
     in the cosmos—

The deepest irony of the poem is that we never hear and see one creature screaming in the direct sense of "he screams." The poem itself, in spite of the violent images and the repetition of the word Schrei, is a stifled scream of protest and agonized longing. The auditory image of Schrei is communicated through the visual image of Landschaft, a place that exists in the expanse of the universe and in the horizontal nightmare of each human life. The landscape of screams "acts" in an ambiguous state of darkness that pervades the poem. This ambiguous darkness can be partially explained through Gershom Scholem's description of the Zoharic concept of God: "The hidden God, the innermost Being of Divinity so to speak, has neither qualities nor attributes." This innermost being is the En-Sof, the infinite, which is likened to a coal. The latent power of the coal is manifest only through the flame. Therefore, we can know about God only through his emanations, through his symbols. The origin of such symbols is imagined in the Zohar's description of Genesis: "'In the beginning, when the will of the King began to take effect, he engraved signs in the divine aura. A dark flame sprang forth from the innermost recesses of the Infinite.'" In "Landschaft aus Schreien" the inexpressible agony of the sufferer is extended to a landscape manifesting itself through the scream which bursts forth like a dark flame and is in that sense a creative act (II. 1-3). Whoever causes suffering wants it to remain hidden in mysterious darkness, but the scream bears witness by tearing through the darkness like a comet or by emanating from it like the corona around an eclipsed sun, both important images in this poem.

Darkness, then, is associated with mystery, but it is also a symbol of evil. The scribe of the Zohar saw evil as one of the manifestations of God, for when God does not temper the quality of stern judgment with mercy, then judgment becomes the source of evil: "When it ceases to be tempered, when in its measureless hypertropical outbreak it tears itself loose from the quality of mercy, then it breaks away from God altogether and is transformed into the radically evil, into Gehenna and the dark world of Satan." In this state evil is dead and comes to life only if the faint light of God falls upon it or if it is quickened by the sinfulness of man. The source of creation and destruction is thus the same, but the motivation of the source remains a mystery which neither the author of the Zohar, nor Jakob Boehme, nor Nelly Sachs can explain.

Images of violence establish, in the first three lines of the poem, an inextricable relationship between creation and destruction: "In the night where dying begins to sever all seams, / the landscape of screams tears / the black bandage open." Implicit in these lines is the image of the comet (also in I.15) and the black hole(s) of the mouth(s) from which the upward surge of the scream meets the downward motion of the death-bringing comet. Death and scream are both flashes that expose mystery. Like a fine knife or a pair of scissors, the comet-death cuts the threads of what has been sewn together. In contrast to the scream which tears the bandage that hid the wound, death's action seems quite gentle, yet it is more cruel in its slowness: 'Wo Sterben Genähtes zu trennen beginnt." A further meaning of the comet is that of the aberrant star, an active force that breaks loose in a "hypertropical outbreak" from the harmonious rhythm of the heavens. The death-comet is thus a severing apocalyptic force, and as such it is creative in its destructiveness. The third line ends with the word auf, which with its meanings of up and open indicates the exposure of evil, the yearning for salvation, and the structurally important openendedness of the poem.

The next stanza individualizes the cosmic scream through the figure of Abraham, the first suffering Israelite, who is here envisioned in the moment of suspension between deepest agony and relief. This stanza repeats the pattern of the first. Over Mount Moria the sacrificial knife flashes like a triumphant flag that points downward to bring death to the victim. This image is echoed in "dem Klippenabsturz zu Gott" (I.4), the cliffs that fall down to God. Both images reflect the traditional initiation pattern where the agon and sparagmos of the hero eventually lead to his triumph. Nelly Sachs, however, alludes nowhere to the angel who announces that God does not wish human sacrifice. We see the moment of extreme tension when Abraham, the potential murderer, recognizes his beloved son, in the victim, and when Isaac realizes that his father will be his killer. Love makes these two beings one at this moment and each grants the other release through a scream rising from the heart's agony. "Abrahams Herz-Sohn-Schrei" does not, however, rise in an infinite line but is caught "am grossen Ohr der Bibel" (I.7), the great ear of the Bible that like a vessel stores the verbal record of man's suffering. Here suffering is bewahrt, it is stored safely as well as proved true, as the double meaning of the German word implies. The Bible, then, is a true and meaningful record in which future generations will recognize themselves.

The need to sound or to record suffering is restated in the next two lines through the image of Egyptian pictographs: "O die Hieroglyphen aus Schreien, / an die Tod-Eingangstür gezeichnet" (O hieroglyphics of screams / drawn into the entrance gate of death). Egypt, Israel's ancient enemy, also records the suffering of man in images that are riddles which fascinate and demand contemplation, for the inexplicable cannot be communicated through easy rationalism. Nelly Sachs uses hieroglyphics in almost all of her poems as she does in the next line, which is set off as a forceful and compact enigma: "Wundkorallen aus zerbrochenen Kehlenflöten" (Wound corals of broken throat flutes). An ancient folk motif, the bleeding tree is usually an enchanted human being awaiting liberation and the bleeding is the first sign of that liberation, for through it the tree makes its hidden nature known. Literally, red coral is a tree-like structure composed of the skeletons of marine animals; its branches are used for jewelry. Coral and necklace are symbols in Nelly Sachs's poems. She says in "Diese Kette von Rätseln":

      Diese Kette von Rätseln
      um den Hals der Nacht gelegt
      Königswort weit fort geschrieben
      vielleicht in Kometenfahrt
      wenn die aufgerissene Wunde des Himmels schmerzt
      (This chain of riddles
      laid around the neck of night
      King's word written far away
      perhaps in comet journeys
      when the open, torn wound of the sky hurts)

Kette means both chain and ornament and is thus appropriate for her work, which reveals the bondage of suffering and offers a relief, a means of coping with suffering by giving it lasting form in the work of art, the jewel. In her poem "Und wir die ziehen" she describes Sweden as the land of ice where she lives in the deadness of winter, but she evokes in that frozen state the memory of her dead beloved, whom she immortalizes as a wounded coral, the artifact made out of the stuff of life: "Hier an dieser Stelle / aussetzte ich die Koralle, / die blutende, / deiner Botschaft." (Here at this place / I exposed the coral, / the bleeding one, / of your message.)

Like corals and chains, her poems form a Korallenkette, the redness of which suggests a wound around the neck. In "Landschaft aus Schreien" the wounded corals are made of shattered throat-flutes. When properly functioning, the human throat emits a harmonious sound, but in a fallen world that sound becomes a scream, which at its worst is the stifled broken scream of Gehenna. Her poems are tunes similar to the tune played by Eli, the martyred boy in her mystery play on the suffering of Israel. When the child saw how his parents were driven away to death, he raised his pipe to heaven; he piped to God. His beautiful song is a demanding and despairing call and the soldier is quite right when he assumes that it is a secret message, except that he does not know that the message remains simply an infinitely ascending line. Then, the "soldier marching with the procession / looked round and saw Eli / piping to high heaven / struck him down with his rifle butt." The throat-flute is broken, the sound has been stifled and its sole receptacle is the ear of the poem.

The sweeping comet, the cosmic night, and the scream are sublime, but the hieroglyphics of Nelly Sachs evoke a nightmarish and grotesque effect. The great ear of the Bible, the throatflutes, the Angstpflanzenfinger fuse the nonhuman with significantly isolated parts of the human body into metaphysical grotesques. The tearing apart and strange joining of living and non-living not only illustrates the paradox of life in art, but also mirrors the shattered state of the world. The poem is a string of such images, each one repeating and reinforcing variables of the same idea just as documentary photographs of glasses, boots, or hair heaped in a concentration camp say the same thing and point to something beyond thingness.

The danger of hieroglyphics is that the reader will become too concerned with the unraveling of their mystery and forget that the poem is about very real pain. Nelly Sachs is aware of that danger and therefore returns to specific human agonies which she introduces through the image of a cosmic nightmare horse and rider: "O, o Hände mit Angstpflanzenfinger / eingegraben in wildbäumende Mahnen Opferblutes—" (O, o hands with fear-plant-fingers / dug into wildly rearing manes of sacrificial blood). To whom do these hands belong? They are plants of fear, but they also plant fear as the ambiguity of the compound indicates: die Finger pfanzen Angst. As they dig themselves into the manes, they plant fear while at the same time they are holding on tightly to their victims who carry them through the Nachtmar (nightmare) of evil and suffering. The hands then belong to the murderers who bear their victims no love and yet are strangely united to them. As the fingers of death bear downward, the victims rise with rearing manes—doomed to die; they die not passively. Yet there is no scream of relief here as there was for Abraham, who bore great love for his only son.

The next two sections also contain examples of stifled screams (II. 13-20). We see first three examples of silent suffering beginning with "Schreie, mit zerfetzten Kiefern der Fische verschlossen" (Screams, locked within the shredded mandibles of fish). Olof Lagercrantz points out that Nelly Sachs compares herself in her mute fear of death with the mute fish (she actually suffered a paralysis of the throat for five days after she had been questioned by the Gestapo), and she gave the fish an important place in her work. "The hunter shoots to kill, but the fisher with hook and net wants to keep his catch alive. The fish with its long silent agony is for Nelly Sachs a foremost symbol of martyrdom." She is, of course, also aware of the fish as a Christ symbol, for Christ's scream too was stifled in the Garden of Olives (I.27). Thus, the mute creation suffers and the old and young cannot give expression to the horror of events that come upon them. The smallest children raise only their "Weheranke" (woe tendril) in a tiny parallel of protest to the "Angstptlanzenfinger," while the ancient ones swallow and drag their breath like a chain (I.15). The stanza begins with the word Schreie, but from fish, child, and old man comes no scream; instead the screams are "eingerissen in versengtes Azur mit brennenden Schweifen" (slashed into seared azure with burning tails). Now the screams do exactly what the death-comet did in the first stanza, except that the screams cut into azure that has been burned, a cosmic wound brought about by the violence of an unnatural death.

The poem reaches at this point a frantic pace through a series of violent images that end in frustration (II. 16-20). The landscape shrinks to the claustrophobic cells of prisoners and saints where the walls are tapestried with the nightmare pattern of throats; the hieroglyphics of screams are now microscopic rather than cosmic. The line "mit Albtraummuster der Kehlen tapezierte" can refer to the walls of the cells as well as to the feverish hell in the doghouse of madness, for both are metaphors of the human brain. As man encounters evil and its ensuing agony, he grows mad and must be controlled like a mad dog: "Fiebernde Hölle in her Hundehütte des Wahnsinns / aus gefesselten Sprüngen" (feverish hell in the doghouse of madness / of shackled leaps). These lines also refer to the poet and her dilemma: she wants to express the inexpressible but nears insanity in her attempt. The insane matter must be controlled by an artifact constructed of "shackled leaps." Having reached this pitch of desperate intensity, the poet can either stop the poem or introduce a shift in tone.

Nelly Sachs does the latter in the next line, which opens the second part of the poem with the declaration: "Dies ist die Landschaft aus Schreien" (This is the landscape of screams). Three sections divide the second part: the release and frustration of screams, the sunset of Maidanek and Hiroshima, the function of the poet-visionary and his relation to God.

The first section (II.21-28) shows the release of screams from "des Leibes Knochengittern" (the body's grate of bones) and from the "blutigen Köchern" (the bloody quivers) as well as the frustrated screams of the living Job and Christ. Only the dying are granted the "Himmelfahrt aus Schreien," the freedom that comes with the final scream. The use of the word Himmelfahrt, which refers specifically to Christ's transfigured ascension, contrasts ironically with the ascension of "ordinary" sufferers. The grate of bones suggests also the image of a ladder and a lyre upon which the screams ascend and by doing so form a cacophonous tonal ladder. There is, however, no last rung in that ladder, as there was in the one of Jacob's dream where the Lord stood at the top and promised: "I am with thee, and will keep thee in all places whither thou goest" (Genesis 28:15). The terror and the deep modernity of Nelly Sachs's poem lies in her concept of an infinitely ascending line. The image of the arrows released from the bloody quivers repeats this concept of ascending desire with a goal denied.

In the examples of Job and Christ, the poet-seer finds once more the frustrated and stifled scream. Job's scream is scattered to the winds and loses through this diffusion the aggressiveness of the scream as arrow or comet, "for the speeches of one that is desperate are as the wind" (Job 6:26). Yet, by naming Job, the poet as recorder fulfills that sufferer's wish: "O that my words were now written! Oh that they were recorded in a book." Christ, though always an archetype of the sufferer in her poems, is not named directly in any of her poems during and after the Hitler regime. Names held a magical quality for her, and the name of Christ had been soiled and abused by the persecutors. As Lagercrantz points out: "The Jews were marked as God's murderers, which meant that they bore the guilt of the crucifixion of Christ. In her youth she had published a collection of legends in which Christ is present everywhere…. Now Christ is prohibited to her, but he returns in mysterious ways." Job's scattered scream and the scream stifled in the Garden of Olives are powerless like the insect caught in crystal, but they are really no more powerless than the screams that trace the line of suffering through the infinite. The insect caught in crystal is another parallel to Abraham's scream caught at the ear of the Bible; it is again an image of pain controlled in form. Once again the poet visionary does not mention the triumphant and peaceful ending of the lives of Job and Christ, for in her world there seems to be no evidence for such an ending.

Human existence reaches its nadir in the vision of twentieth-century horror:

      O Messer aus Abendrot, in die Kehlen geworfen,
      wo die Schlafbäume blutleckend aus der Erde fahren,
      wo die Zeit wegfallt
      an den Gerippen in Maidanek und Hiroshima.
      (O knife of sunset tossed into the throats,
      where trees of sleep surge blood-licking from the ground,
      where time falls off
      the skeletons in Maidanek and Hiroshima.)

Black and red dominate the landscape of screams where a fierce sunset-death cuts the throats before the screams can escape. The motion of the sun is countered by another of Nelly Sachs's hieroglyphic: "die Schlafbäume," the trees of sleep. They quicken the nightmare atmosphere of the stanza, but the sudden aggressiveness with which they surge from the ground also suggests the sudden terror of the mushrooming atomic blast which resembles a tree as well as the shape of the human skull and neck. The metaphor bears a striking resemblance to the tree image in "The Human Abstract," by Blake, another Boehme admirer:

     The Gods of the earth and sea
     sought thro' nature to find this Tree;
     But their search was all in vain:
     There grows one in the Human Brain.

We must not forget that the knife tossed by the evening red is presented in terms of a human action and that the trees have bloodthirsty and human desires which lead to Maidanek and Hiroshima and ultimately to timeless skeletons, "wo die Zeit wegfällt." This timelessness leads not to God but turns the skeletons into hieroglyphics that demand an interpreter who then faces the task of giving meaning to a suffering that cannot be put into words. For this reason the poem concludes with a description of the failure and desire of the poet-visionary.

His dilemma is imagined by means of another hieroglyphic: "Ascheschrei aus blindgequältem Seherauge," the ashen scream of the visionary eye tortured blind. The lucid ball of the eye—mythically it may be the eye of the seer who beheld what no man should see; psychologically it may be the soul that has meditated too long on man's inhumanity to man—this eye is blind. As a living organism it could not contain the suffering the way the crystal contains the insect or the ear of the Bible the scream of Abraham. From its darkened socket, however, comes the ashen scream as a variation of the stifled and the infinite scream. As an impotent (ohnmächtig) scream, it is contained in and composed of inorganic matter, but it rises from the blinded yet all-perceiving eye into eternity, as the punctuation indicates. A line exists between the scene of suffering, the seer's eye, and the infinite.

In the last stanza we see the bleeding eye hung "in der zerfetzten Sonnenfinsternis" (in the tattered eclipse of the sun). With this image of literal suspension that implies a cloth as well as a crucified body, the poem reaches the point of demonic epiphany: within the darkness of the universal eye the poet's eye-scream-poem is hung in the cosmos "zum Gott-Trocknen," meaning that either a god will dry its wound or that it will dry the suffering god and receive his imprint as Veronica received the true ikon on her cloth. In retrospect we find that the night, the bandage, the scream, the shredded mandibles of fish, Job's scattered scream, Christ's stifled scream, the bleeding eye of the poet in the tattered eclipse of the sun, present as a unit one true ikon of suffering: the poem.

Nelly Sachs's mystic vision has to be understood in the relationship of the tortured eye to the tattered, eclipsed sun whose corona suggests the crown of thorns and the crown of glory. In discussing modern man's relation to God, Martin Buber points out that "an eclipse of the sun is something that occurs between the sun and our eyes, not in the sun itself." It is interesting that this something, the moon, is never used by Nelly Sachs as a positive image. Buber argues that the eclipse metaphor implies "the tremendous assumption that we can glance up to God with our … being's eye, and that something can step between our existence and His as between the earth and the sun." It is the I-It relationship which has replaced the I-Thou and has thus stepped between God and man. Nevertheless, "the eclipse of the light of God is no extinction; even tomorrow that which has stepped in between may give way."

That moment is not reached in Nelly Sachs's "Landschaft aus Schreien." The willingness for an I-Thou relationship is there, for the eye wants to comfort cosmic suffering and it also wants comfort for itself. But the last words "im Weltall" hint that the waiting, the moment of suspension, may be eternal. In spite of this painful recognition, Nelly Sachs does not want to communicate bitterness, desperation, or even anger in her work. Her omission of an angry poem from the cycle Sternverdunkelung proves this. The poem reads in part:

     Welt, wie kannst du deine Spiele weiterspielen
     und die Zeit betrügen—
     Welt, man hat die kleinen Kinder wie
     flügelschlagend in die Flamme geworfen—
     und deine Erde ist nicht wie ein fauler Apfel
     in den schreckaufgejagten Abgrund geworfen worden
     Und Sonne und Mond sind weiter
     zwei schieläugige Zeugen, die nichts gesehen haben.
     (World, how can you continue your games
     and deceive time—
     World, small children, like butterflies flapping
     their wings, have been tossed into the flame
     and your earth was not thrown like a rotten apple
     into the terrified abyss—
     And sun and moon went
     on with their walk
     two cross-eyed witnesses who saw nothing.)

She does not forget and forgive; her poems tear again and again the black bandage, but she also longs for the moment of love that could heal the wound. In "Landschaft aus Schreien" she shows her readiness for that moment, though her yearning leap remains shackled in suspension. She comes closest to peace and fulfillment in those poems wherein she describes the true death, the gentle dissolution willed and welcomed in the rhythm of existence:

    Nicht zu landen
    auf den Ozeanen des süchtigen Blutes
    nur zu wiegen sich
    in Lichtmusik aus Ebbe und Flut
    nur zu wiegen sich
    im Rhythmus des unverwundeten
    (Not to land
    on the oceans of lustful blood
    only to sway
    in the light-music of ebb and flood
    only to sway
    in the rhythm of the unwounded
    sign of eternity:

Perhaps she found this rhythm on May 12, 1970, in Stockholm.

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Critical Essay by Hamida Bosmajian from Literature Criticism Series. ©2005-2006 Thomson Gale, a part of the Thomson Corporation. All rights reserved.
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