Wednesday 1 November 2023

Review by Christine Hammond of "Revelation Freshly Erupting" by Nelly Sachs

Reading and reviewing the collected works (nine in total) of a poet originally writing in another language on Holocaust themes is challenging. This is compounded with the titanic credentials of a prolific Jewish poet (published 1947-1971), Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize winner. 

We owe a debt of gratitude therefore to Andrew Shanks for his unique, approximate translations from Sachs’ native German. Additionally, his powerful introductory essay allows us to glimpse, briefly, the countless hours of dedication to his art since he first discovered Sachs in 1983-4 when working as a post-grad in Marburg, Germany,

What makes his approach to this important body of work unique? Shanks describes himself as "not a brilliant" linguist, who "sets out to" produce versions that, to my ear, work as poems in English. He quotes Edward FitzGerald’s famous formula: "Better a live sparrow than a stuffed eagle." More than that, as a "Christian philosophic theologian," Shanks brings important knowledge and an intuitive, spiritual understanding.

This combination complements and reveals for us the subtle, existential character of poetry that uses much in the way of classical and religious / biblical motifs and the natural world to try and make sense of the worst excesses of human depravity. 

"O die Schornsteine" ("O, The Chimneys"), the opening poem of "Habitations of Death," 1947, seems to provide an exemplar for much of what is to come. Here, some of the motifs we have come to associate with Holocaust imagery are articulated only lightly - for example, "meandering dust." They have been carefully woven in to support the heaviness of the metaphysical questions they raise: "Who contrived you? Who built ...?"  

The killings are viewed through the lens of Job’s conviction that he will see God when his skin and flesh are destroyed, which proposes to the reader an unintended, beneficial consequence of the barbarism. Thus, the objectives for murder on the grounds of religion are not only subtly ridiculed, but reduced to futility and nothingness as death has the ultimate potential to overcome and be a cause for celebration.

          "And after my skin has been thus destroyed, then without my flesh I shall see God."
          - Job 9:26

         O the chimneys
         On the artfully contrived 
         Habitations of death, as Israel’s flesh
         Floated in smoke through the air
         A star, there, received it …

         ... O the chimneys!
         Meandering dust – Jeremiah’s and Jobs’s – released –
         Who contrived you, who built, stone on stone,
         For fugitive souls, this path of smoke?

That the persecuted should not become persecutors ("Star Black-Out," 1949) is another example of the lightness of touch that is characteristic. Here, the poem uses the term "Footsteps" and contextual sound as a leitmotif throughout. Although we can readily make the association with (Jack) boots and marching, direct reference only happens in the last verse. Where the previous poem used a biblical quotation, Sachs now employs several classical allusions starting with Echo:

         where in which of Echo’s grottoes
         are you stored,
         you rhythmic harbingers 
         of looming death?

... and ending with a poignant Pythagorean reference that beautifully ties off the whole aural theme of the poem:

         Footsteps of the killers 
         Over footsteps of the killed,
         what black-horror moon impelled
         the ticking circuit of those booted seconds?

         Where’s that leather squeak
         within the music of the spheres

Overall, the poetry uses a reductive, yet restrained, learned and gently sophisticated approach to deal with the horrific acts and consequences. This includes the preceding ideologies that initiated them. The diminution that results impresses upon us the sublimity and determination of the poems to reveal truth and beauty and thereby hope, no matter what. 

About the reviewer
Christine Hammond began writing poetry whilst studying English Literature at Queen’s University, Belfast. Her early poems were published in The Gown (QUB) and Women’s News where, as one of the original members she also wrote Arts Reviews and had work published in Spare Rib.  She returned to writing again after a long absence and her poetry has been featured in a variety of anthologies including The Poet’s Place and Movement (Poetry in Motion – The Community Arts Partnership), The Sea (Rebel Poetry Ireland), all three editions of Washing Windows and Her Other Language (Arlen House). She has also been a reader at "Purely Poetry" - Open Mic Night, Belfast.

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