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Gedichte by Nelly Sachs

Gedichte (1977)

by Nelly Sachs

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You can't read a collection of lyric poems in one go as you can a novel, so this is a first impression, rather than a review.
This collection was put together posthumously in 1977 by the poet Hilde Domin, who knew Sachs and was also an exile from Germany during the Hitler period. It includes a short but very helpful afterword by Domin summing up Sachs's career, the main themes in her poetry, and her critical reception in postwar Germany.

The poems in this collection are selected from the whole course of Sachs's career as a serious poet (broadly-speaking 1943-1968 - she never allowed her pre-war "juvenilia" to be republished). Most deal in one way or another with her experience as a refugee and as someone who survived when so many were killed. Some are specifically addressed to the man she loved, others to victims and survivors more generally. I was struck by the absence of direct topical references in the poems: as Domin also points out, they come out of the specific event of the Holocaust, but they actually speak just as well for the survivors and refugees of other cataclysmic events. They haven't lost any of their relevance: Domin talks about Vietnam, we could say Syria or North Africa. What's crucial to these poems is that they always seem to be looking for ways to move forward, not dealing in revenge and recrimination. Domin describes the process Sachs is engaged in as giving the victims a worthy burial.

There are also some more obscure, more or less mystical poems in the collection, which didn't mean very much to me on a first reading: she repeatedly uses the same set of images in these poems in different contexts (fish, butterflies, stars, sand, footwear...), and there's obviously a particular language that you need to be familiar with. But I'm quite happy with the idea of keeping this book on my bedside table for a few months to dip into and gain familiarity with the way her poetic imagination works: I'm sure it will be worth it.

Ein Fremder hat immer
seine Heimat im Arm
wie eine Waise
für die er vielleicht nichts
als ein Grab sucht.

(A stranger always has / his home in his arms / like an orphan / for whom he's perhaps only / seeking a grave.) ( )
1 vote thorold | Jul 9, 2015 |
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