Flight and Meta­mor­pho­sis: Poems

Nel­ly Sachs, Joshua Wein­er (Trans­la­tor)

  • Review
By – March 28, 2022

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 the author of four poet­ry col­lec­tions, includ­ing Avowed, and the edi­tor of Out­Write: The Speech­es that Shaped LGBTQ Lit­er­ary Cul­ture, Fire-Rimmed Eden: Select­ed Poems by Lynn Loni­di­erThe Com­plete Works of Pat Park­er, and Sis­ter Love: The Let­ters of Audre Lorde and Pat Park­er 1974 – 1989. Ensz­er edits and pub­lish­es Sin­is­ter Wis­dom, a mul­ti­cul­tur­al les­bian lit­er­ary and art jour­nal. You can read more of her work at www​.JulieREn​sz​er​.com.

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