Nelly Sachs’ “How many drowned ages”

Nelly Sachs Park in Berlin-Schöneberg
Nelly Sachs Park in Berlin-Schöneberg

Nelly Sachs was a Jewish German poet and playwright who wrote some of the most powerful holocaust poetry of the twentieth century. Born in 1891, Sachs escaped from Nazi Germany with her mother in 1940, a week before she was scheduled to report to a concentration camp. Terrified by her experience — Sachs suffered from paranoia and delusions from her memories of leaving Germany — Sachs took up writing in her 50’s and published some remarkable poetry characterized by traditional Romantic imagery that morphed into an unsettling, surrealist poetry in her later years. Sachs was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1966.

…till music comes
from an alien star…

Like the poems of Paul Celan, who Sachs corresponded with for years, Sachs’ later poems are extremely condensed and imagistic. In addition, Sachs reuses certain word-objects over and over again, from poem to poem, and they have the effect of taking on immense significance due to their repetition–as if Sachs was consumed by their symbolism and meaning. In “How many drowned ages,” Sachs delivers an intense lyric poem that is nightmarish in its tone and surrealism and simultaneously a beautifully crafted arrangement of syllables and music (read it aloud), as evidenced here in Michael Roloff’s excellent translation.

How many drowned ages

How many
drowned ages
in the roaring towline of childhood sleep
enter the fragrant cabin
on the high sea
playing over the moon-colored bones of the dead
when the virgin with the night-flecked
sun citrus
sends blinding rays
out of shipwreck.

open and shut
beat the moment’s butterfly doors
always pervious
to the golden lances
that sear murderously
into the bleeding battleground of childhood fear.

What detours
must heart steps take
before the memory boat
that travels by day
finally has been reached —

How many dream-washed limits of earth
must be drawn out
till music comes
from an alien star —

How many mortally sick conquests
must they make
before coming home
moon-milk in their mouths
into the screaming air
of their brightly pennoned childhood playground —

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