All Words Refugees

The work of the German-Swedish poet Nelly Sachs ranges between atrocity and grace.
A black-and-white portrait of Nelly Sachs flanked by a desaturated map with wisps of smoke visible on the edges.

In the course of a 16-year correspondence of astonishing intensity, the poets Paul Celan and Nelly Sachs met only a handful of times, all during a single month in 1960, first in Zürich and then in Paris. Celan commemorated their first conversation alone, held on a terrace overlooking the Zürichsee, on, auspiciously, the feast of Ascension:

The talk was of too much, of
too little. Of You
and Counter-You, of
how clearness can darken, of
Jewishness, of
your God.

If Celan dominates popular anglophone reception of postwar German poetry at the expense of others, the case is especially vexed regarding Sachs, with whom the biographical and literary overlap is so striking: Bruder (brother) and Schwester (sister) they called each other. Both of their lives were riven by industrialized genocide, both turned to exile and poetry in the aftermath, and each gained renown for early lyrical elegies: “Death Fugue” in Celan’s case and “O the Chimneys” in Sachs’s.

O the chimneys
On the ingeniously devised habitations of death
When Israel’s body drifted as smoke
Through the air —
Was welcomed by a star, a chimney sweep,
A star that turned black
Or was it a ray of sun?

Both poets later expressed reservations about their most well-known works, seeing them as tokens by which the perpetrators could handily gesture to their guilt while still assigning to syllabi in perpetuity. Both poets also retreated into the increasingly lapidary styles of their late careers as they bore the tumults of severe paranoid psychosis. Within weeks of meeting Celan, Sachs was hearing voices in the aether. “A Nazi spiritualist league is using radio telegraph to hunt me with terrifying sophistication,” she wrote to him. He, meanwhile, was unable to walk his son to school in the mornings, convinced that Gestapo agents would abduct them. Sachs and Celan maintained, however, a fundamental belief in poetry as an almost necromantic mechanism. Nothing here of the gentile hubris that pretends to redemption—only the humble if arduous project of communion, the wager that canny linguistic usage might staunch oblivion. After Celan sought his own oblivion off the Pont Mirabeau in Paris in 1970, Sachs died three weeks later on the day of his funeral.


Sachs was born in 1891 to a family of wealthy industrialists. Prominent members of Berlin’s Jewish community, they were thoroughly assimilated to the mores of secular bourgeois society, neither observing holidays nor attending synagogue. Her father had amassed a minor fortune through the manufacture of gutta-percha, a rubber-like polymer in high demand as insulation for the underwater telegraph cables then swaddling the globe. For her first three decades, Sachs lived in seclusion, cloistered with her sheltering parents, who discouraged both conjugal and professional life. She was laid low by constant illness that required long periods of convalescence. “A little child’s hell of loneliness in awful preparation for life’s death-bite,” she called these earliest years. There were stirrings of a talent for dance, but her authoritarian father quashed any career aspirations. Sachs’s ingrained rhythmic intuition sought another medium. Her meticulous ear is a constant throughout her poetry: from the hallmark fluidity of her earlier meters to the later work that, even at its most fractious, still maintains the composed resolve of bodies moving through space:

twisting in labor
then spent
you alone
bear on your body’s hidden cord
the God-given twinned jewels
of death and birth.

For her 15th birthday, she received a copy of Gösta Berling’s Saga (1891), a popular picaresque compilation of enchanted fables, neo-Romantic idylls, and fairy tale moralism by the Swedish writer (and first female Nobel laureate in literature) Selma Lagerlöf. The book became a literary paragon for Sachs, and a long and crucial correspondence with Lagerlöf ensued. Sachs’s 1921 debut, Legends and Tales, was a collection of short stories heavily indebted to Lagerlöf’s. The other decisive relationship in those years involved her love for a young man when she was 17. Almost nothing is known of his identity or the extent of their connection, except what sparse details she disclosed to a confidante years later: he was a well-bred gentile and, later, a Nazi resistance fighter, for which he was eventually murdered. She likely remained celibate for the rest of her life. If their break was disastrous for the teenage Sachs, precipitating the first of her many institutionalizations—for two years she was largely unable to eat and hovered “between life and death”—it was also artistically decisive. She later credited the episode as a major source of her poetry. The lover himself was resurrected in her poems as den toter Bräutigam, or the dead groom—a shadowy figure who stalks her work, akin to Georg Trakl’s dark sister or Rilke’s angels beckoning from limbo.

Whatever verse Sachs wrote at this time was juvenilia, colored by the same anachronistic Romantic veneer that marked her fiction. She published her first poem in 1929, with only infrequent follow-ups before the 1933 Schriftleitergesetz (Editors Law) effectively banned Jews from most publications. She burned all her remaining drafts from this period before emigrating. If stylistically aloof from the convulsions of Modernism, she was no less socially estranged from the shifting aesthetic tides of her immediate milieu: Expressionism, New Objectivity, and the influential George-Kreis literary group that grew up around author Stefan George. The epicenters of Weimar bohemian counterculture, such as the Romanisches Café or Europahaus, were barely a 10-minute walk from her house but held scant appeal compared to the solitude of her drawing room. She at first weathered the political upheavals of the interwar years with characteristic detachment, although she was hardly unaware of the era’s progressive collective psychosis and mass-sanctioned barbarism; to the contrary, her sensitivity to these burgeoning realities only cordoned her further within herself. “Indifferent to my own rescue,” by her own admission, she became prone to bouts of silence:

When the great terror came
I grew mute —
A fish with its dead-side
belly-up […]
All words refugees
in their immortal hiding places.

Sachs’s poems range between the poles of atrocity and salvific grace, a history and theology at once gainsaid and contrapuntal. She began to foster the fundamentally Gnostic attitude that underpinned her poetic vision, no doubt also owing much to her readings within Jewish mysticism, which was then enjoying an intellectual renaissance under the likes of Gershom Scholem, Franz Rosenzweig, and Martin Buber. The latter’s Tales of the Hasidim (1933), in particular, became a touchstone, reconciling the superficial trappings of myth, which had drawn Sachs to Lagerlöf, with deeply personal spiritual substance. Meanwhile, Sachs floundered amid the decade’s grim milestones: Hitler’s election, the Nuremberg Laws, Kristallnacht, and mass deportation. She did not leave Germany until May 1940. By then she had undergone interrogation at the hands of the Gestapo and lived in penury with her mother, dispossessed of their home and savings through legally codified extortion. Having received her official summons to the Theresienstadt camp-ghetto (where so many artists met their end), she escaped with her mother on one of the last flights to Sweden during the war—this only through the intercession of the dying Lagerlöf, who petitioned Prince Eugen of Sweden to secure emergency exit visas that would have been impossible to obtain otherwise. There was also the inexplicable advice of the Gestapo officer who served Sachs her deportation notice and recommended that she simply ignore it. Exile proved to be not just an exigency but a permanent condition: at age 48, she left her homeland and never spent another night there.

Her remaining three decades were suspended between intense mental affliction and the production of a singular poetic corpus. Sachs spent her earliest years in Sweden as an indigent, living off handouts and the meager proceeds of translation work—for a decade, she was primarily known for bringing poets such as Gunnar Ekelöf and Johannes Edfelt into German. Nights were dedicated to her own compositions. News of murdered friends and family trickled across the Baltic, gradually swelling to a torrent as the reality of genocide set in and with it an inexorable expressive imperative. This brisk creative phase culminated in her first collection, In the Habitations of Death (1946). If the urgency of its composition stands in stark contrast to Sachs's preceding 55 years, it underscores this belatedness not as the protracted gestation of a poetic self but as her divestment of that self as a conduit for what is radically and overpoweringly other, awaiting its summons. In this regard, she is a visionary in the ancient sense, albeit one bidden not by the gods but by the contingency of a history roiled in the wake of their departure.

The work of this early period is characterized by sway: literally in its meters, whose antiphonal tide invokes sinuous incantation and the censer’s swing and is also abetted by the structural resources of song: refrain, chorus, and constant anaphora. Thematically, the poems alternately address the Shoah’s perdition and godhead’s deliverance, co-opting elegy or ode. The former is most famously epitomized in Sachs’s aforementioned “O the Chimneys”; works otherwise range from the cryptically personal, including a series addressed to acquaintances identified only by their initials, to the collective, as in the run of choruses at the collection’s finale, which at times speak with the dead:

We shadows, O we shadows!
Shadows of hangmen
Pinned to the dust of your crimes —
Shadows of victims
Silhouetting the drama of your blood on a wall.

And, elsewhere, speak from Sachs's own survivor’s guilt:

We, the rescued,
From whose hollow bones death had begun to whittle his flutes,
And on whose sinews he had already stroked his bow —
Our bodies continue to lament
With their mutilated music.

The voice introduced in her debut, if not fully formed, already contains all its major aspects in germinal form. Indeed, the poet Hans Magnus Enzensberger—Sachs’s great friend in later life and her literary executor—posits that she fundamentally wrote only a single book. If there is a stylistic arc to this book of her life, it is driven by a tectonic compression of form, theme, and intensity. Its vocabulary is circumscribed within a lexicon of recurring motifs pulled from the registers of Kabbalah, the Shoah, and the classical tropes of poetry—stars, lightning, eyes, roses, seeds, and butterflies, among the most crucial. To read Sachs’s work diachronically is to steadily realize and enrich these figures as active protagonists in her mythos. Through iteration and cumulative cross-reference, the accreting associative web gradually works itself into the weft of a total tapestry against whose backdrop any given poem gains its widest significance. She is a poet caught in the paradoxical position of being an allegorist confronting the annihilation of a shared system of values and history—that is to say a culture, allegory’s condition. Her ambition is nothing less than to fathom, in the idiosyncrasy of poetic vision, the holism of a new world from apocalypse’s scree and sediment, a novel vernacular through which understanding might be resurrected. No phrase more aptly describes the experience of reading Sachs than what Leibniz termed a “distinct-obscurity”: if her poetry is basically hermetic, it is radiantly legible with time, “a glowing enigma,” as she called her final collection.


Flight and Metamorphosis, originally published in 1959 and newly translated, with an indispensable introduction by the American poet Joshua Weiner, straddles Sachs’s career’s meridian, both in literal time and as its vital inflection point. It is also her first major collection published in English in its entirety, crucial for a poet marked by continuity who composed her books as integral wholes, each with an internal consistency that is lost when excerpted. Flight is, moreover, where the definitive compression of her style achieves critical mass. This is evident from even a cursory glance at its pages: poems are now untitled, less a series than a singular litany. Meanwhile, the pendular berth of her earlier meter has now constricted into black filaments cleaving the page—no longer the lilt of Solomon or the Kaddish but Ezekiel’s pith. Once lateral rhythms internal to the line are now subjected to a precipitous downward pressure, often evoked explicitly:

So it’s said —
drawn in snaking lines
plunge. […]
This is the apple’s core
sown in the solar eclipse
so we fall
so we fall.

This verticality generates the dramatic impetus of many of Sachs’s poems. Typically opening with an arresting image of beatific redemption (“your fortress … built only of blessings) or rending torment (“This is the dark breath / of Sodom”), her poems proceed in measured gait down the page, each curt stanza a further image that either ratifies, contravenes, or complicates the anterior. The result is a kind of metaphysical montage, numinous if esoteric, that terminates in a place of destitution:

[…] they plunged into the labored
of human being
screaming —

Or they terminate in succor, as in a volta’s last-ditch reversal of that descent:

But the human being
has said Ah
and ascends
a straight candle
into night.

Or, most typically, they terminate in charged ambiguity:

Their body soon devoured
by the salt of torment.
did Job form God.

Each poem is a casting off, a loosing of the speaker into a vertiginous limbo between gravity and grace. They are wagers upon the Daedalian stakes of flight or collapse by a creation of one’s own devising, conjuring a space to “gamble away prophetic distances”—either a passage to communion or an infinite falling short.

Earlier poems oscillate between the registers of Shoah and religious transcendence, but here they alchemically fuse into a unitary idiom of Sachs’s own. The more evocative references to “the barbed wire of time” or “winter-killed chemistry” are exceptions in a landscape of mythic violence and ritualized bloodletting. Meanwhile, if the God petitioned in the earlier poetry was recognizable as the conventionally Abrahamic one, he and his retinue of angels and prophets are now contorted out of any orthodox theology into enigmatic symbols. This new idiom’s overarching continuity is an obscure yet ineluctable conjunction of affliction and its divine retraction: “On you, the heavens practice / destruction // You dwell in grace”; “They cast spells / heal wounds with salt”—the alternating modes of lament and praise, now coincident in the crucible of poetic vision:

Which vein burst
to offer the holy geometry of yearning
a homeland in your eyes?

Wounds become sucking mouths. Blood recalls violence and presages transubstantiation. And smoke, once Sachs’s definitive synecdoche of infernal horror, is tempered to ambivalent allusion:

But maybe
in a smokecloud of error
we have
created a wandering cosmos
with the language of our breath —

The mark of destruction is now a site of sweeping cosmogenesis: the German word for smoke, rauch, is a slant homonym for the Hebrew ruach, the wind or breath (colloquialized by Christians as “Holy Spirit”) that bides above the abyss in Genesis 1:2 before the arrival of Word and Light. Indeed, the precise identity of this creative eloquent we also tarries: does it speak purely for Israel’s elect or for a wider human species-being and with God’s sanction or in the necessity of his absence? Or is this we spoken with him, from the position of mystical adhesion known to kabbalists as Devekuth?

Each interpretation is in some sense viable and indicates the grammatical compression undergirding the collection. The interminable dialectics of self and other have collapsed into the singularity of an all-inclusive subject. Not all of Flight’s poems are spoken in the first-person plural—far from it—but the pronouns all speak or are spoken to from a place of nowhere and no-when, certainly without anything like determinate biographical or scriptural references to anchor them let alone the clear continuity of a single speaker. Rather, the sense is of a choral heteroglossia above and beyond the divvying of categorical identity. The book resides neither in human time nor in the eternal stasis of a godly bird’s-eye but in their interstice. Flight, the fruition of a unified style, is anything but univocal. It is polysemically fecund and restlessly dynamic as its fragments gather, opting for abstruse harmony over narrative cohesion.

A further shift concerns the fundamental ambit of Sachs’s poetics. Her earlier poems were driven by a logic of testimony, but the gap between poet and victim is now closed. It is only a further logical step from the outrage she previously laid upon those who had stood by:

You onlookers,
You who raised no hand in murder,
But who did not shake the dust
From your longing,
You who halted there, where dust is changed
To light.

Now, the poem no longer looks but acts. Language shifts from representation to illocution, and what was once the reflection of an outer world is involuted upon the myriad intensive infinities of its own. This turning inward, however, is not a blindered solipsism but an envelopment: whether prayer or magical convocation, the poem as site of its own immanent praxis also becomes one of commune as opposed to a hapless looking on:

But the breath of inner speech
through the wailing wall of air
whispers a confession freed of secrets,
sinks into the asylum
of the world’s wound
even in its downfall
still overheard by God —

At this point—the late 1950s—Sachs was years into her study of the Zohar, a foundational work of Kabbalah, whose author conceived scripture as the encrypted and piecemeal saying of God’s name and creation as a singular speech act of self-reference. The driving tension of this outlook—between a linguistic pantheism that asserts the Word’s immediate sanctity and a fallen human language that is inextricably metaphorical—is in acute relief:

Maybe the detours of man’s fall
are like the secret desertions of meteors
marked in the alphabet of storms
alongside rainbows —

This mystical impulse, away from language as the passive reflection of an external reality to an activity immediately constitutive of its own, also bears upon the nature of the poetic image: no longer the graven icon of a history or godhead, it becomes an integral presence, vital by its own light. In this regard, the gnomic formulations of Sachs’s later work cleave closest to the outward aspects of surrealism, albeit deduced by entirely different avenues. Indeed, besides Celan, she perhaps resembles no other poet so much as Robert Desnos, at the modern crossroads of a dreamlike mysticism, who, in 1945, died at the same camp from which Sachs had only narrowly escaped.

This autoperformative voice can even slip at times into the blitheness of imperative:

If someone comes
from afar
moving like a dog
maybe a rat
and it’s winter
dress him warmly
for who knows
his feet may be on fire […]
A stranger always has
his homeland in his arms
like an orphan
for whom he may be seeking nothing
but a grave.

The poem is arrestingly forthright in Flight’s oblique context: not only in its direct humanitarian appeal but also by explicitly invoking the refugee, a figure of patent biographical import and one that, at its most profound, approaches the status of a philosophical principle for Sachs. As invoked in what comes closest to the collection’s title poem,

In flight
what great welcome
along the way —
in the winds’ shawl
feet in the sand’s prayer
which can never say Amen
because it must move
from fin to wing
and further — […]
In place of home
I hold the metamorphoses of the world —

Flight is one of the most pregnant words in Sachs’s work. It lies at the heart of what could be called her refugee metaphysics. If a precipitous passage from catastrophe, it designates no destination nor forecasts a terminus, only the surety of flux and the tacit chance of perpetuity. Of course, the motif is indentured to the history of Jewish thought, yet whereas there it typically implies grounds for lament—of political exile or divine abandonment—it is an eminently ethical value for Sachs: “Rest / which is only a dead oasis-word —.” To speak of the refugee is to assert the primacy of the dynamic interim, of radical change immanently lived and the ethical claims this makes: a process philosophy of the soul, a magna moralia of transit.

For Sachs, it is also a specifically prophetic stance. A visionary poet in the ancient mode, she is also ultramodern. If the radical unmooring of origins and ends is the quintessential experience of modernity—a “transcendental homelessness” as György Lukács, another Jewish thinker, put it—she refuses reaction, the pat substitution of a new homeland. She dispenses with the primacy of any “home” altogether, whether in futural restoration or retrospective lament, contrary to the visionary stylings of Yeats, say, who could furnish only another myth, or Eliot, whose apocalyptic grimace was remedied only by the resources of the Anglican Church. For Sachs, that specifically modern vertigo whereby all is melted into air is not a catastrophe to reverse or lament but a positive condition whereby Utopia is already seeded within dissolution, flight feasible upon that burgeoning air’s updraft.


If Sachs had already been a hallowed quantity to many of her contemporary poets, Flight heralded wider acclaim. In 1960, she was awarded the prestigious Droste Prize in Meersburg, for which she made her sole journey to Germany in her 20 years of exile. Refusing to sleep there overnight, she stayed across the Bodensee in Konstanz. The episode proved fateful regardless, inciting a three-year psychiatric hospitalization upon her return to Sweden, apparently triggered by being surrounded by so many native German-speakers. The accolades proceeded regardless. She was awarded the inaugural Nelly Sachs Prize by the city of Dortmund the following year, and, in 1966, she shared the Nobel Prize with Shmuel Agnon. At the banquet, following a terse speech invoking her own status as a refugee before the Swedish Academy, she read the poem “In Flight,” quoted above. It is reprised later in Flight, in more allusive garb and in the interrogative mode of a rhetorical question to readers:

How many homelands
play cards in the air
as the refugee passes through the mystery […]
Fate twitches
in the bloodcoursing meridians of a hand —
Everything is endless
and hung on the rays
of a distance.

The refugee’s infinite trajectory still means “never say[ing] Amen,” yet the hands that once held “the metamorphoses of the world” now disclose the curdling testament of unimpeachable violence. Even in resurrection, Christ’s hands still bore witness. We still inhabit those endless rays’ sweeping latitude, and it behooves us to read poets such as Sachs who glean its dark luster and render us visible to ourselves.

Originally Published: June 6th, 2022

Richard Hegelman is a writer from London.