Night, sacred mask
light of resurrection before the golden coast.
Sick with stars,
a wood for the gued animal Longing!
All last breaths
are a death-rattle at your wall
which with black crosses
breaks into the beyond.
Notes on this poem
None of the five poems by Nelly Sachs translated here (in MPT Slap Bang: Focus on German-Language Poetry, autumn 2021) was published in her lifetime, though the last, ‘It is evening…’ appeared in a posthumous collection put together by friends after her death in 1970. She died in Stockholm, where she had lived ever since fleeing Germany at the eleventh hour in 1940, but she was born in Berlin, in 1891. She began again as a writer in Stockholm, learning much from the younger Swedish poets she soon got to know and translated, and devoted her writing to the Jewish victims she and her mother had narrowly escaped being among. ‘Death was my teacher’, she wrote in 1966, the year she was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature jointly with Shmuel Yosef Agnon, a decision which, against the background of the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials, was clearly intended to point towards a reconciliation. In a (consciously or not) comparable way, when Sachs’s poems appeared in English in the Penguin Modern European Poets series, it was together with the Hebrew poet Abba Kovner. The fact that Sachs’s poetry, as the work of a German-Jewish writer, could itself be presented as a form of reconciliation did not help her reputation a few years later, when this aitude to dealing with the past was regarded with more suspicion. The poems themselves resist being assigned to any one purpose. Sachs spoke of them as being like salt, an irritant but also a preservative. Night, a preoccupation of these poems, works similarly.