Nelly Sachs--German/Swedish


Nelly Sachs


Nelly Sachs was born in a Berlin suburb in 1891. Coming from a wealthy family she was tutored at home.  During her teen years she established a correspondence with Selma Lagerlöf, the Swedish writer. It was Lagerlöf who arranged for Sachs and her mother to flee Germany in 1940 and enter the country.  While in Sweden, Sachs earned her living translating German poets into Swedish.  During this time she worked on her first collection of poems, In den Wohnungen des Todes (In the Habitations of Death), which was published after the war.  Following the war, Sachs decided to remain in Sweden.  Though her mental health was fragile, Sachs continued to write.  Her most popular play, Eli: Ein Mysterienspiel vom Leiden Israels was written in 1950.  A number of other poetry collections followed through the years up to her death in 1970.  She was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1966.

O the Chimneys

And though after my skin worms destroy this body,
yet in my flesh shall I see God.
JOB 19:26

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?

O the chimneys!
Freedom way for Jeremiah and Job's dust -
Who devised you and laid stone upon stone
The road for refugees of smoke?

O the habitations of death,
Invitingly appointed
For the host who used to be a guest -
O you fingers
Laying the threshold
Like a knife between life and death -

O you chimneys,
O you fingers
And Israel's body as smoke through the air!

Translated by Michael Hamburger


All the Lands of the Earth

All the lands of the earth

are ready

to rise up off the surface of the map

to shrug off their epidermis of stars

to tie the cerulean bundles of ocean

on their back

to set the mountains with their deep roots of fire

as caps on top of their smoking hair.


They are ready to carry that last

deadweight of sadness with them as baggage:

as a chrysalis on whose wings

one day

they will end the journey.