Nelly Sachs: Sternverdunkelung (1455 words)

  • Jennifer Hoyer (University of Arkansas)

Nelly Sachs’ second volume of poetry, Sternverdunkelung [Eclipse of the Stars], appeared in spring 1949 through Bermann Fischer (Amsterdam), a publisher largely dedicated to the production of work by exiled German-language writers. As in Sachs’ first poetry collection, In den Wohnungen des Todes [In the Dwellings of Death, 1947], much of the subject matter of Sternverdunkelung confronts the Nazi genocide of Jews. The style of confrontation and the questions engendered by this confrontation, however, expand beyond the immediate reference system of the Holocaust into larger questions of history, memory, time, and geo-politics. The themes and imagery explore boundaries: between nations (in particular Israel, both as a nation and as an idea), conditions (life and death, silence and speaking, forgetfulness and memory), epochs, and individual units that form a whole, such as notes and beats that make up music, or increments of time. These boundaries portray tensions in an attempt to critically observe the “apocalyptic” time of the late 1940s, to examine both the present situation and the “eternal” conditions and tensions that continue to glimmer behind it.

Sternverdunkelung drew, according to Sachs, largely favorable press; yet it seems this volume also met with more skepticism and editorial critique than In den Wohnungen des Todes, or the subsequent volume Und niemand weiss weiter [And No One Knows How to Go On, 1957]. Much of the general critique of Sachs’ work, in particular the objections that it is too abstract and detached from worldly concerns (Walter Berendsohn, Hilde Domin, Judith Ryan), stems from readings of Sternverdunkelung. Fewer copies of Sternverdunkelung were produced, it had correspondingly low sales, and, along with In den Wohnungen des Todes, was eventually pulped. Sachs attributed the sales figures at times to public taste, which showed a tendency toward nostalgia rather than newer forms of poetry, and at times to antisemitism.

Despite its less favorable reception, Sternverdunkelung has perhaps the most interesting and notably vague publication history of Sachs’ works. It is unclear why Sachs changed publishers, for example, and why several poems intended for the volume were not included in the original edition. The latter problem is particularly interesting considering that the texts in question, namely “Völker der Erde” [“Peoples of the Earth”], “Wenn im Vorsommer” [“When in Pre-Summer”], “;Im Lande Israel” [“In the Land of Israel”] and “Wir üben” [“We Practice”], are among the most clearly political poems in Sachs’s body of work. While they did not appear in the original edition of Sternverdunkelung, “Völker der Erde” and “Wenn im Vorsommer” were published within a year of Sternverdunkelung, in the Soviet Zone journal Sinn und Form. This may indicate that these poems were considered too inflammatory for a Western Zone press, which shied from political and historical confrontation, but were acceptable for the Soviet Zone press, which encouraged political and historical confrontation with totalitarianism. When the first collected works volume, Fahrt ins Staublose [Journey into a Dustless Realm], was published in 1961 by Suhrkamp, all four poems were included in a section entitled “belonging to Sternverdunkelung”, thus preserving the riddle of why they were not originally included. It is also interesting to note that, particularly in the case of “Völker der Erde”, the reprinted poems differ—at times significantly—from the versions printed in Sinn und Form.

Sternverdunkelung consists of 5 cycles: “Und reissend ist die Zeit” [“Tearing Time“, 9 poems], “Die Muschel saust” [“Rush of The Conch“, 11 poems], “Überlebende [“Survivors“, 12 poems], “Land Israel” (6 poems), and “Im Geheimnis” [“In the Secret“, 13 poems]. The poems from Sternverdunkelung that have consistently garnered the most attention are the cycle “Im Geheimnis”, the poem “Auf dass die Verfolgten nicht Verfolger werden” [“That the Persecuted May Not Become Persecutors”], and the four poems not included in the original edition.

In correspondence, Nelly Sachs remarks that “Im Geheimnis” developed from the experience of caring for her ailing mother (who died in February 1950). In this cycle Sachs traces and examines borders of time, the body, and conditions of life and death, sleep and waking.

The boundaries between increments and eras are both emphasized and destabilized in the poem “Auf dass die Verfolgten nicht Verfolger werden”, which has been read as a prescription (Mahnung) for Holocaust survivors, as a message to the state of Israel, and as a response to the attempted assassination of the UNO-Representative Count Folke Bernadotte in Jerusalem in September of 1948 (Erhard Bahr). Here music is separated into beats and tone, the beats represented in steps and ticking, which emphasize the “persecutor” of the title. But the role of “persecutor” is not an absolute one; since Sachs’ poetics repeatedly stress the “eternal game of persecutor and victim”, there is a premonition implied in the title of the poem: that it is all too likely that the persecuted will become the persecutor at some point in history:

Auf dass die Verfolgten nicht Verfolger werden
In welchen Grotten der Echos
seid ihr bewahrt,
die ihr den Ohren einst weissagtet
kommenden Tod?
Nicht Vogelflug, noch Schau der Eingeweide,
noch der blutschwitzende Mars
gab des Orakels Todesauskunft mehr—
nur Schritte—
Urzeitspiel von Henker und Opfer,
Verfolger und Verfolgten,
Jäger und gejagt—
die die Zeit reissend machen
die Stunde mit Wölfen behängen,
dem Flüchtling die Flucht auslöschen
im Blute.
die Zeit zählend mit Schreien, Seufzern,
Austritt des Blutes bis es gerinnt,
Todesschweiss zu Stunden häufend—
Schritte der Henker
Über Schritten der Opfer,
Sekundenzeiger im Gang der Erde,
von welchem Schwarzmond schrecklich gezogen?
In der Musik der Sphären
wo schrillt euer Ton?
[That the Persecuted May Not Become Persecutors
In which of Echo’s grottoes
are you preserved,
you who once prophesied aloud
the coming of death?
Neither bird-flight, inspection of entrails,
nor Mars sweating blood
confirmed the oracle’s message of death—
only footsteps—
Age-old game of hangman and victim,
Persecutor and persecuted,
Hunter and hunted—
which turn time ravenous
emblazoning the hour with wolves
extinguishing the flight in the fugitive’s
measuring time with screams, groans,
the seeping of blood until it congeals,
heaping up hours of sweaty death—
Steps of hangmen
over the steps of victims,
what black moon pulled with such terror
the sweep-hand in earth’s orbit?
Where does your note shrill
in the music of the spheres?]

Of the four Sinn und Form poems, “Völker der Erde” and “Wenn im Vorsommer” have received the most critical attention since their republication. “Wenn im Vorsommer” draws on the tradition of nature poetry (Naturlyrik), and has been repeatedly criticized for allegorizing and thus diminishing the horror of the Holocaust. The following lines in particular are the focus of critique:

Welt, man hat die kleinen Kinder wie Schmetterlinge,
flügelschlagend in die Flamme geworfen—
[World, they tossed small children into the fire, as butterflies
beating their wings—.]

These lines display what has been termed one of Sachs’ weakest and most dangerous images. They poignantly illustrate the ethical dilemma and the limitations of poetry regarding any representation of the Shoah’s horrors (Ehrhard Bahr, Kathrin M. Bower). It must be assumed that Sachs intended these lines to be unsettling, but—considering the cultural tensions of the immediate postwar era—also utilized them to evoke and critique German literary tradition. There is evidence that the image of butterflies carries connotations of “text” and “author” in Sachs’ poetics, and it might thus be read as an allusion to Heinrich Heine, who famously wrote “Das war ein Vorspiel nur, dort wo man Bücher / Verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen“ [“That was but a preview; where one burns books, one will end up burning people”] in his play Almansor (1821). In this reading, the image of children murdered like butterflies broadens to encompass the fluttering leaves of books tossed into fire and delivers a synchronicity of barbaric moments in history. At the same time “Wenn im Vorsommer” manages to criticize—for the very reason it has been criticized—the predominant taste of Western audiences for traditional (i.e. “comfortable”, un-“disturbing”) poetic structures and tropes in the wake of World War II.

“Völker der Erde” has been widely read as an injunction against “Nazi-Deutsch” (Nazi German, the term used to describe Nazi contamination of the German language) (Hilde Domin, Michael Braun), as one of the few direct and undisguised “Aufrufe” (a call to arms, a politically intended message) rarely encountered in the poetry of Nelly Sachs (Hilde Domin), and as a “Mahnung” (warning) against the pitfalls of language (Bengt Holmqvist). It might also be read, like “Wenn im Vorsommer”, as an indictment of poetry and poetic language (and therefore of the poet herself) and their inability to represent unspeakable suffering and horror.

Sachs herself considered Sternverdunkelung a complex work that presents “stylistic riddles” (12 Dec. 1949) and a decided move away from traditional style and in particular Romantic poetry, in which she sees a narcissistic drive toward escapism (12 April 1949).

Hoyer, Jennifer. "Sternverdunkelung". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 25 January 2008
[, accessed 29 March 2017.]

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