A fresh translation of Nelly Sachs’s later poems

For Sachs, flight is multivalent: her flight from the Nazis, any refugee’s flight from oppression, God’s flight from God.

Nelly Sachs, a Nobel Prize winner widely known for her poetry about the Holocaust, was a secular German Jew who escaped from Germany with her beloved mother in 1940 and spent the rest of her life in Stockholm, living modestly in a cramped apartment. She had endured a Nazi interrogation that left her unable to speak for several days afterward. Her lover, a member of the resistance, was thought to have been executed in front of her. Having lost her home, citizenship, and identity, she suffered from mental illness—especially after the death of her mother. But she continued to write.

Flight and Metamorphosis, a collection of the poems that followed Sachs’s famous poems on the Holocaust, was first published in 1959. Most English-speaking readers are unfamiliar with these poems, even though they have existed in translation for many decades. In this bilingual edition, Joshua Weiner not only provides fresh translations of the poems, he has also included notes on many of them and a helpful introduction. The notes are essential, especially for readers unfamiliar with the Zohar—the most important work of Jewish mysticism.

This is a collection that should resonate with contemporary readers because of Sachs’s emphasis on homelessness, dislocation, exile, longing, flight, and (yes) metamorphosis, which is hard-won through suffering and usually incomplete. The book is disorienting, containing the upheaval of thought and language experienced by the refugee. God in these poems—the Deus absconditus—seems to have withdrawn into God’s self. The flight is multivalent: it is Sachs’s flight from Germany; it is God’s flight from God; it is any refugee’s flight from oppression; it is the soul’s flight.