Academic journal article German Quarterly

Painting Sand: Nelly Sachs and the Grabschrift

Academic journal article German Quarterly

Painting Sand: Nelly Sachs and the Grabschrift

Article excerpt

German Jewish poet Nelly Sachs (1891-1970) observed in 1948: "So mull, ich den Vorwurf vieler Emigranten hinnehmen, die ein Anknüpfen an die Vormartyrium-Tradition verlangen, und sind doch in einer Zeit, die aufgerissen ist wie eine Wunde" (Sachs, Briefe 99). In 1950 she remarked, "Wir können einfach nicht mehr die alten verbrauchten Stilmittel anwenden. In keiner Kunst ist das möglich" (Sachs, Briefe 110). While these comments appear after the publication of Sachs's first, and arguably most well-known, postwar volume of poems In den Wohnungen des Todes, there is ample evidence that she was concerned already in the early to mid- 1940s with the precarious position of demanding a link to tradition, but living in a time that, ripped apart like a wound, could not sustain a closed and seamless approach to art as celebrated by her bourgeois Berlin milieu and European aesthetes, whose models were the ancient Greek and Roman poets. In many of her postwar poems and plays, Sachs confronts and examines the legacy of the humanistic tradition in imaginative writing.1 The emphasis on the wound and its implications for writing and the poet are keenly felt in Sachs's cycle of poems Grabschriften in die Luft geschrieben, "Epitaphs/Gravescripts Written into the Air," which she began writing in Stockholm by 19432 but which were not published until 1947. These "gravescripts," as William West and Johannes Anderegg have noted, do not strictly conform to traditional elements of the epitaph? I argue that they further engage, disassemble, and ultimately reject critical elements of the archaic tradition of the epitaph and challenge modern expectations for grave markers and their inscriptions, thereby making a significant statement regarding literary form in the postwar era.

Traditionally the poet's task depends on what classicist and poet Anne Carson calls "...the epitaphic contract: a poet is someone who saves and is saved by the dead" (Carson 74) . The contract is fulfilled primarily in the transmission of the name: "It is we who let them go, for we do not accompany them. It is we who hold them here - deny them their nothingness - by naming their names" (Carson 84-85). 4 The notion of the artist as immortalizer of the fallen, as the guardian of memory through oral epic or textual memorial, is complicated in the post-Second World War context first by the mass of dead, and then by the Nazi method of dealing with that mass: the crematoria. Sachs confronts the challenge to the suddenly inappropriate closure of the traditional memorial or gravestone by titling the cycle "Grabschriften in die Luft geschrieben" and then proceeds to confront the complex role of the artist in creating any sort of an immortalization. She does so first by denying the names of individuals, highlighting that absence through initials, and then by demonstrating that the artist who transforms the body into a representative image or text dismembers the person, much as death or the murderer dismembers the body. The sujet of each poem is disaggregated into fragments. In the post-Holocaust era, in which uncovering, reestablishing, and preserving individual identity attains primary urgency, Sachs's practice of obscuring individual identities, and her implication of the artist in their oblivion, compels the reader to reflect on traditional modes of memorialization.

Poetry before and after Auschwitz

The conundrum of poetic tradition after the war was not exclusive to Nelly Sachs. In 1947, poetry critic Rudolf Härtung characterizes contemporary trends in poetry asa landscape too well-known and traveled, which in the ruined geographical and psychological landscape of postwar Europe proved to be insufficient and unsatisfactory.5 Embracing neither an entirely nostalgic ("V&rmartyrium") nor an entirely "Stunde null" or tabula rasa position on poetry after the war,6 many of Sachs's poems evoke the styles and conventions of the history of European poetry, yet in a disjointed manner. …

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