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the Complete Review
the complete review - poetry

Flight and Metamorphosis

Nelly Sachs

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To purchase Flight and Metamorphosis

Title: Flight and Metamorphosis
Author: Nelly Sachs
Genre: Poetry
Written: 1959 (Eng. 2022)
Length: 186 pages
Original in: German
Availability: Flight and Metamorphosis - US
Flight and Metamorphosis - UK
Flight and Metamorphosis - Canada
Exode et métamorphose - France
in Werke II - Deutschland
in Viaje a la transparencia - España
from: Bookshop.org (US)
  • German title: Flucht und Verwandlung
  • Translated by Joshua Weiner, with Linda B. Parshall
  • With an Introduction by Joshua Weiner
  • This is a bilingual edition, with the German originals facing the English translation

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Our Assessment:

B : fine edition serving as a good introduction to a significant poet

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Le Monde . 7/2/2003 Patrick Kéchichian
The NY Times Book Rev. . 17/10/2022 Daisy Fried

  From the Reviews:
  • "Nelly Sachs écrit face au désastre historique qui a détruit son monde et qui la menace encore. Esprit profondément religieux, proche du hassidisme, elle distingue cependant « le pays advenu derrière le masque de la démence (...) derrière le lit de douleur des larmes »" - Patrick Kéchichian, Le Monde

  • "The poems in Nelly Sachs’s Flight and Metamorphosis (...) seem little interested in invitation. But they are full of shifting surprises, mysteries and depths. (...) These postwar poems emerge alchemically from Sachs’s isolation in exile; from traumatic experience (Sachs’s lover was executed as a member of the Resistance); from the political situation in the late 1940s and early ’50s,when millions of postwar Europeans remained displaced; perhaps from Sachs’s inevitable mental health struggles; and from her search for the divine in a world of horror. (...) The effect of all this linguistic diaphanousness and metaphysical maelstrom is that individual poems don’t stick in the mind. Instead the poems accumulate consequence, gaining traction if one reads attentively, straight through Flight and Metamorphosis. This is not a book for sampling, but (to mix metaphors) a journey, or maybe a journey’s middle, with no beginning or end." - Daisy Fried, The New York Times Book Review

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       While parts of Nelly Sachs' 1959 collection have been previously translated, Joshua Weiner's (with some input from Linda B. Parshall) is the first complete translation into English. Though the poet's name remains at least vaguely familiar, in no small part because of the Nobel Prize imprimatur, Weiner is probably correct when he notes in his Introduction that she has been: "largely forgotten in the United States". This bilingual edition of one of her collections, a sequence of fifty-four poems, may not offer the breadth of the previously published selected translations, but, along with Weiner's lengthy Introduction, should serve as a good (re-)introduction to the poet and her work.
       Sachs emigrated to Sweden in 1940, when she was already forty-nine; as Weiner notes, she: "later refused, in perpetuity, to allow republication of her work published prior to her flight from Germany" (much of which appears to have been lost). Weiner notes that, while her early work was heavily influenced by German Romanticism, she had, by 1940: "absorbed fifty years of modernist innovation in poetry"; her work then came to integrate a great deal of modernist technique. As Weiner also points out in his Notes to the Poems, Sachs is both an inter- as well as intra-textual poet, and her work is: "continually allusive, drawing from works of Kabbalah, such as the Zohar, as well as the Bible, and Christian mystics". Much , of course, is also in reaction to the catastrophe that was Nazism in Germany.
       In discussing his translation, Weiner suggests: "The German of Nelly Sachs is strange. One could even say, going further, that her poems are strangers to German". As he notes, she often resorts to: "neologism and compound substantives", and these present a considerable challenge in translation. Weiner is hit and miss with some of these, forced to stretch out the lovely 'verfunkeln' into 'sparkle out, extinguished' or simply literally translating, for example, 'todnachtgedunkelt' (as 'deathnight-darkened'). Among the most challenging (and beautiful) is the poem that concludes:

die neue Sonnenblume
den Trauermantel der Nacht
anzuknospen beginnt —

the new sunflower
scored by tears
begins to bud
on the morning robe of night —]
       Much of the expression in these poems does verge on the terse -- a compressed power that, at its best, is starkly beautiful, such as the poem that concludes:
Der Himmel übt an dir

Du bist in der Gnade

[On you, the heavens practice

You dwell in grace.]
       There's a rawness to many of the poems -- a sense of exposure that extends to the physical, as in the concluding verses to the poem that begins with 'Vertriebene' (those driven out):
Reißend wird ihr Leib
im Salz der Mutter fortgefressen.

hat Hiob Gott gebildet.

[Their body soon devoured
by the salt of torment.

did Job form God.]
       (The original German is ambiguous as to who formed whom; if in slightly stilted form, Weiner's solution at least allows for a hint of that.)
       The theme of exile runs strongly through the collection, from the poem that begins: "Here there's no staying longer" (and concludes: "Zeit ists zu fliegen / nur mit unserem Leib" ("It's time to fly / only with our body")). So also the final poem concludes with a summing-up:
Tiefdunkel ist des Heimwehs Farbe immer

so nimmt die Nacht
mich wieder Besitz.

[Deep dark is always the color of longing for home

so night takes me again
into its domain.]
       At their best, the verses go right to the core:
Ein Fremder hat immer
seine Heimat im Arm
wie eine Waise
für die er vielleicht nichts
als ein Grab sucht.

[A stranger always has
his homeland in his arms
like an orphan
for whom he may be seeking nothing
but a grave.]
       There's certainly considerable power to the collection, a mature poet at work here. It's good also to have this collection translated in its entirety -- in contrast to the previous sampler-volumes of Sachs' work --, as there is also a unity to the work. With a lengthy (if in part a bit casual-personal) Introduction and other supplementary material, including endnotes, this volume certainly makes for a good introduction to this important poet.
       As always, one can be grateful for the bilingual presentation, which allows quick comparison to the originals -- not least because it also gives a sense of some of the tightness of the originals that's hard to replicate in translation.
       (I would note that the German title is Flucht und Verwandlung -- the same 'Verwandlung' that Kafka uses in the title of his famous work; Weiner opts, like many Kafka-translators, for 'metamorphosis', though that word exists in German as well ('Metamorphose') and 'transformation' would seem to be the more obvious English choice.)

- M.A.Orthofer, 3 April 2022

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Flight and Metamorphosis: Reviews: Nelly Sachs: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Swedish-German poet Nelly Sachs (1891-1970) shared the 1966 Nobel Prize in Literature.

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© 2022 the complete review

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