Night, You Balm To My Eyes

I am breaking a habit here by including some remarks on this work (see below).

Night, you balm to my eyes, I have lost my dearest love!
Sun, you flaunt his blood in your morning and evening face.
Wherever now a child is born on earth, dear God above,
Don’t break his heart with the bleeding sun’s disgrace.

Murderer, in what grave-dust were you so dreadfully dressed?
Borne by a breeze from a star bewitched by a nightmare
Fell like death-snow on a suffering throng God blessed,
You murderer, on your hands tenfold martyrs’ stakes flare.

That’s why no tremor of love in murder did you feel,
When in so many kisses love breathed its last on you –
That’s why no answer returned to love’s Job-shattered appeal
That would have washed you back to Him, to Him as new!

Nacht, mein Augentrost du, ich habe meinen Geliebten verloren!
Sonne, du trägst sein Blut in deinem Morgen­ und Abendgesicht.
O mein Gott, wird wo auf Erden ein Kind jetzt geboren,
Laß es nicht zu, daß sein Herz vor der blutenden Sonne zerbricht.

Mörder, aus welchem Grabstaub warst du einmal so schrecklich bekleidet?
Trug ihn ein Wind von einem Stern, den ein Nachtmahr behext
Wie Totenschnee hinab auf eine Schar, die sich zu Gott hindurchleidet,
Mörder, an deinen Händen zehnfacher Marterpfahl wächst.

Darum auch spürtest du nicht der Liebe Zittern im Morden,
Da sie ein letztes Mal aus soviel Küssen dich angehaucht ­
Darum ist
ihr, der Hiobzerschlagenen, keine Antwort geworden,
Die dich zu Ihm wieder, zu Ihm wieder, hätte untergetaucht!


This poem is interesting for a number of reasons. It is one of the few pre-exile poems by Nelly Sachs, who forbade publication of her early work. Unlike her later work it follows a regular rhyme and scansion pattern. Nevertheless, we find many of her later recurring themes and symbols here such as the murder / death of her beloved, night, the sun and stars, bewitchment, dust, martyrdom, guilty hands, God, love, redemption.

It is almost as if out of the disciplined order of this poem – which has already moved away from the sonnet form – emerged the later apparent chaos of her free verse. This is unmistakably the voice of Nelly Sachs, but hampered by the constraints of rhyme and rhythm it has not yet achieved the power of her later work.

For the translator, this presents additional challenges. Her mastery of the form is evident: the metre lends the gravity of a funeral march, and the rhyme words are key words in each line (and here I know in my translation I have fallen short).

The usual difficulties include her idiosyncratic syntax, invented and ambiguous words eg, Augentrost which is not only the solace or balm that the darkness brings for the weeping eyes, but also a small flower known for its herbal qualities, called eyebright in English (Euphrasia). The word also occurs in earlier German poetry as an epithet for the joyous sight of the beloved (“a sight for sore eyes”). This adds an impact to the German that I have not been able to convey in English. Similarly, angehaucht has the sense of being breathed on but also of retaining traces of the agent – think of the traces of breath left on a glass surface – but the analogy in English is more often of colour or paint that sticks if you brush against it: “tinged with” for instance.

Fortunately, here her invented words can be rendered literally in English: Grabstaub (grave-dust – although the German is reminiscent of Grabstein = gravestone), Totenschnee (death-snow), even Hiobzerschlagene – an image of love totally devastated like the biblical Job.

However, the full force of Nachtmahr – an archaic word, modern German prefers Alptraum or Albtraum – is lost in the English nightmare, but is there a better word? It evokes night terrors, not just a bad dream. 

The picture of “eine Schar, die sich zu Gott hindurchleidet” is 100% Sachs: a crowd, host or throng of people making their way to God through suffering; echoed in the horrific portrayal of the murderers hands, the fingers replaced by ten stakes where martyrs are burnt to death, in the concise phrase “zehnfacher Marterpfahl”.

Finally – and here I really feel the frustration of failure in my English rhyming version – there is the punch of the very last word: “untergetaucht”. In this position it carries the whole weight of the poem, and I have failed utterly to do it justice. After the desperately accusatory tone of the previous lines, it comes as a shock: an offer of forgiveness.

The verb “untertauchen” means to dive down under water, be submerged or immersed, or (figuratively) to disappear into hiding. Sachs employs it transitively. A reply to devastated martyred love would have “immersed” or “submerged” the murderer back to Him (= God). No water is mentioned, but there is a clear implication of baptism by immersion or cleansing, bringing redemption for the one who repents. Fatally, this murderer was unaffected by the love of his victim and thus has foregone the redemption he might have received.

A look at  “Eclipse of the Stars may serve as a useful comparison with her later work.

And – just by way of information  – a literal translation, unhampered by rhyme and rhythm:

Night, my eye-balm/ solace for my eyes / eyebright/ you, I have lost my beloved!
Sun, you carry / bear/wear/ his blood in your morning and evening face.
O my God, wherever a child is now born on earth
Do not allow its heart to be broken before the bleeding sun.

Murderer, from what grave-dust were you once so dreadfully dressed?
Did a wind carry it/him from a star that a nightmare bewitched
Like death-snow down onto a throng/crowd/host/ that is suffering its way through to God, 
Murderer, on your hands a tenfold martyr’s stake grows.

That’s why you did not feel the trembling of love in murdering,
As she/ it (=love) one last time from so many kisses breathed on you / = left traces on you/ –
That’s why she /it (= love) the Job-shattered one, received no answer,
Which would have dived you down /submerged/ immersed you to Him again, to Him again.


Where to, Oh, Where

Spring Azure Butterfly with a caterpillar

Spring Azure Butterfly with a caterpillar (Wikipedia)

Where to, Oh, where,
you universe of yearning,
already stretching your wings
in the caterpillar’s dark magic,
with the fins of the fish
always sketching the beginning
in the watery depths,
which a single heart
can plumb with sorrow’s sinker.
Where to, Oh, where
you universe of yearning
with lost lands of dreams
and the blasted bloodstreams of the body;
while the neatly folded soul awaits
its rebirth
under the ice of the death mask.

Stranger of the Seine

Death mask: l’inconnue de la Seine (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Wohin o wohin
du Weltall der Sehnsucht

das in der Raupe schon dunkel verzaubert
die Flügel spannt,
mit den Flossen der Fische
immer den Anfang beschreibt,
in Wassertiefen,
die ein einziges Herz
ausmessen kann mit dem Senkblei der Trauer.
Wohin o wohin
du Weltall der Sehnsucht
mit der Träume verlorenen Erdreichen
und der gesprengten Blutbahn des Leibes;
während die Seele zusammengefaltet wartet
auf ihre Neugeburt
unter dem Eis der Todesmaske.