The Poetry After Auschwitz

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Jennifer M. Hoyer – The Space of Words, Exile and Diaspora in the Works of Nelly Sachs (Camden House)

Theodor Adorno famously stated that to ‘write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’. Adorno later revised this statement, in his last work, Negative Dialectics.

But he didn’t renege, he made it even more damning. He said that ‘it may have been wrong to say that after Auschwitz you could no longer write poems’, but it is ‘not wrong to raise the less cultural question’ of ‘whether after Auschwitz you can go on living…’

In some ways, Nelly Sachs proved Adorno wrong. She did both. She carried on living as she took in the knowledge of the camps, and she wrote poetry.

But she did not really write poetry directly about Auschwitz, she wrote poetry that is fused with the raw, livid, negative energy of the incommensurable horror of the camps. She was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1966.

However, the point Adorno was making with his quotation was and is correct, even though it is more often misconstrued than it is correctly deployed. Adorno really meant Wagner, Mahler and all that was ‘poetic’ but rotten in Germany, that then became rotten in Hollywood: The cultural inflations of ‘beauty’, emerging from the rural idyll, that are then inscribed as ‘natural’, before this ‘nature’ is re-inscribed, finally, as a measure for who lives or dies.

Adorno was right, all that was rotten in Hollywood continued in an unbroken line. For Adorno, World War Two didn’t really end. It continued right through into the wars in Indochina, Vietnam and Cambodia… Now Donald Trump is in power.

Jennifer Hoyer explains that Sachs’ poetry is best not viewed as a set of open signifiers, emerging from an event, but as spaces opened by the words themselves. Gaston Bachelard is given as an example, that his poetics of space are also the space of poetry in Sachs’ work. It is not merely imagistic, it opens up a zone in the mind that is perhaps closer to occult practice than it is to poetry. Write and rite are one.

Hoyer includes a chapter on Sachs’ explorations of the Merlin myth. She piles version on version until they become a kind of occult map, until all the stray fragments have been aligned and transfigured, in some enormous mystical-linguistic Tetris game.

Hoyer’s chapter on ‘space after the abyss’, the space after Auschwitz, where simply ‘going on’ is a question, rather than a given, explores the redemptive dimensions of Sachs’ work too. But this is negative theology, it does not inhabit some fake positivistic philosophy of rescue.

Hoyer cites Rudolf Hartung in 1947, describing how the poetry after the war was ‘untimely’. Hartung returns to Adorno’s concerns about whether making poetry could be moral at all, in yet another time of the greatest material need.

Hartung had Gottfried Benn’s poetry of supposed aesthetic timelessness in his sights. In any case, it fails. What is meant to make Benn’s work ‘timeless’ puts it in orbit around a collapsing star.

Sachs’ work directly mirrors this gravitational implosion. She crushes the protons and electrons of ordinary language to form charged, neutron constellations, in colours we have never seen before. Tiny, but impossibly dense, many of the later poems are the afterimages of the collapse of the monstrous swell of Benn and others, and their cultural elevation of nihilism to art.

Benn’s work, often influenced by his time as a physician dissecting corpses, views humanity as simply pathos and disease.

Sachs, although she describes the present as a ‘wound ripped open’, sees the torn curtain of bloody flesh as proof of the inevitability of life, not death:

His pen, his scalpel cut. The writer of the Zohar surgically drew blood, pulsing, from the unseen circulation of the stars, gathered in a cup… the words, the homesick sparks. The grave split open, the alphabet arose, each letter was an angel, each a crystal shard, each held refracted droplets dating from creation. These sang. And there, within, glowed ruby, jacinth, lapis lazuli so many scattered seedlings not yet stone.

As you can see, Sachs’ post-war poetry also tried to pull what was left of the Jewish traditions through the eye of a needle.

Through the present moment that had been reduced to a grim corridor, and out into the light of another diaspora. It doesn’t just will the future into being, it returns like an avenging angel from that future.

This is the difference between poetry and the occult, or mysticism. As Hoyer puts it, Sachs’ texts ‘are often written in the present tense and destabilize the boundaries between then and now…’

Hoyer’s book also reconnects Sachs’ early work to the later work. Most studies focus on the holocaust poetry, but Hoyer’s places Sachs’ work in a broader picture. The themes that run through what are often seen as two distinct and separate bodies of work are painstakingly traced. Hard, wearying, detailed academic toil has clearly gone into producing this book.

The result is more than admirable, and fascinating. There is too little space to even begin with the details, but through them the richness of Sachs’ work is clear. It has a nuclear half-life of one thousand years.

Hoyer also aligns Sachs’ project to the stateless Jews after WW2. Sachs’ work makes ‘a state’ for the stateless. In the spaces of words she opens up, in the ash and smoke, after WW2. But bleakly, those without a state now are the Palestinians.

Adorno was not wrong, but Sachs’ work is open enough to weep and wail for all.

Adorno’s comments on poetry after the camps concerned ‘reification’, that the abstract is made concrete in a bad order. Well before Foucault, he described the world as a kind of open prison.

But Sachs the mystic might see the prison as Adorno’s own, ‘so many scattered seedlings, not yet stone.’

Postscript

Andrew Shanks has re-translated a lot of Sachs’ poems. The Penguin Modern European Poets edition presented very muted translations. Shanks’ versions are wide-eyed and alive. You can find them here: http://www.nellysachs-translations.org.uk/

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