Walking the various neighborhoods of Seattle two years ago, I discovered Open Books, a marvelous little dragon’s cave of all-poetry. First thing when I came through the door—all shy nerves and shutdown as I always am at the meeting of strangers—I saw on the immediate shelves to the left a simple, handsome volume propped up, and quickly took it in my hands without thought. It was my own nervous way to get past the small social gathering that had formed by the front door between the shopkeeper and several visiting poets. Yes, I took up the book as though it were the very thing I had meant to do all along and went straight to the bench with it, not yet knowing who the author was or if its contents were any good.
Well, it was Nelly Sach’s Glowing Enigmas, gorgeously translated by Michael Hamburger, and ‘hot off the press’ at Portland’s own Tavern Books. A simple ink sketch of a chrysalis with one wing emergent graced the cover, and of course the title immediately beckoned me with the silk scarves of intrigue. But as I have the worst luck pulling books randomly from shelves, I wasn’t prepared to adore it.
In fact, I had come across a thunderegg, not a porcelain beauty. I had come upon glinting innards and ‘the veins of strangeness / out of our minds.’ These were the first words of hers I read, opening the book at my own hazard:
The blood’s circulation
its spiritual sea
where the blue flame
bursts through night—
Ah! The seriousness with which Sachs addresses pain, spirit, and cosmos was a tonic I’d been thirsty for. Without the hip wit or self-reflexive irony that marks so much of the poetry I encounter off-the-shelves, this work struck—and strikes—into the refreshingly earnest and questing—and numinal.
In a letter written to Paul Celan in 1958, Sachs speaks of the invisible but undeniable cosmos to which all her work achingly relates: ‘There is and was in me, and it’s there with every breath I draw, the belief in transcendence through suffusion with pain, in the inspiritment of dust, as a vocation to which we are called. I believe in an invisible universe in which we mark out our dark accomplishment.’
Fleeing the Nazis in 1940s Berlin with her ailing mother, Sachs took up asylum in Sweden, where later her writing began to be recognized as a powerful testament to the brutalities and human suffering—particularly the suffering of the Jewish people. In 1966, Sachs was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature; but Sachs’ ‘dark accomplishment’ frames itself in such supernal scope that, though her work is born, on the one hand, of the Holocaust and postwar Europe, it is at the same time umbilically moored to a starfield, to the nebular dust of existence. Her poems create a simultaneous space of universality and the arcanely personal, and thus speak to the infinite sphere as readily as to the particular, historical, or cultural.
You see, Sachs makes of the stone a ‘fiery being’ and makes ‘the elements tug on their chains / to be united / when the ghostly scripts of the clouds / fetch home primal images.’ So she tugs, so she fetches, so she speaks to the cosmos at large as much as the cosmos within.
In this poet and in this work I continually find the shekhinah—a dwelling for the divine presence, a nest of otherness and haunting lyric beauty. In Glowing Enigmas, the confessional gene is alive in a primordial body that speaks in a language that yearns to be un-human. It is a book that is in fact a single poem: each stanza, or in some cases a set of stanzas, is alone on a page. It’s a design that gives incredible pause and honor to the content, and makes for a reading experience that is unlike anything else I have encountered. It all glows.
I turned the corner into
a dark side street
Then my shadow
lay down in my arm
This tired piece of clothing
wanted to be carried
and the color Nothing addressed me:
—and it addressed her fittingly: ‘You are beyond!’