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The Space of Words

The Space of Words: Exile and Diaspora in the Works of Nelly Sachs

Jennifer M. Hoyer
Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 208
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  • Book Info
    The Space of Words
    Book Description:

    Nelly Sachs (1891-1970) has long been regarded as one of the most significant Holocaust poets. Her conception of language and words as a landscape has been understood by scholars and critics as an exilic ersatzHeimatfor the lost German homeland of a displaced poet. This reading, however, is based entirely on her postwar poems. Such an isolated approach to her complex body of work is increasingly historically problematic; it is also at odds with Sachs's generally cyclical poetic process.In 'The Space of Words', Jennifer Hoyer offers the first sustained critical analysis of Sachs's largely unanalyzed prewar poetry and prose, as well as the first analysis that examines structural and thematic ties between the prewar works and the Nobel-Prize-winning postwar poetry. Through close readings of both Sachs's prewar and postwar works, Hoyer reveals a diasporic rather than exilic conception of the landscape of language, a position of constant wandering rather than static longing for return. This diasporic poetics promotes the intellectual and linguistic power of the wanderer and opens new insights into Sachs's essential significance as a Holocaust poet and a twentieth-century German-Jewish writer wary of the link of literary language to geopolitics and the narrative of nations. Jennifer Hoyer is Assistant Professor of German at the University of Arkansas.

    eISBN: 978-1-57113-874-3
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. “An Stelle von Heimat”: An Introduction
    (pp. 1-15)

    The 1966 Nobel Prize for Literature was split between two writers cast as voices for Israel: Israeli S. Y. Agnon for the geographical and political State of Israel, and German Jewish refugee Leonie “Nelly” Sachs for her poetic treatment of the current “state”—the psychological, historical, diasporic or exilic state—of the abstract Israel, that is, of the Jews. She is, along with Paul Celan, the quintessential German-language Holocaust poet. Such a significant position in German literature has proven to be paradoxically limiting and limited, however. Although she was also active as a translator and playwright, and indeed had written...

  5. 1: Biography of the Poet: “a frail woman must do it”
    (pp. 16-34)

    The unorthodox mix of avant-garde and archaic that we find in Sachs’s prose and poetry, often taking the form of a simplistic façade masking more complex observations, reflects the person and the poet that her letters and secondhand accounts suggest she was. She famously claimed that she was never a poet,¹ that she was merely a frail woman,² that she wrote to combat melancholia or trauma,³ that her person was unimportant, and that she wanted to disappear behind her work.⁴ Her depiction bears every hallmark of conventional prescriptions for feminine behavior of her era and milieu, and as is the...

  6. 2: Wandering and Words, Wandering in Words
    (pp. 35-59)

    The aesthetic and poetic roots of images such as “So rann ich aus dem Wort” (Thus I Ran out of The Word, 1959) or “Landschaft aus Schreien” (Landscape of Screams, 1957), which clearly conceive of the word and the poetic text as a “Raum” (space) and a “Weltall” (cosmos), are located in Sachs’s earliest compositions. In order to conceive of the text as a landscape of screams or a space out of which one can run, one must first regard it as a space in which one can move, a landscape that one can traverse. Sachs’s early texts show a...

  7. 3: Sachs’s Merlin the Sorcerer: Reconfiguring the Myth as Plural
    (pp. 60-76)

    Sachs had a lifelong fascination with the figure of Merlin the sorcerer. Although the archive collections contain Merlin fragments and texts she wrote right up to the end of her life, she published only one: “Wie der Zauberer Merlin erlöset ward” (How Merlin the Sorcerer was Saved, fromLegenden und Erzählungen, 1921). This text allows us an opportunity to contextualize Sachs’s authorial interventions within the spectrum of Merlin narratives and consider the significance of her choices. Because we possess so few drafts of texts by Sachs, and because she is frequently understood, as Fioretos recently noted, as a vessel rather...

  8. 4: Poetic Space after the Abyss
    (pp. 77-98)

    Sach’s sense of unease in the space of words intensified and took on greater urgency after the Second World War. Fascinated with and mindful of the power of figurative language already since the 1920s, Sachs experienced increasing confirmation of the need to retain critical distance to figurative language throughout the 1930s and 40s. First, Nazi propaganda introduced a new vocabulary of exclusion and obfuscation; then, upon hearing in the early to mid-1940s of Nazi atrocities, Sachs was confronted with the ethics of using figurative language to react and respond to mass murder; and finally, between 1945 and 1949, she was...

  9. 5: Israel Is Not Only Land: Diasporic Poetry
    (pp. 99-134)

    In Sach’s postwar poetry, the poetic text is not a refuge, but rather a space in which the reader’s conventional associations and beliefs about language are destabilized. The reader is confronted with obscured perspectives, exposed fallacies or states of denial, and most of all, with his or her own agency. Sachs accomplishes this in particular through her use of cyclical structure, her primary mode of composition after the war. Writing in cycles allowed her to create an extended textual landscape in which the reader moves from poem to poem, that is, from textual space to textual space. The reader is...

  10. 6: Relearning to Listen: Sachs’s Poem Cycle “Dein Leib im Rauch durch die Luft”
    (pp. 135-169)

    Sachs’s emphasis on “Israel” as more than land hinges on her conception of and uncertainty about memory, in particular memory of the immediate postwar era, and grows out of her problematizations of memory and memorialization in earlier texts. When an object, for example a blue flower or a parcel of land, is made the representation of an event (for example Merlin’s and Gotelind’s death) or of something more abstract, for example “Israel,” the event or abstraction can seem contained. “Nicht nur Land ist Israel” suggests that a projection of whatever else Israel can be as land does away with any...

  11. Conclusion
    (pp. 170-174)

    I close this reading of Sachs’s work with one final example that shows the importance of bearing in mind that Sachs, since the early 1920s, was fascinated by conventional perceptions of words and literary traditions and what they can mean if they are broken apart and reread unconventionally. In a letter from July of 1946, Sachs wrote to writer and literary historian Max Rychner of her latest frustrations in finding a publisher forIn den Wohnungen des Todes. She concluded from a vague rejection letter that, upon seeing the title of her manuscript, the publisher had tossed it onto a...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 175-190)
  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 191-196)
  14. Index
    (pp. 197-203)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 204-204)