that you may not shatter in fragments
now when the time sinks with the ravenous suns
in your sea-covered depths─
the moons of death
drag the falling roof of earth
into the congealed blood of your silence.
once you were the bride of mysteries
adorned with lilies of shadow─
In your dark glass sparkled
the mirage of all who yearn
and love had set its morning rose
to blossom before you─
You were once the oracular mouth
of dream painting and mirrored the beyond.
now you are the graveyard
for the terrible shipwreck of a star─
time sinks speechless in you
with its sign:
The falling stone
and the flag of smoke.
─Translated from the German by Ruth and Matthew Mead
(from Und neimand weiss weiter, 1957 -
Born as Leonie Sachs in Schöneberg, Germany in 1891, she was educated at home due to her frail health. She showed early signs of talent as a dancer, but her protective parents did not encourage her to pursue a profession. She grew up as a very sheltered, introverted young woman and never married. She pursued an extensive correspondence, and was a friend of Selma Lagerlöf and Hilde Domin. As the Nazis took power, she became increasingly terrified, at one point losing the power of speech, as she would remember in verse: "When the great terror came/I fell dumb." Sachs fled with her aged mother to Sweden in 1940. Her friendship with Lagerlöf had saved her life and that of her mother when shortly before her own death Lagerlöf intervened with the Swedish royal family to secure their release from Germany. Sachs and her mother finally escaped on the last airplane flight to leave Nazi Germany for Sweden, a week before Sachs was scheduled to report to a concentration camp.
Living in a tiny two-room apartment in Stockholm, Sachs cared alone for her mother for many years, and supported their existence by translations between Swedish and German. After her mother's death, Sachs suffered several nervous breakdowns characterized by hallucinations, paranoia, and delusions of persecution by Nazis, and she spent a number of years in a mental institution. She continued to write even while hospitalized. She eventually recovered well enough to live on her own again, though her stability would always be fragile. Her worst breakdown was ostensibly precipitated by hearing German speech during a trip to Switzerland to accept a literary prize. However, she maintained a forgiving attitude toward a younger generation of Germans, and corresponded with many German-speaking writers of the postwar period, including Hans Magnus Enzensberger and Ingeborg Bachmann.