Like many others, I read the news (because I can’t bear to watch) about the war raging in Ukraine, and feel helpless, powerless. I grew up in the industrial Midlands of England during WW2, and my lullabies were sirens and bombs exploding. But I never experienced the horror of an armed invasion. How long can we sit back and refrain from action?
These are my translations of two more of Nelly Sachs’ poems that are as topical and relevant today as when she wrote them. The poem about the sunflower, in particular, as a symbol of Ukraine, is chilling in this context.
Who saw murder done before your eyes.
Just as you feel someone looking at you from behind,
so you feel on your back
the gaze of the dead.
How many dying eyes will look at you
when from the hiding places you pluck a violet?
How many hands raised in supplication
in the twisted martyred branches
of the old oak trees?
How much memory grows in the blood
of the evening sun?
Oh the unsung lullabies
in the nocturnes of the turtle dove –
many’s the one might have captured a star.
But now the old well has to do it for him!
who didn’t raise a hand to kill,
but who did not shake off the dust from your
who stopped stock still at the point where it turns
But the sunflower
inflaming the walls
raises from the ground
those who speak to the soul
in the dark
Torches lit for another world
with hair growing beyond death –
And outside the song of finches
and time strolling in glory
and the flower growing dear
to the human heart
evil ripens into the winepress
black grapes – of ill repute –
already pressed to wine –