Home and Leave-Taking in the Poetry of Anna Akhmatova and Nelly Sachs

Jennifer R. Tishler, Dartmouth College

Although the Russian Anna Axmatova (1889–1966) and German-Jewish Nelly Sachs (1891–1970) never met, and apparently never read each other's works, an examination of their creative biographies reveals crucial points of interconnection. Writing about an epoch when the domination of the public over the private in Germany and the Soviet Union included a widespread assault on the domestic sphere, both poets create a multifaceted image of the home, including the opposition and interrelationship of public, private, and inner spaces, the notion of home as the locus of memory, and the theme of exile. My paper explores these topics through a close reading of several poems, including Axmatova's "Lot's Wife," "Dante," "Memory has Three Epochs," and selections from the cycle Requiem and Sachs's "To you who build the new house," "Those expelled," and "Leave without looking back."

While the poets avoid sentimentalizing ties between woman and home, they often draw direct affinities between the home and the self. At the same time, both Sachs and Axmatova invert the traditional image of the home as sanctuary, presenting images of domesticity, some traditionally feminine, that provide no refuge from the surrounding horrors. In Requiem, for example, the public space in the prison yard, representing shared experience as a community, is a realm of relative strength and confidence for Akhmatova's poetic persona. The private sphere, paradoxically, offers no refuge for the speaker, and appears, as Beth Holmgren argues, as "a resonating place of torment" (24). The opposition between public and private space is more ambiguous for Nelly Sachs, who in her early post-World War II poetry emphasizes the constant presence of the dead in the domestic realm as she searches for home beyond the borders of the house. As Alvin Rosenfeld asserts, "[Sachs's] poetry involves a continuous seeking-without-finding, a wild craving after home with the knowledge that, after Auschwitz, the world is homeless" (363).

Both poets engage two notions of space: the rooms and houses they describe in their poetry and the semantic space, in the words of Renate Lachmann, a space that should be made to "speak or resound" (244). I address how Axmatova and Sachs create these poems as a space for remembering and as a method to enact the operations of memory.

Selected Bibliography
Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Trans. Maria Jolas. New York: Orion, 1964.
Bower, Kathrin M. "Ethics and Remembrance in the Poetry of Nelly Sachs and Rose Ausl”nder." Studies in German Literature, Linguistics, and Culture. Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2000.
Rosenfeld, Alvin H. "The Poetry of Nelly Sachs." Judaism 20.3 (1971): 356–64.
Rosslyn, Wendy. "The Function of Architectural Imagery in Akhmatova's Poetry." Irish Slavonic Studies 6 (1985): 19–34.
Sherbakova, Irina. "The Gulag in Memory." Memory and Totalitarianism. Ed. Luisa Passerini. New York: Oxford University Press (International Yearbook of Oral History and Life Stories, Vol. 1), 1992: 103–115.