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Landscape of Screams (Landschaft Aus Schreien)

LANDSCAPE OF SCREAMS (Landschaft aus Schreien)

Poem by Nelly Sachs, 1957

In "Landscape of Screams," first published in Und niemand weiss weiter (1957), Nelly Sachs depicts a world overrun by violence. The landscape of the poem is immense in terms of time and space; it spans history, from the Biblical era to the twentieth century, and encompasses the entire globe, from Hiroshima to the concentration camp at Maidanek. The violence of the scream is not a noise but something that is seen, a horrific vision. While the scream still represents the most primal human response to terror in the poem, it has been silenced, dispossessed of its power of expression. With this negation—of the human voice's ability to make sound, of its ability to describe—any attempt to find sense in atrocities like the Holocaust becomes impossible. What remains is a barren tableau, a terrain devoid of meaning.

The "landscape of screams" is dominated by the language of color and gesture rather than sound. The first stanza introduces us to the screams in the act of tearing open "the black bandage" of the night. Attempts to speak, even breathe, are continually choked, like "the gulping train of breath of the very old,/slashed into seared azure with burning tails." Blood flows throughout the poem: "wildly rearing manes of sacrificial blood," arrows "released/from bloody quivers," "trees of sleep rear blood-licking from the ground." The effect of such graphic imagery is to render the screams speechless. Sight overpowers the voice.

Sachs strips the scream of its power to articulate in stanza three:

O hieroglyph of screams
engraved at the entrance gate to death.

Here the scream has effectively become a written language, something to be deciphered rather than heard. Sachs dislocates the scream from its meaning; it is not only silent but unintelligible.

This sense of dislocation is further aggravated by the absence of any clearly defined connection between scream and source. While Sachs populates her landscape with people—Abraham, Job, prisoners, and saints—she has rendered their voices impotent. "Abraham's scream" for his son Isaac is left "preserved"—and, presumably, unheard—"at the great ear of the Bible"; "Job's scream" is swallowed up by the "four winds." Their screams have become disembodied, forced to act on their own. And yet their ability to make noise is continually stifled. They are "shut tight with the shredded mandibles of fish" or else "concealed in Mount Olive/like a crystal-bound insect overwhelmed by impotence." Throughout the poem the effort of the scream is met by extreme violence, a violence inflicted repeatedly on the human throat. The reader encounters "shattered throat flutes," throats slashed by the "knife of evening red." Rendered useless, the throat becomes a mere image, a "nightmare pattern" on a tapestry.

This disembodiment is taken to its logical extreme when the scream is ripped away from the throat completely and reinvented as a function of the sense of sight, "the visionary eye tortured blind":

O you bleeding eye
in the tattered eclipse of the sun
hung up to be dried by God
in the cosmos—

The image of the wounded eye suggests that soon vision, too, will be lost. Here Sachs has withdrawn the poem from the landscape of screams and thrust it into the void. The words seek vainly for resolution, just as the word "cosmos" seeks its end point. We are left with a calm and silent God—implicated, somehow, in these crimes, yet indifferent to the consequences.

—Stephen Meyer

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