Amen is a private yet universal prayer which the reader is privileged to overhear. It continues Amichai’s sensitive response to love, war, and loss begun in Poems, his first collection translated into English by Assia Gutman in 1969. Another volume, Songs of Jerusalem and Myself, published in 1973 and translated by Harold Schimmel, contained selections from three volumes of Amichai’s Hebrew poems. Finally, in 1977, the poet himself has translated his work, with the aid of Ted Hughes, so that his own voice, tone, and cadence come through. However, at times there are problems of phrasing which cause some awkwardness or ambiguity and problems of sound or rhythm. Despite these problems, however, Amen successully echoes the restless soul of Yehuda Amichai.
Born in Würzburg, Germany, in 1924, Amichai emigrated with his family to Palestine in 1936. Since 1948 he has published poems, novels, and plays in Hebrew. He is highly respected and successful to the point of being often published in newspapers and read over the radio in Israel. Today he is Israel’s leading contemporary poet and had also earned his place among contemporary world poets.
Amen is lyric poetry at its best. The restless soul of Amichai drives him to record the external, pathetic, and dark pictures of people in wartorn Jerusalem and the internal reactions of himself and others to being killed or torn apart by the war and its uncertainties. He is not full of anger or frustration, but three emotions do dominate his poetry: despair, love, and hope. In addition, the Jewish cultural heritage and religious background underlie each poem.
Poems like No. 34 of the cycle of “Patriotic Songs” and “The Candles Went Out” suggest that Amichai yearns for a rest or quiet time, but that his remembering will not allow this; he is possessed by the memories to record in poetry his very personal pain, loss, despair, love, and hope. Therefore, he writes intimately about sex, war, love, politics, and religion. In other autobiographical poems we get insights into the poet’s relationship with his father, mother, grandfather, and grandmother: “The Song of My Father’s Cheeks,” “Letter of Recommendation,” “My Father’s Memorial Day,” and “My Mother and Me.” Yet, these are also insights into what it means to be a Jewish boy and man.
Many different kinds of love abound in Amen. Love of country, of self, of people, of war dead, of ancestors, of religious history, of women, and of sex is woven throughout the poems. The book begins with “Seven Laments for the Fallen in the War,” and continues with “Patriotic Songs” and numerous love songs involving or describing women. Feelings of a lost love are interspersed with affectionate descriptions of Jerusalem, his home, war holidays, the Israeli landscape, or tourists. One of his most powerful poems is “’Memorial Day for the War Dead,’” which, through poignant similes and metaphors, presents the image of Memorial Day as “bitter salt” as dressed up as “a little girl with flowers.” The irony is that everything is “in three languages:/ Hebrew, Arabic, and Death.” Amichai’s strong metaphors in common, everyday language convey his message powerfully. In another poem, he says, “Sorrow is a heavy wooden board./ Tears are nails.” The simplicity of diction heightens the comparisons and enables emotions to be explicitly stated. Furthermore, these are comparisons to which many people can relate whether they are in Israel or in another part of the world, and whether they are under war conditions or other stressful situations.
Another love, love for his father, is revealed in “Letter of Recommendation.” In this poem his sense of humor is reflected; he can laugh at the constant threats of danger and disaster:
On summer nights I sleep nakedin Jerusalem on my bed,which stands on the brink
(The entire section is 1659 words.)