Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1659
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 brinkof a deep valleywithout rolling down into it.
The humor here heightens the seriousness of the scar on his chest which is his letter of recommendation. However, he only wants to be recommended to his dead father whom he highly respected. The poem is a serious prayer asking God to wake his father gently on the Day of Resurrection because his father was a gentle man.
Flowing through the collection, sometimes in just a line of reference, sometimes in a simile or metaphor, and often in entire poems, is another form of love—erotic love. Sexual images continually appear in a wide range of encounters which are never completed or which have occurred but are terminated so that the separation causes longings to return. Even when the persona knows the loved one cannot be united again, the sexual longing is an arousal. For example, “Love Poem in California” is about longings the writer has for Diane, whom he is forbidden to love. It is one of the gentle, tender love poems, and it ends on the sensitive thought that “We shall be beautiful, each one separate.” On the other hand, Amichai’s love lost can also cause a violent reaction in him. In “A Dog After Love” the writer sends a dog after his lost love’s present lover to “tear the/ Testicles of your lover and bite off his penis. . . .” Even humorous poems of sexual love appear. “Ideal Love,” for example, in which the blowing of the ram’s horn calls souls, eyes, navel, and emotions to a military line up, readying them for combat, comes under this category.
A second emotion which pervades much of the private thoughts of Amichai is despair; if he is not careful, the reader might think that it dominates the poetry. For Amichai, Jerusalem is “an old, tired man . . . in which people move and wriggle like worms . . . because heavens are empty above.” For him, Israel exists in a “sweet world soaked, like bread,/ in sweet milk for the terrible toothless God.” Again, because of the effects of the war the solar system is out of kilter:
The sun is circling round the earth. Yes.The earth is flat, like a lost, floating board. Yes.God is in Heaven. Yes.
So God is above, watching, but not doing anything to eliminate the losses and sufferings of Israel:
Into God’s closed bookwe shall be put, and there we shall restto mark for him the page where he stopped reading.
Amichai does not leave the reader without an answer to this depressed state or without hope. Even though his poems are full of the human nature to become depressed in a world which never fulfills his longings for love and which brings death and destruction, Amichai admits in No. 6 of “Seven Laments for the Fallen Dead”:
Yes, all this is sorrow. But leavea little love burning, always,as in a sleeping baby’s room a little bulb,without it knowing what the light isand where it comes from. Yet it givesa little feeling of security and silent love.
For Amichai, the Jewish belief that man is good and that something good will come from distress is dominant over his despair. The two tones go hand in hand throughout his poetry. Love and caring for others enables people to carry on their lives in a country where even the monument of the unknown soldier stands in enemy territory, where a man is buried in the sand in which he played as a child, and where a son looks older than his father. In “Quiet Joy” the “world is made beautifully and built/ For a good rest, like a bench in a park.” Furthermore, even in his powerful description of Memorial Day, Amichai repeats that “Behind all this some great happiness is hiding.” Even the title of the collection, Amen, reflects his resignation and hope rather than despair. Finally, the collection ends with a humorous description, “A Tall Girl and Very Precise” in order to leave the reader in high spirits.
In addition to being gifted at conveying the internal ravages of war on the people, Amichai is gifted with a keen eye for describing the external effects on the landscape and the people. Jerusalem is a dead city in which people move and wriggle like worms. “Jerusalem is a place where all remember/ that they have forgotten something/ but they don’t remember what.” But the worse destruction is of the people. “Mr. Beringer, whose son fell by the Canal, . . . has become very thin; has lost/ his son’s weight.” And in the Memorial Day parade a man whose son is dead “walks in the street like a woman with a dead embryo in her womb.” Even the young girls wear “the coat of a soldier, discharged/ Or dead—by victory or defeat—/ In some worn-out war.” In many of the poems the destruction of the people and the land combine. They are inseparable, for one affects the other. To be able to grasp the external and internal ravages of a wartorn country is an accomplishment indeed.
The poems are often short, but their messages are compact and powerful, the images vivid. However, often there are leaps from one association in the poet’s mind to another which the reader must follow to comprehend. Sometimes these leaps are difficult, and the outcome is confusion for the reader who then misses the poignant conclusion. When one can follow these leaps, however, the outcome is dynamic. For example, “Letter of Recommendation” starts out laughing at constant, daily danger; leaps to the immediate present with a shout to the woman next to him; moves backward in time to thoughts about his gentle relationship with his father; and finally, requests God to
let him be woken upgently and with loveon the Day of Resurrection.
Yehuda Amichai’s poetic voice is not only the voice of one man, but also the representative of the Jewish voice which speaks a universal message of despair and hope sealed together by love. Truly, Amen is a mine to which one returns to find new insights and treasures with each reading. Amichai has earned his international stature.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 13
Booklist. LXXIII, July 15, 1977, p. 1698.
Choice. XIV, October, 1977, p. 1068.
Library Journal. CII, July, 1977, p. 1508.
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