In Yehuda Amichai’s latest translated collection of poems, Great Tranquillity: Questions and Answers, the author continues to focus upon the motifs that concerned him in his earlier works: the challenge and anguish of continual eruptions of war, the constant awareness of the distant and recent past, and of the historical significance of daily events. He is particularly preoccupied with the themes of time, memory, biblical tradition, and the relationships of lovers and of fathers and sons. In emotional tone, the poems range from despair to buoyancy, from melancholy to a zestful celebration of life.
In poem after poem, Amichai’s lovers are caught in the trap of time. They are “poor in years and even days” but rich “in minutes and seconds.” For them, time is always rushing by. The passing of a day makes changes as irrevocable as the passing of thousands of years. Sometimes it seems to the poet that all things pass without leaving a trace. People picnic where once a battle was fought and, as the reality of the battle has passed, so too when the picnickers leave, all marks of their having been there will disappear as well: “the view will be smooth as oblivion.” Similarly, “An hour turns into a knife/ To be used only once.”
More often, however, Amichai stresses the endless continuity of events and the significance of the individual’s role in history, which is made up of today as well as of yesterday, of anonymous little people as well as of heroic great ones. The man who sits with his shopping baskets near the gate at David’s Tower is equal in importance to the Wailing Wall and Rachel’s and Herzl’s tombs. History passes, but it remains as well.
For the Israeli, experiences of life and love are measured by and sandwiched in between wars. Amichai speaks of meeting with his father in a café “in one of the intermissions/ Between two wars or between two loves” and describes himself as “an actor resting backstage in half-darkness.” Tossed between war and love, he sees these extremes as the only significant realities.
The poet’s memories torment him, not only the memories of his own personal experience but also the memories of his nation and his people. The power of recollection is so overwhelming that he feels he must “march against” his memories “like a man against the wind,” and that he must put them out like a fire. In these feelings, the poet faces a major dilemma. Memory is one of the significant materials from which a poet constructs his poems, just as it constitutes an important component of the material from which a human being’s life is constructed. Without memories, a person is empty and a poet loses dimensions important to his creativity.
(The entire section is 1126 words.)