Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1934
One of Israel’s greatest modern poets, Yehuda Amichai, who died in September, 2000, at the age of seventy-six, has written a series of poems in Open Closed Open that are among his best accomplishments in verse. They are written in free verse with very strong rhythms and striking metaphors and similes. The title of the collection derives from a rabbinic tale describing the fetus in its mother’s womb, when its mouth is closed and its navel is open, but at birth the reverse is true. In one of the first poems in the collection, “I Wasn’t One of the Six Million: And What Is My Life Span? Open Closed Open,” Amichai writes:
. . . Before we are born, everything is open
in the universe without us. For as long as we live, everything is closed
within us. And when we die, everything is open again.
Open closed open. That’s all we are.
In the rest of the poem and in the poems that follow, Amichai tries to open himself and his world to readers, and he very largely succeeds. Despite a few cryptic utterances, his poetry is lucid and powerful, studded with arresting imagery and allusions that help the reader visualize and understand what he is driving at. He is also a master of irony, as the title of his next poem,“I Foretell the Days of Yore,” suggests. In this poem he proclaims that he is “a prophet of what has already been.” He goes on to describe the future:
. . . As when a man sees a woman with a beautiful body
walking before him in the street
and looks after her with desire, but she doesn’t turn
to look back, just smooths her skirt a little,
pulls her blouse tight, fixes the back of her hair, then
without turning toward the man’s gaze
quickens her step. That’s
what the future is like.
It is attractive, but elusive and mysterious. Only the past can be known. Life is “a series of rehearsals/ for the real show.” Extending the metaphor, Amichai says that a rehearsal still allows for changes up until “the real show.” Then there is no changing, and “The show closes right after opening night.”
Though not conventionally religious in an orthodox sense, Amichai nevertheless is well versed in the Bible and in Jewish tradition. For example, in “The Bible and You, the Bible and You, and Other Midrashim” (Midrashim are commentaries on the Bible and stories), he writes about Gideon choosing his army at the Spring of Harod, Moses, Abraham and his sons, King Saul, Ruth, and others. His account of Abraham and his sons is especially interesting, since Amichai says Abraham had three sons, not two: Yishma-El [Ishmael], “God will hear”; Yitzhak [Isaac], “he will laugh”; and Yivkeh, “he will cry.” The youngest is the son no one has ever heard of. He was the one Abraham loved best, and the one Abraham sacrificed; he was the ram. At the end of this section of the poem, Amichai writes: “Yishma-El never heard from God again,/ Yitzhak never laughed again,/ Sarah laughed only once, then laughed no more.”
God is very much a presence in these poems, as in “Gods Change, Prayers Are Here to Stay.” Here Amichai describes the kind of god he wants and the kind he finds:
I want a god who is like a door that opens out, not in,
but God is like a revolving door, which turns, turns on its hinges
in and out, whirling and turning
without a beginning, without an end.
In Amichai’s view, prayer preceded God, created God, and paradoxically only then God created human beings, who create prayers. God is now absent, but when he “packed up and left the country, He left the Torah/ with the Jews. They have been looking for Him ever since.” Jews read the Torah every week aloud to God, “like Scheherazade who told stories to save her life.” By the time Simchat Torah rolls around (the end of the cycle of reading Torah, the last of the High Holy Days), “God forgets and they can begin again.” God’s love for the Jewish people, His people, is “an upside-down love”: first “crude and physical,” creating miracles, plagues, and commandments; then “more emotion, more soul/ but no body, an unrequited ever-longing love/ for an invisible god in the high heavens. A hopeless love.”
In this poem Amichai recalls his own religious upbringing, attending synagogue services, remembering what it felt like to draw out his tallith (prayer shawl) from its velvet bag, putting it on with its striped decoration (“Stripes come from infinity and to infinity they go,/ like airport runways where angels land and take off”), beating his chest on Rosh Hashanah during the days of penitence, remembering the women behind the lace curtain that separates them from the men, singing the welcome to the Sabbath Bride on Friday nights, the procession of the Torah scroll on Saturday mornings. Amichai juxtaposes against these memories the recollection of Auschwitz, and compares the smoke rising from the crematoria to the smoke rising from the Sistine Chapel when a new pope is elected. For him, after Auschwitz there is no theology, or rather a new theology:
the Jews who died in the Shoah
have now come to be like their God,
who has no likeness of a body and has no body.
They have no likeness of a body and they have no body.
Amichai’s parents emigrated from Germany to Israel in 1936, when Yehuda was twelve years old; hence, they escaped the Holocaust and died in Israel. In “My Parents’ Lodging Place,” Amichai describes passing their resting place in a cemetery in Jerusalem where he now lives. He remembers how they brought him up—their warnings and exhortations, yelling and screaming, but also their love and care. His mother, he says, was a prophet, but his father was “God and didn’t know it.” He taught him the commandments and added two to the ten: “Thou shalt not change,” and “Thou shalt change.” In a poem later in the collection, “My Son Was Drafted,” Amichai writes about how he feels toward his own son and echoes the words of his father. He gives him advice, as from an old soldier (Amichai was a veteran of Israel’s wars), about drinking a lot of water on a hot day, and on night patrol filling his canteen to the brim so that it does not make sloshing sounds and give him away to the enemy. He follows up by saying that is also how his soul should be in his body, “large and full and silent,” though when he makes love he can make all the noise he wants. His daughter is also drafted. When they are both asleep at home in the house near the wall of the Old City of Jerusalem, Amichai considers that “a father is an illusion, just like the wall./ Neither one can protect. Can only love, and worry.”
Love looms large in Amichai’s poetry, love of all kinds. In “The Language of Love and Tea with Roasted Almonds,” he writes that one has to say “I love you” seven times, just as religious Jews say “The Lord is God” seven times at the end of the Yom Kippur service. Lovers “leave fingerprints on each other,” “surrender to each other,” know each other intimately, gain a sense of the infinite. He not only describes his own feelings of love but also writes about the way women love. He compares the faces of women in love to the face of the Virgin Mary in the pietà, women who remember what has not happened yet, “pain and joy yoked together.” He also compares women in love to “our mother Sarah” as she was in Egypt when Abraham had to call her his sister, and to Rachel and Leah making love, and to Rebecca, Isaac’s wife. He ends with a wry comment:
And every loving woman is like Rebecca at the well, saying
“Drink, and thy camels also.” But in our day Rebecca says:
“The towels are on the top shelf in the white closet
across from the front door.”
Some of the most moving poetry in this collection are Amichai’s verses about himself as he grows old and remembers the past, as in “In My Life, on My Life.” He thinks of the days of his life as chess pieces (all his life he has played chess, he says): “good and bad, good and bad—I and me,/ I and he, war and love, hope and despair,/ black pieces and white.” Now all the pieces are jumbled together and the chessboard has no squares. The game is calm and has no end and no winners or losers. He is calm and listens to the “hollow rules/ clang in the wind.” He recalls praying as a child, the aunts who used to tickle him as a child, his return visits to the sands of Ashdod where he once fought for Israel. He compares himself to “a man who holds his wrist up/ to catch a glimpse of Time, even when he isn’t wearing a watch.” He longs for peace—not in death but in this life. He does not want to fulfill his parents’ prophecy that “life is war.” He says: “I, may I rest in peace (I, who am still living, say/ May I have peace in the rest of my life./ I want peace right now while I’m still alive.” It is a prayer or a wish that many Israelis share.
In “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, Why Jerusalem?” Amichai writes about the place where he lived many years. As anyone who has visited that city knows, it is a place of fascination, and Amichai conveys its myriad aspects. For him, Jerusalem is “like an Atlantis that sank into the sea,” from whose bottom people “dredge up ruined walls/ and fragments of faiths, like rust-covered vessels from sunken/ prophecy ships.” Along with ancient memories are young ones, too, “a love-memory from last night, see-through memories/ quick as glamor fish caught in a net, thrashing and splashing.” His use of metaphor and simile are often like Walt Whitman’s—his verse rhythms and cadences, too, as in these lines from section 20:
I saw the faces of bride and groom under the wedding canopy and almost
rejoiced. When David lay with Bathsheba I was the voyeur,
I happened to be there on the roof fixing the pipes, taking down a flag.
With my own eyes I saw the Chanukah miracle in the Temple,
I saw General Allenby entering Jaffa Gate,
I saw God.
The lines, like many of Whitman’s, also convey the sense of a universal “I” observing, witnessing all that has happened in this city of many happenings.
One of the last poems in Open Closed Open, “Autumn, Love, Commercials,” returns to the theme of love, and in its last section expresses much of what Amichai has been saying throughout his collection:
For love must be spoken, not whispered, that it may be
seen and heard. It must be without camouflage,
conspicuous, noisy, like a raucous laugh.
It must be a kitschy commercial for “Be fruitful and multiply”
Amichai’s poems are like the love he proclaims, though hardly “kitschy” and only sometimes “noisy,” they are “without camouflage,” and they must be seen and heard.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist 96 (March 15, 2000): 1313.
The New Republic 223 (July 3, 2000): 29.
The New York Review of Books 47 (November 2, 2000): 53.
Publishers Weekly 247 (March 27, 2000): 27.
The Virginia Quarterly Review 76 (Summer, 2000): 109.