Modern poetry, so the refrain goes, is largely unreadable, divorced from the concerns of ordinary people. Whatever the merits of this charge, it cannot be leveled against Yehuda Amichai. His poems are as readable as this morning’s newspaper; their concerns--sex, death, and God, memory and the ravages of time--can fairly be called universal.
The poems in this volume, translated from Amichai’s Hebrew, range from his first collection, published in 1955, to his most recent, published in 1985. The poems written before 1969 have been translated by Stephen Mitchell, acclaimed for his versions of Rainer Maria Rilke; the later poems have been translated by Chana Bloch. There is a small section of notes at the end of the book, and a handy index of titles and first lines.
Amichai was born in Germany in 1924 and came to Palestine in 1936. Reared in an Orthodox home, he has long since rejected the faith of his fathers, but his poetry is saturated with biblical imagery and allusions. The tension between Amichai’s profane, skeptical voice and this biblical substratum gives his poetry an unusual tone.
Amichai speaks to the reader bluntly, directly, without circumlocution, yet he is no prosaic minimalist: “You visit me inside the apple,” one striking poem begins, “Together we can hear the knife paring around and around us, carefully, so the peel won’t tear.” In its dark yet playful eroticism, its age-old celebration of love in the shadow of death, this poem (“Inside the Apple”) is vintage Amichai.