“Seven Laments for the War-Dead” is composed of seven brief poems, which may be read independently and indeed have been published separately. All are united, nevertheless, by theme, subject, attitude, and continuity of imagery. Together they form one of Yehuda Amichai’s ardent protests against war. Lament 1 describes a fragile old man, “[floating] so lightly” through the alleyways of Old Jerusalem, bereft of his son. Lament 2 shifts to a domestic scene, where a happy child is beating his food into “golden mush,” while the shadow of his destined death in warfare hovers over the room. In lament 3, two monuments to the fallen in battle are described ironically. One is now a target for enemy soldiers across the battle line, whereas the other resembles a festive wedding cake, concocted by a master chef.
Most poignant of all, lament 4 recalls a comforting childhood experience in long-ago Germany, a land not yet corrupted by wolf emblems and swastikas. Sweet phrases from a zoology textbook are remembered, though the description of “robin redbreast” merges all too quickly into the memory of a fallen comrade, whose blood flowing from his human breast replaces the bird’s benign natural pattern. The personal tone of the laments becomes more evident in the fifth lament. The poet’s friend Dicky is mentioned by name, and readers of Amichai’s short stories will have encountered him before. Here he is compared both in dignity and in agony to the water tower at Yad Mordekhai, before both are hit in the belly by enemy fire.
The last two laments give special focus and emphasis to those who have gone before. Lament 6 demands response to a rhetorical and ironic question: What consolation does formalized commemoration of the dead really provide? Finally, in lament 7 the poet returns to the forlorn image that begins the sequence, the frail old man, without living offspring, lingering at Jaffa Gate. Appropriately, this last is the longest and most passionate of the lamentations, rejecting all the easy consolation that clichés of patriotism and piety have commonly served up to the bereaved.