The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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.

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Amichai’s poems are written in modern, colloquial Hebrew, which was not his native tongue (German was). However, the poet’s orthodox Jewish family provided him from early childhood with a religious education of which rabbinical Hebrew was a significant part. The family left Germany before the Holocaust and settled in Palestine, where Hebrew as a vernacular language was being resurrected. Amichai’s Israeli readers enjoy his playfulness with their speech, his ability to employ puns both humorously and seriously, and his command of the connotative strata of a language both ancient and modern, which bears within it over three thousand years of recorded history. Renouncing religious dogmas in his early teens, Amichai has also rejected the hawkish chauvinism of some factions of Israeli society. Yet he always clearly identified himself as both a Jewish and an Israeli poet. His preeminence in Israeli poetry is confirmed by consensus, and it is said that soldiers called into service pack his poems along with their gear. Not only do his images and phrases echo the Bible, but also his verse reflects the influence of Hebrew medieval and modern Diaspora poets. Some of this resonance, occasionally arcane, is lost on the general reader, just as his wordplay translates only imperfectly into the over thirty languages in which his poetry now appears. Yet his acclaim throughout the world attests to remaining features that do survive cultural and linguistic transposition.

Amichai likes to bounce biblical phrases and traditional adages against the clichés, advertising slogans, and political platitudes of his own society. Many of his images come simply from everyday life and at first glance appear to have little poetic resonance until the reader discerns their ironic usage.

“Seven Laments for the War-Dead” employs free verse, though the best English translators have maintained appropriate cadences that reinforce the somber and ironic tone of the stanzas. The most important observations are often made by the juxtapositions of the solemn or grotesque with the ordinary and even...

(The entire section is 855 words.)