“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.
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...
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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 festive. Amichai searches for the precise image that, though commonplace, forces his readers to acknowledge the ironies and imponderables of their lives.
In the first lament, the sad old man, no longer just another anonymous statistic, is significantly given a name. His name, Beringer, reveals him to be a Middle European Jew, though perhaps one whose family migrated from Spain or Portugal in the fifteenth century. After long years in the Diaspora, he has reached the Holy Land, only to lose his family and be forever a displaced person, drifting down ancient alleys. Did his son perish for some lofty humanitarian cause or noble religious principle? The poem simply says that he “fell at the Canal that strangers dug/ so ships could cross the desert.” Beringer is no Father Abraham, to whom God will grant progeny in old age. His line will vanish from the human race, having perished in the Promised Land. To describe him, Amichai employs his most desolate simile; Beringer is “like a woman with a dead fetus in her womb.”
Other laments offer up scenes of homey comfort, pleasant nostalgic remembrance, and even festivity, which are then ironically contrasted with the realities of warfare and its aftermath, never far away. The child eating his potatoes, whose mouth will be gently wiped by his parents, is destined to fall in the desert where only the earth and sand will wash him and purify his lonely body forever. An old zoology textbook is specifically identified as the second volume of zoologist Alfred Brehm’s Birds, published in the Germany of 1913, a land of philosophers, poets, and gentle scientists who speak of “our feathered friends” and of robins as “harbingers of spring.” Yet soon Germany will embark on a war which will be the “harbinger” of all the atrocities of the bloody twentieth century; the Holocaust and the deadly wars of Israeli liberation will follow.
The laments also offer vignettes of anonymous people trying to distance themselves from grief by objectifying it. Comforting gravestones are erected, elaborate and expensive monuments are commissioned, and festival days of remembrance are designated. However, this idealization of bitter experience is always a lie. Flags fly, and store windows are decked out in a tempting array of dresses. In London’s Hyde Park Corner, a marble monument reigns like a magnificent wedding cake, composed of whipped cream and candied cherries. Instead of bride and groom at the top, there is a soldier “lifting head and rifle,” a cannon and angel beside him.
Even in a war cemetery, pain is made conveniently manageable. Small wastebaskets are ready to receive tissue paper torn from store-bought flowers—no need to grow them with the mourner’s own hands. A ceramic plaque in French, the ultimate language of euphemism, proclaims “‘I shall never forget you.’” Both deceased and bereaved are now equally anonymous. Even Yad Mordekhai, whose water tower reminds the poet so much of his friend Dicky, is a kibbutz founded by Polish Holocaust refugees now known chiefly for its yearly dramatic reenactment, certainly for instruction but perhaps also for entertainment, of an especially bloody battle of the Israeli War of Independence.