Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Travels of the Last Benjamin of Tudela” is not only a “Jewish” poem. In the largest sense, it is a meditation on fate, both personal and human. It deals with the poet’s relationship to a country whose present is shadowed by the memory of ancient prophecies and by the history of the innumerable wars that have stained its landscape. It is a powerful antiwar poem. It also deals with the poet’s relationship to himself. The basic theme is duality, individual identity caught between unrelenting opposites: past/present, body/soul, sacred/secular, war/peace, love/betrayal, speech/ silence. The poet seeks some correspondence—or at least communication—between his childhood and his adult life, between his inner being and the “outer” roles he has played. In the process, dualities expand, the speaker’s lived identities multiply or merge. Son becomes father, father becomes soldier who “orphans” his son many times. The macrocosm of Jewish history is reflected in the microcosm of personal fate—and vice versa: “Even the Torah portion for my Bar Mitzvah/ was double, Insemination/ Leprosy.”

Jewish history is a history of exile and dispersal, and the poet seems threatened by a permanent condition of disunity and self-exile. The theme of a split self is stated early in the poem. The poet speaks of “all the unreal fathers I’ve established/ instead of my father, in the soft land of the ’seven kinds’/ not just two, male and female, but...

(The entire section is 585 words.)