Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 585
“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 seven kinds.” Jerusalem, in all its multiple identities, becomes his reflection, and he, in turn, reflects it: “I’ve been patched together/ from many things, I’ve been gathered in different times.” Like an archaeologist, the poet sifts through the layers of self, trying to weigh consequences, to sort the true from the false in his actions, motives, and desires. Like Benjamin, he has wandered, but his wanderings and his wars have been spiritual as well as physical. The resolution he finally comes to is a harsh one—not self-forgiveness, but acceptance of “things that can’t be changed.” It is the acceptance of an imperfect, human self, and the acceptance of death. There is also a celebratory note, however: In the persistence of self, in the persistence, too, of the scarred, blossoming landscape—“with wars and with this springtime”—he has come home.
“The Travels of the Last Benjamin of Tudela” bears comparison with other major meditative lyrics. Like Tennyson’s “In Memoriam,” it weighs the meaning of love and memory against the finality of time and death; like Galway Kinnell’s Book of Nightmares (1971), it questions what a father can bequeath to a child in a world of evil and betrayal; like Whitman’s epic “Song of Myself,” it embodies a celebration of being in which self is equated with landscape. There is, however, a crucial difference. Whereas Whitman joyously proclaimed, “I celebrate myself/ And what I assume you shall assume,/ For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you,” Amichai’s voice is more muted, lonelier. As if in direct contradiction, he proclaims: “I am a solitary man, a lonely man. I’m not a democracy . . ./No need to disperse me,/ I’m already dispersed.” Amichai’s vision is not one of transcendence. His self is something with which he is stuck. There is no question of changing it, only of accepting it. His release from time and self will come with death, “the final kiss,” but his son will remain to play out the drama anew.