The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1401

“Travels of the Last Benjamin of Tudela” is a long autobiographical meditation of 1,014 lines divided into 59 unnumbered stanzas of irregular length. It has the thematic score of an epic, but is written with the immediacy and emotional intensity of a lyric poem. The title invokes a recurring figure in Jewish lore: a wanderer who searches for the Ten Lost Tribes—the ancient Hebrew people exiled from their homeland. Translator Stephen Mitchell notes that Yehuda Amichai was living on Tudela Street in Jerusalem when he wrote the poem. Thus the poet himself, writing from the capital of the renewed Jewish state, becomes the final “Benjamin.” His comparatively short and tumultuous personal history is played out against the long, anguished history of his people. Late in the poem, there is the suggestion that the speaker may be writing on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, when Jews are expected to reflect on their past deeds and communal fate.

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The poem is in the first person. The specific biographical details, as well as the nature of the self-scrutinizing voice, make it clear that the speaker represents Amichai himself rather than a dramatic persona. The speaker is “in the middle of my life.” In the first nine stanzas, he addresses an unnamed “you”—the child he was—and recounts details of the boy’s personal history: his arrival, at age twelve, in the port of Haifa in the British-controlled Palestine of the 1930’s; his secular education in a Montessori kindergarten; his religious education in the synogogue. Already, however, the regime of “fact” is invaded by something else. The immigrant boy has entered more than “the new kingdom of your life.” There is something else that will shape him: “the heart’s shoulders carried an anguish not mine/ and from somewhere else ideas entered.” That something else is the long, complicated history—both spiritual and secular—of the land he has entered. That land—and especially its holy city of Jerusalem—becomes a central presence in the poem, interweaving its fate with his own.

In stanza 6, the poet introduces the idea of the distance between child and adult, and first uses the pronouns “I” and “me.” Beginning with stanza 10, the poet speaks directly to the reader in the present-tense first person. Henceforth, his many subsequent excursions into memory are from the position of a remembering adult, a man who has played many roles: son, husband, father, lover, soldier—and poet. The remainder of the poem deals with all these roles, these different ways of relating to self and others, and the different sorts of pain, responsibility, and desire associated with each. Stanza 14 portrays the poet’s inspection of his face during shaving. He sees himself as a “white-foamed clown” and sees those to whom he has been related—“All of them,/ my lovers and my haters”—as “the stagehands of my life.” The next stanza deals with his father, and the subsequent ones (through stanza 20) merge memories of his lost religious belief with those of warfare and adult romantic love. The theme of loss—of many losses—gains force. In the twentieth stanza, the poet says: “Sometimes I want to go back/ to everything I had, as in a museum,” searching for a woman he loved. Time itself is interrogated—it is inevitably working toward both a mature sense of self and that self’s ultimate dissolution in death. The long dispersal of the Jewish people and Amichai’s own destiny as a man and a poet come together explicitly in stanza 22. History is portrayed as an enemy seeking to “castrate” him, to silence him, “so that I’ll be scattered and dispersed/ so that I won’t be like a tower of Babel rising heavenward.” The three-line stanza that follows seems to answer the doubts raised by both memory and prophecy: “Not to understand is my happiness.”

Such happiness, however, is for “stupid” angels, not men. In stanza 24, the poet questions his own honesty, and in stanza 26 he begins a process of self-acceptance that builds throughout the remainder of the poem (“I can’t kick the habit of myself”). Stanza 28, close to the middle of the poem, adopts a playfully dramatized tone, as if the speaker is a tour guide to Jerusalem and Jerusalem herself is a woman, perhaps a lover, of whom the speaker has intimate knowledge. The poet then pictures himself holding his young son in his arms. The subsequent stanzas deal, in part, with his role as father and with the reality of his son’s life. The tone is tender yet painful; the speaker appears to have left his son (by leaving a marriage?): “My child blossoms sad,/ he blossoms in the spring without me,/ he’ll ripen in the sorrow-of-my-not-being-with-him.” The speaker looks at the course of his adult life with an unrelenting eye. In stanza 38, the world-weary figure of the title comes home: “Small, triangular panties on a clothesline on/ a roof in Jerusalem signal to the tired old/ sailor from Tudela, the last Benjamin.” In stanza 40, the speaker strikingly equates his own history with that of Jerusalem.

The imagery of a final judgment dominates the last sections of the poem. In the Jewish religious tradition, it is in the ten-day period between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur that God judges humanity and seals His final verdict in The Book of Life, symbolized by the blowing of the ram’s horn, or shofar. The speaker’s self-inspection has been brutal, but the plaintive earlier refrain, “Don’t see me this way, my son” (line 35), is now replaced by an acceptance of judgment—“The time has come for the canon of my life to be closed” (line 46)—symbolized by the recurring sound of the shofar. The forty-seventh stanza compresses several of the poem’s major concerns—judgment and responsibility, the sensuous lure of an earthly lover whom the speaker has chosen (a choice for which there appears to be an undercurrent of guilt), and history’s destructiveness made vivid by war: “Today is the day of judgment, today you, today war.” The powerful forty-eighth stanza recapitulates the tragic history of all the wars the Holy Land has endured, from Roman times to the present, including the biblical war of Satan with God and God’s “war” with Job. The imagery is violent, physical, and overwhelmingly immediate. It is a surrealistic collage of suffering that reads, in part, like a frenzied reporter’s account of a current war, but it is also a condensation of the horrors of all war, in the face of which even a poet’s language breaks down in a catalog of destruction, and words are finally replaced by the acronymns of death: “M.I.R.V., S.W.A.T., I.C.B.M.”

After this brilliant nightmare, the final ten stanzas are quieter, as if the poet is exhausted by the effort of his long meditation and is emerging from it. In this final movement, there is a stoical acceptance of his individual life and death, as if writing the poem has helped him “place” himself: “I’m forty-three years old. And my father died at sixty-three.” (line 51). The sounds of the shofar blast now seem to signal humankind’s forgiveness of God as much as God’s forgiveness of humankind. After all the struggles of body and spirit, there is “a long cry, a long silence” (line 56). The certainty of death lends an irredeemable quality to “things that can’t be changed” and writes an end to all fleshly, as well as spiritual, desires.

The penultimate stanza acknowledges the speaker’s replacement by his son, as he replaced his father. In “the sweetness of my son’s breath” he senses renewal: “my childhood of blessed memory. His childhood.” The final stanza, nine short lines, returns to the opening, the speaker’s arrival as a young immigrant, one who bowed not to kiss the ground but to duck bullets. Now he speaks with self-knowledge, no longer at war with himself or others. He expects to be forgotten, and, paradoxically, in this way he will have entered history, become one with the land, like a fruit: “its ripening is its forgetting.” The land has laid its claim on him. In the (perhaps tentative) reconciliation of the final lines, he recognizes that, despite everything, it sustains him like a mother or lover, “until the final kiss.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 421

“Travels of the Last Benjamin of Tudela” achieves coherence partly through the repetition of key images; like musical motifs in a symphony, they are repeated with variations—sometimes of phrasing, sometimes of context, sometimes both. (Examples are: “I ate and was filled”; “Massada will not fall”; “Today is the day of judgment.”) Because this is a poem of intense self-scrutiny, the words “face,” “skin,” “hair,” and “clothing” function as signs of outer identity that may or may not convey inner states (opposed to these is “heart”). Other key words—not precisely images—similarly recur: “childhood,” “memory,” “forgetting,” “prophesy.” Often stunningly visual, Amichai’s images can appeal to several senses at once: “Angels looked like Torah scrolls in velvet dresses and petticoats/ of white silk, with crowns and little silver bells, angels/ fluttered around me and sniffed at my heart and cried ah! ah!”

The poem is laden with symbolic references to Jewish religious traditions; notable among these are Job, whose earthly sufferings were inflicted as a test of faith, and Yom Kippur, when God is said to seal the fate of everyone on earth. The poem contains numerous fragments of specific prayers from Jewish liturgy, often thrust (sometimes shockingly) into a secular context. Underlying the many passages describing sensual love is the biblical Song of Songs. There are also numerous references to the tempestuous secular history of Israel, such as the fall of Massada, the ancient Jewish garrison that chose suicide rather than surrender to the Romans, and Josephus, the Jewish-Roman historian who chronicled its fall. Such symbolism characteristically collapses many historical events and epochs into a single passage of great emotional force, most notably in the “war” collage that employs the style of surrealism—the nonrational association of images—to create a nightmare “logic” of surpassing intensity.

Similarly, the poet’s own past and present are blended throughout the poem—sometimes easily, often jarringly. The central symbol in the poem is Jerusalem itself, uniting both secular and religious history, as well as the speaker’s own. Another striking device is personification; the poet speaks of Jerusalem as if the city were a living woman. History is personified as a remorseless enemy. Conversely, the poet often speaks of himself in metaphor, as if his life were a house, a building, or a play. There is also a playful use of onomatopoeia—the reproduction of specific sounds in words; for example, the “Ta-da” of the shofar. All of this is united by a self-conscious “I,” which knows it is writing this poem.

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Themes