The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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.

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 entire section is 1401 words.)