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SOURCE: Young, Vernon. A review of Time: Poems by Yehuda Amichai. New York Review of Books 22 (November 22, 1979): 40-41.
[In the following review of Time,Young addresses Amichai's use of language, his religious themes, and the historical context of his poetry. Young concludes that Amichai's poetry “fills the reader with wonder.”]
That “a poet without a sense of history is a deprived child” is an aphorism of Stanley Kunitz to which Yehuda Amichai would readily assent, while finding it too self-evident to bear underlining. He lives in history as a fish does in water. Born in Würzburg, 1924, Amichai emigrated with his family to Israel in 1936. Würzburg, one of the rococo showcases of Central Europe, was on March 16, 1945, “eighty-five percent” demolished by Allied bombers in, if I recall, thirty-five minutes. I spent two weeks in that town in 1963 and never encountered anyone who had been living there in 1945. To the expectant eye, the notable buildings were still standing, their façades recognizable from the architecture books. The buildings had been restored, the population replaced. Throughout Europe, but especially in Germany and Poland, nothing is more uncanny than this palpable existence of something which is not really there! And this theme of dislocation, of places wiped out behind him, while remaining nominal, haunts the verses of Amichai, who has been witness to the same kind of dispersal and replacement during all the days of his exile. As he says in one of his poems, “and since then the town / and since then the whole world.”
Such information as we are given about Yehuda Amichai is sketchy. He fought in the British army during World War II, for the Hagganah in 1948, and in the war of 1968. He wrote a novel, dated 1955, Now and in Other Days, which has been translated into English. A radio play in 1962, Bells and Trains, was followed by a theater piece staged by the Habbimah Theatre, 1964—The Journey to Nineveh. All these were, I presume, written in Hebrew. Time is Amichai's fourth volume of poems published in English. Previous volumes were translated by, or written with the help of, Ted Hughes; this one, I understand, Amichai wrote himself in English.
He writes lyrics in Biblical cadences. Reading them, we may remember that Hebrew, largely the language of the Old Testament, is the ultimate source of what we admire as “free verse.” By a miracle of continuity and empathy, the several translators of the vintage Bibles infused English with the tropes and cadences of the Hebrew and the Aramaic tongue. Hence it may be no surprise to discover that an Amichai poem is alive to the ear and never reads like a translation. Even so, to reflect that Amichai's first non-Hebraic language was German is to concede him an astonishing talent for writing our language unimpeded by a lingering trace of the structures and compounds of German syntax.
People here live inside prophecies that came true as inside a thick cloud after an explosion that did not disperse. And so in their lonely blindness they touch each other between the legs, in the twilight, for they have no other time and they have no other place, and the prophets died long ago.
Amichai's speech has a transparent quality, as if he were talking to you, little preoccupied with constructing a composition with its own laws and its own peculiar consistency. You never feel the mind searching for the right word. The word, in his poems, has the weight of a thing or it is part of a simile that evokes an event or an ambiguous presence. In a sense, these eighty poems are not distinct entities; one reads them as if the whole were a continuous soliloquy under the pressure of reminding itself that “to everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.” Amichai's simplicity is deceptive; the poems are simple because he employs a conversational inflection; almost any poem begins with a certain forthrightness of statement. Yet the more clearly the poet observes, the more inscrutable becomes the image he conjures as his verse moves imperceptibly into the domain of the incongruous, even the surreal.
The noncombatant poet, elsewhere, learns to value “the sharp apex of the present moment” with his imagination. In the geographical and political terrain of the Mediterranean east, where peace is likely to break out tomorrow, or never, and the morning comes up as a red shudder over the palms and cypresses, any desert dweller—Semitic, Hamitic, Berber, or Paul Bowles—is bound to be impressed and governed by the phenomenon of mirage. Several of Amichai's most arresting poems depend on the double force of mirage, one of which is the rapid replacement of the population, even as the poet lives on in a state of disbelief at his own survival. He tends to see others as doubles of himself or as incarnating a younger version of himself who died a long time ago, or made love to someone who died.
I passed a house where I once lived: A man and a woman are still together in the whispers. Many years have passed with the silent buzz of staircase bulbs—on, off, on.
The keyholes are like small delicate wounds through which all the blood has oozed out and inside people are pale as death.
I want to stand once more as in my first love, leaning on the doorpost embracing you all night through, standing. When we left at early dusk the house started to crumble and collapse and since then the town and since then the whole world. …
Dwelling in the land of his forefathers, Abraham, Jeremiah, Ruth, and Esther are all but visible to the poet; the remains of the schoolgirl he saw yesterday or of the commandant he met last year have been scattered by a land mine. Sometimes Amichai expresses a kind of tiredness in the face of mortality, eternal recurrence, and the omnipresent rage for compassion. He seems sympathetically bitter as he addresses someone (perhaps his own rearguard shadow) who is laying up treasures which moth and rust will corrupt.
I can see you grasping desperately at all that sur- rounds you, books, children, a woman, musical instruments— but you don't know that this is nothing but pulling dry twigs and dead branches to your body for the big fire in which you'll burn.
Is this not reminiscent of a cracking of thorns under a pot?”
Amichai tempers Ecclesiastes with Solomon. His despair is never absolute; resignation is not yet the last word. A poetry of survival is necessarily a carnal poetry; these poems are about vanity under the sun and the absurd sweetness of that vanity—lust of the blood, hosannas for the young—when faced with the evidence that flesh is temporary. The dog barks, the caravan passes. And another caravan. As long as the moving hand of the poet transfigures what his senses receive, the mystery of personality remains a holy thing.
Departure from a place where you had no love includes the pain of all that did not happen together with the longing for what will happen after you leave. On my last evening I saw on the floor of the balcony across the street a small and exact square of light bearing witness to great emotions which have no limits.
And when I went early in the gray morning to the railway station many people were passing me carrying lists of wonderful strange names which I'll never come to know, postmen, tax collectors, municipal clerks and others. Perhaps angels.
Of the many poems in this book that testify to the mystery, this one, No. 62, is for me the most powerful, for it does consummately what Keats said poetry should always do—fill the reader with wonder.
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Yehuda Amichai 1924-2000
Israeli poet and novelist.
Yehuda Amichai is Israel's most celebrated poet. His many volumes of poetry encompasses issues of both modern and ancient Jewish identity, tradition, faith, and history. His innovative combination of modern, colloquial Hebrew with references to ancient biblical texts has been celebrated as a major contribution to Hebrew literature. Amichai's early work is often viewed as reminiscent of the metaphysical verse of John Donne and W. H. Auden, while his later verse is noted for its weighty themes belied by a simple style and wry humor.
Yehuda Amichai was born in Wurzburg, Germany, May 2, 1924, into an Orthodox Jewish family. In 1936, when Amichai was twelve, the family immigrated to Palestine (now Israel), thus escaping the Nazi Holocaust of the Jews during World War II. Many of Amichai's friends and relatives perished in concentration camps; this loss haunted him throughout his life. Amichai served in the British army during World War II. Later, he fought against the British in guerilla combat before the formation of the state of Israel. Amichai also served in the Israeli army during the Arab-Israeli conflicts of 1948, 1956, and 1973. Amichai's experiences with war strongly influenced his work. Many of his poems deal with themes of war and its aftermath. Amichai died in 2000.
The turmoil of living in a country that is frequently at war, and the loss of loved ones to war, had a major impact on Amichai and his poetry. His poems are often characterized by themes of alienation and loneliness. His first volume of poetry, Now and in Other Days (1955) expresses his strong feelings about the state of Israel. In these poems, Amichai combines biblical references with events from Jewish history. Travels of the Last Benjamin of Tudela (1976) is a long autobiographical poem, considered by some to be Amichai's masterpiece. It charts the spiritual and artistic development of the poet from youth to middle age, making reference to the lives of major figures from Jewish history. The Selected Poems of Yehudah Amichai (1986) includes translations of poetry written between 1955 and 1986. Yehuda Amichai: A Life of Poetry, 1948-1994 (1994) includes poetry written throughout the first forty-six years of the state of Israel, and reflects Amichai's broad historical perspective. Open Closed Open (1998), considered Amichai's magnum opus, consists of a sequence of twenty-five poems which represent the writer's craft in its most mature, developed form.
Since the 1960s, Amichai has been internationally celebrated as Israel's greatest poet. Critics generally concur on the strengths of his poetry, which delves into themes of Jewish identity in modern Israel in the context of Jewish history and biblical tradition. He successfully addresses issues of modern Jewish identity in Israel through reference to ancient Jewish texts as well as figures from throughout Jewish history. Amichai's experiences as an immigrant from Germany, and as a soldier in World War II as well as several major Arab-Israeli conflicts, serve as material for the expression of suffering and loss. His poetry is often compared to that of major English poets such as the metaphysical poet John Donne and the romantic poet William Wordsworth, as well as modern poets Dylan Thomas and W. H. Auden. Amichai is praised for the lyrical qualities of his poetry, which draws from the specifics of Jewish experience to express universal themes of love, war, suffering, loss, religious questioning, and family relationships. Critics agree that Amichai's poems are often deceptively simple, exploring complex themes through relatively simple imagery and metaphors.
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SOURCE: Abramson, Glenda. “Amichai's God.” Prooftexts 4 (1984): 111-26.
[In the following essay, Abramson discusses the theme of faith in Amichai's poetry, concluding, “Amichai's God is like no other God in Hebrew poetry.”]
One of the most noteworthy facts about the poetry of the first Israeli generation of writers, popularly called the Palmach generation, is its shift in religious orientation, the culmination of a process which had begun with the Haskalah. They demonstrate their own detachment from the past and abandonment of interest in parochially Jewish matters in lyric poetry which is predominantly secular in feeling and intent, by the imaginative use of Jewish religious symbols and imagery set in secular contexts and by reinterpreting the biblical and rabbinic sources to suit their modern environment. The recalled biblical or liturgical text serves as a springboard for wholly modern ideas, creating variations of inspiration on ancient themes. Yehuda Amichai excels in this process which, through its ideological dialogue with the past, has created a unique form of poetic discourse and, in effect, a new exegesis. Amichai reapplies traditional observations and judgments to his own existential world, and so demonstrates not only a knowledge of the sources concomitant with an intensively orthodox upbringing, but also an instinctive awareness that they can be of value to his life and that of his generation.
In many respects, however, Amichai differs from his fellow writers. Whereas some of them, notably T. Carmi and Amir Gilboa, were, like him, educated in orthodox Judaism, their religious knowledge is peripheral to the central burden of their poetry. Other Palmach poets, like Gury, Hillel or Treinin, were educated on the Yishuv where biblical study was formalized and less emphasis placed on the acquisition of rabbinic literature. For most Israeli writers, whether traditionally educated or not, reference to the sources is the most obvious acknowledgment of their cultural ancestry and it also serves to fashion their language into a unique and idiosyncratic literary tool. For their argument, however, remembered orthodoxy and biblical sources do not provide the substantive metaphor as they do in Amichai's case. In his hands they are more than allegories or means of irony but are, paradoxically, the fabric from which his wholly secular poetry is cut. The entire ethical framework in which the sacred texts are fixed, of which the biblical people are representatives, constitutes his metaphor, not only its parts taken in isolation, as is the case with his contemporary writers. Moreover, he extends the process of allusion and textual reference to create a phenomenon which is wholly his own and which is particularly noteworthy in his poetry written between 1948 and 1968, to which this present study is confined: his literary alteration of the nature of the God of the Hebrew Bible to the notion also of God as a metaphor, his internalization of God as an image for a number of situations and states of being.1
In contemporary Israeli poetry we find some of the poets addressing or referring to God in various ways but in their case, and judging by the tenor of their verse, it is naive to attribute this to any deep religious feeling. These poets clearly no longer possess the traditional faith in an ordered universe or in divine love and protection. Few have matured in a theocentric environment and faced the consequent rebellion and guilt. Their poetry does not view God as an arbiter of their personal fate nor do they perceive God as a component of their own identity, as does Amichai, only of their common historical identity. Consequently God does not occupy a central place in their poetry; most of them refer somehow to Jewish tradition through allusion or allegory, but few directly to God and when they do it is, with few exceptions, in the unaltered context of that tradition, most commonly in a poem on a biblical or historical topic. Conventional apostrophe, without theological function, occurs frequently, especially in the poetry of Ayin Hillel and Abba Kovner; some poems are cast as prayers, such as Gury's Tefillah (“Prayer”) or Zach's Shir leyamim nora'im (“Poem for the High Holy Days”). Gilboa equates God with the burgeoning earth and love in Holedet (“Birth”). Yitzhak Shalev, who generally demonstrates a prophetic ardor associated with poets of an earlier generation, expresses uncharacteristic tartness when he questions God who “kisses warriors and closes their sightless eyes / Do you know the mouth of the warrior you kissed this time?”2 Later in the poem he calls upon God to give a sign to the dead soldier's comrades that death does not extinguish the joy and beauty of their lives for otherwise there would be no point to the world's beauty. To Shalev, God is the Jewish deity, performing the deity's function, giving and taking life, with man the impotent onlooker. His language suggests prophetic awe of God the King; it is the language of supplication, without irony but with some redeeming anger. Benjamin Galay expresses similar sentiments in his poetry on the subject of war by the stark paraphrase of Isaiah 38:18 out of its context of piety: “For the dead cannot praise you today, God.”3 Abba Kovner alludes with meaningful, even shocking, understatement to God in relation to the Holocaust.4 Other poets mention God in passing or by implication in poetry on the subject of the Akedah.
Rather than being indicative of an overall preoccupation with the presence of God, these and other similar examples are the significant exceptions in poetry which generally does not display any particular vision of God in man's life, in the world or even in the context of Jewish tradition. “God” is used as a catchword to authenticate the poets' cultural identity without the need to explore its meaning. The Job-like sentiments expressed by Shalev, Galay and Kovner and the equations of God and nature by Gilboa and Hillel are not typical of their verse and occur infrequently in that of the other poets of their generation, with the notable exception of Amichai. God appears in their poetry as a kind of universal listening-post, the receiver of the poets' anger, despair and occasional exaltation but not as part of a world view in which he has or is required to have a role to play. This absence of God is perhaps not surprising in the work of a group of intellectuals whose own literary tradition has been tempered by contact with a clearly nontheological body of Western European and American writing and who, moreover, have been witnesses to the Holocaust and subsequently involved more than once in war and national disruption. Nevertheless they do not deny the existence of God but place in question the degree and nature of his relationship with his creatures. Meanwhile Jerusalem appears to have replaced him or become his surrogate as the spiritual focus in their work. It is Jerusalem that has been invested with their vision and which obviously offers some dialectical response for it is to this “locus of ascent,” in Robert Alter's evocative phrase,5 that their veneration is directed and which provides the transcendental link between present and past.
Apart from Amichai only one other poet of the Palmach generation, Nathan Zach, has attempted to probe the nature of the deity and to speculate on man's fate as a creature of God. Zach is the closest to Amichai in his ironic spirit yet his particular view proposes less about God than the gods. His intellectual canvas is broader, drawn from Western European historical culture so that the Lord he addresses or invokes is not Amichai's God of Jewish Law but a deity at the nub of a philosophical discourse applying to all humanity, not the dominating factor of one man's life. Some of Zach's poems, however, touch on a theme that much preoccupies Amichai and which was hinted at by Shalev: the nature and degree of God's involvement with mankind. For example he suggests that God watches men in the world in much the same way as a person sitting on the curb watches others go by. The reader is left with a sense of God's indifference and the lack of contact between the watcher and those being watched without “our knowing, our understanding or asking.”6 Another poem takes an evolutionary view of mankind, with God unaware of its development, its needs or its changing nature as he sets about making his own world pleasant.7 In a deceptively simple, even naive tone, Zach describes how God forgot what he had thoughtlessly done to Job and, when reminded by reading the biblical account, became inconsolable.8 By the effective use of paradox Zach tends to emphasize the eternal contrast between the conceptual planes separating God from man. According to him neither God's world nor his language are man's and human destiny as envisaged by God is not one that man is capable of understanding. Zach's colloquy with God is therefore abstract and cosmic, closer to an attempt at objective analysis of God's nature and function than the Jobian, almost domestic tone of Amichai's argument.
Amichai is therefore unique among the Palmach poets in his incorporation of God into the fabric of his work as a primary factor in his personal development. The key to his view of God is supplied in his profound spiritual biography, Mas‘ot Binyamin ha'a’aron miTudela (“The Travels of the Last Benjamin of Tudela”), and it is in this major work that the effect of his religious schooling is made most apparent. It offers a clear existential reason for the centrality of God in his writing and demonstrates the beginning of the process charted by the rest of his poetry by which the Jewish God of his childhood becomes, through a series of permutations, an introjected element of the psyche.
It is necessary to decide whether the word “God” throughout Amichai's early verse (1948-1968) refers consistently to the God of his fathers, whether it is a term for the kind of arbitrary destiny defined in Hellenistic literature as Tyche, or for some unspecified cosmic power. From Amichai's earliest poetry, written in the forties and early fifties, the traditional and dogmatic conception of God undergoes a series of ironic transformations seen first on the background of his relation to mankind and then to the individual. For example the poem Elohim meraḥem ‘al yaldei hagan (“God Has Mercy on Kindergarten Children”) is a mocking commentary to Rashi's interpretation of Genesis 1:1, which states that the creation of mercy preceded that of justice. The poem confirms God's mercy at first but then claims that he exercises a certain selectivity in the amount of compassion which he allows to his creatures. It also implies a connection between God's mercy and human purity for only kindergarten children are entitled to mercy, the rest of humanity, presumably, to justice alone. God dispenses less mercy to schoolchildren and none at all to adults who are left entirely alone, creatures without protection crawling on all fours, in a dreadful parody of childhood, to the dressing station. There is, however, some hope of redemption through love, for God protects lovers “like an oak over a man sleeping on a bench / in a public boulevard.” Yet this is not God's love but that of “those who love truly” (ha'ohavim be'emet), Amichai's consistent notion of love as a cosmic, almost metaphysical force that transcends and banishes evil and pain. The lovers are worthy also of the protection of the “last coins of righteousness / which mother left us,” a whole coin frequently acting as a symbol of completeness in Amichai's poetry. Crawling on all fours, wounded and incomplete, pulled about by powerful forces, epitomizes man's condition in his urban setting, in his isolation, abandonment, fragmentation and alienation, with God somehow the malevolent architect of these ills. It is left to man himself to put it right and in Amichai's world the redeemer is love, with God's kingdom attributed to the lover.
Amichai's uncertainty about God applies to the quality as well as the quantity of his mercy in the world. He suggests that God is uninterested in his creatures, often capricious, indifferent, or even “we were sure he was cruel / because of his untidy hair.”9 The poem Yad elohim ba‘olam (“The Hand of God in the World”) questions God's concern with his creation:
God's hand is in the world Like my mother's hand in the entrails of the slaughtered fowl On the Sabbath eve. What does God see through the window While his hand is in the world? What does my mother see?
God looking through the window recalls the bloody hole in the poet's breast through which he peers into the world.10 The question of what the mother sees is rhetorical for presumably she sees the bloody organs of a dead chicken which she removes and discards. Because the cleaning of the chicken is akin to ritual activity on the eve of Sabbath, her hand moves surely and with purpose. Perhaps in view of the blood and death in the world God's hand, too, works to cleanse and purify it. Yet, as the mother is impassively performing a necessary action without any emotion toward the object, without “seeing” it, so God goes about his business without pity for his object, the world, in which his hand moves. The expression “the hand of God” is frequently used throughout the Bible to denote God's power; his hand in the world destroys, generally for the good of his people, and it moves in the universe against evil. At the same time the image connotes a terrifying and implacable force which devastates while it is doing good.
A poem of measured irony takes its title from a line in a hymn for the High Holy Days: Vehi tehillatekha (“And This is Your Praise”). Even the title is a parody, for tehilla (“praise,” “glory”) also means “psalm” and the poem is an echo of biblical psalmic structure. Yet its content is bitter, rendering the whole an anti-psalm, the very opposite of a hymn of praise; the poem's traditional lines, “and this is your praise” consequently assume an ironic and accusatory power.
God lies on his back under the universe Always busy fixing, something is always wrong. I want to see all of him, but I see Only the soles of his shoes and I weep. And this is his praise.
God keeps himself almost entirely hidden from man; this time it is not his hand but only his feet which are to be seen. Despite the ineffectual nature of his supervision in the world, the poetic “I” wants to see him completely, perhaps to regain his lost faith, yet God remains fragmented, adding to the sense of disorder and loss in the poetry in which he appears. “And This is Your Praise” presents God in prosaic terms associated with modern technology, as a garage mechanic. This is not the only example of God as a workman, a repairman of some kind whose hand moves with efficient purpose, for on another occasion, “dressed in blue workman's overalls,” he comes down to repair a hole in the middle of the road, a symbol of the empty space left by the death of the poet's father.11 In this instance God is seen at work as a comforter, closing a dreadful gap, but his presence implies a certain menace as well for “the candle on the ground / stood as a lamp to warn the passers-by.” Or God is likened to a giant radar dish making decisions on the basis of what it sees as it moves.12 In a quatrain God “begins at the edge of the green springtime / like a smoking and terrible factory. Perhaps / to mould us like iron,” to recast our destinies, reminiscent of the story of Job which begins with the fire of God falling from heaven and consuming Job's sheep and lambs.13
The image of God under the universe, “fixing” is an extension of that of his hand moving in the world and the mother's in the fowl. In yet another allusive twist of the biblical text in “And This Is Your Praise,” the poet comments on the line in Genesis 3:9: “And the Lord God called unto Adam and said unto him, Where art thou?” by inversion: “Only this time God is hiding and man shouts, Where art thou.” God is among the trees and forests—again concealed from man. Forests sometimes occur in the Palmach poetry as symbols of fearfulness and menace.
The imputation of blasphemy in this poetry is avoided only by its penetrating irony which serves to alter the implication of the text while still acknowledging its essential presence in Jewish thought. By building secular structures on sacred foundations Amichai does not reject the original but debates with it and scrutinizes it with the logic born of twentieth-century experience. His most ironic and probably his best-known comment on the topic of God's mercy is his exposition on the opening lines of the Jewish prayer for the dead: “Lord full of mercy who dwellest in the High Places.” He enters a dispute with one of the most moving prayers of Judaism, one stressing the fundamental concept of the merciful God and gives the remembered text new relevance which is telling in terms of the modern world and particularly the events in Israel over the past thirty years.
O Lord full of mercy, If the Lord were not so full of mercy There would be mercy in the world And not only in him.
In this poem Amichai explains why he has counterposed “O Lord full of mercy” with the line “I … can say that the world is empty of mercy.” It is the horror of having to transport bodies down from the hills on which he used to pick flowers after being a “salt-king by the sea” and standing free from duty at his window, “counting angels' footsteps,” angels which, characteristically, are not seen but which represent a vanished world of aesthetic or religious unity.14 Now he fails in his need to communicate his agony, being a simple man who uses “only a small portion of the words in the dictionary” but is forced, nonetheless to solve insoluble cosmic riddles. He is homo sapiens in all his weakness, shaking his fist at implacable powers beyond his understanding.
In Reah habenzin ‘oleh be'api (“The Smell of Petrol Rises in my Nostrils”), the nostalgia of the lover contains bitter mockery expressing itself, as usual in this poetry, by the emotional manipulation of a well-known text: “The jet plane makes peace in its high places / over us and over all who love in autumn.” The source of the lines, some of the best-known in the liturgy and now part of the common idiom, is Job 25:2: “Dominion and fear are with Him. He maketh peace in his High Places” rendered in the prayer book as “May He who maketh peace in His High Places make peace for us and for all Israel.” The poet has removed the verse from its original framework which extols God as protector of heaven and earth, and given it an ironic, fateful power. In a world which is empty of God's mercy, in which his hand moves with an unknown purpose, the jet planes either “make peace” or bring death as if they were God's deputies. Again the implication is the uncertainty of God's purpose expressed by a textual variation that creates a new commentary on the quality of God's dominion. Also, the transposed piece of liturgy “expresses a kind of wistful regret for the world of faith in which God made peace on high—in the poet's world lovers between battles must depend instead upon circling jets for their fleeting moments of precarious happiness together.”15
The cosmic controlling power is not always designated as God but assumes the guise of angels or the earth. Common to them all is a celestial indifference to the affairs of men. For example the earth, like God tinkering under the universe, is as busy as a farmer, unaware of the “young wounds, without fathers, wandering throughout the world.” The uncaring earth is, in this case, likened to the uncaring God.16 The earth forgets the footsteps of those who have trodden it—“a dreadful fate.”17 Dust, described as “God's weariness in the world” covers everything, “my answering mouth and my questioning mouth / the travels of my blood and the hands of the angel locking up.”18 Stones and desert dust occur throughout Amichai's writing as images of sterility, emptiness and futility. A strong statement about arbitrary fate or God's lack of interest in the world appears in a poem entitled Mal'akhei goral (“The Angels of Fate”):
Angels sick with boredom cut people out of a big sheet and paste them, anyhow, side by side.
These are not whimsical ideas, as some critics like to suggest; in fact the assertion of “whimsy” derogates the ideological seriousness of the verse which is deceptively couched in simple, attractive and, above all, accessible images.
In the poetry from 1962 to 1968 the attitude of Amichai's lyric “I” has altered as has his notion of God. His evolutionary view of God seems to follow a process of religious maturing: from inveighing against the primitive, anthropomorphic deity who walked on earth among men, he invokes the Lord of the Universe worshipped by the Jews throughout their dispersal. We see in the poetry a transition from the concretized God possessed of eyes, hands and feet, untidy hair and workmen's clothing to the God of the Talmud who no longer dabbles capriciously in human affairs, no longer a personal adversary or a manipulator of man's destiny, like the God of the early books of Job. The blending of the images of the father (av or avi) and God in the later poetry provides the abstract, ethical image of the deity. Initially the poetry offered a clear distinction between the two: the father stood for tradition and Jewish values, historicity and spiritual morality. He was depicted as a tender, loving, devoted and pious man, kind even to his enemies, able “to draw love from his slender body like a magician draws rabbits and towers from a hat …” while God appeared as capricious and often cruel.19 Only in some of the prose, particularly in the novel Lo me‘akhshav lo mikan (Not of This Time, Not of This Place, 1963) do the two images coalesce, but whether or not they are conceptually separate, a clear relationship exists between them: God is in some kind of communion or complicity with the father that excludes the son: both are punishing him for his defection. “Benjamin” describes their shared moral vigilance:
Angels resembling holy scrolls with velvet robes and white silk skirts, crowned with silver and silver bells, angels fluttered around me, sniffed my heart and said uh-uh to each other with grownups' smiles. “I'll tell your father.”
The later poetry's ambivalence about the father permeates the novel as well. The figure of Dr. Mannheim dominates the childhood of its hero, Joel, not only as a surrogate father, but as a relentlessly zealous rabbi and a stern and forbidding patriarch. Joel's real father, a salesman, is described in tender and loving terms as gentle and kind, the obverse of Mannheim who commands Joel's attention and his fear. The fate of Mannheim's collected sermons in Weinburg is indicative of the author's attitude to them and to their creator: while visiting the ruins of a synagogue destroyed on Kristallnacht, Joel find a wooden box. When he opens it the wind catches sheets of paper stored inside and scatters them all over the city. They are Dr. Mannheim's lost sermons: one is caught and used by a farmer to wrap cherries, another to wrap a bottle of wine, another floats on the river—all of them reduced to inconsequential pieces of paper. The religious discipline of Joel's childhood is disintegrating and for a while he is able to view it and its guardian with detached irony:
Then, as if continuing his prayer [Mannheim] asked suddenly in a whisper: “Who are you, my son? [Genesis 27:1]. … I can't turn my head because of a chill; I can't turn my neck; my neck is stiff. I have become stiff-necked [Deuteronomy and elsewhere].” … Suddenly he coughed and asked: “Who is with me, who? [2 Kings 9:32].”20
It is impossible to avoid the domination by God and the father which appears with an almost obsessive consistency throughout Amichai's mature verse. Sidney Mendel has made a useful analysis of the levels of domination of the son by the father in world literature and it is entirely relevant to Amichai's poetry.21 Mendel cites the allegorical father, represented as a God-figure with human physical attributes; the moral father, the representative of the God of the Scriptures and his commandments, who is frequently referred to in Amichai's poetry in conjunction with sexual love; the political father who appears in Amichai's work primarily in the guise of biblical leaders or monarchs, such as Saul, Joseph and David, who are adept at fulfilling social commands; the anagogic father, Amichai's most prominent, who both suffers and inflicts suffering as a result of the son's rebellion. It is difficult to separate Amichai's images of God and the father, since their function in the later verse is so similar. This function seems to radiate from the focal point of all Amichai's verse which is the father's death and the consequent assumption of having murdered him by rejecting his world, committing the dual sin of patricide and deicide. In this ideological respect his verse is a paradigm for all the writing on the subject of the loss of the father that greatly distinguishes Israeli literature. “I belong to the last generation / that knows body and soul in the absolute / “What do you think you'll do tomorrow?” / I can't give up myself. I've given up / smoking, drinking and my father's God, I've given up everything that may hasten my end.”22 It is a paradoxical attitude on the part of one whose life has been constructed on the sacred, as if some force inimical to God is warring with the impulses toward continuity and identification. “Grandfather, grandfather, chief rabbi of my life / sell my pain as you used to sell / the hametz on the eve of Passover: let it stay in me and even hurt me, / but let it not be mine, not at my disposal.”23 “The Travels of the Last Benjamin of Tudela” is a long mea culpa for diverting what should have been piety and religious fidelity into the paths of love and other, secular, concerns, for answering his father's “way” with “many ways.”24 There is, consequently, an imputation of reproach in the image of the father as he appears in the poetry, particularly in his unbroken silence, his elusiveness and unapproachability. In a later verse the poet tells us that he and his father used to act out a scene in which the father's death was a knife of guilt raised above the son's head.
In his eyes Were reflected all my future sins. We played the binding of Abraham and Isaac His early death Was the knife pointed at me.(25)
Everything he has done or even thought from that point on has been no more than this same accusing knife. Since he goes on to say that no one, even God, will know that it is a game, it is clear that it is God who is holding the knife and turning the game into reality.
The poet is the lifelong sacrifice to the bitter tragedy of his father's death. He cannot successfully reconcile the many fathers who appear throughout the poetry and prose as emotional leitmotifs: the kindly, pious man, the orthodox patriarchal figure “trapped in the Holy Ark,” the strange, often pathetic figure of the story, Mitot avi (“The Times My Father Died”), the uncompromising, terrifying Dr. Mannheim of the novel, Not of This Time, Not of This Place. It may be no more than his guilt that has transformed the gentle orthodox Jew into the relentless, immovable and Godlike figure of the later poetry, who spins like a top “in his eternity, lashed always into new gyrations / by the whipping strap of the phylacteries.” The more the father spins, the greater the son's guilt, yet there is a sense of the father himself as victim with God, who is the subject of the poem, the master applying the strap.26 (In “Jerusalem 1967” God appeared as a policeman wielding a baton to prevent the city from achieving independence from him, to ensure his control by dividing it by force into its separate religious components.) The notion of man as the plaything of divine forces is reinforced by a mention earlier in the poem of children's toys in the room where God is about to pay a visit; also by references in other poetry to the book of Job, specifically to the disasters befalling Job as a result of the heavenly contest and the rapidity of their occurrence between “‘while he was yet speaking’ and ‘there came also another’.”27 A brief reversion to the God who hides from man in the forest and plays capricious games is in the tantalizing five-line poem, “Revelation”:
Today God revealed himself to me so: Someone put his hands over my eyes from behind: Guess who it is!(28)
The recurring theme of this poetry, published after the Six-Day War in 1967, is the plea for personal self-determination. No longer does the poet wish to see more of God than the soles of his shoes or his hand. His view of his own relationship with God has altered with his changed view of God's nature. His tone of resignation has implicitly recognized God's position of eternal authority, his rebellion has changed to submission and the later poetry in which God appears is largely cast in the form of invocation or supplication, frequently through ironic versions of prayers or psalms. His plea now is for freedom from emotional subjugation just as earlier he rejected the bonds of social duty. He entreats God to give not only him but the world a rest and three times refers to Psalm 22:2: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me.” In the first instance it is a petition for the raising of religious strictures which have confined him all his life:
God, close your houses, give the world a rest, Why have you not forsaken me?(29)
A more accurate, if inelegant, translation of the second line would be “why don't you leave me alone?” The second instance occurs as an ascerbic comment in “The Travels of the Last Benjamin of Tudela,” when the anomalies of Mandatory Palestine in the 30s are bitterly recalled:
My God, my God, why? You have forsaken me. My God, My God. Even then He had to call him twice.(30)
The third is in the context of the terrible burden of inherited duty which characterizes the verse as a whole:
Far from here, on a different continent of time, The dead rabbis of my childhood are seen clearly, Holding tombstones high above their heads. Their soul is wrapped up in the parcel of my life. My God, my God, Why have you not forsaken me?(31)
Yet with characteristic self-denigratory irony and some contradiction the poet declares that God indeed leaves the earth especially (davka) at the time when he, the poet, is living in it, an allusion, perhaps, to his destiny as a member of a historically decisive generation. In a poem whose title is an ironic counterpoint to Tchernichowsky's Ani ma'amin (“I Believe”) called “My ‘I don't Believe’” or “My Non-Credo” (Ha'ani lo ma'amin sheli), he says that despite the anomalies of his life he is still inclined to the righteousness of the God of his childhood suggesting that it is perhaps not God who is dead or unaware but his own receptivity: he is making it difficult for God to glorify his world if it is to be exemplified by the poet himself.32
The poetry reveals that as the poetic “I” grows older and less inclined to do battle with his spiritual deficiencies he submits to the father and to God. At the same time he declares that God himself, whose fate ultimately must be “like the fate of the trees and stones, sun and moon, in which men stopped believing when they started to believe in him” will, like them, remain like a divine fossil, a reminder of the period of national faith.33 This is an indictment not only of God's significance for man but of his people who have strayed so far from the covenant that he is preserved only as a monument to their spiritual history, like trees and the moon and stars, as remote and incomprehensible as they are and, it seems, as misinterpreted.
In this later verse the poet's outcries against God have lost something of their evocative power due to less concrete imagery and more conventionally metaphysical theological doctrine. Yet the notion of “God” and those signifying anger or guilt are equal abstractions, all indicating an emotional dilemma peculiar to the lyric “I” himself. The earlier, anthropomorphic God controlled the individual's destiny from the outside, as a father or a king, whereas now this external power has been internalized to represent one of the warring forces within the individual. The concept of the earlier God made little of free will: man was totally in his power with rebellion a consequence; later, the very gift of free will, the imposition by God of the possibility of choice, creates the moral anguish prominent in the verse, and the poet's awareness of his duty, be it religious or cultural, intensifies it. On many occasions he clearly indicates that he would like to relinquish it but is barred from doing so by the memory of his father. His supplication to God is that of a fleeing Jonah, that duty no longer be required at all, that houses of religion be closed, so that the possibility of decision and the certainty of guilt are removed altogether. Yet even this is a reductive oversimplification of extremely profound verse, for “religion,” “God” and all the related concepts are metaphors for anxiety, guilt and personal failure shared to a large extent by other poets of Amichai's generation living in a society which has both disappointed them and been disappointed by them. It is therefore unlikely that the God whom Amichai apostrophizes throughout his early poetry is confined to the deity; at first “God” meant arbitrary fate, capricious nature and illustrated man's helplessness at the mercy of cosmic forces. The second phase of the poetry internalized “God” as self-accusation, fear and regret.
On the other hand, the notion of “God” refers to a blameworthy external force, manipulating man against his will and generating his anxiety. It is customary in contemporary Hebrew verse to present the father as an emissary of God, the human embodiment of Jewish values. His death is an indication that these values have, for one reason or another, been dissipated. In Amichai's verse, however, the reverse seems to apply: the “God” who appears so often, menacing, teasing, working, punishing, stands for an aspect of the human father. The representational figure, avi, obviously a faithful portrait of the poet's real, remembered father, is exclusively positive. The character called “God” is the other, less sympathetic side of him, exacting and fearsome in his ability to arouse guilt. He begins as the all-powerful authority-figure, dispensing or withholding mercy at will, frightening to a child whose world he commands; he changes as the son, growing in his own power, perceives the effects of his rebellion; finally the father is reduced to an entity whose remembered power is respected and who must be placated for the sake of tradition and the prevention of further guilt. The relationship of God and the lyric “I” is, then, that of father and maturing son, with disappointment and guilt the counterpoint to recalled affection. “‘You are God's forgotten,’ my father said. / God forgot me. Afterwards so did he.”34
The lyric “I” of Amichai's poetry berates himself constantly for his apparent apostasy or for the lack of talent to believe, for being without the active gift of faith which distinguished his forefathers, and for his consequent attraction to secular emotional or aesthetic pursuits: for he tells us that when Moses was given the Law he himself was sitting at the back of the class, dreaming and drawing pictures.35 The refrain or premise of “Benjamin” is taken from Deuteronomy 8:10: “When thou hast eaten and art full, then thou shalt bless the Lord thy God for the good land which he hath given thee.” The poem's protagonist has eaten but he is not satisfied nor will he bless and his defiance begets the father's reproach and his own consuming guilt. The punishment is fearful: “Not only one finger of God but his ten fingers / Are choking me.”36
Amichai's God is like no other God in Hebrew poetry in that he represents the poet's own sense of need for universal order and his personal quest for meaning. God represents both external fate in the sense of cultural determinism to which the poet cannot submit without ambivalence, and internal fate which is his own awareness of duty and guilt. Both are uncomfortable and the effort of adjusting to them continues in the poetry written in the 1970s and 1980s. Even in Amichai's recent collection Shalva gedola (Great Tranquillity, 1980) his father is repeatedly recalled, indicating that, despite the optimistic title of the book, personal tranquillity continues to elude its “I.” His fundamental dilemma remains unresolved and reconciliation with God is not in sight; he will go only part of the way with his father:
O my father, chariot of my life, I want To go with you, take me along, Set me down next to my house Then continue on your way alone.(37)
Amichai's lyric “I” is still seeking the real nature of God, still dislocating pious texts into accusations of divine cruelty and, finally, still ironically self-aware:
A man told me that he's going down to Sinai because he wants to be alone with his God: I warned him.(38)
Amichai's poetry is quoted from the following editions: Shirim 1948-1962 (Tel Aviv, 1967), to be designated in the notes as Shirim and ‘Akhshav bara‘ash (Tel Aviv, 1968), to be designated as ‘Akhshav. Translations are my own unless otherwise indicated.
Yitzhak Shalev, Elohai hanoshek loḥamim (“O God Who Kisses Warriors”) from Elohai hanoshek loḥamim (Jerusalem, 1957).
Binyamin Galay, ‘Al haholkhim shelo yashuvu (“Those Who Go, Not to Return”), in Modern Hebrew Poetry ed. Ruth Finer Mintz, (Berkeley, 1966), p. 312.
Abba Kovner, “My Little Sister” trans. Shirley Kaufman and Nurit Orchan, in Fourteen Israeli Poets ed. Dennis Silk (1976), p. 41.
Robert Alter, “Afterword: A Problem of Horizons,” in Contemporary Israeli Literature, ed. Elliot Andersen (Philadelphia, 1977), p. 338.
Ani yoshev ‘al sefat hareḥov (“I Sit on the Sidewalk”) in Natan Zach, Shirim shonim (Tel Aviv, 1974), p. 74.
Keshe'elohim amar befa‘am harishonah (“The First Time God Said”), ibid., p. 65.
Lefa‘amim mitga‘age‘a (“Sometimes God Longs For”), in Natan Zach, Kol haḥalav vehadvash (1982), p. 56.
Ha‘ananim hem hametim harishonim (“The Clouds Are the First to Die”), Shirim, p. 89.
Sometimes pus, Sometimes poetry
Always something extracted Always pain.
My father was a tree in a forest of fathers Covered by moist green.
Oh, widows of the flesh, orphans of the blood. I must escape.
Eyes sharp as can-openers Opened weighty secrets.
But through the wound in my chest God glances into the world.
I am the door In his dwelling.
(Shirim, p. 88)
Ha‘ananim hem hametim harishonim, Shirim, p. 88.
Mas‘ot Binyamin ha'aḥaron miTudela (“The Travels of the Last Benjamin of Tudela,” hereinafter “Benjamin”), ‘Akhshav, p. 133.
No. 26, Shirim, p. 135.
See quatrain no. 1, Shirim, p. 120:
In the sands of prayer my father saw angels' footsteps. He taught me a way and I answered him with ways. Therefore his face was bright. Therefore mine is lined. Like an old office calendar, I'm covered in dates.
Robert Alter, “Poetry in Israel,” in After the Tradition: Essays in Modern Jewish Writing (New York, 1971), pp. 241-56.
Quatrain no. 38, Shirim, p. 128.
Vahagirat horai (“My Parents' Migration”), Shirim, p. 157.
Quatrain no. 41, Shirim, p. 129.
Sonnet no. 1 from the cycle Ahavnu kan, Shirim, p. 42.
Lo me‘akhshav lo mikan, [Not of This Time, Not of This Place] (Tel Aviv, 1963), p. 44.
Sidney Mendel: Roads to Consciousness (London, 1974) pp. 95 ff.
“Benjamin,” ‘Akhshav, p. 113.
Motarot (“Luxuries”), ‘Akhshav, p. 419.
See note 14.
Yom kippur. Erev. Avi (“Yom Kippur. Evening. My Father”) ‘Akhshav, p. 40.
Be‘inyan teḥiyat metim, (“Concerning Resurrection”), ‘Akhshav, p. 152.
Ani aḥaronam, (“I Am the Last of Them”), ‘Akhshav, p. 49. See Job 1:16 ff.
Hitgalut, (“Revelation”), ‘Akhshav, p. 194.
Sof elul, (“The End of Elul”), ‘Akhshav, p. 94.
“Benjamin,” ‘Akhshav, p. 102.
Shirei akhziv no. 10, ‘Akhshav, p. 200.
Ha'ani lo ma'amin sheli (“My ‘I Don't Believe’”), ‘Akhshav, p. 160.
Goral elohim (“God's Fate”), ‘Akhshav, p. 36.
Shir bapardes (“Poem in the Orchard”), ‘Akhshav, p. 33
Matan torah (“The Giving of the Law”), ‘Akhshav, p. 78.
“Benjamin,” ‘Akhshav, p. 108.
Shalva gedola [Great Tranquillity] (Tel Aviv, 1980), p. 18.
Ibid., p. 88.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 152
Akhshav uba-yamin na-aherim [Now and in Other Days] 1955
Shirim: 1948-1962[Poems: 1948-1962] 1967
*‘Akhshav bara‘ash 1968
Selected Poems 1968
Selected Poems of Yehuda Amichai 1971
Ve-Lo al Menat Lizkor [Not for the Sake of Remembering] 1971
Me-Ahorei Kol Zeh Mistater Osher Gadol [Amen] 1974
Ha-Zeman [Time: Poems] 1977
Love Poems 1981
Shalva gedola [Great Tranquillity: Questions and Answers] 1983
The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai 1986
Poems of Jerusalem: A Bilingual Edition 1988
Gam ha’egrof haya pa‘am yad petuḥah ve’etsba‘ot [Even a Fist Was Once an Open Palm with Fingers: Recent Poems] 1989
Poems of Jerusalem and Love Poems: Bilingual Edition 1992
Poems: English and Hebrew 1994
Yehuda Amichai: A Life of Poetry, 1948-1994 1994
Exile at Home 1998
Open Closed Open 2000
Lo me-’akhshav, Lo mi-kan [Not of this Time, Not of this Place] (novel) 1963
The World is a Room: And Other Short Stories (short stories) 1984
*Contains Mas‘ot Binyamin ha’aḥaron miTeluda [Travels of the Last Benjamin of Teluda]
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9445
SOURCE: Abramson, Glenda. “The Love Poetry of Yehuda Amichai.” American Journal of Semiotics 11, No. 2 (Fall, 1986): 221-47.
[In the following essay, Abramson discusses the theme of love in Amichai's poetry.]
If Yehuda Amichai does not use as topics for his work all three of those that Dante considered fundamental to poetry, salus, venus, and virtus, the second, venus, appears as a pervasive theme, perhaps the most pervasive throughout his work, revealing a consistency of idea which has unfailingly moved through the structured verse of the early volumes to the less tersely conceived poems of later years. One of the primary topics of his poetry is the alteration of love within a variety of contexts: time, war, youth and maturity, memory and religion. Love is the framework in which most of the events of the poetry take place, and it is itself celebrated or mourned in a number of long lyric cycles, particularly in the early books, written between 1948 and 1968. This poetry proposes an idealized, perhaps illusory love which is not only romantically perfect in itself, but which in its perfection will serve to replace religious belief and practice no longer of spiritual or emotional benefit in the life of the lyric “I.” It describes the search for this perfect love, which may also serve as a means of escaping guilt for the abandonment of God, or of providing a substitute for the loss of God.
“I've found you,” one says in love. Without having lost you. The pain of loss Happened before Offstage, in another, painless time.(1)
Also, the early poetry explores the manipulation of love by forces that are beyond the lovers' control even when these forces emanate from the lover himself as guilt and conflict. Generally what we find in this poetry is the dark side of love: loss, ephemerality, pain, and disappointment. An apocalyptic shadow haunts even the most idyllic of the early lyrics. The search for fulfillment, with a romanticized and unrealistic illusion as the guide, informs this verse with a restless and agonized eroticism born of remembered experience or imagined sexual perfection. Later poetry concludes that this ideal was never realized, that love did not in itself content the lover or become a satisfactory replacement for lost spirituality. In the later verse “love” shifts its focus and assumes a paradoxical character, referring increasingly to the mechanics of sexual intercourse, which have supplanted the much-sought totality of emotional and sexual fulfillment. In the poetry of the late seventies and eighties it becomes clear that “love,” now further detached from emotion, is assuming a more abstract quality, akin to a metaphor for many life experiences.
Despite Amichai's reiteration of some early themes in his later love poetry, this should not be seen as mere repetition but as a significant continuation and development of the early work, a progression of discourse which has moved from the postulation and examination of an idea to its gradual negation and ultimate renunciation. The “lover” is able at last to distinguish between his imagination—which has provided him with the illusive and elusive ideal of love—and reality. His disappointment is reflected in verse which has abandoned the bold lyricism of the early years, in accordance with the changed context of love, to become more restrained and reflective.
In the early poetry the experience of love assumes altered connotations with its altered connections, the most important being religion or, rather, belief symbolized by religious ritual. Love and religion are virtually inseparable in Amichai's early verse, almost as if he had taken as a paradigm the peshat and derash of the Song of Songs together in an ideological unity. This is not entirely foreign to Hebrew poetry, for some medieval Jewish poets utilized the love poem as their metaphor for the worship of God. Amichai is similarly not alone in utilizing the process of love for the purpose of demystifying a mystifying area, nor, of course, is he the only one to apply the truth of sacred sources to the modern world, rendering it appropriate for art. In the seventeenth century the languages of love and religion had much in common. Jon Stallworthy tells us that “the Song of Solomon as ‘mystically’ interpreted provided the love poets and the spiritual writers with a seemingly impeccable precedent for elaborating either theme in the language of the other.”2 Through overfrequent usage coupled with the change in religious attitudes, such linguistic alignments frequently grew empty and stylized. Whether indeed Amichai's poetry is metaphysical in the seventeenth-century sense is open to question. Yet his love poetry bears the stylistic and emotional hallmarks of the metaphysical verse while resting much more firmly on the ground of theology and religion. If, for example, John Donne's religious imagery is indeed no more than typical seventeenth-century figurative language, or what someone has called “witty blasphemy,” Amichai's very similar imagery is ideologically deliberate. For example, his neat “an eye for an eye / your body for [the sake of] mine” (ayin taḥat ayin / gufekh taḥat gufi) is more than a clever play on the word taḥat (“under,” “in place of”) but has implications regarding spiritual retribution: the lex talionis is invoked in the context of lovemaking while the Holy Ark is open.3 In other words, it is as if Amichai has taken the particular aesthetics of the metaphysical poetry, which, because of its highly refined intellectualism, can become ideologically misleading, and given the religious imagery, at least, substantive meaning; or it may be as if the seventeenth-century imagery with its religious connotations is simply an empty gun which Amichai, in his own time and place, has armed. The ultimate aspiration of Amichai's love poetry, however, differs from that of the Spanish Jewish poets as well as the “metaphysical” poets, for it is neither spiritual nor directly religious. Despite the pervasive blending in of religious elements, his loving is paradoxically earthbound, erotic, physical, and fraught with pain and anxiety. The last lines of one of his most characteristic love poems, “Farewell,” set the tone of his verse as a whole and provide its underlying conviction:
For whatever will not be, no hand writes, And whatever was not of the body Will not be remembered.(4)
The critic Julian Lovelock makes a clear distinction between great love poems and poems of great love.5 Amichai's poems are the latter kind because love itself is their subject, albeit love which is sought, imagined, idealized, or delusory, its “greatness” only potential or possible. The lyric “I” does not speak to the beloved in the sense of courtship or flattery—as Dryden put it, “entertaining [her] with the softnesses of love.” The female partner is described through extravagant images, but they serve often to distance her, as if the hyperbole dehumanizes rather than endears her. The overt sexuality of many of these images indicates that she is little more than a means toward some kind of self-realization on the part of the lover. Rarely is the woman transmitted to us as an object of deep affection; more often she is an adversary stronger than he, to be overcome by something other than physical love—by the lover's need for an even more exalted experience. More importantly, the poetry seems to be aspiring toward a concept which can be defined as ahavah be-emet, following Amichai's own reference to ha-ohavim be-emet in “God Has Pity on Kindergarten Children.” The idea of be-emet in relation to love, “actual,” “real,” or perhaps “great” love, the nature of which he does not clarify, seems to refer to an emotional transcendence which endows the lovers with the security of a special kind of knowledge or perception that survives the material pressures of their lives:
But perhaps He will pity those who love truly And care for them And shade them Like a tree over the sleeper On the public bench.(6)
They never attain the higher reality of “real love,” however; the love represented in the poetry can be passionate, satisfying, hopeless, disappointing, exalted, or ecstatic, but it does not provide unity of souls with the unity of bodies, nor a “marriage of true minds.” This projected unity is alluded to in a poem in which the lover describes how
… We were such a good And loving invention. An airplane made from man and wife. Wings and everything. We hovered a little above the earth. We even flew a little.(7)
Generally, however, the love described is not purified or endowed with grace, nor does it assure the lovers of immortality. Whatever is meant by ahavah be-emet, the lovers do not achieve it, and what they do possess, according to the poetry, is insufficient. Amichai's love poetry offers not an affirmation of ahavah be-emet, only speculation as to its nature and a consuming need to experience it.
Without this kind of love, ahavah be-emet, the union of Amichai's lovers is that of bodies only. Any other view of love apart from the shadowy notion of “real love” approaches the dangerous territory of the spirit and faith. The poet labors to avoid crossing such boundaries, he rejects the possible allegorization of physical love or its transmutation to mysticism, by blurring the distinction between the love of God and sexual love, by demystifying sacred texts, and by clear and constant references to the human body, which becomes the symbol of his choice and the barrier set between spiritual and human love. For example, the object of the liturgical injunction “It is our duty to praise the Master of all” becomes
For we should praise The vessel of everything: your breast, the trumpet sound of shoulder That bore you to me on midsummer's night …(8)
The liturgical phrase aleinu le-shabbeah (“it is our duty to praise”) is used to glorify the woman's body. Sacred words from the prayer which are meant for God are spoken during sexual love and directed to the beloved: “Rise up and tremble. For yours is the kingdom.” In a love poem bearing similar pronominal ambiguities John Donne declares: “But thou are resolute; Thy will be done,” lines appearing in the same Christian prayer, although Amichai's source is the Aleinu.9 Amichai compares the woman to the high priest whom, the poetic “I” admits, his body forgets even on Yom Kippur. In other words, the woman, taking the place of the high priest, is the one remembered by the lover's body. The word guf (“body”) is significant, for the subject of the sentence is not the lover but his body, mortified by Yom Kippur, ha-guf ha-mistagef, a nice play on words. The magnificence of the high priest's vestments becomes a metaphor for the great beauty of the woman's body. Her nipples, eyes, and mouth blaze for the lover like the high priest's breastplate of judgment or, in keeping with the purpose of this poetry, rather than the high priest's breastplate. An admonition to praise God is diverted by Amichai by recontextualizing sacred lines: “I love you / With all my might / As long as I live” (Deut. 6:5).10
The choice of body and the correlative rejection of religious or spiritual love is not easily to be made, for underlying it is a sense of sin, of stealing the exaltation meant for God and offering it to a woman; her body, which has assumed the attributes of an object of worship, consequently becomes also a symbol of sin. As C. S. Lewis somewhat provocatively said of Donne (with whom Amichai often shows strange affinities), Amichai's “I” appears not to be able to rid himself of a medieval sense of the sinfulness of sexuality, a problem which serves especially to characterize his love poetry, and which manifests itself through the often surprising amalgamation of religious imagery. This dislocation of the sacred sources into comments about the process of love amounts almost to a confession of treachery to God. This is clarified in Amichai's great spiritual autobiography, “The Travels of the Last Benjamin of Tudela,” whose refrain is taken from Deuteronomy 6:10: “When thou hast eaten and art full, then thou shalt bless the Lord thy God for the good land which he hath given thee.” The poet has eaten, “but I am not full and I have not blessed,” signifying the lack of acceptance of principles of faith which are now open to question. Words, phrases, and ideas from the biblical text are woven into this verse, setting it squarely in the context of religious tradition, yet it is an analysis of spritual breakdown. The conflict between the ethical values embodied in Jewish worship learned as a child and the natural transgressions of childhood and adolescence creates the poem's tension and determines its spokesman's consistent attitude to God. The indictment of human passion intrudes in the shape of imagery usually associated with holy ritual, suggesting that love for the partner of the lyric “I” leads directly to loss of love of God, instead of the fulfillment of earthly love in the perfect love of God, the aspiration in some of the so-called metaphysical poetry of the seventeenth century. The deuteronomic leitmotif alters its meaning in varied contexts and becomes especially equivocal when placed in the context of human love:
My father was afraid to make an empty blessing. To bless the Creator of the fruit of the tree and not eat its fruit. To bless without loving. To love without fulfillment. I have eaten but I have not been satisfied and I have not blessed.(11)
There is a correlation in this little conundrum between blessing and loving. To the father love means expectations fulfilled, so that his blessing becomes conditional upon them. He is therefore afraid to bless and his son is similarly afraid to love, in both cases because of the disappointment they anticipate at the end of the ritual. While Amichai elsewhere clarifies the father's expectations and describes his disappointment, never does he offer any evidence of what satisfaction in love may mean. Lisboa (“to be fulfilled”) can only refer to a kind of metaphysical or transcendent unity, for physical unity alone is obviously not sufficient for his “I.” “I have eaten” in this context means “I have loved.” The further implication is that I have not been satisfied by love and I have therefore not blessed, because of the premise expressed in the verse that to bless without loving is untenable.
Sin is defined in “Benjamin” by human love, which represents a betrayal in turn of the values substantiated in the ritual. It is all owed and should be directed to God, but the lyric “I” has wrested it away, with guilt for the substitution of human love for love of God the result. In “Benjamin” Amichai characteristically twists lines from the Morning Prayer into a soliloquy in which expressions of love mingle with the ancient words of thanksgiving:
The prayers you said as a child come back and drift down from above Like missiles that missed Returning to earth after a long time, Unnoticed, harmless. When you're making love They come back. “I love you,” “You're mine.” I give thanks before you. “You shall love” The Lord your God. “With all my might …”(12)
By a polyphonic interweaving of avowals of love with the prayer Modeh Ani and the Morning Prayer, the possible objects of love can be seen as having become either synthesized or separated. In fact, by judicious use of quotation marks, Amichai has carefully demarcated the planes upon which God and the woman exist for his spokesman, while preserving the sense or intent of the verse. The verse continues: “Stand in awe, sin not and be still. Selah.”
In this quotation from Psalm 4, transposed in the liturgy to the prayer said on retiring to bed, Amichai has omitted the middle sentence occurring between “sin not” and “be still”: “Commune with your own heart upon your bed.” By referring to the same prayer in the next two lines of the verse he offers an explanation for the omission:
Shema on Going to Bed. On the bed Without the Shema. On the double bed …(13)
In a passage in a poem called “We Did It,” the radiance of the act of love is likened to that of Ezekiel's vision of wheels and sacred beasts. Amichai consolidates the vision in a muddle of limbs and wings:
Like wheels and holy animals And with the chariot-deeds of prophets We did it six wings And six legs but the sky Was hard above us Like the summer earth beneath.(14)
The idea of kilayim, “mingling,” or the breeding of diverse kinds, is stated first in Leviticus 19:19: “Thou shalt not sow thy field with mingled seed.” It is explicitly referred to in the opening stanza of Amichai's ironic tribute to the High Holy Days, “And This is Your Praise” (ve-hi tehilatekha): “In my great silence and in my small cry / I plough mingled seed.” The idea of kilayim also serves to define the poetry in which erotic and spiritual images are joined together or overlap, each infusing the other with the hint of a different kind of ecstasy. Yet ecstasy appears to be out of reach, and the pointedly physical imagery suggests the notion of a substitute for what is truly desired by the poetry's “I,” who could not fulfill his father's expectations of him and achieve faith, aptly termed by Donne “this intermitting anguish, pietie.” For reasons explored in “Benjamin” he was unable to accept God's will or submit himself to the strictures of Jewish orthodoxy. “Love,” the symbol in the early poetry of the alternative, the negative impulse opposing the positive impulse of faith, becomes his only refuge.
Through his compulsive use of religious imagery in the most specifically physical love poetry, the poet is indicating both the problem and its solution. On the one hand he is recording his awareness of his own transgression. On the other, he is offering as a solution the defiant attempt to demystify that unreachable spiritual realm by incorporating it into the world of human love, thereby challenging it: for example, the psalms perform their function for him as effectively as they do for the religious, but through love of a woman, not of God. Kohelet retracts his pessimism line by line—due to love, not through faith. The holy paraphernalia now serves the cause of earthly love, since the lover has rejected and been rejected by God.
The second series of love poems in “Now and in Other Days” (1958), called “Pine Cones in the Tree,”15 contains eight brief poems divided into rhyming couplets, each poem presenting a different image of the lovers: they are like two associations in one mind—as he is referred to, so is she; they are like two lightbulbs in a lamp—each one alone too dark, but together lighted they are a festival of light. She is the walled public garden of the city, and he, the road which moves away from her. They are like two stones at the bottom of a hill, secluded and alone. They are two numbers standing alone and combining
—or being subtracted because, after all, the sign Sometimes changes.
He is like soft water in a pipe, waiting to be summoned by the turning of a tap and to be received by her. The couplets, which owe something to “metaphysical” conceits, affirm the isolated perfection of their love, yet even at their most serene the lovers are separate entities, two lightbulbs, two stones, two numbers. The poems offer an apparent affirmation of love, yet separateness and isolation are implicit in them. Ahavah be-emet, the coupling of both spirit and flesh, is still undiscovered, and it is only for a brief moment that the bulbs achieve “a festival of light,” unbounded unity in each other. Love has proof in continuity, and “real love” perhaps in eternity, yet the nature of Amichai's conceits confirms only its uncertainty and brevity. The poet suggested in “God Has Pity on Kindergarten Children” that only “true” or “real” lovers may be worthy of God's grace; the notion of separateness offered by the couplets in “Pine Cones,” implying that the lovers have failed to achieve perfect unity, indicates their separation also from God.
Lack of completeness is hinted at in the lyrical “Six Poems to Tamar,”16 which, on the surface, are idyllic expressions of love framed by the staples of romantic convention: rain, sun, spring, flowers, grass, the full moon. The woman's body is “full of lizards; they all love sun.” Her eyes, breasts, and thighs compose the sensual picture and complement the earth-images providing the cycle's setting. On the surface, peace and tranquility accompany unconditional and perfect love; yet notes of unease penetrate the harmony of body and nature, the hint of conflict about what is only an act of love, not perfect love itself:
Beside my bed the rustle of a newspaper's wings, There are no other angels.
The word malakhim means “messengers” as well as “angels,” stressing the different natures of the heavenly and earthly media; either way, the angels, messengers of God, will never appear as signs of acquiescence or approval. At times love is able to deflect despair and act even against the realistic cynicism of Kohelet, as if the lover, conditioned by Kohelet's words, allows love to change his mind:
Every day of our lives together Kohelet erases a line of his book.
The imagery becomes increasingly erotic, but the cycle ends on an enigmatic note:
My blood has many relatives Who never visit it.
But when they die My blood inherits.
The past again asserts its claim on the actions of the lover. Its representatives are never far away: angels, Kohelet, and the psalms have intervened between him and the absolute realization of love, but just as the power of love alters evil in the world, represented by Kohelet's conclusions, it also negates the power of Kohelet the representative of God's wisdom. It is paradoxically both good and bad, therefore, to “erase” Kohelet's words: good in terms of human love, bad in terms of the spiritual tradition. Even the apparently unequivocal statement that “all 150 psalms / roar at once” yields some unease, as does every reference to the sources in the context of human love: the poet uses the term tehillim in its biblical sense of a psalm, and in the poem's context it means no less than that. Yet the biblical psalms are, in addition to being songs of praise, representations of conflict in the psalmist regarding his relationship with God. Amichai's love poetry is never entirely devoid of a similar conflict relating to the object of his own love, but his conclusion is not as positive as that of the psalmist.
Human love cannot save the lovers from “the terrible trial” because it is never more than transitory, and even though it may “hasten the salvation of the world,” which is an idea Amichai expresses in later poetry, salvation will not be extended to the lovers. Attempts to fix love within a solid and protective frame usually fail. Images of enclosure occur throughout Amichai's love poetry, solid, controlled images which have their place in a defined environment: the public garden is walled, the road is in a city, the water is in a pipe, the numbers occur in their framework of arithmetical sums, the bulbs are part of a lamp. Yet there is nothing here like Donne's compass, an instrument whose two separate arms are centrally joined, with their separate movements interlinked. It is also sufficient to itself and free from external definition or pressure. Amichai's images, rather, echo the phrase from a legal contract, “together and severally,” which he transposed to serve as the refrain for one of his early love poems: “both of us together and each alone.” His walled garden, Noah's ark, a box, a house all suggest a safe bolt-hole in some guarded space, far away from the attempts of God and man to disturb the lovers. Isolation, enclosure, and secrecy are the necessary ingredients for love, and in “The Cyclamen” the lover admonishes his partner:
Don't sing out loud, For if someone hears, everything will be ended.(17)
The tender and predominantly idyllic mood of “Six Poems to Tamar” gradually disintegrates in the sonnet cycle “We Loved Here,” set in the framework of war.18 The first sonnet, one of the most anthologized of Amichai's poems, describes his father's war—“their” war as opposed to “my wars,” for which the son must later leave. The end of the cycle indicates the nature of his war from which the father had hoped to protect him. Sandwiched in between, but with the war as intermittent counterpoint, are the love sonnets. Spring, Amichai's abiding symbol for love, gradually becomes “the land of the enemy,” while characteristically the lovers lie protected like mummies in a pyramid. A sense of helplessness in the face of encroaching chaos threatens them and leads to the sapping of love: the full and joyous sexual symbolism of the previous cycles changes to images of dry sterility and abandonment.
Our lives are hardening, our lives Like slices of yesterday's bread … We've left everything as if it weren't ours Like a room one suddenly quits …
See, like a street emptied After a festive celebration My body empties too and becomes quiet.
The cycle draws to an end with the juxtaposition of love and the force that has finally breached the carefully placed walls of the sanctuary.
And the middle of the story now, perhaps the climax The war …
Behind the hills the troops waited Not free of their war And never to return to their houses.
However obvious war appears in these and other poems as the destroyer of life and love, it is not the most convincing counter to the fulfillment of love, although in practical terms it penetrates the lovers' security and forces them apart. “Real love” in the sense of love that survives separation, that is not a breach but, in Donne's words, “… an expansion / Like gold to ayery thinnesse beate,” is hardly a factor in the experience of the lyric “I.” Quite the contrary; he says: “If we don't stay together we won't stay at all. / Even more so—we won't live.”19 However, the assumption that war with its implication of separation is perhaps only the “middle” of the story offers a slim thread of hope. In a later verse he states with conviction that ultimately he will not be destroyed by war at all, for he ends the poem of gentle eroticism with the certainty that “not in wars, I won't ever fall in wars again.” So while war is undoubtedly a serious threat to the immediacy of love in time and space, it is not the only threat: “We loved here. Reality was something else.” This line introduces another definition of love as a counter to all external reality, as an escape from life, not a part of it. Love gives way to radio and newpaper headlines, something outside summons the lover: a foot is “between the door and the mezuzah,” and the lovers's key, in which they trusted, is in “their” hands. Not only war but another, less objectively destructive external force invades the tight framework of love, the “box” whose lid has suddenly been pried open. Amichai's later love poetry, written in the seventies and eighties, usually abandons the context of war, yet the outcome of love is still unsatisfactory. Society, social duty, and identity take on the implicit guise of “them,” those that break into love's dwelling, with love consequently unable to survive the social and spiritual environment in which the “I” is placed. The intruding force remains unspecified: it is partly war, partly social duty, but there is more: we are led once again to the notion of “mixture,” kilayim, which dominates the love poetry. Eros and the world of faith cannot coexist, human love is unable to resist the onslaught of guilt.
To lie in the darkness and hear A voice above the voice Again in the night, and to touch the brow. Afterwards to fall:
Not in wars, I won't fall in wars again But here and now, in this land of without, A land without me and without you, A land of gray hills. A land of forever.(20)
The intruding voice makes the lover aware of emptiness in his life despite the uniting power of the act of love. The first line of the poem offers a clue to the reason for this emptiness: “Again be my earthly kingdom beyond the door / whose path does not lead back.” Mattah, “below” (“earthly”), is the conceptual contrast to ma'alah, “heavenly.” “Fall” in this poem means “to suffer.” It does not carry the Christian connotation of sin, in this case “the sinfulness of sexuality,” but may refer to the context of sexuality, defined clearly in “Benjamin”:
Angels resembling holy scrolls with velvet robes and white silk skirts, crowned with silver and silver bells, angels fluttered around me, sniffed my heart and said uh-uh to each other with grownups' smiles. “I'll tell your father.”(21)
If guilt is taken to be part of “them,” the intruders and destroyers of love, then “they” symbolizes not only the practical burdens of social duty but also spiritual obligations, God and his deputies, angels and the father, upon all of whom responsibility for moral vigilance has been placed.
Who are you? A small Jewish boy from the diaspora Skullcap on head. From there. From that time.(22)
While the lover and his partner are making love,
Far from here, on another continent of time, the dead rabbis of my childhood are clearly seen Holding the gravestones High over their heads.
Due to the nature of his loving, Amichai's lyric “I” has betrayed his past, and it is this that prevents his achievement of perfection in love. By its very contrast his attitude brings to mind the reply of Tertan, the enigmatic hero of Lionel Trilling's short story “Of This Time, Of That Place” to the same question, “who are you?” Tertan replies: “I think, therefore I am (cogito, etc.). But who am I? Tertan I am; but what is Tertan? Of this time, of that place, of some parentage, what does it matter?”23
To Amichai's “I” it matters a great deal. An entire novel, coincidentally titled Not of This Time, Not of This Place, explores its hero's search for his lost childhood, for the reconstitution of his past, divided by his having left the country of his birth. As a result of his odyssey he is able to analyze and reconcile at least one of the troubling constituents of his past: the enforced orthodoxy of his childhood. In the poetry, by denying the most essential of the parts that constitute his historical identity, Amichai's lyric “I” loses his grip on that identity and mourns its loss. His parentage, unlike Tertan's, is specific; the composite world of the “dead rabbis” is no less his own, but, unlike them, he has betrayed it. He walks up a street named after a pious old Jew, carrying
Your bed on my back like a cross but it's difficult to imagine a woman's bed as the symbol of a new religion.(24)
He describes how, during a passionate encounter with a woman whom he calls only “a tourist,” he shows her the place where he used to keep his phylacteries, while she seduces him.25 In a later poem he indicates how the remembered ritual of worship all but possesses him: when his younger partner is teaching him the dances of her generation to the popular music of the time, he explains:
I didn't know them But I made the movements of the citron and of “holy, holy” And of wrapping myself in the prayershawl
And of winding the phylacteries And of swaying and bowing.(26)
The overall concern of Amichai's love poetry is the dreadful inability of the individual to prevail under the dominating need both for human and spiritual love. It is a long and evolutionary personal drama in which the lyric “I” seeks to comprehend and certainly to experience the true nature of love in all its guises. The drama takes the form of an interior monologue, for the lover is, in effect, the only actor: the object of his love rarely reacts with speech or activity, being very much the passive partner. Her consistent action is to leave when love ends. “The end came bitter and quick / but the time between us was slow and sweet.”27 Many of the poems are elegiac or valedictory, with variations of the word or idea of “forgetting” (shekhiḥah) recurring to underline the finality of separation. In none of the later books does Amichai's love poetry echo the freshness of approach of his earlier work. His spokesman has discovered that the love with which he is particularly concerned is an evolutionary human phenomenon and not a transcendent or metaphysical state, such as we find, for example, in Alterman's poetry. It changes as the lover changes; it does not grow in spirituality, nor does it alter its direction. It diminishes with age. For all those reasons the striving for love, the major topic of the early verse, is unsuccessful, and the “great love” sought, unrealized. The poetry of this period is concomitantly less opulently figured: love is seen in relation to the banality of life, not its promised and imagined glory. There is, however, a clear conceptual movement in the later books, from love as a single emotional and physical encounter to love as a sign of lifelong emotional progression: according to Amichai's own equation, “to speak of change is to speak love”;28 the poetry in which he describes the alteration of body and spirit due to physiological causes, such as age, or existential causes, such as marriage and family relationships, is the poetry of love. In the seventies it became a lament for the loss of youth and the attendant loss of the kind of love characterized by youth. Amichai's lyric lover does not subscribe to the idealistic consolation that love is not love which alters when it alteration finds: altered love, such as that embodied, for example, in a marriage, does not arouse joy or provide contentment. It is no longer the “love” which meant exclusively the romantic sexual meeting of youthful lovers, so well explored in the earlier books, bounded by urgency, imperfect yet always idealized. Marriage seems a small recompense for the loss of whatever truth such love supplied: on his wedding anniversary the lyric “I” summarizes his view, or need, of love:
I can't undo The things I've done in my life. A Zionism of two people to return To the homeland of their love Together, no more.
My eye is turned to only one direction, Like an ancient, heavy cannon In an old fortress by the sea, Fixed to its place.(29)
Love's permutation in middle age provides little satisfaction:
Here in this house I consider how love Becomes friendship in our lives' chemistry. And how friendship consoles us For death to come. And how our lives are like stray threads Without hope of being rewoven Into another fabric.(30)
In the poetry of the seventies and eighties love is occasionally still viewed as a panacea for the loss of God, a clear and deliberate substitute for religion:
You made it possible for me to live for a few months without needing religion or a world-view.(31)
Generally, however, this poetry no longer sees the spiritual tradition as an adversary to love. Love itself and not religion is its point of departure, and human responses to the conditions of loving, its main concern. The collection Not for the Sake of Remembering (Ve-Lo al Menat Lizkor, 1971) reveals an absence of allusiveness indicating a development toward a new and almost imagistic style of poetry. The removal of his language from a traditional context relinquishes its correspondence with a delimited moral order. The framework which had supplied the words with special resonance is now disregarded, so that the love poetry assumes a different guise, with love serving as a metaphor for aspiration or achievement within the poet's own existential ambit. The language is able to stand on its own, almost entirely devoid of metaphor and with less recourse to simile than in earlier volumes. The poetry is confined more than previously to the poet's immediate outer landscapes, usually Jerusalem and, notably in this volume, Buenos Aires.
In the cycle of love poetry “Poems of Buenos Aires” the verse is uncharacteristically sparse, with an inner rhythm reminiscent of Spanish, and, in mood, containing something of what Lorca defined as duende, a darkness of soul almost inexpressible in words. If originally Amichai's lyric lover hoped for fulfillment beyond the physical, in this cycle he has faced the realization that none exists and that love is ephemeral and illusory. The poems of Buenos Aires describe the silent joining of lovers in dark rooms with blinds drawn not against the hot southern sun but against streaming rain. The gray wetness and heavy skies complement the claustrophic interior settings in which a dreamlike sequence of meetings and separations take place. The poetry's atmosphere of enclosure is intensified by the threefold boundaries of the wet, enclosing weather, the urban area delimited by streets and avenues, and the dark rooms. Beautiful but sad women with exotic names—Sylvia, Susanna, Dolores—flit across the lover's vision, but they speak a language which he is unable to understand, the lack of communication merely reinforcing what is already certain failure and frustration. The lack of consummation or completeness in love is emphasized by the failure of verbal communication: “I kissed her mouth which a strange language / had shaped.” “How alone and abandoned the Spanish language / in the room. Later, / Hebrew too.” The lovers are strangers, their union ratified by a few words spoken before separating. “In this room / Two can be strangers / to each other.” The differences between them exceed the linguistic; different hemispheres even alter the geographical certainties of their lives, so that when apart they are unable to share seasons or times of day. The entire series is loveless, despairing, dry, dark, and impersonal, at times almost detatched. It describes the passionless love of maturity, unsatisfying and without ideals, the total antithesis of romance and its conventions: springtime, nature, youth, and freedom. The season is a torrid summer with skies “like a layer of gray plaster,” the settings are exclusively urban—roads, cafes, hotels, rooms. The lover is middle-aged and weary, bound by memory which demands repetition in life, a need to recapture the past. His gestures are, however, hollow and devoid of significance, for time has robbed his love of substance.
So many words dropped along the way So much blood spilt, So much laughter, So little remains!
Generally this poetry avoids sexuality, but when on one occasion it veers toward eroticism, the religious imagery, hitherto absent, once more reappears. In the case of this poem, which is the only one in the collection containing allusions to Jewish ritual, the allusions do not indicate guilt but mourning, for they are used in the context of the death of love. Words redolent of the liturgy alternate with erotic descriptions of the girl's body:
Your thighs are red with fire The folds of your dress dark For saying Kaddish. May I rest in peace, may you, Amen.
In some of the poems love is viewed as an attempt to defeat death. Religion and ritual having failed, God having both abandoned the lover and been abandoned by him, love is all that remains: at a funeral the speaker sees a woman wearing a black dress that clings to her thighs. The implied sexuality appears to him as an escape from extinction. The prevailing tone of the cycle is, however, one of regretful sadness, with familiar phrases recurring: “silent weeping,” “the laughter of shadow,” “water can be wept / not stones,” and repeated words, such as “pain,” “despair,” and “mourning.”
In this collection Amichai reveals himself to be a poet of what is, not what ought to be. The tone of regret in this poetry is equally existential, forgoing the romantic remedy of supplying the missing element by means of illusion. He simply examines the facts of loss brought about by human error and weakness, and laments the passage of time. By “making war against time” he defends himself from time's depredations. He dwells frequently on the particular ability of memory to resurrect the past as a reproach to the present, so that his crossing of “the river of memory” is the leitmotif of this poetry, the memory being of the senses, colors, shapes, sounds, and smells.
If one wished to apply a comprehensive adjective to qualify the love poetry in Not for the Sake of Remembering and the collections following it, notably Ha-Zeman (“Time,” 1977), “weary” would best serve. This is the poetry of acceptance, even submission, the terms of which are those associated with love. Joy in love, even if not the elusive “real love,” belongs to the past, for now “love is precise and cold like a glass eye”;32 the memory of joy, although comforting, still dooms the present love to failure. The word meduyak, “exact,” “accurate,” or “precise,” frequently appears in Amichai's later verse as a pejorative adjective indicating detachment or indifference, an impersonal precision presumably contrasting with the emotional chaos of love. It is this chaos that the spokesman lacks and that represents to him the disorderly, ecstatic elements of love as opposed to logical precision. Language itself becomes an analogy for love, for, says the poetry's “I,” when a man ceases speaking his own language regularly, it becomes more “exact” through his intermittent and careful usage of it. Past lovers recall their love in similarly “exact” and economical emotional terminology. The lyric “I,” however, cannot accept the precision of this discourse; for him pain, disruption, disorder, even uncleanness, the emotional antonyms of meduyak, are the only acceptable complements of love.
I who remain, I dirty my mouth and lips and tongue. In my words are soul's garbage and desire's refuse, dust and sweat. And even the water I drink between my cries and the murmuring of desire is, in this dry land, urine many time recycled.(33)
The spokesman's visit to the ancient port of Akhziv, which concludes Not for the Sake of Remembering, inspires a series of speculations on the nature and mechanism of love, particularly in middle age, when illusion is destroyed and the lover is no more than a second-hand gift, prettily wrapped but scarcely a surprise. The same harbor setting had stimulated an earlier series of erotic lyrics devoid of the emotion of love but examining the elements of sensual experience, interlaced with religious guilt.34 Now the spokesman is forced to take comfort in blessings other than sexual love and to accept that his submission to time is, if nothing else, heroic.
The mature verse in the volumes following Not for the Sake of Remembering explores the attempt to come to terms with the realization that neither does perfect love exist nor can guilt be eradicated. The lyric “I” struggles to summon the memory of love in the hope that it will soften the blows of time, but memory fails as a palliative. The poetry returns repeatedly to the theme of memory, which it explores with some contradictoriness and paradox: love is sought in order to still the pain of memory, but it is the memory of love that is being stilled. The memory of love, in any case, brings not consolation but pain.
God, the soul you gave me Is smoke From the constant burning of love's memories We are born and burn immediately And so until the smoke, like smoke, disappears.(35)
In fact the concept of memory in this poetry may be equated with fantasy, for “memory” of love is as idealized as the love originally sought and rarely found. Memory itself is a facet of the imagination. The ability to recreate in the mind not only events but a vanished world is one of the greatest gifts given to man, according to the Spanish proverb recordar es vivir—“to remember is to live.” As far as Jewish history is concerned, this faculty is a two-edged sword, but when refined and structured by the artistic imagination it can assume a positive, ontological power. However, Amichai's love poetry of the late seventies and the eighties portrays no more than the heroic individual who is compelled to accept the perhaps unpalatable definition of himself seen through love, that is, to accept what love has become for him in the present, unadorned by transcendent splendor. He has no choice but to understand that the passionate beauty of love to which he has always aspired exists only in the disordered imagination of memory, as “silent and tiger your body waited in the season's change,”36 or “The full moon traces the line of your cheek / your breasts, the line of mine …”37
The later verse is, however, not all doom-laden or weighted with Werther-like despair. On the contrary, the whimsy which was, for the most part, suppressed in Not for the Sake of Remembering emerges in Me-ḥhorei Kol Zeh Mistater Osher Gadol (1974; translated by Ted Hughes as Amen). Pain, disappointment, the acute sense of loss, frequently surrender to a wry acceptance of the situation, a poetic shrug of the shoulders. The lyric “I” has accepted the fact that for him “real love” is a myth and that love itself is a memory. Little remains of it other than its signs, which rapidly diminish. The failed lover, whose “generation machine is still sweet / between my legs,”38 yet who “creates the fruit of the end” (a word-play on the blessing over the wine: ba-ḥutz: borei peri ha-gafen / va-ani: borei peri ha-sof),39 is now able to fill the objective and nonparticipatory role of observer of the mechanics of love, intercourse, and the lovers' bodies. He notices every action of love, the young men and women, the couples, the physical possibilities in women, the entire process of sex. The lyric “I” is no longer exclusively the lover, as in the earlier books; he is now watching others and commenting on them. Generally this poetry has become increasingly sexual, as if the act of love, detached from all emotion, is all that remains. Occasionally the eroticism gives way to a kind of lasciviousness when Amichai writes about women's underwear; fortunately such instances are few and can be excused by their humor—for example, when he draws a contrast between the large, blank-faced military women of Eastern Europe and their delicate underclothing.40 In a switch of mood from sadness to cynicism, serious comment becomes a witticism which does not always entirely mask the pain—the notion of failure for which cynicism is a defense is never far beneath the surface. Yet a sense of loss has so frequently been explored in the poetry that the “I,” who exhibits a growing weariness with his own condition, fluctuates between elegiac sadness and sometimes something closely resembling melodrama. The shadow of lovers parting, tears being shed, empty places being revisited is often presented without the substance of profound emotion.
I sit at the table and write precise things. I remember the hopes I had for the first love before I met the girl I loved, but hardly remember her, like a man who remembers his thirst in the desert, but not the drink of water.
What remains is a pattern of the event not its content, the shape of letters, not the meaning of words.(41)
The spokeman's next visit to Akhziv in She'at ha-Hesed (“The Moment of Grace,” 1982) is scarcely an echo of the earlier contemplations of passionate love inspired by that particular landscape. The “I,” having forgotten “what is as plentiful as the sand on the seashore”—a frequent biblical simile—carries a deckchair onto the beach. Above his head the conflicting forces of wrath and tranquillity do battle while he sits peacefully examining a woman bather whose skin is “tanned and sunburnt for pleasure.”42 His own life's drama is reduced to “small cries.” Elsewhere, in a departure from the almost consecrated modern usage of the akedah as a symbol of suffering, the lyric “I” observes that the victim can be bound to an altar by bonds of love. The angel appears at the wrong moment to admonish the lover and command him not to stretch out his hand, whereupon the youthful “victim” of the binding complains to the angel: “you spoil everything.”43 In a poem from the 1977 collection Time, the spokesman tells us that every part of his own body is engaged for some burden, to carry a rifle and ammunition, to bear guilt and the weight of time. Only his penis is “free and happy,” useless for war or work, inadequate for carrying or for building.44 Whimsy is the tone of “Air Hostess,” a woman who “belongs to the conservative party / of those who have only one great love in their life.”45 Even the title of the 1980 collection, “Great Tranquillity—Questions and Answers,” is ambiguous and paradoxical, typical of this poetry in its presentation of contradictory moods and the ironic counterpoint of concepts. The self-conscious mockery of love, the frequent blunt references to lovemaking, genitalia, and women's bodies, do not conceal the theme of the later poetry as a whole. The constant recalling of emptiness, empty spaces, empty houses reinforces the statement that “when man is abandoned by / his love, an empty round space expands inside him like a cave / for wonderful stalagmites, slowly.”46 In none of the later poetry is this emptiness filled, except with dreams and fantasies. Memory is all that remains to fill the void, and a blunt sexuality, graphic details of nudity, and visual explorations of women's bodies, which constitute the spokesman's defiant challenge to the pain of loss and the emptiness of his life, wherein
Now our feelings are like fishes' entrails slaughtered fowls thrown into the market, food for scavenging cats and stray dogs.(47)
A few echoes of the earlier love poetry remain: poems of tranquil beauty which extol the woman and which recreate the almost perfect love of the spokesman's youth. Such an echo is provided by a poem entitled “Ideal Love” where, in a rather poignant reminder of the earlier frequency of such concepts, love is compared to religion. The equation lacks the old defiance, however, and the consequent guilt: the beginning of ideal love is seen as a ritual ceremony accompanied by power and majesty, the firing of a cannon before Ramadan or the blowing of the shofar. The lover's sinfulness is obliquely referred to by invoking the trumpet blast
In Elul to banish sin. That's a religion! That's love!(48)
This is reminiscent of the earlier conjugation of love and the sound of the shofar in “Benjamin.” In “Straight from Your Prejudice” the woman is dressed and ornamented as a religious object. However, this poem presents a formalized and quasi-rhetorical mixing of religious and erotic images, devoid of implication except for the desire “to kiss your thighs / Like a mezuzah at the door,”49 again making the act of worship analogous with acts of love. Love and religion are psychologically coupled in “A Tourist,” where the terms of lust and worship are ambiguous: “unholy lust in the guise of prayer,” “holy desire.”50 Prayer and desire both designate a state whose end is ecstasy, but the ecstasy sought in this poem is primitive and equivocal, composed of both holy and ugly impulses. It reveals a coarsening of the method by which the religious exaltation experienced as a child is striven for by the adult through human love.
The development and decline of “love” throughout Amichai's poetry runs parallel to that of the lover: from a state of quest, tenderness, and hope it alters to emptiness and memory. Memory is the leitmotif of the later poetry, but even that is now seen to be futile:
To stop forgetting for a while will not restore the past to you only the empty pressure of memory like the heavy weight tied to a hotel key.
Memory will not reopen those rooms.(51)
The statement “and whatever was not of the body / will not be remembered,” which appeared in a poem of evocative beauty describing lovers parting, now becomes ironic and negative, discrediting the spokesman's unilateral notion of love. In the end, devoid as it is of joy, love is no more than a burden to be borne throughout life. From man's earliest age it defines sin, and then, having tempted him, it remains with him as an elusive vision never to be made actual. Or if it is ever caught, it either changes its form immediately or disingtegrates, leaving the lover eternally diminished.
Love and loving seem to underlie every action or situation of the lyric “I” and are evoked constantly throughout every phase of his life, in every place and with every activity. Nevertheless it appears at the end that neither loving nor love itself is the focus but the functioning of the man in his entirety: his body, his abilities, his experiences, his spirituality, and his social worth. Love in its ascendance or decline becomes the overall metaphor for the life of the individual in his youth or aging, his vitality or tiredness. The female “you” who accompanies him throughout the verse is a mirror of his own abilities or even a commentary on them. Ultimately love is the rod by which the human processes are measured.
The love poetry may, in the final analysis, not be about love at all, but about the problems of youth and maturation, encompassing rebellion and the loss of faith, the death of parents, experiences in war, in relationships, and in society; later it reflects the shock of aging, physical changes, and the shifting of roles in family and society. The soldier becomes a good citizen; the young lover, a responsible husband. The son becomes the father.
The children say to me: what are you daydreaming? Like my father said when I was a boy, What are you daydreaming. This is what I've come to, now.(52)
Love bears the burden of these crises as a projection of the spokesman's life; like an emotional whipping-boy it takes the lashes of experience.
“Mazati otakh,” Me Aḥorei, p. 109.
Jon Stallworthy, ed., The Penguin Book of Love Poetry (New York, 1984), p. 23.
ayin taḥat ayin gufekh taḥat gufi ha-kol patuaḥ ha-aron, sodekh, pi. An eye for an eye Your body with [for] mine Everything open: The Ark, your mystery My mouth.
(Shirim, p. 207.)
“Hayi Shalom,” Shirim, p. 155.
Julian Lovelock, ed., Songs and Sonnets (Casebook Series). p. 23.
“Elohim Meraḥem al Yaldei ha-Gan,” Shirim, p. 247.
“A Pity—We Were a Good Invention,” in Yehuda Amichai: Selected Poems, trans. Assia Gutmann, Penguin Modern European Poets (1971), p. 25.
“Aval Aleinu le-Shabbeaḥ,” Shirim, p. 247.
John Donne, “The Bracelet,” Elegy 11.
Ve-Lo, p. 116. Based on Deuteronomy 6:5. “Massot Binyamin ha-Aḥaron mi-Tudelah,” Akhshav pp. 97-139 (hereafter “Binyamin”).
Ve-Lo, p. 106.
Ibid., p. 107.
“Asinu et Zeh,” Akhshav, p. 88.
Shirim, pp. 33-37.
“Shishah Shirim le-Tamar,” ibid., pp. 23-25.
“Shir ha-Rakefet,” ibid., p. 73.
“Ahavnu Kan,” ibid., pp. 42-59.
“Shel Malkhut She'avrah,” Akhshav, p. 87.
“Od Pa'am,” Shirim, p. 215.
“Binyamin,” Akhshav, p. 121.
“Shirei Akhziv,” ibid., p. 199.
Lionel Trilling, “Of This Time, Of This Place,” in Short Story Study, ed. A. S. Smith and W. Mason (Edward Arnold, 1961).
“Bi-Reḥov ha-Rav Kook,” Akhshav, p. 51.
“Tayeret,” ibid., p. 193.
“Rikkud Aḥar Hazot,” Ve-Lo, p. 25.
“Mar ve-Nimhar,” Akhshav, p. 26.
“Le-Daber al Shinuyim Hayah le-Daber Ahavah,” Me-Aḥorei, p. 95.
“Yom Hatunah,” ibid., p. 59.
“Tiyul le-Makom Yafeh,” ibid., p. 128.
“Shirei Buenos Aires,” Ve-Lo.
“Nisyonot le-Taer Guf,” ibid., p. 121.
Ha-Zeman, p. 63.
“Sha‘ar Akhziv,” Akhshav, pp. 194 ff.
“Shir Ahavah,” Me-aḥorei, p. 34.
“Bizmani, Bimkomekh,” Akhsav, p. 27.
“Shishah Shirim le-Tamar,”’ Shirim, p. 25.
See n. 28.
“Hi Amrah Lo la-Vo Od,” Me-Aḥorei, p. 113.
“Shir Politi,” Ha-Hesed, p. 31.
“Ani Yoshev le-Yad ha-Shulḥan,” ibid., p. 60.
“Akhziv 1973,” Me-Aḥorei, p. 138.
Ha-Zeman, p. 74.
“Air Hostess,” trans. with Tudor Parfitt, Great Tranquillity (New York: Harper & Row, 1983), p. 27.
“Song,” trans. Ted Hughes, Amen (Oxford University Press, 1978), p. 47.
“Tekhnikah shel Ahavah,” Ha-Hesed, p. 81.
“Ahavah Idialist,” Me-Aḥorei, p. 144.
“Straight from Your Prejudice.” trans. with Tudor Parfitt, Great Tranquillity, p. 77.
“Tayeret,” Akhshav, p. 193.
“Bittul ha-Shekhiḥah le-Zeman Kaḥzar,” Ha-Hesed, p. 28.
“Ani Ro'eh Penei Aḥerim Rabim,” ibid., p. 121.
Amichai's poems have been quoted from the following editions, all published by Schocken Books: Shirim 1948-1962 (1967); Akhshav ba-Ra'ash (hereafter cited as Akhshav) (1968); Ve-Lo al Menat Lizkor (hereafter Ve-Lo) (1971); Me-Aḥorei Kol Zeh Mistater Osher Gadol (hereafter Me-Aḥorei) (1974); Ha-Zeman (1977); Shalvah Gedolah (hereafter Shalvah) (1980); She'at ha-Hesed (hereafter Ha-Hesed) (1982). All translations are the author's own unless otherwise specified.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8546
SOURCE: Gold, Nili Rachel. “Flowers, Fragrances, and Memories: The Different Functions of Plant Images in Amichai's Later Poetry.” Hebrew Studies XXXIII (1992): 71-92.
[In the following essay, Gold discusses the recurring imagery of plants and flowers in Amichai's poetry.]
Although Yehuda Amichai won the prestigious Israel Prize for the “revolution he created in Hebrew poetry,”1 his later poetry, from 1968 to date,2 has been neglected or even ignored by academic studies and largely denounced by reviewers. His early work (1948-1968)3 which received great attention at the time of its publication4 has been hailed as the Amichai canon. This article seeks to demonstrate the significance of Amichai's later poetry and to argue that these poems should be considered integral to his literary achievement.5
Amichai's work from the late 1970s and 1980s is characterized by an intensified command of poetic language and devices. His voice becomes more suggestive and individualized. This turn inward is manifested specifically by an idiosyncratic reworking of conventional linguistic materials. The tensions between existing literary or spoken use of language and the poet's personal diction, between the common and the rare, and between the general and the specific combine to create the distinctive texture of the later poetry.
The underlying assumption for this study is the structuralist principle that a poet's work is a dynamic system. A poetic phenomenon that appears early in a poet's corpus may shrink or expand during the poet's creative lifetime; at times it is repressed, while at other times it is emphasized or recycled. Therefore, a study of the transformations of poetic components throughout a body of work must focus on the relationships between that system's various elements.
One may, of course, look at this from the opposite direction: any poetic unit that is visible late in the work has its own history and emerges from a reservoir that was available to the poet at the beginning of his career. The poet's ability to reshape “used” materials may demonstrate his poetic maturity. By working backwards in order to trace dominant poetic elements and phenomena, by identifying poetic mechanisms, and by analyzing their functions within the system, one can reconstruct a poetic biography that highlights key events and critical junctures in the body of work. Using this approach, I seek to demonstrate how Amichai's career, which in the eyes of some of his critics peaked at the outset and then declined, has in fact been reinvigorated. To reach this conclusion, I propose to read the work from the end to the beginning, in a way that corresponds to the model of analytic treatment: first identifying important surviving phenomena, examining them, and then exposing their roots and the ways they were first expressed. Reading backwards de-familiarizes and liberates the work of the well-known poet from automatic responses and expectations of readers long familiar with it.
The literary thought, terminology, and analytic tools of this study rely heavily on the theoretical-empirical structure developed by Riffaterre and are presented in his “semiotics of poetry.”6 This study adopts certain terms (original or reinterpreted) from Riffaterre's theory. The reinterpreted concept of idiolect, which Riffaterre inherited from semiology (Barthes 1978, p. 21), is central to this discussion. The idiolect is the reservoir of norms, word combinations, and personal images that are unique to a specific author or speaker and, at times, a specific group. The idiolect includes linguistic usages that define and separate the specific writer, speaker, or group from the rest of the users of the language (Riffaterre 1978: 146). At the same time, the idiolect must stem from the common language—otherwise, it would lose its communicative quality. The term sociolect complements the term idiolect. Riffaterre defines it as the reservoir of linguistic habits, hidden myths, and familiar classical texts that are common knowledge among a language's readers and speakers. It also includes “ready-made” linguistic materials, tropes, and stereotypical images actualized in fixed forms in the reader's mind (Riffaterre 1978: 5, 15, 39-40). A third useful concept in this study, the term interpretant, is “a sign that translates the texts' surface signs and explains what else the text suggests” (p. 81). This sign has a unique function, since it serves as a kind of guide to the reader, directing and alerting him to hidden intertexts by means of a quotation or mention of an intermediary text. At times the interpretant is a dual sign (p. 86), such as a pun, carrying one meaning in the given text while pointing to another in a different text.
In the opinion of most of his critics, the essence of Amichai's poetry is its figurative aspect.7 Therefore, my study of the transformation of his linguistic materials focuses on the image which is the main element carrying meaning in his poetry. The changes in Amichai's imagery demonstrate his poetic development. This is particularly evident in the process by which Amichai appropriates ready-made materials and transforms them into idiolectic ones. My analysis concentrates chiefly on the fate of these idiolectic images and on the ways in which they are loaded with meaning.
Three dominant sets of images emerge from close reading of his work: plants, children, and protective containers (which are variations on the theme of the sheltering womb). Each one of these, if scrutinized, would demonstrate a similar developmental process.
A study of plant imagery soon reveals a movement from the general to the specific, a pattern followed in all his figurative language. Images of plants serve here as a kind of prism through which one can observe changes in Amichai's poetics as his career develops. The selection of plant images for this analysis is almost dictated by the poetry at hand, since for Amichai, the world of plants is an unending source of images.
He employed plant images in his earliest poems. His first book, 1962-1948: … [Shirim],8 begins “In my childhood / there stood weeds and masts on the shore” (“When I was a Child,” p. 11) and continues “At the corner of the field stood two cypress trees” (“At the Corner of the Field,” p. 11). He closes one of his most recent collections, Me-Adam, with “small red fruits prepare to be buried in snow” (“Fall in Connecticut,” p. 101) and “a Tree of Knowledge in your garden” (“Susan Tichy, a Poet from Colorado,” p. 104). As classified below, plant images appear in many variations: trees in general, specific trees, shrubs, flowers, and parts thereof. At a certain stage the plants become part of the poet's primary materials. They cease to be a secondary vehicle for meaning and become part of an independent language that expresses personal messages through an idiolectic code.
Plants serve as signifiers not only in Amichai's poetic idiolect but also in the general sociolect. Analysis of plant images, therefore, facilitates study of the interaction between the poems' language and general diction. The relationship between convention and Amichai's image is a meeting place between two major simultaneous, graduated processes. First is the distancing between the poetic (idiolectic) use of the image and its normative (sociolectic) use. The second process is the progression of the image from being general (“flower,” “bush”) or common in literature (“olive tree,” “rose”) to being individual, idiolectic, and personal (“sage,” “acacia”) and/or rare (“inula”).
While in his early works Amichai tended to select universal or familiar images to which conventional meanings have adhered, he later developed a strong preference for selecting rare, personal, idiolectic images. The use of those images in the later poems is subtle, multifaceted, and unconventional. The early poetics, which had a simple relationship (positive or negative) with convention, based on universal experiences and common usages, makes way for a poetics that deepens and enriches meaning through a subtle reworking of ready-made materials or by drawing from private associations. The experiences expressed by these idiolectic images are specific and concrete. There is a clear correlation between the tendency towards personal, skeptical expression and the proliferation of rare images.
This article discusses three of the categories of images that I have identified. The first category is more common in the early poetry, and the other two are typical of the more recent work. The categories are:
(1) Images deeply rooted in convention: they either closely follow existing meanings in the language, or they reverse them completely. This kind of image is common in Amichai's early poems, where it often serves to shape a universal situation but does not describe its unique aspects.
(2) Images representing “actual” experience: these evoke in the poetic “I” specific memories of actual moments.
(3) Rare images functioning as interpretants: they constitute necessary keys to understanding the poem.
The types and functions of plant images may serve to illustrate these categories in Amichai's poetry. The late poems still contain “trees,” “grass,” “flowers,” “thorns,” and “fruits,”9 but these are few in number. The images of specific, and often, rare plants gradually attain a more central presence.
In the early collection Shirim, for example, a “tree” (… [’ilan]) or “trees” appear as an image or in the landscape in twenty-one poems,10 flowers in twenty-seven,11 olive trees in fourteen.12 In the 283 pages of this book the geranium (p. 191) appears once, the oleander (… [hardoof]) once (p. 191), and jasmine once (p. 195). These are the only rare plants in the book. In the 104 pages of Me-Adam the word “tree” or “trees” is mentioned nine times and “flowers” only four times.13 Rare plants, however, grow in abundance: hedera-helis (ivy; p. 11), oleander (pp. 40, 48), inula (… p. 40), jasmine (pp. 40, 46, 60), cassia (p. 53), sage (p. 16), bird of paradise (p. 89), corn (p. 70), and alfalfa (p. 70). In Sheḥat Ha-Hesed there are just nine “trees” and four “flowers” in 127 pages, while rare plants blossom throughout: rosemary (p. 14), basil (p. 14), mint (p. 14), dwarf lemon (p. 26), gourd ricinus (… p. 74), eucalyptus (p. 78), sunflower (p. 126), watermelon (p. 126), tamarisk (… p. 90), carob (pp. 90, 113), low acacia lemon (p. 102), and laurus nobilis (laurel; p. 109). In the 101 pages of Shalva there are only three “trees” (pp. 42, 55, 96) and two “flowers” (pp. 35, 50). Rare plants, however, flourish. In addition to cherries, which to the Hebrew reader denote the European milieu but otherwise are almost devoid of literary associations (pp. 8, 81), we find the squill (… p. 21), sage (p. 21), wild honeysuckle (p. 23), pear (p. 31), watermelon (p. 51), lily (p. 53), tamarisk (p. 77), thorny acacia (p. 64), bougainvillea (p. 92), and berries (p. 93).
In the books from the intermediate period, there are fewer images of rare plants than in the later ones, but proportionately more than in the earlier volumes. While the earlier ‘Akhshav Ba-Ra‘ash contains only five rare plants in 208 pages (dwarfed tamarisk, mint, sage [all on p. 204], dandelion [p. 191], and grataegus [p. 181]), Ha-Zman sprouts four rare plant images in eighty pages: dandelion (p. 2), arum (p. 57), tamarisk (p. 80), and fern (p. 64). Velo’‘Al Menat Lizkor in 139 pages includes six rare plant images: calotropis (…; p. 99), anastatica (…; p. 99), oak and visum (p. 101), pansies (p. 133), and oleander (p. 111).
We see, then, that starting in the late 1970s and increasingly in the 1980s, there is a distinct shift in the choice as well as in the elaboration of plant images. In Me-Adam, for example, an almost botanical terminology reflects the adoption of an intimate and personal poetic voice.
Amichai's increasing tendency to include rare plants in his vocabulary of images and his desire to develop them point to a deliberate choice of the personal and idiolectic. He moves away from using common plants, with their conventional meanings, preferring an idiosyncratic botany—a system of plants sensitive to the subtle nuances he wishes to express. Like a painter who abandons thick brushes in favor of finer ones that can sketch detailed, personal miniatures, Amichai casts away generic images and selects precise ones instead.
The frequency of general and common plant images in the early stage of Amichai's writing illustrates how convention not only determined the choice of plant images but also influenced their poetic function: their significance remains within the framework of the familiar and the expected. Here are four examples from the early poetry of conventional ideas expressed by use of commonplace metaphors from the spoken language:14
(1) “I am a man living with plans for blossoming and withering” (‘Akhshav Ba-Ra‘ash, p. 53): an equation of youth and love with blossoming, and old age and death with withering.
(2) “A last leaf which represented the whole tree” (Shirim, p. 171): the tree will follow the leaf's path—it, too, will die. The falling of leaves symbolizes death.
(3) “And then we felt unripe since then we ripened” (Shirim, p. 54): young people, at the beginning of their love, are like green fruit. Ripening parallels the fulfillment of their love.
(4) “I who cross the street / only where it is permitted / I was called to dwell with roses” (Shirim, p. 177). This is an example of a conventional use of the rose in an early poem. The poem deals with love. The sudden “call to roses,” directed towards this average, “middle of the road” man, symbolizes the effect of love on him. In this instance the rose as a symbol of love is unambiguous and easily understood.
In his early poems Amichai resorted consistently to the common stock of sociolect images. At times, however, he reversed their meanings in striking ways. For example, in a poem about parting from a friend in New York, Amichai reverses a conventional image to express sadness and death. He writes about a statue in the park which, unlike the surrounding trees, does not blossom in the spring:
In the park stood a stone man statue and wondered with pain this spring as well why it didn't grow leaves like the trees around it. Every spring this pain anew …
(‘Akhshav Ba-Ra‘ash, p. 147)
As Amichai's poetry became increasingly expressive of personal feelings rather than abstract ideas, it tended towards greater precision and turned increasingly to rare plants for its images. In an introspective poem from 1977, Amichai explicitly describes the shift from his early (and almost total) identification with the country to his later introversion. The lines “when I was young, the land was young … when I fought she fought, where I rose she rose” (Time, poem 32) define not only the biographical parallelism between a man and his country but also suggest poetic choices appropriate to a poetry which speaks for a whole generation. This would dictate use of a declarative language that relies heavily on conventional, easily understood, and easily identifiable intertexts. But the subsequent statement “now I disconnect and roll into myself” can be read not only as a biographical comment about concentrating on one's own life and retreating from identifying with one's generation, but also as a self-aware poetic statement about change in the guiding principles of writing. The “roll into myself” is manifested linguistically through private images. When those images come from the world of plants, they tend to be more esoteric and precise: acacia instead of tree; oleander instead of flower. These are plants which are free of sociolectical or literary connotations, and they do not convey any symbolic content other than that granted to them by their author. At the same time, each one of these supposedly precise images carries a multitude of meanings. This is only a surface paradox; Amichai uses the specific image to convey feelings and psychological contents that are never one-dimensional. His poetic art lies in employing the precise image to convey complex, rich, and sometimes, ambiguous emotions.
Amichai prefers the precise and esoteric over the common and general for several reasons. In some cases, the sound of the given plant name leads to the choice of image: for example, … (marvah, “sage”) and … (marveh, “assuage thirst”). In other cases, it is the meaning of the words that form the plant's name that accounts for the image (e.g., … [‘ar atzili] literally, “aristocratic laurel”; … [y‘arah firit], “wild honeysuckle”). Sometimes the need for precision in the description of a landscape, or the attempt to personify the plant, determines the choice of a particular image. In some works the rare image itself can serve as the key to deciphering the poem's meanings. At other times, a given flower or tree ties in with a particular memory where the associative link layers the significance of the image in a personal, idiolectic, and yet still intelligible way.
1. “IN THE MUḥRAKA”: THE POETIC USE OF THE LAUREL IN THE AUTHENTIC DOCUMENTATION OF AN EXPERIENCE
The poem “In the Muḥraka” (a scenic overlook on Mount Carmel) reconstructs bygone love at the site of the lovers' first tryst.
Here in the place where the noble laurel is growing now as glorious trees and no longer as a shrub, we heard then our last melody for the first time …
(She‘at Ha-Hesed, p. 109)
The flowers and herbs of a place seen with such intimacy function as a scenic backdrop for the description, as a symbol of disappointment, and as a stimulus to memory. From the opening line of the poem the distant time and emotion are evoked by means of the rare plant image. According to the Hebrew dictionary, the … [‘ar], “laurel” is “another name accepted among botanists for a shrub that is commonly named ‘…’ [daphne] (laurus nobilis).” The same dictionary defines … [daphne] as “the name of an evergreen decorative shrub, from the genus … [‘arim] (laurel) that grows also in the Land of Israel. The ancient Greeks and Romans used to adorn the heads of victors with laurel wreaths. … The leaves of … [daphne] (laurel) are also used as spices. Nowadays botanists name this shrub ‘… [‘ar].’”
Amichai's desire for precision results in a sort of two-step process. He could simply have written “plant,” but “dafna” would be more specific. However, he rejects “dafna” as too colloquial and chooses, instead, “‘ar’asili,” the botanic name. The adjective “noble” might have guided this choice, because it is the Hebrew translation of the Latin nobilis and means noble or aristocratic. For the Hebrew reader, it conveys the sense of a remote and unattainable world of royalty which heightens the sense of estrangement and alienation that “now” exists on the mountain where “joy” once reigned. This is beauty from a different, inaccessible sphere, similar to the bygone love. The noble laurel's growth has an ironic twist: as the shrubs grew into magnificent trees, the love, that was young when they were, withered away. The plant's royal, noble, and triumphant connotations emphasize further the magnitude of defeat and loss suffered by the separated lovers. The relationship of the past to the present is made concrete by the growth of the puny shrub into a glorious tree. The love story is believable and authentic because of the precise topographical rendering and the vivid use of the image of the laurel.
On the one hand, the noble laurel emphasizes a singular feeling and the wish to describe that feeling as it was in the place where it happened and through this, perhaps, to relive it. On the other hand, these words depict an emotional remoteness from that feeling, as if a scientific and sterile approach to describing the plant life of the lovers' hiding place might ease the pain of their severed connection. Amichai here exploits the noble laurel on various levels: (a) its connotations in the sociolect (laurel implying victory); (b) the effect of the adjective “noble”; (c) the scientific and emotional neutrality implied in the botanical terminology; (d) the laurel's peculiar ability to grow as both shrub and tree, a poignant testimonial to time's passage; and (e) the authenticity derived from the description of the actual landscape of the lovers' nest that evokes the memory of the splendor that once nestled in the Muḥraka.
The external simplicity of his later poems, such as “In the Muḥraka,” is only a simulacrum, and thereby a component of the trap the poet sets for his readers. As I see it, this textured use of language counters those critics who accuse Amichai's later work of being shallow and without “inner layers.”15 While the earlier poetry attempts to touch the essence of experience, Amichai's later predilection for conveying singular experiences finds expression in particular details. When dealing with plants, he achieves precision by shifting from the general to the specific, from the common to the rare.
2. PLANTS AS STIMULANTS OF MEMORIES
The aroma of Proust's madeleine was the stimulus for a revolution in literature. The influence of the sense of smell on Amichai's poetry is considerably more modest, but it fits into a discussion of the function of plant images, especially flowers, as stimuli of memories and longings.16 I am referring not only to jasmine or roses, whose fragrances are commonly thought to evoke certain emotions,17 but also to the aromas of other flowers that serve as scenic background or ornamentation during important moments in the speaker's life.
2.1 THE THORNY ACACIA: THE TUNNEL TO CHILDHOOD
The sense of smell aids efforts to reach the past; aromas help memories surface from the depth of the unconscious. As can be seen from a quote taken from the poem “Spring Song” (Shalva, p. 64), the use of a specific flower is not arbitrary:
There too is the tunnel of the thorny acacia Blooming in fragrant yellow balls. I can crouch down and go through it to my childhood on the other side …
(Great Tranquillity, p. 55)
The acacia's scent is what leads to the haven of childhood. Taken as a whole “Spring Song” is a summation of the speaker's life. As he states, “In the morning I rise like a light plane / and look over my life.” The longings also bring forth “the smoke of burning of leaven (hametz) in the yard.” Although the smell of the smoke is only implied, it belongs to the memories that trail in the path of “the airplane of fragrance” which “melts among flowering orchards” (Great Tranquillity, p. 55). The acacia's scent has the power to return the speaker to his childhood. The vehicle that transports the speaker from the present to the past is a reconnaissance plane qualified in the Hebrew original by the adjective “fragrant”. … The psychological and emotional mode of transportation is not the airplane but rather the fragrance, and the blooming acacia facilitates the voyage of the adult traveler to his childhood. Abstract movement in time is made concrete by movement in space, thereby justifying the use of an image that denotes the physical landscape of that journey, that is, the acacia. In fact, the acacia simultaneously fulfills several functions: it is the motive for the voyage, the vehicle as well as the road itself, and the landscape of that road.
2.2 THE SAGE: PLANT LIFE WORD-PLAY
The pleasant smelling sage … appears in the poem “In the Mountains of Jerusalem” (Great Tranquillity, p. 21), although the scent of the herb is not actually mentioned. The function of this rare plant image is twofold: on the surface the sound marvah, “sage” supplies a play on words with its homonym marveh, “assuage thirst.” This accentuates the contrast with thirst later in the poem. The pun gains irony because sage, which is itself a dry plant, grows in semi-arid climates and cannot, in fact, quench thirst. The principal function of the image, however, lies in the painful revelation that wounds of the past never truly heal:
Canceling a night of love in the Negev makes a flower(18) grow in the hills of Jerusalem, things empty and fill up but you are not always with the ones that fill up, and the sage [marvah] does not always assuage thirst [marveh] but tears a deep wound in forgetfulness, evokes a memory of an old thirst …
(Great Tranquillity, p. 21)
It is precisely the sage, and not a different plant, that makes this revelation possible. Furthermore, the image has an additional layer of significance: things are not what they are called, since “what is called marvah does not give marveh.” It is as if the names of plants, objects, or even people only tease the speaker, raising his expectations only to disappoint them. This may be a hint of the fickle nature of language: words do not really carry their supposed meaning and, therefore, cannot be trusted. The image also expresses the trauma that forgetfulness is an illusion. It is enough merely to smell or see the sage in order for the memories one wished to repress to float to the surface. The sound and the content of the name “marvah” fuse to communicate both an emotional wound and a metapoetic statement.
2.3 THE WILD HONEYSUCKLE: MEMORIES OF BATTLE AND YOUTH
The combination of fragrance and melody that expresses longing in “In the Muḥraka” occurs in a different poem and triggers another experience. In “The Narrow Valley” (Great Tranquillity, p. 23) the speaker visits a place that once was an arena of battle, terror, and death, but where a group of young hikers is now kindling a bonfire. The figures of this group may also allude to the fighters who camped in that area during the war. The speaker singles out “the prettiest among them” and “the strongest among them.” The first stanza describes both the hikers and the bonfire; the last stanza is devoted to their departure. In the middle, memories “shell” the speaker, seizing control of him:
Young people picnic in the narrow valley where I once fought a battle: they camp next to the fear and build a bonfire in the trenches of death.
The prettiest girl among them smooths her hair with a toss of her head the strongest boy among them brings wood for the fire. The shelling is going on the explosive has changed for the better, a smell of blossoming wild honeysuckle in the air and the sound of a song.
In the evening, when they go, the landscape straightens out: the narrow valley will rise like a dent in a ball, and the view will be smooth as oblivion.
(Great Tranquillity, p. 23)
The wild honeysuckle and its fragrance, along with the melody, throw the speaker into emotional turmoil. The image functions in numerous ways. First, it is likely that the vegetation in the valley is similar to that which grew during the war. Its appearance and fragrance cast the speaker back to his experiences of battle and fear. The mere presence of the honeysuckle “in the narrow valley” is enough to evoke the memories. Second, the “smell / of blossoming wild honeysuckle in the air and the sound / of a song” assault the senses like shells. Instead of the roar of exploding shells and the smell of gunpowder, the flowers intoxicate the speaker, and for a brief moment they restore his youth. “The prettiest,” “the strongest,” “the fragrance,” and “the melody” resurrect the past.
Finally, the image also functions through the meaning of the flower's name. The poem not only exploits the flower's natural habitat and fragrance but also the semantic fields to which the flower's name belongs. In Hebrew the name of the honeysuckle is ya‘ara, which is derived from ya‘ar ‘forest’. The combination of ya‘ara and pera’it ‘wild’ trigger associations of primordial passions and wild adventures. These elements are bound up with youth, virility, and sensuality. Ya‘ara is also a woman's name. Coupled with the “prettiest among them,” the feminine word combination “ya‘ara-pera’it” expresses a longing for a dangerous and tempestuous lifestyle and for bygone love. In spite of the fears of the past, memories, like smells, possess an alluring and seductive element, actualized by the image.
When the shelling stops and the young people depart, “the landscape straightens out.” The narrow valley, suffused with sensations from the past, rises “like a dent in a ball,” and the memories aroused by the fragrant blossom are lost again. A dull sorrow for the present numbness of the speaker's senses and for the lost days of heroism and youth replaces the moment of vulnerability. The excitement was caused by the sudden sight of the special flower, its allusive name, and the specific associations it aroused. The repressed battle experience (“where I fought a battle”) rises to the surface by means of the precise image, which functions simultaneously on various levels. The image opens a window on the speaker's emotional universe. It is the force motivating both the lyric “I” and the poem.
3. THE RARE PLANT IMAGE AS INTERPRETANT
Cherries—the trees and the fruit—are rare in the Israeli landscape, both actual and literary, and seldom appear in Amichai's writing. But it this image's rarity, for the most part, that gives it the complex function of interpretant. This can be seen clearly in the 1980 collection Shalva, which marks a turning point in Amichai's poetic development. The word “cherry” appears once in Amichai's epic of 1968, “Travels of the Last Benjamin of Tudela” (‘Akhshav Ba-Ra‘ash, p. 97), where it conveys the tension between the European and the Mediterranean: “The brown, round eyes you had, according / to the pattern of ripe cherries, will get used to / oranges …” (Selected Poetry, p. 60). In this early form, the rare plant image transmits the European child's feelings of being foreign and forced to adjust to the Israeli landscape. This figurative material was later transformed into a multilayered sign that can penetrate psychological depths and expose interpersonal tensions. In its new role, the “cherry” serves as the key to deciphering the two poems in which it appears in Shalva.
“A Meeting with My Father” tells of Amichai's visit with his father in Haifa's Cafe Atarah in October 1947:
My father came to me in one of the intermissions Between two wars or between two loves As if to an actor resting backstage in half-darkness, We sat in the Cafe Atarah On Mount Carmel. He asked me about my small room And if I was coping on my modest teacher's pay.
Daddy, daddy, before you made(19) me you must have made Cherries that you loved, Black with so much redness! My brothers, sweet cherries From that world.
The time was the time of evening prayer. My father knew I no longer prayed And said, let's play chess The way I taught you as a child.
The time was October 1947, Before the fateful days and the first shots. And we didn't know then I'd be called the generation of '48 And I played chess with my father, checkmate '48.
(Great Tranquillity, p. 19)
The central role of Amichai's father in his poetry is already axiomatic. The fateful nature of the meeting's time is also clear. And yet, despite the dramatic circumstances, the poem's language is colloquial and unassuming for the most part. While the description of a meeting with his father in an early poem is full of pathos and slightly ironic grandiosity “Let's drink, my father, to my flowers, to ideas” (“Your Life and Death My Father,” Shirim, p. 28), here, the conversation is trivial (“my modest teacher's pay”). The father's sensitivity is heartwarming. He knows that his son does not go to evening prayers, but instead of scolding him, he offers to substitute a chess game, “the way I taught you as a child.” The threads of intimacy spun throughout the poem are torn apart by “the rustle of the wings of history.” The gentle conversation makes way for a vocabulary of war propaganda: “fateful days,” “October 1947,” “first shots,” “the generation of '48.”20
The poem's first and third stanzas report the conversation in the cafe. The period's historical events invade the fourth stanza and the intimate world of the father and son. The “mate” (as in checkmate) that concludes the poem emphasizes the threat of death that the enlisted son will soon face. The impending war is present throughout the poem, but in a curious way. Its horror is dulled by the parallel to love (“Between two wars or between two loves”) and by the theatrical light cast on it: “My father came to me in one of the intermissions … As if to an actor resting backstage in half darkness. …” But other than this theatrical simile and the concluding pun, the poem's language is couched in the prosaic details of an intimate father-son chat. The poet alludes to the historical times—a month before the crucial United Nations vote on the creation of a Jewish state and the outbreak of Israel's war of independence—only in the closing stanza.
This poem vividly shows the development of Amichai's writing. The details of the fleeting moment are frozen in time. Whether or not this moment is symbolic, it exists in its own right. Amichai's desire for authentic expression motivates his choice of image. The second stanza, which contains the image, is also the most ambiguous one. At the same time, it holds the clue to deciphering the poem. For a few lines the logical, sane, restrained tone vanishes, and a child's scream bursts out, the child who dwells inside the supposedly calm adult speaker:
Daddy, daddy, before you made [begot] me you must have made Cherries that [whom] you loved, Black with so much redness! My brothers, sweet cherries From that world.
The cherries are a rare plant image that embodies both internal and external conflict. In the Israeli sociolect the cherry serves as a reminder of Europe. In the poem the Israeli son feels a certain alienation from his European father: the father begot cherries (“brothers”) before begetting the son, who soon will be an Israeli soldier who fights for his country. “Cherries you loved” … [Sheahauta] is an allusion to the binding of Isaac: “Thy son whom thou lovest” (Gen 22:2). The Hebrew verb … [holadta], “you begot” underscores both the biblical intertext and the ancient connection between fathers, sons, and the land. But the beloved counterparts of the soldier-son who sits in Cafe Atarah will not be sacrificed as a burnt offering, while that may be the speaker's fate.
The line, “My brothers, sweet cherries / From that world,” can be interpreted as follows: the cherries are the fruit of the father's dream. He yearns for that world, and they are the sons he might have begotten had he stayed in Europe. These brothers/cherries compete with the Israeli son for the father's love. A widely-known early sonnet from Shirim, “My Father Fought their War for Four Years” (Poems, p. 6), supports this interpretation. There the father is said to have “formed” his son “out of his little calms” during World War I. (The word “banah” [literally “built”] must be interpreted as the father's mental construction of the child he was to have.) But he failed to bequeath the peace for which he yearned to his warrior-son. The father's dreams of tranquillity and their “fruits” (the brothers/cherries) were left in Europe. The cherry image may express the pair's longing for the sweetness and wholeness that were never attained in the present.
“A Second Meeting with My Father” (Shalva, p. 18; Great Tranquillity, p. 88) creates an imaginary encounter at the same cafe:
Again I met my father in Cafe Atarah. This time he was already dead. … I said: Happy are those Who have a patisserie next door to a coffee house, You can call inside: “Another cake, more Sweetness, let's have more!”
Happy is he whose dead father is next door to him And he can call him always.
Oh, the eternal scream of children “I want, I want!” Until it turns into the scream of the wounded.
O my father, chariot of my life, I want To go with you, take me along, Put me down next to my house And then continue on your way alone.
We left. And a man remained in the corner, One hand amputated …
(Great Tranquillity, p. 88)
The reader can easily conclude from these twin poems, as well as from many others,21 that the father's predominant characteristic is sweetness. On the surface (mimetic) level, this quality is conveyed in the first poem by the father's gentle, soft words. The cherry image in the first poem and the cake image in this one carry the same meaning on the semiotic level. The son's longing for his father intensifies in the poem “A Second Meeting with my Father,” in which the speaker calls to his father: O my father, chariot of my life, I want / To go with you, take me along. …
The urgent plea “My father, the chariot of my life” alludes to Elisha's cry to Elijah as he ascended to the sky: “My father, my father, the chariots of Israel and its horsemen” (2 Kgs 2:12). Although the first poem's cry “Daddy, daddy, before you made me you must have made / Cherries that you loved” is more ambiguous then the direct “Take me along” of the second meeting, it is nevertheless an expression of yearning for the father, his sweetness, and for the alien European world—the place of luscious cherries. With the father's death, his dreams are no more, and the place where he was born ceases to exist. The Israeli son misses the people and fruits who vanished with his potential brothers/cherries. The double cry present in the two “Cafe Atarah” poems—“Daddy, daddy,” “my brothers, my brothers,” and “I want, I want”—conforms to the traditional format of a eulogy,22 and the cherries have evolved into a component of that eulogy.
The cherry's rarity in both Amichai's poetry and the Israeli landscape intensifies the effect of distance and longing that it evokes. This specific image stirs up a private emotional world to which the general terms “tree,” “fruit,” or the textually loaded “grape vine,” or “olive branch,” could not have alluded. The significant gradations in the distance between sociolect and idiolect can be demonstrated by comparing the elaboration of the cherry image with that of the tree image in the early poem “Your Life and Death My Father” (Shirim, p. 28). Here, the common plant image retains its conventional meaning: “The tree in the yard was a prophet, and I did not know.” Despite the son's refusal to absorb the message, the poem implies that, as expected, the tree's life cycle predicts that of man, and that its demise foreshadows the father's death.23
In contrast to this early adherence to the ready-made association with tree, in the 1980 poem “A Meeting with My Father,” the plant image's function is more complex. In addition to lamenting the father, it possesses his unique sweet quality. The image also suggests conflicts in the relationship between father and son. Furthermore, while the early poem is enveloped in a quasi-philosophical aura (“Let's drink, my father, to my flowers and to the ideas”), the later one reconstructs dialogue in specific detail. The universal images of “trees” and “flowers” are replaced with the individual and precise image of the cherry.
This plant image is further developed and reinterpreted in only one other poem in Shalva, titled …[behar haruach] [“On the Mountain”] (p. 81). It is not included in the English translation Great Tranquillity, perhaps because of its strong local flavor and use of slang. The episode it retells is, on the face of it, entirely different from that of “A Meeting with My Father.” It is anchored in the recent past, not in 1947. The speaker is a father (not a son) who is picnicking with his family and friends. No wars or farewells loom on the horizon. The poem's structure aids the serene tone: three of the poem's six stanzas are figurative and poetic; three use slang and low diction. Although Amichai uses prosaic language in both “cherry” poems, the linguistic gap is wider in “A Meeting with My Father.” There the cherry image is in the shortest, most stylized stanza, which contrasts sharply with the three remaining simple stanzas through its classical allusions, vocabulary, and rhythm.
Deciphering the cherry image lies, in part, in reading the two poems in light of each other. “On the Mountain” confirms and validates the critical role that the cherry image plays in these two texts and in their “inter-interpretation.” The book itself invites the reader to read these two poems together because they are the only ones to employ the word “cherry.” This poem introduces the image in the first stanza:
In the valley, the cherry became domesticated But not entirely It needs nurturing In thorn and stone pastures, we are here
(Shalva, p. 81)
The European fruit is a stranger to Israel's thorny landscape. It struggles to adjust to the stone pastures, a poor substitute for the green fields of its natural habitat. Successful absorption depends on the amount of care and tending it receives. The “I” in this poem apparently identifies with the cherry, as seen from the enjambment that connects the first and second stanzas. The last line of the first stanza “In thorn and stone pastures, we are here,” if read as one unit, may imply that the “we” includes the cherry as well as the poetic “I,” both of whom dwell in stone pastures. The biblical allusion creates an intertextual irony. Unlike the psalmist, who “shall not want,” because God makes him “lie down in green pastures” (Ps 23:1-2), the speaker and the cherry are wanting. Since the Lord is not their shepherd, they are forced to adjust to “thorn and stone pastures.” As the poem unfolds, it is revealed that a scream is buried here, too:
And family and nature, night and sleep All that wishes to be named “bosom” closed themselves, no one heard that in your swollen belly, a fetus was screaming.
The poetic “I” who can hear this soundless cry is none other than the son of the father from the previous poem. The fetus echoes the speaker's call to his own father: “Daddy, daddy, before you made me you must have made / Cherries.” It is only through the cherry image that this textual patrilineal chain can be reconstructed. This image signifies the fruit of the man's seed. (It may not be a coincidence that bosoms “close themselves” while the male speaker picks up the fetal distress signal.) The father “begot cherries/brothers” in one poem, while in the other, the equation of the fetus to the cherry is made explicit at the poem's end:
The fetus will also reach night and tranquility And the cherry also will find a place.
The dynamic of the relationship does not change when the son himself becomes a father. The father “begot cherries” and dreams, and so does his son. Like his father before him, the speaker will always respond to his child, since “happy is he whose dead father is next door to him / And he can call him always” (Great Tranquillity, p. 88).
The origin of the fruit image as a man's seed is found in “My Father Fought their Wars for Four Years” (Poems p. 6): the father “felt” in his “fingertips … a tickle of blossom / and prepared for fruit.” The “fruit” for which the father yearned in his youth was later recycled and transformed into the layered cherry image. While the early fruit image expresses the link between father and son, it does not contain the different aspects of paternal love and pain expressed by the specific “cherry.” Through this late image, the many facets of the father's love are revealed, as well as the conflicts and eternal longing wrapped in that love. The plant image retains the conventional meaning of fruit—fruit of the tree is like fruit of the womb (although the image reverses genders)—but the deliberate choice of the rare cherry enriches the image's meaning. Contents of sweetness and love, estrangement and alienation, closeness between father and son who are rooted in different worlds, and adjustments and yearning layer this new idiolectic image.
The poetic functions of rare plant images, such as laurel, acacia, sage, honeysuckle, and cherries, are varied. It is evident that the choice of images from the world of plants becomes more refined and subtle in Amichai's later poetry. He values these images because their rarity is not simply exotic decoration. It is, instead, a means of enriching, layering, and loading the image with new and idiosyncratic meanings. In addition, he moves from choosing broad images that convey general truths to ones that are specific but plumb psychological depths. The inclusion of esoteric, marginal plants in his figurative vocabulary is one of the manifestations of the way Amichai trades universal and conventional expressions for concrete and personal ones. This manner of writing derives from his increased awareness of emotions and openness to them, as well as from the poetic mastery which creates images for those emotions.
The judges' decision is quoted in Zifer (1981). In that article Zifer anoints Amichai as the “national poet.” Critics often describe Amichai as a “pillar of Hebrew literature.” See, for example, Levit (1986: 24), Barzel (1986: 20), Bartana (1979), and Zach (1966).
This periodization follows Miron (1986). According to him, a poetic “breakthrough” determines a beginning of a period—even if only a few of the poems of the period contain the changes in poetics. With this principal in mind, and based also on the responses of critics, I divided Amichai's corpus into three periods: (1) 1948-1968 (Arpali , in the only in-depth study of this period, shows it to be a coherent, homogeneous body of work within the oeuvre); (2) 1968-1979—this is an intermediate period, containing hints of the changes that will occur later; and (3) 1980 to date. 1980 is the year in which Great Tranquillity: Questions and Answers appeared. This marked the turning point: a major shift in poetics which continues to date.
For the differences in attitudes of the critics toward the different periods, see, for example, Zandbank (1963), Blat (1963), Feingold (1963), and Arpali (1986), who discuss the early period; as against Shavit (1971), Ramras-Rauch (1977), Bartana (1980), and Balaban (1982) who discuss the later periods.
The history of Amichai's reception by the critics is summarized in Zwik's introduction to the collection of articles written about the poet. The articles selected for this collection are themselves proof of the change in attitude. Out of ten representative articles, only one (Ginosar 1988) deals exclusively with the later poetry, two mix old and new (Zwik 1982 and Barzel 1986), and the rest concentrate on early Amichai.
The complete study is included in my forthcoming book on Amichai's late poetry (Schocken, 1993). The first steps of this study were published in my article in Prooftext in 1984.
Riffaterre (1978) presents this theory in a book by the same name and in numerous articles (see bibliography). Additional works consulted in this area are Harari (1979) and Barthes (1977). Although the present study is strongly influenced by Riffaterre's work, it takes issue with his theory, particularly in the areas of commitment to there being one correct reading and in resorting to external, but relevant, disciplines.
See, for example, Zach's important article (1966) in which he states that the world of images is Amichai's signature. Gilan (1959) declared that Amichai is the “master of images” in Hebrew poetry. See also Sachs (1966), Sadan-Lubenstein (1983), Miron (1963) and Arpali (1986).
This 1963 collection is considered the core of Amichai's canon. References in this article to Amichai's works and to translations of his works are as follows:
1963 1962-1948: … [Shirim] (references to the original work or my translations are marked as Shirim; translations taken from Bloch and Mitchell  as Selected Poetry; translations taken from Guttman  as Poems).
1969 1968-1963 … [‘akhshav ba-ra‘ash: shirim] (references to original or my translations as ‘Akhshav Ba-Ra‘ash. One translation is also taken from Selected Poetry).
1971 … [velo’‘al menat lizkor] (references to original or my translations as Velo’‘Al Menat Lizkor).
1977 … [ha-zman] (references to original as Ha-Zman; references to Amichai's 1979 translation of his own work as Time; some translations of Ha-Zman are also taken from Selected Poetry and are so marked).
1980 … [shalvah gedolah: she’elot u-teshuvot] (references to original or my translations as Shalva; translations taken from Abramson and Parfitt  as Great Tranquillity).
1982 … [she‘at ha-chesed] (references to original or my translations as She‘at Ha-Hesed).
1985 … [me-adam atah ve’al adam teshuv] (references to original or my translations as Me-Adam).
Trees appear in Me-Adam (p. 47, 53); Shalva (p. 96); and She‘at Ha-Hesed (pp. 33, 62). Flowers appear in Shalva (pp. 35, 50); She‘at Ha-Hesed (p. 108).
Pp. 14, 15, 16, 28, 44, 52, 54, 67, 87, 99, 143, 171, 172, 185, 186, 223, 239, 245, 281.
Pp. 18, 20, 23, 30, 35, 45, 58, 59, 69, 70, 78, 87, 91, 110, 120, 126, 148, 171, 182, 200, 204, 213, 214, 227, 233, 243, 265, 269.
Pp. 18, 21, 78, 83, 86, 99, 103, 177, 220, 222, 239, 274, 280, 282.
Trees, pp. 21, 40, 47, 53, 61, 70, 83, 90, 101. Flowers, pp. 12, 15, 29, 32.
See Arpali (1986: 264).
See, for example, Ramras-Rauch (1986) and Leshem (1986).
See Sadan-Lubenstein (1983).
For example, poems about jasmine appear in She‘at Ha-Hesed (pp. 23 and 74) and in Me-Adam (pp. 1 and 40); and about the rose in Me-Adam (p. 64) and Poems (p. 6).
In the Hebrew hatzav, “squill.”
In Hebrew, literally, “begot.”
There were many personal poems in the early period as well, but the general tone and atmosphere expressed identification with the generation. See Miron (1988).
See, for example, poem 21 in Time: “The figure of a Jewish father … / … / And he has documents of mercy and / papers of love … / And at night, lonely and slowly he cooks jam, / stirring round and round … / white and sweet for coming generations.” In addition, the chapter devoted to the father in Amichai's poetry in Abramson (1989) confirms this portrait of the father.
See, for example, King David's lament for his son, “Absalom, my son, my son Absalom” (2 Sam 1:5). The repetition is characteristic of the genre of eulogy throughout Jewish literature.
Arpali (1986: 80) demonstrates how, in Amichai's poetry, nature's cycle runs parallel to human life.
Referenced Works of Yehuda Amichai
1963 1962-1948: … [Shirim] [Poems]. Jerusalem.
1969 1968-1963 … [‘akhshav be-ra‘ash: shirim] [Now in the Storm]. Jerusalem.
1971 … [velo’ ‘al menat lizkor] [In Order Not to Remember]. Jerusalem.
1977 … [ha-zman] [Time]. Jerusalem.
1980 … [shalva gedolah: she‘elot u-teshuvot] [Great Tranquillity: Questions and Answers]. Jerusalem.
1982 … [she‘at ha-chesed] [The Hour of Grace]. Jerusalem.
1985 … [me-adam atah ve’al adam teshuv] [From Man Thou Art and to Man Thou Shalt Return]. Jerusalem.
Referenced Translations of Amichai's Works
Abramson, Glenda, and Tudor Parfitt, trans. Great Tranquillity: Questions and Answers. New York. 1983
Amichai, Yehuda, author and trans. Time. New York. 1979
Bloch, Chana, and Stephen Mitchell, eds. and trans. Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai. New York. 1986
Guttman, Asia, trans. Selected Poems. London. 1968
Abramson, Glenda. The Writing of Yehuda Amichai: A Thematic Approach. Albany. 1989
Arpali, Boaz. … [Haprachim veha-agartal] [The Flowers and the Vase: Amichai's Poetry 1948-1968]. Tel Aviv. 1986
Balaban, Avraham. “… [Galgal shinayim uzro’a iyata]” Yediot Aharonot (December 31). 1982
Bartana, Orzion. “… [Ha-melech hashiri hu irum]” Yediot Aharonot (June 15). 1979
———. “… [Amichai: She’elot v‘teshuvot]” Yediot Aharonot (April 25). 1980
Barthes, Roland. “Rhetoric of the Images.” Image Music Text. Stephen Heath, comp. and trans. New York. Pp. 32-51. 1977
———. Elements of Semiology. Annette Lavers and Colin Smith, trans. New York. 1978
Barzel, Hillel. “… [Al ha-poetic a shel Y. Amichai]” Yediot Aharonot (April 30). 1982
———. “… [lehakdim sof l’eynsof]” Iton 77 10: 20-23. 1986
Blat, Avraham. “… [Shirat Y. Amichai]” Ha-Zofe (October 4). 1963
Feingold, Ben-Ami. “1962-1948 … [Amichai]” Ha-Boqer (May 24). 1963
Gilan, Maxim. “… [Olam hachashukot shel Amichai]” Lamerhav (September 4). 1959
Ginosar, Yosef. … [Amichai: mivchar m’omrei bekoret] Yehudit Zwik, ed. Tel Aviv. 1988 
Gold, Nili Scharf. “Images in Transformation in the Recent Poetry of Yehuda Amichai.” Prooftext 4: 141-152. 1984
Harari, Josue V. “Introduction.” Textual Strategies: Perspectives in Post-Structuralist Criticism. Josue V. Harari, ed. Ithaca. Pp. 17-72. 1979
Levit, Anat. “… [leshir et shir ha’aviv]” Iton 77 10: 24-25. 1986
Leshem, Giyora. “… [hashevota shel retzonot]” Moznayim 49: 20-23. 1986.
Miron, Dan. “Reading Two Love Poems by Yehuda Amichai.” Anaf. Jerusalem. Pp. 196-236. 1963
———. … [hapreda min na’ani ha‘ani] Tel Aviv. 1986
———. “… [shevirat hakelim v’tikunim]” Moznayim 63/2: 9-19 and 63/3: 9-18. 1988
Ramras-Rauch, Gila. “… [‘al sefer shirav ha-chadashim shel Y. Amichai]” Alei Siah 4/5: 172-175. 1977
———. “… [kosmos preti vemichus le’omi]” Moznayim 49/8-7: 16-19. 1986
Riffaterre, Michael. Semiotics of Poetry. Bloomington/London. 1978
———. “Generating Lautreamont's Text.” Textual Strategies: Perspectives in Post-Structuralist Criticism. Josue V. Harari, ed. Ithaca. Pp. 404-420. 1979
———. Text Production. Terese Lyons, trans. New York. 1983
Sachs, Arieh. “The Poetry of Yehuda Amichai” Jewish Chronicle (September 14). 1966
Sadan-Lubenstein, Nili. “… [delet shelo hapetach ocl]” Ha-Aretz (May 13). 1983
———. “Imagist Patterns in Amichai's Poetry.” Iton 77 44: 63-69 and 45: 93-99. 1983
Shavit, Zohar. “… [Ve-lo al menat lizkor]” Keshet 53/1: 161-170. 1971/72
Zach, Nathan. “… [‘al habayit haboded]” Yokhemi 5: 40-44. 1966/67
Zandbank, Shimon. “… [shirav ha-menugadim shel Y. Amichai]” Amot 1/5: 93-95. 1963
Zifer, Beni. “… [shnei solmot]” Ha-Aretz (November 13). 1981
Zwik, Yehudit. “… [Baderech ’el hashalva]” Moznayim 44/6: 10-13. 1982
———. “Introduction.” … [Amichai: mivchar m’omrei bekoret] Tel Aviv. 1988
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Alter, Robert. “Poetry in Israel.” In After the Tradition: Essays on Modern Jewish Writing, pp. 241-56. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1969.
An overview of Israeli poetry since the formation of the state of Israel.
———. “Israel's Master Poet.” New York Times (8 June 1986): 40.
An overview of Amichai's life and literary career.
Bar-Yosef, Hamutal. “Hebrew Poetry in the Years Following the Establishment of the State of Israel.” Jewish Book Annual 26 (1968-1969): 34-48.
An overview of developments in Hebrew poetry since the formation of the state of Israel.
Eshel, Amir. “Eternal Present: Poetic Figuration and Cultural Memory in the Poetry of Yehuda Amichai, Dan Pagis, and Tuvia Rübner.” Jewish Social Studies 7, no. 1 (fall, 2000): 141-66.
Examines the issue of Jewish cultural memory in the works of three Jewish poets.
Fenton, James. A review of Time. London Review of Books 1, no. 4 (6 December 1979): 16.
A brief, negative review of Amichai's Time.
Fishelov, David. “Yehuda Amichai: A Modern Metaphysical Poet.” Orbis Litterarum 47, no. 3 (1992): 178-91.
Compares Amichai to the seventeenth-century English metaphysical poets, particularly John Donne.
Flinker, Noam. “Saul and David in the Early Poetry of Yehuda Amichai.” In The David Myth in Western Literature, edited by Raymond-Jean Frontain and Jan Wojcik, 170-78. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 1980.
Discusses Amichai's poetry in which he modernizes the traditional stories of Saul and David.
Gold, Nili Scharf. “Images in Transformation in the Recent Poetry of Yehuda Amichai.” Prooftexts 4 (1984): 141-52.
Examines Amichai's poetry, asserting that, in his later poems, he elaborates on a single complex image and demonstrates greater control over his use of figurative language.
Halkin, Hillel. “Yehuda Amichai: The Poet as Prose Writer.” Ariel: A Review of Arts and Letters in Israel, no. 61 (1985): 20-24.
Discusses The World is a Room(1985), Amichai's volume of short stories.
Hughes, Ted. Introduction to Amen, by Yehuda Amichai, 9-15. New York: Harper and Row, 1977.
Discussses the general appeal of Amichai's poetry to a broad international audience.
Intrater, Roseline. “Yehuda Amichai and the Interrelatedness of All Things.” Jewish Quarterly 32, no. 3 (autumn 1985): 39-42.
Discusses Great Tranquility,Amichai's volume of verse, in terms of the themes of modern Israeli identity and Jewish history.
Kronfeld, Chana. “‘The Wisdom of Camouflage’: Between Rhetoric and Philosophy in Amichai's Poetic System.” Prooftexts 10 (1990): 469-91.
Examines Amichai's philosophical system, as expressed in his poetry.
———. “Reading Amichai Reading.” Judaism V, no. 45 (summer 1996): 311-23.
Examines Amichai's references to ancient Jewish texts in his poetry.
Merrin, Jeredith. “Yehuda Amichai: Down to Earth.” Judaism 45, no. 3 (summer 1996): 287.
An overview of major themes and stylistic elements of Amichai's poetry.
Silker, Nikki. “In the Great Wilderness.” Parnassus (fall/winter 1983, spring/summer 1984): 153-69.
Reviews Amichai's Time(1979), Love Poems (1981), and Great Tranquility (1983).
Sokoloff, Naomi B. “On Amichai's El male rahamim.” Prooftexts 4 (1984): 127-40.
Examines Amichai's use of modern colloquial Hebrew in his poetry.
Spicehandler, Ezra. “An Analysis of Yehuda Amichai.” Judaism 41, no. 1 (winter 1992): 96-104.
Reviews the book The Writing of Yehuda Amichai: A Thematic Approach, by Glenda Abramson.
Williams, C.K. “We Cannot Be Fooled, We Can Be Fooled.” New Republic 223, no. 1 (3 July 2000): 29-33+.
Reviews Amichai's poetry volume Open Closed Open.
Additional coverage of Amichai's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 46, 60; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 9, 22, 57; Major Twentieth-Century Writers, Vol. 1.
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SOURCE: Gold, Nili Scharf. “A Burning Bush or a Fire of Thorns: Toward a Revisionary Reading of Amichai's Poetry.” Prooftexts 14 (1994): 49-69.
[In the following essay, Gold analyzes recurring motifs throughout Amichai's oeuvre.]
I've filtered out of the Book of Esther the residue of vulgar joy, and out of the Book of Jeremiah the howl of pain in the guts. And out of the Song of Songs the endless search for love, and out of the Book of Genesis the dreams and Cain, and out of Ecclesiastes the despair and out of the Book of Job—Job. And from what was left over I pasted for myself a new Bible. Now I live censored and pasted and limited in peace.
Hazman 29; Time, 29
Yehuda Amichai won the prestigious Israel Prize for the “revolution he created in Hebrew poetry.” He is often described as a pillar of modern Hebrew literature, and his later work, from 1968 to date, is very popular in Israel and widely known abroad in translation.1 Nevertheless, in the last two decades he has been neglected, even ignored, in academic studies and largely denounced by reviewers, most of whom think he has already said what he had to say, as though his work after 1968 were superfluous, self-epigonic, even insincere. His early work, from 1948 to 1968, widely praised when it first appeared, has been hailed as his canon and still enjoys that status.2
This article, which is part of a revisionary study of Amichai's later poetry, seeks to reveal its significance.3 By analyzing the transformations in figurative language and structure, I wish to demonstrate that the poetry of the late 1970s and 1980s shows great command of poetic language and technique and should therefore be considered an integral part of his literary canon. To be sure, figurative and ready-made linguistic materials explicit in the earlier work also appear in the later poems, but here they create a unique multifaceted texture.4 Most important, Amichai's voice becomes more suggestive and individual. The voice has turned inward, and the change is manifested in his idiosyncratic reworking of conventional materials. Tensions between sociolect and idiolect, between existing literary or spoken language and the poet's personal diction, combine to create the distinctive diction of the later poetry.5 This analysis will focus on the changing modes of his figurative vocabulary. It is crucial, for the image is the principal carrier of meaning in Amichai's oeuvre.
Although the many transmutations in Amichai's art are the core of my recent studies, my focus here is the shift in his reworking of classical materials. While his early work can shock and even overwhelm the reader with its dramatic language, the same materials in the later poetry are understated. With similar clichés and intertexts, he arrives at different meanings by sculpting the same stone more carefully and skillfully. It is as though shocking the reader was the appropriate tactic for overthrowing the poetic regime of the 1950s. The new poetics reflects a growing self-awareness and confidence in the mastery of language. The analysis here emphasizes this transformation, particularly how the functions of figurative language in his poetry change, and how the image undergoes metamorphosis.
Amichai's earlier work is loyal to convention, and this loyalty directs his choice of images as well as their elaboration.6 Ready-made and conventional figurative materials appeared in the early poetry either in their familiar meaning or in its complete reversal. The goal was to exploit sociolectical connotations or to shock by reversing them or placing them in a new context. In the later poetry, their elaboration is subtler and more individual.7 Amichai introduces a new idiolect, which simultaneously uses convention and turns away from it. The new idiolect is wrought by gently defamiliarizing the contexts of the ready-made materials, by turning to personal, pseudoconcrete episodes, and by weaving into his own texts hidden and camouflaged intertexts.8
Comparative analysis can reveal how the behavior and function of images have changed in different periods of Amichai's poetry. In the works presented here, three ancient classical linguistic or cultural materials serve as poetic generators of meaning and as a prism through which change is observed. These three made their way from Poems: 1948-19629 into the collections of the 1980s.10
The first image is the burning bush (Exod. 3:2), of which the original context was revelation and redemption. Second is the ethrog—ritual citron—rooted in Jewish religious tradition. The third is the vine and the fig tree, the common biblical combination, the symbol of peace.
Two hopes away from the battle, I had a vision of peace. My weary head must keep walking, my legs dreaming apace. The scorched man said, I am the bush that burned and that was consumed: Come hither, leave your shoes on your feet. This is the place.
(Shirim, 129, no. 43; trans. Selected Poems, 27)
On first reading, this early quatrain startles because the ready-made material is dramatically reversed. No longer does the man, Moses, behold the bush burning; the speaker beholds a burnt man. A miracle has happened and the bush was not consumed; the man, however, was burned. God, who could have performed a miracle, is missing; so the place is unholy and the speaker need not remove his shoes.
The verses from the intertext—“The bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed,” and “put off thy shoes from thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground” (Exod. 3:2, 5)—are quoted almost intact, but their purpose is to protest. The expectation proffered in the first line, promising hope and peace, vision and dream, is annulled by the horror of the last lines. The vision is illuminated with irony. The speaker, a modern-day Moses, envisions peace but is too exhausted to reach the far-off haven of his hopes. Even if he does arrive there, he will be unable to rescue the man already consumed by fire. The reality of war is the antithesis of the redemption envisioned in the intertext. Withal, both the biblical and the modern-day Moses remain “afar off” (Deut. 32:52).11
In the 1985 poem “A Memory of Love—Terms and Conditions,” the lovers' separation is also described in the language of the burning-bush image.
What did we bring back for the rest of our lives, A flaming face like the burning bush That won't consume itself 'til the end of our lives.
(Meadam, 39; Even a Fist, 20)
In the quatrain (“Two hopes …”) above, both the original text and its reversal remain in the same semantic field of nation, prophecy, history, and destiny. This happens despite the change of the image's marker from positive to negative—miracle / no miracle, redemption / no redemption, Divine presence / absence, life / death. By contrast, in “Memory of Love,” the image crosses over into the semantic fields of love and man-woman relationships. Here, fire symbolizes life and the force that rules it. The burning bush is the memory of love; the lovers part, but their love continues to burn for the rest of their separate lives. The source of the flame is obscured. Does this “flaming face” denote a suntan (in the first stanza the lovers are compared to children returning from the seashore)? Or the crimson blush of shame about their conduct toward the end of their relationship? Or the residue of burning passion? Or the memory of love? Whatever the answer, the burning bush will be consumed only after death; memory will die only when those who remember will die. As in the intertext, the burning bush is not consumed, but this time it does not promise redemption. It does not even suggest a miracle, for unlike an unconsumed burning bush, memory is a common phenomenon.
Although vanished love is described in the code of divine revelation, it is not elevated and God is not trivialized; the two events are juxtaposed and interpreted each by way of the other—actualization in the original text versus passed-over opportunity in Amichai's poem. In the earlier poem, the dramatic reversal of the image shocks by emphasizing the plasticity of the scorched man instead of the unconsumed bush, whereas the later transformation of the same image is understated. The marker (+ / -) is unclear. The faces of the parting lovers show only the flush of the burning bush's flame. The color mirrors the inner fire. This is no longer the horrific sight of a charred human body but the ever-present memory of love and the pain of separation that consumes the souls of the parted lovers for the rest of their lives.
The language resonates with words recognizable from classical sources, everyday speech, and even Amichai's own poetry. Nevertheless, he successfully manipulates this material without recourse to ingenious verbal calisthenics or grandiloquent elaborations.
This distinctive understatement is manifest clearly in the development of the convention image, in another poem from 1985, “A Dangerous Land” (Me’adam, 73). Here the burning bush returns to its original habitat, divine revelation, although the actual image is not mentioned:
A dangerous land [– – – – – – – – – – – – – –] where everything might be a beginning of a new religion: any birth, any death, any fire of thorns in the field, any smoke. Even the lovers must be cautious.
(Me’adam, 73; my translation)
As in the quatrain from Shirim, the image marker is changed from positive to negative, although more subtly and ambiguously. The burning bush is merely implied, not quoted. Furthermore, it is present as a warning to the lovers, attenuating terror: “Even the lovers must be cautious.” The new religion is a source of danger: The future is threatening, so the past should be preserved. “He who says ‘here there was’, is a prophet of consolation.” Nevertheless, the memories are in danger: “And the war memorials are scattered everywhere, like weights, so the chronicles of the land should not fly in the wind.”
By paraphrasing burning bush as “fire of thorns” and by placing it in an analogous relation to other phenomena—“any death, any birth”—the volume and revelatory power of the biblical image is diminished. In addition to changing the marker from positive in the intertext to negative in the poem, in its new guise the image proposes an alternative commentary. The classical text affects the poem because it couples perpetual fire with religion; but in return, the poem also affects the original text, endangering its inviolability, indeed almost suggesting that what Moses saw was merely a brush fire. The numinous quality of both the land and its people is apt to transform any small brush fire (burning bush), any birth (Jesus, son of God), and any death (the death of Jesus) into a new religion.
In this case, intertextual tension moves in many directions, and a wealth of overtones is created by reversing the marker from positive to negative. The hope in the intertext that revelation brings salvation is transmuted to fear of the danger bound up with the revelation: This is “a dangerous land” where everything can begin a new religion. (Employing the myth, “A Dangerous Land” demythifies.) The grandeur of the historical references in the intertext (“this great sight” [Exod. 3:3] and “I am the Lord thy God” [Exod. 20:2]) are dwarfed in the poem. “Any fire of thorns,” “any birth, any death,” are not so earthshaking; fire, birth, and death are not so significant as an unprecedented event. Even the one God is gradually diminished; He is no longer the one God, for “the gods of the land” (Elohey ha’arets) take the plural, “are not staying” (hem lo nish’arim). The plural form not only implies a compromising of monotheism, but also refers to the native premonotheistic Canaanite gods who are presumably abandoning the land.
Instead of dramatically changing the image of revelation and breaching its sanctity with a picture of horror, as in the quatrain, the status of religion is undermined by such vague words as “might be” (‘alul) and “any,” paraphrasing the image itself, and by its very context. This is not a rebellion against classical Scripture but a kind of commentary or midrash on the intertexts.
For Amichai, traditional Jewish experience is a bountiful source of poetic material. In the poems analyzed here, the convention on which the image rests is the actual commandment, not the text, as was the case with the burning bush.
The ethrog, the crowning jewel of the Sukkot Festival, is the most precious and perfect of the Four Species in the blessing a Jew recites throughout the holiday. The ethrog's natural and sole context is the ritual of the “taking of the palm frond” (the netilat lulav). The ethrog image evokes a wealth of classical associations, which stress its noble characteristics, most significantly that it be “unblemished.”
“The Smell of Gasoline Ascends in My Nose,” from Amichai's first collection, ‘Akhshav uvayamim ha’aherim (Now and in Other Times, 1955, later included in Shirim: 1948-1962), and “Summer-end in the Sharon,” from Me’adam (From Man, 1985), juxtapose two different reworkings of the ethrog image.
“THE SMELL OF GASOLINE ASCENDS IN MY NOSE”
The smell of gasoline ascends in my nose Love I'll protect you and hold you close like an ethrog in soft wool—so carefully my dead father used to do it that way.
(Shirim, 21; Selected Poetry, 3)
In an earlier poem, the presence of the ethrog shocks the reader. The image's components, ethrog and love, belong to dissimilar semantic fields, in which joining with gasoline in the first line is stunning. The impact is further dramatized by the dead father's presence and the evoked Hebrew idiom in the second line, Sam nafsho bekhapo, literally “he placed his soul in his palm,” which means he endangered his life. An alternative translation of the second line elucidates the connection between the beloved and the ethrog and clarifies the role of the idiom: “Your soul, my beloved, I will place in my palm.” The ethrog rests in its natural enclosure, the protective soft wool in the palm. The moment impregnated with sanctity and perfection in the ethrog's life parallels the girl's moment of love. Her soul will be preserved like the ethrog; she may even be as unblemished. She will be protected in the speaker's palm in the same way that the ethrog was guarded and preserved in his father's palm. But the father is dead, which foreshadows the fate awaiting the parting lover. If he dies, so does the girl's soul held in his palm and his dreams. For with him goes his yearning.
I will never forget you, girl of my final window in front of the deserts that are empty of windows, filled with war.
To say my dead father did it that way is puzzling. How can a dead father hold an ethrog? In any event, this intimate bit of meaning adds a shade of love and childhood to an otherwise cruel situation. The beloved's soul, and her love, connect with Amichai's private mythology and stylized biography, in which the father is a dominant figure.12
The clash between the ethrog and the smell of gasoline, and between love and war, remains. However, the descriptive system within the sociolect that encompasses ethrog, palm frond, myrtle, and willow branches, as well as Sukkot, holiness, blessing, and so forth, is absolutely foreign to war. The image, uprooted from the expected descriptive system, is transplanted to a shocking context, the smell of gasoline. The ethrog image remains isolated and unintegrated into the poem, and it is not mentioned again. The main impression formed by the different elements in the poem—ethrog, gasoline, beloved, and in later lines not examined here, olive tree, photo, army jet, and earth's raw materials—is fragmentation, disturbance, and disconnectedness.13
In “Summer-end in the Sharon,” part of a collection from the 1980s (Me’adam, 74), Amichai does not flaunt his earlier inventive extravagance. The ethrog appears in its natural context, that is, it is accompanied by additional details from the same descriptive system. “The scent of rain that is to come,” and the “first citrus fruits,” that open the poem come in the same season as Sukkot. The “citrus fruits” and “the orchard” that follow connect with the ethrog, while the last stanza is suffused with elements from the same descriptive system—“the Four Species,” “the festivals,” “palm frond, ethrog, myrtle and willow branches,” “the seven days of the festival.” As in “The Smell of Gasoline Ascends in My Nose,” death exists both as potential and as reality. For example, the word end appears in the title. In the first stanza is “the name of a man / who again I will never see,” for whom the weeping is “almost deadly, like inner bleeding.” The orchard in the middle of the poem is “expiring,” and the word heirs occurs twice. The event that gives meaning to the poem comes only at the end, where the ethrog image becomes the interpretant that deciphers the text:14
In front of the doorway of a house of an old man I saw the Four Species cast aside in one heap with the rest of the holidays' refuse: palm frond, ethrog, myrtle and willow branches, which grew far apart one from the other with great longings for one whole year so as to be together during seven days of festival now—bound together in death.
The picture is not surprising, but rather subtle. The reworking of the ready-made material is not dramatic, yet it sheds light on the image. Most of the images in the third and last stanza derive from two parallel descriptive systems: on the one hand, old age, senescence and death—“an old man,” “cast aside,” “refuse dump,” “rest of,” “in death”; on the other hand, the festival—“the holidays,” “palm frond, ethrog, myrtle and willow branches,” “the seven days of festival,” “bound together.” The systems and their intertextual resonants are intertwined with understated irony. For example, halakha says of the Four Species: “One does not fulfill one's obligation unless they are bound together as one” (Vitri, ruling 300), whereas in the poem, the species are “cast aside in one heap.” The root radical agd (bound together as one) appears in the closing line, intertwined with the descriptive system of death: “Now—bound together in death.” Unlike ethrog and gasoline, the contrasts between the two descriptive systems are blurred, thus allowing for peaceful coexistence. Against the backdrop of a life filled with pain, the poem summons up the possibility of tranquillity and festivity.
Ostensibly, the image from the plant world is developed along the line of nature's conventions. Four species that sprouted and grew throughout the year are now dead. A life lived with a destiny, which indeed it fulfills, has come to an end. The parallel between the plant's life cycle and human life is an accepted convention, ready-made in both language and literature. The languor of senescence is added to the subject of growth and death. Not only were the Four Species cast aside, but it seems the same fate befell the old man; he lives alone in “the house of an old man.” The first two lines of the last stanza close with “old man” and “cast aside,” evoking the cliché Al tashlikhenu le‘et zikna,” or “do not cast us aside in old age,” a phrase recited repeatedly in the seliḥot prayers of the Jewish high holidays, which occur shortly before Sukkot.
The longing of the Four Species for one another throughout the year, which is their life span, makes their brief rendezvous bittersweet. They are “bound together in death,” but before they died they were graced with seven days of union and festivity. The implied cliché is “the loved ones and the pleasant ones in their lives and in their deaths were not separated” (2 Sam. 1:23). This verse, from David's eulogy of King Saul and his son Jonathan, has become a convention for describing the beloved ones who died together. It is often engraved on joint tombstones.
Their entire lifetimes acquire meaning through “the seven days of festival,” longed-for days of love. Acceptance and fulfillment are added to sadness, for in spite of death, the four are ultimately graced with eternal union. Although bliss and love were short-lived, the goal was reached and death is no longer a threat. On the contrary, it is almost consoling, for under its wings the union will endure. Knowing their destiny, they consummated their love before death and have so remained together.
Each of the Four Species, including the ethrog, is specifically mentioned, thus contributing to the understated, suggestive nature of “End of Summer.” The description of their growth, longings, meeting, and death expands over one long sentence, which enhances the impression of tranquillity and acceptance, and of death as part of life. The purpose of growth is brief love and inevitable death. The ethrog that was granted “the hour of grace” is then bound in burial with the objects of its yearnings. The “great tranquillity” that the ethrog attains is wrapped in pain. Old age, made concrete in the image of the “Four Species cast aside,” and in the “holidays' refuse,” knows not only longing but also fulfillment of love, so it is prepared for all-binding death. The acceptance summoned up in the last stanza connects with the first:
Summer-end in the Sharon. The first citrus fruits almost touch the last grapes, in the space between them, there is room for my fruits, the quiet ones.
(Me’adam, 74; my translation)
The speaker who opens the poem, like the old man in the last stanza, enables his “fruits” to “celebrate” during the short time left. Risking overinterpretation, I would say that the space between the grapes and the citrus fruits corresponds to the “seven days of festivities,” which are the last days of love of an aging man—or poet.
The image of the ethrog in “The Smell of Gasoline” is totally removed from its natural context. It reflects the incipient fate of the separating lovers who will never again, either in life or death, be bound together. (The text provides no evidence of another rendezvous.) The rupture in the text—the semantic distance between ethrog, love, and gasoline—signifies a rupture of content, the lovers' permanent parting. By contrast, in the later poem, the ethrog remains in its natural context, so the image may suggest acceptance of death. In that sense, one may argue that the plant image is the actual message. The ethrog image enabled the early Amichai to create the drama of life and death, of grave danger, and of a moment of joy protected at the last moment before battle. Later, the same image functions without sharp contrasts; it does not aim to shock, but rather to illuminate gently the poem's meaning.
The vine and the fig tree (hagefen vehate’ena) are found in both the traditional sources and the Israeli landscape. They belong to the same descriptive system, and their pairing is rooted in the language. They are among the Seven Species with which the land was blessed. Their symbolic value, peace and tranquillity, and their literal meaning, sweetness and agricultural fecundity, often emerge only because they are paired.15
Amichai is faithful to the traditional pairing of vine and fig tree, and endows them with either the conventional meaning or its opposite (war, barrenness, and so on).16 However, the vine and/or the grapes, the fig tree and/or the figs also appear separately in his poetry, and their meaning conforms to literary and sociolectical conventions. The fig tree expresses fertility, sexual desire, and the feminine17 (cf. the fig leaf in the Garden of Eden); the vine and the grapes connote plenitude and sweetness as well as the celebration, laughter, and oblivion brought about by wine.
The fruits' sweetness and ripeness may also signify death.18 Ripeness is the climax of growth, but it also signals dying and rebirth. The figs and grapes also signal late summer and early fall, Amichai's favorite season.19
“SORT OF AN APOCALYPSE”
The man under his fig tree telephoned the man under his vine: “Tonight they definitely might come. Assign positions, armor-plate the leaves, secure the tree, tell the dead to report home immediately.”
The white lamb leaned over, said to the wolf: “Humans are bleating and my heart aches with grief. I'm afraid they'll get to gunpoint, to bayonets in the dust. At our next meeting this matter will be discussed.”
All the nations (united) will flow to Jerusalem to see if the Torah has gone out. And then, inasmuch as it's spring, they'll come down and pick flowers from all around.
And they'll beat swords into plowshares and plowshares into swords, and so on and so on, and back and forth.
Perhaps from being beaten thinner and thinner, the iron of hatred will vanish, forever.
(Shirim, 70; Selected Poetry, 10)
The ready-made verse from Micah's prophecy of redemption, “but they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid” (Mic. 4:4), serves as a latent intertext for the opening of the well-known poem, “Sort of an Apocalypse”: “The man under his fig tree telephoned the man under his vine” (Shirim, 71; Selected Poetry, 10). The poem is inlaid throughout with parts of the redemption prophecies of Isaiah (2:14, 6-11) and Micah (4:1-6).
“All the nations shall flow unto it” (Isaiah)
“For the law shall go forth out of Zion” (Micah and Isaiah)
“And they shall beat swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks”
“And a wolf will live in harmony with a lamb”
“All the nations (united) will flow to Jerusalem”
“to see if the Torah has gone out”
“And they shall beat swords into plowshares and plowshares into swords”
“The white lamb leaned over, said to the wolf”
(Selected Poetry, 10)
Amichai transmutes this prophecy, giving it a modern, ironic interpretation. The man beneath the fig tree telephones his neighbor beneath the vine, warning him of incipient war and advising him to buttress his defenses. Though the lamb and the wolf live in peace, the war between humans distresses them: “Humans are bleating.” The sword is beaten into a plowshare, which is then beaten back into a sword. The beating does not arouse much hope but “perhaps” mere friction will wear out the iron. But although present in the prophecies, God is absent from this dubious picture of Apocalypse, and the dream of peace withers and fades. “Sort of an Apocalypse” is a local event, quite dangerous, with little chance for improvement.
The monumental ready-made plant image is transposed to a contemporary setting by the word telephoned. The imaginary appeal of the man beneath the fig tree to his neighbor beneath the vine enlivens the image. Expressed in the official language of mass media, the appeal contributes to the contemporary ambience: “Tonight they definitely might come.” The warning and precautionary instructions in anticipation of attack—“armor-plate the leaves, secure the tree”—place the text in the here and now, overrun by war. This is an example of vintage Amichaian technique, to dismantle the idiom down to its literal and concrete parts.20 The poem's verses refer to people rather than symbols, trees rather than stage scenery, and war rather than peace.
The reworked ready-made material shocks with its sarcasm—“tell the dead to report home immediately”—and with the tension between the monumental ancient intertext and modern reality. Nevertheless, as in the other poems from Shirim (for example, the quatrain “Two hopes …,” quoted above), the reversal is limited to a dramatic change in the marker from positive to negative. Time after time God's promises are broken. Just as the vine and the fig tree, initially symbols of peace, are converted into symbols of war, the burning bush is changed from a symbol of redemption to a symbol of catastrophe. Hence, the symbols associated with trust in God actually emphasize his absence. From a situation anchored in the past or the distant eschatological future, the reader is cast into the agonies of a merciless, harsh present.
The earlier poems sharply contrast the ready-made biblical materials with the present; the hope of redemption offered by the prophets is annulled.
The vine and fig tree return in a different guise in the late poem “Eyes,” from the collection Shalvah gedolah: She’elot utshuvot (Great Tranquillity: Questions and Answers). Grapes, the fruit of the vine, and the figs from the tree are compared with the eyes of two of the speaker's three children. The eyes of the third are compared with the sections of an orange:
My eldest son's eyes are like black figs For he was born at the end of summer. And my youngest son's eyes are clear Like orange slices, for he was born in their season. And the eyes of my little daughter are round Like the first grapes. And all are sweet in my worry. And the eyes of the Lord run to and fro around the earth And my eyes are always looking round my house. God's in the eye business and the fruit business I'm in the worry business.
(Shalva, 63; Great Tranquillity, 65)
The pairing of the vine and fig images, the link between fruits and children who are fruits of the womb, and perhaps also the poem's simple symmetrical structure lead the reader to think that this usage lies within the conventional parameter. One may consider that the similarity between children's eyes and fruits is also pertinent to the convention's framework because both are round, but more important, because both children and fruits are sweet.21
However, the poem's appearance is deceiving. The convention functions here to create a new meaning; the three fruits are part of the Israeli landscape. True, the orange is not officially one of the Seven Species, but in the Israeli sociolect it is one of “the fruits of the land.” The ancient sources list the vine and fig tree under this rubric: “A land of wheat, and barley, and vines, and fig trees and pomegranates; a land of olive oil and honey” (Deut. 8:8).
The poem's matrix may be revealed only through the intertexts connecting seeing (eyes) to the fruits of the land. These relate to the spies who came to observe “the nakedness of the land,” and reported on its fruits: “and see the land what it is … and bring of the fruit of the land” (Num. 13:18, 20). “And [they] cut down from thence a branch of one cluster of grapes, and they bore it between two upon a staff; and they brought of the pomegranates and of the figs” (Num. 13:23). The spies' actions resulted in years of suffering, wanderings in the desert, and wars of conquest. The fruits of the womb are endangered because they resemble the fruits of the land; after all, the spies reported that this “is a land that eateth up the inhabitants thereof” (Num. 13:32). Thus, in the intertext where eyes are connected to fruits, the blessing is also a curse. The familiar pair, vine and fig tree, are part of the deception in the text. The peaceful hopes deriving from classical echoes and common associations with children are an illusion; the danger of war is the subtext of a pseudoconventional mask.22
Besides the children's eyes, God's eyes appear. The eighth line is a quotation, with small changes, from the warning of Hanani the Seer to King Assa when Assa placed his trust in the King of Aram instead of God. “For the eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to show Himself strong in the behalf of them, whose heart is whole toward Him. Herein thou hast done foolishly; for from henceforth thou shalt have wars” (2 Chron. 16:9). In other words, God's all-seeing, roaming eyes carry within them the danger of war, a punishment to those who dare to doubt His power.23
The intertexts nourishing the ostensibly naive and sentimental poem enrich the meanings of the ready-made image. The underlying reason for equating eyes with fruits is concealed in the latent texts, which connect the image with the need for the extra pair of eyes that appear at the end of the poem. Those belong to the children's father and protect the children from God's roaming eyes as well as from the fate (wars?) hovering over children in the land. In fact, the eyes in the poem's title, initially perceived as the children's eyes, belong to the father as symbolic manifestations of worry. Thus, his providence replaces Divine Providence and offsets God's indifference. The fruit is transformed from an unequivocal (fruit = child, eyes = fruits) to a sign rich with meanings, a cause of war and anxiety as well as shaking off God's dubious protection.
The process in Amichai's poetics is clarified by comparing these two different reworkings of the same image: the ready-made vine and fig tree in its manifest, simple, and blunt elaboration in the earlier “Sort of an Apocalypse,”24 and on the other hand, the same image later suffused with latent intertexts, calculated to mislead the reader and toy with his expectations.
On further consideration, “Eyes” reveals additional layers. The poem portrays, so to speak, the children's eyes, but the title may also be read as an interpretant whose choice is overdetermined. For example, in the dialect of Yemenite Jews, ‘ayuni, or “my eyes,” is a term of endearment for a child who, like one's own eyes, is the most precious gift of all. Other languages use the same expression: bavat ‘eyno (pupil of the eye) in Hebrew or “apple of the eye” in English. These terms apply to a child as well as to a beloved, so the subject of the poem is not necessarily the children's eyes, or, for that matter, God's or the father's. It refers to the children themselves—treasures, the pupil of their father's eye.
“Eyes” is motivated simultaneously by two clichés: vine and fig tree (as in Deut. 8:8) and “keep me as the apple of the eye” (as in Ps. 17:8). The overdetermined, multidirected elaboration of the conventions is engendered on one hand through the image: eyes = fruits, in turn enriched through the coupling of vine (grapes) and fig tree (figs) and their contexts, and on the other hand, by means of the implicit cliché represented by the title, in this case the interpretant: eyes = children.
This article compares the processes of reworking ready-made figurative materials in various periods of Amichai's work. The transformations of the images of the burning bush, the paired vine and fig tree, and the ethrog are examples of these processes, and when the methodological principles governing their analysis are applied to other texts and images in this poetry, they lead to similar conclusions. At the outset, it was argued that images from traditional sources are either dramatically altered or remain true to convention; for example, burning bush equals burnt man, and, by contrast, protecting an ethrog equals protecting the girl's soul. These shocking elaborations are often attributable to the reversal of the marker from positive to negative, that is, the tranquil vine and fig tree exist in the midst of war. The effect is also accomplished by matching distant semantic fields: the ritual ethrog and the mechanical gasoline, and the pastoral “man under his vine” using a telephone.
Amichai's later poetry seeks neither to declare new truths nor to rebel. Since the late 1970s, his poetics has become more suggestive, and he clearly prefers individual and specific imagery. Rather than canceling or reversing conventions or motifs, the marker of existing signs becomes unclear. The texture of Amichai's poems is enriched and layered through hidden intertextual interplays and understated contexts. While remnants of Amichai's early poetics are still present in the later period, his new achievement deserves serious critical acknowledgment.
The judges' decision is quoted in Beni Zifer Bni, “Two Scales” [Hebrew], Ha’arets, November 13, 1981. See also Anat Levit, “To Sing the Little Spring Song” [Hebrew], ‘Iton 77, 10 (1986): 24-25; Hillel Barzel, “To Finish the Infinity” [Hebrew], ‘Iton 77, 10 (1986): 20-23; Orzion Bartana, “The Poetic King Is Naked” [Hebrew], Yedi‘ot aḥaronot, June 15, 1979; and Nathan Zakh, “On the Single Stanza” [Hebrew], Yokheni 5 (1966): 40-44.
My approach to periodization follows Dan Miron, Hapredah min ha’ani he‘ani [Taking Leave from the Impoverished Self] (Tel Aviv, 1986). According to him, a poetic “break through” determines a beginning of a period, even if only a few poems of that period contain the changes in poetics. With this principle as well as the responses of critics in mind, I divided Amichai's work into three periods: (1) 1948-68 (Boaz Arpali, in the only in-depth study of the early work, clearly shows it to be a coherent, homogeneous body within the oeuvre. See Arpali, Hapraḥim veha’agartal [The Flowers and the Vase: Amichai's Poetry 1948-1968], Tel Aviv, 1986); (2) 1968-79 (an intermediate period, containing hints of the changes that will come later); and (3) 1980 to the present (1980 was the year that Great Tranquillity: Questions and Answers appeared, and this marked the turning point in Amichai's poetics, a major shift that continues to this day). There are many articles attacking Amichai's late poetry. Here is just a representative sample of quotations: “Amichai ought to rest from his mechanical responses”—Zohar Shavit, “Not in Order to Remember” [Hebrew], Keshet 53/1 (1971): 169-70; “artificial metaphors”—Yosef Oren, “And Not in Order to Remember” [Hebrew], Ha’arets, September 3, 1971; “tired poems”—Hayim Pesah, “Tired Poems” [Hebrew], Ha’arets, October 25, 1974; “Amichai ought not talk about changes”—Gila Ramraz-Rauch, “Presences on the Line of Time” [Hebrew], Davar, November 29, 1974; “Amichai's conceit is no longer working”—David Fishilov, “And How without Pain, Time” [Hebrew], Davar, November 11, 1977; “Amichai's language and dreams didn't change; his technique is unsuccessful”—Avraham Blat, “The Poetry of Y. Amichai” [Hebrew], Hatsofe, October 4, 1963. See also Ya’ir Mazor, “The End of Amichai's Sentimentality” [Hebrew], Proza, 88 (1986): 29-32; Moshe Dor, “Not in Order to Praise” [Hebrew], Ma‘ariv, October 1, 1971; Gila Ramraz-Rauch, “About Y. Amichai's New Poetry Book” [Hebrew], ‘Alei siaḥ, 4/5 (1977): 172-75; Uri Sela, “Poetry: Time by Amichai” [Hebrew], Yedi‘ot aḥaronot, May 13, 1977; Ada Barkay, “A Renewed Meeting” [Hebrew], ‘Al hamishmar, May 30, 1980; “Amichai invented Amichaism thirty years ago and he sticks to it”—Orzion Bartana, “Amichai: Questions and Answers” [Hebrew], Yedi‘ot aḥaronot, April 25, 1980; “Amichai imitates Amichaisms”—Moshe Hano‘omi, “The Instrument and the Orchestra” [Hebrew], Maḥbarot lesifrut, 6 (1980): 42-43; “An unsuccessful epigonist of himself”—Yesha‘yahu Shen, “Answers without Questions” [Hebrew], Davar, June 13, 1980; “If Amichai will not find the strength to rejuvenate himself, the poetry of the eighties will have to get along without him”—Avraham Balaban, “A Wheel and a Tired Arm” [Hebrew], Yedi‘ot aḥaronot, December 31, 1982.
There were, however, some exceptions, such as Menaḥem Ben, “A Poet for Adults” [Hebrew], Yedi‘ot aḥaronot, May 7, 1976, and Gershon Shaked, “A Journey of Stations” [Hebrew], Ha’arets, December 27, 1985.
For differences in critics' attitudes toward different periods, see, for example, Shlomo Grodzensky, “Shlonsky Prize 1957 and the Poems of Yehuda Amichai” [Hebrew], Davar, July 2, 1957; Avraham Blat, “The Poetry of Y. Amichai” [Hebrew], Hatsofe, October 4, 1963; Ben-Ami Feingold, “Amichai 1948-1962” [Hebrew], Haboqer, May 24, 1963; Shimon Zandbank, “The Contrary Poems of Yehuda Amichai” [Hebrew], ‘Amot, 1:5 (1963): 93-95; and Arpali for the early period. For the later periods see Shavit; Ramraz-Rauch, “About Y. Amichai's New Poetry Book”; Bartana, “Questions and Answers”; and Balaban. The history of Amichai's critical reception is summarized in the introduction to Yehudit Zwik, Yehuda Amichai: mivḥar ma’amarei biqoret ‘al yetsirato [Selected Articles on Yehuda Amichai], (Tel Aviv, 1988). This selection is itself proof of how attitudes toward his work have changed. Out of ten representative pieces, only one (by Yosef Ginosar) deals exclusively with the later poetry; two (by Zwik and Barzel) mix old and new, and the rest concentrate on early works. Additional academic studies written and published in the 1980s deal entirely with the early works. For example: Mazor, “Amichai's Sentimentality”; Barzel, “To Finish the Infinity”; Nili Sadan-Lubenstein, “A Door that Will Never Open” [Hebrew], Ha’arets, May 13, 1983; Arpali; Ziva Shamir, “A New Spirit: Amichai's Poetry: Retrospective” [Hebrew], ‘Iton 77, 10 (1986): 27-28; Dan Miron, “Breaking the Vessels and Their Mending” [Hebrew], Moznayim 62/2 (1986): 9-19; 62/3 (1986): 9-18. Even critics who discuss the later collections do it via comparison with the poems of the 1950s and 1960s. The poetics particular to the late 1970s and 1980s are not perceived as such.
In other works I argue for a redefinition of his canon. See Nili Scharf Gold, “Images in Transformation in the Recent Poetry of Yehuda Amichai,” Prooftexts 4 (1984): 141-52; “The Transformation of Images and Structures in the Poetry of Yehuda Amichai” [Hebrew] (Ph.D. dissertation, Jewish Theological Seminary, 1990); “And the Vows Are Not Vows” [Hebrew], Siman qri’ah 22 (1991): 361-78; “Flowers, Fragrances and Memories: The Different Functions of Plant Images in Amichai's Later Poetry,” Hebrew Studies 33 (1992): 71-92, and forthcoming ‘Al shirato hame’uḥeret shel Amichai [On Amichai's Later Poetry] (Tel Aviv, 1994).
By “ready-made linguistic materials” I follow Riffaterre's definition of clichés and other descriptive systems. See Michael Riffaterre, Semiotics of Poetry (Bloomington, 1978), pp. 39-40: “Clichés and descriptive systems … are already actualized in set forms within the reader's mind. They are part of his linguistic competence, and literary connotations are often attached to them. … But clichés are everywhere, ready-made examples, well-rested images … always containing trope, a canned or preserved stylistic device. … A descriptive system is a network of words associated with one another around a kernel word, in accordance with the sememe of that nucleus. Each component of the system functions as a metonym of that nucleus. So strong are these relationships that any such metonym can serve as a metaphor for the ensemble, and at any point in the text where the system is made implicit, the reader can fill in gaps in the orderly way and reconstitute the whole representation from that metonym.”
Sociolect, following Riffaterre (p. 5), is the pool of linguistic habits, hidden myths, descriptive systems, clichés and familiar classical texts that are known by readers and speakers of a common language.
Idiolect is a concept Riffaterre borrowed from semiology and redefined. According to him (p. 146), the idiolect is the language unique to the poet or his poetry—a pool of names, words, word combinations, and personal images that are characteristic of a specific author or speaker. It includes the linguistic usages that define and separate a specific writer from others who use the language. For the relationship between text and idiolect, see the introduction to Joshua V. Harari, ed., Textual Strategies: Perspectives in Post-Structuralist Criticism (Ithaca, 1979), pp. 17-72. Harari states that by “textual idiolect,” he means “the style of a text … a prescriptive and limitative subcode, and it is this subcode that imposes itself on the reader's attention” (p. 67).
Barzel, Shaked, and Arieh Sachs (in “The Poetry of Yehuda Amichai,” Jewish Chronicle, September, 1966: 14), among others, discuss these characteristics in Amichai's poetry. Barzel emphasizes his typical similes that link objects foreign to each other. Barzel also shows how Amichai takes idioms out of context and replants them in a strange verbal environment. Shaked observes surprising matches of materials that were never matched before, while Sachs declares that anything may be connected to anything in Amichai's poems. These qualities were recognized as his trademark and are often identified by critics as his historical breakthrough in the realm of metaphor.
A graph may illustrate the relationship between the Amichaian image and the convention. The horizontal axis (x) is the loyalty continuum, which runs from linkage to convention at one end to a subtle reworking and camouflaging of conventional materials at the other. By linkage I mean a simple use of ready-made materials either in their sociolectic meaning (+) or its direct reversal (-). The vertical axis (y), denoting individuality, shows the poet's use of general and common materials at one end, and specific, unique, and rare material at the other. (In this article, only the loyalty continuum is discussed.)
The different quadrants of the graph below are categories reflecting different degrees of linguistic manipulation and poetic function. Although in the early stages of Amichai's work there is an apparent tendency to choose general, familiar images with conventional meanings (-x,-y), later he shows a preference for rare, personal, private, and idiolectical images, and their subtle reworking (+x,+y). In the early poetry the poetic materials either conform to the convention (+) or reverse it (-); in the later poems the language in reworked materials becomes sophisticated, muted, and remote from its original use. Signs with a single meaning are transformed into vehicles of complex meanings.
The fewer and more ambiguous the semiotic signals, the more masked and hidden is the intertext. The camouflage is also accomplished by means of choosing rare intertexts, naturally less noticeable and obscure.
The collection Shirim: 1948-1962 [Poems: 1948-1962] is considered the core of Amichai's canon. In this article, most translations of that collection are from Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai, ed. and trans. Chana Bloch and Stephen Mitchell (New York: Harper & Row, 1986); henceforth Selected Poetry, used by permission of Harper Collins Publishers. References to the Hebrew text will be marked as taken from Shirim, and, like all Hebrew quotes in the article, are used by permission of Schocken Publishing House, Tel Aviv. (Unmarked translations are mine.—N.G.)
The collections of the 1980s are: (1) Shalvah gedolah: she’elot utshuvot (1980). The book was translated almost entirely as Great Tranquillity: Questions and Answers by Glenda Abramson and Parfitt Tudor (New York: Harper & Row, 1983). My own translations will be marked as such. (2) She‘at haḥesed (1982) [The Hour of Grace]. (3) Me’adam ata ve’el adam tashuv (1985) [From Man Thou Art and to Man Thou Shalt Return]. Only a few poems from this collection were translated. Some appear in Selected Poetry and some, including “Memories of Love” in Even a Fist Was Once an Open Palm with Fingers, trans. Barbara and Benjamin Harshav (New York: Harper Collins, 1991), henceforth Even a Fist. (4) Gam ha’egrof haya pa‘am yad petuḥah ve’etsba‘ot (Tel Aviv, 1989) [Even a Fist Was Once an Open Palm with Fingers].
In an article dealing with Jewish sources in Amichai's writing, Bahat underscores biblical “accusatory hints” in the poem by pointing to biblical references turned around to annul their original meaning. See Ya‘akov Bahat, “Jewish Sources and References to Them in the Poetry of Yehuda Amichai” [Hebrew], ‘Al hamishmar, September 2, 1963.
Amichai's personal myth and stylized autobiography are broadly discussed by critics. Glenda Abramson, for example, describes Amichai's poems as an “emotional journey through life” (91) and points out his thematic triangle: father, God, and love (86). See Glenda Abramson, The Writing of Yehuda Amichai: A Thematic Approach (Albany, 1989). Arpali calls the poems an “autobiographical diary” (166); Baruch Kurzweil, in “Autobiographical Poetry in the Great Desert” [Hebrew], Ha’arets, July 12, 1963, refers to Amichai's poetry as “Autobiographical Poetry in the Great Desert.”
The question of heterogeneous materials in Amichai's poetry is the subject of Arpali's extensive discussion. See especially pp. 30-33 and 134-36.
Following Riffaterre (p. 81), an interpretant is a sign that by its very form serves as a mediator. Acting like a pun, it guides the reader to significant intertexts hiding behind the meaning-conveying signs that appear on the text's surface.
The pair vine and fig tree symbolizes peace. In King Solomon's days, as in the coming days of Messiah, sitting “under one's vine and fig tree” connotes tranquillity. (Mic. 4:4 and 1 Kings 5:5). The pair also symbolizes agricultural plenty (Deut. 8:8) and its absence, calamity (Jer. 5:14). The fecundity of these two plants can be trusted, as manifested in Yotham's fable (Jud. 9:11-12). The vine and fig tree are paired fifteen times in the Bible with either a positive marker, their presence meaning blessing and peace, or a negative marker, their wilting meaning divine punishment.
That is the case in “Sort of an Apocalypse,” Shirim, 71; Selected Poetry, 10.
The conventional use of both figs and grapes is frequent in the early poems. The fig symbolizes sexuality as in the biblical fig leaf on Eve's nakedness (Gen. 3:7). For example, the figs' smell is “the smell of my sudden love” (Shirim, 2); young girls become “fig trees that are wonderful for love” (Shirim, 276); and “Your lips revealed a very ripe fig” (Now in the Storm, 53, my trans.—N.G.). Grapes are associated in the convention with wine, intoxication, sweetness, and forgetfulness, as confirmed in some early poems: “You had a laughter of grapes” (Shirim, 23; Selected Poetry, 4); the “juice of grapes is as thick as sweet human sperm” (Behind All This Great Happiness Is Hiding, 42, my trans.—N.G.); “There are many grapes this year but no peace in my heart” (Now in the Storm, 43, my trans.—N.G.).
See, for example, “On the Day My Daughter Was Born,” Shalvah, 44; Great Tranquillity, 39.
For “End of Summer” see, among others, Shirim (171); Great Tranquillity (98-99), as well as poems quoted in this article—“Summer-end in the Sharon” (Me’adam, 74) and “Eyes” (Shalvah, 54).
See Shimon Zandbank, “The Contrary Poems of Yehuda Amichai” [Hebrew], ‘Amot, 1:5 (1963): 93-95: “Amichai deliberately dismantles old idioms, isolates their components and replants them in a new context.” See also Shimon Zandbank, “Amichai—The Play and the Plenitude” [Hebrew], Lamerḥav, Nov. 28, 1969; Hillel Barzel, “Yehuda Amichai: Attacking Sanctity” [Hebrew], in Shirah umorashah [Poetry and Heritage] (Tel Aviv, 1971), 2: 59-153. He discusses the “dismantling of sacred texts.” See also Baruch Kurzweil, “Notes on Amichai's Poems” [Hebrew], Ha’arets, June 28, 1963.
The connection between the object of love and sweetness is also found in the English sociolect. A lovely child is called “sweetie,” and kisses are sweeter than wine. In Song of Songs (2:4), the beloved's “fruit” is said to be “sweet to the palate.”
The linking of eyes and fruits occurs in Amichai's early poems, although the image is not developed beyond the similarity in shape (round) and taste (sweet). For example, “The treetop of my head and in it fruits—eyes” (Shirim, 19); “Cherries—eyes” (Now in the Storm, 97, my trans.—N.G.).
For further discussion of Amichai's poetry as a “text of deceit,” see Gold, “Images in Transformation”; Gold, Images and Structures, the sections “Text of Deceit,” “The Botanical Lie,” and “The Poetic Lie” (pp. 255-329); and Gold, “The vows are not vows.” For the philosophical aspects of Amichai's indirect ars poetica see Chana Kronfeld, “The Wisdom of Camouflage: Between Rhetoric and Philosophy in Amichai's Poetic System,” Prooftexts 10 (1990): 469-91.
The wandering “to and fro” in the land (vayashutu bekhol ha’arets) is associated with another biblical catastrophe, a plague following the forbidden census conducted by King David and his emissaries (2 Sam. 24).
A similarly brilliant and shocking elaboration of conventional material in early poems can be seen in such examples as: “If God were not so full of mercy, there would have been mercy in the world and not only in Him” (Shirim, 69); “Unlike the dead we have to find rest / one in the other” (Shirim, 41); and “But now God is hiding, and man cries, where have You gone?” (Shirim, 71; Selected Poetry, 11).
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1420
SOURCE: Bloch, Chana. “Wrestling with the Angel of History: The Poetry of Yehuda Amichai.” Judaism 45, No. 179 (Summer, 1996): 298-300.
[In the following essay, Bloch discusses the ways in which Amichai's poems address the meaning of the Jewish experience in history.]
A friend of mine tells a story about some Israeli students who were called up in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. As soon as they were notified, they went back to their rooms at the University, and each packed his gear, a rifle, and a book of Yehuda Amichai's poems. It is a little hard to envision this scene: these days we don't think of soldiers as resorting to poetry under fire, and Amichai's poetry is not standard government issue. It isn't patriotic in the ordinary sense of the word, it doesn't cry death to the enemy, and it offers no simple consolation for killing and dying.
Still, I know what these young soldiers were after, because I have often found myself turning to Amichai's poetry as a kind of restorative. Pungent, ironic, tender, playful and despairing by turns, it draws me by the energy of its language, the exuberant inventiveness and startling leaps that freshen the world, making it seem a place where anything is possible. And by the humor, too—a briny Jewish humor that can set the teeth on edge. And I am attracted by a certain astringent quality of mind, a skeptical intelligence that is impatient with camouflage and pathos and self-deceit, that insists on questioning even what it loves.
Love is at the center of Amichai's world, but he is quick to grant that his mistress's eyes are nothing like the sun, that sex is at once an enticing scent and a sticky business. And Jerusalem, the beloved city, he contemplates with a mixture of love and exasperation. No one has written more intimately about this lanscape—the dust and stones and the ghosts of barbed-wire fences; the Old City with its Wailing Wall and mosques and churches, its Solomon and Herod and Suleiman the Magnificent, all under a cloud of prophecy; the foreign consulates and the housing projects; the Jews and the Arabs; the zealous black-coated Hasidim and the tourists; the brooding presence of the dead.
Amichai's way of seeing this place—and most things he writes about—from both the inside and outside, balancing tenderness against irony, reflects his experience of two very different worlds. Born in Würzberg, Germany, in 1924, he grew up in an Orthodox Jewish home with its strict religious observance and its protective God, as inescapable as family. His father was a shopkeeper, his grandfather a farmer, and his memories of childhood (the political situation notwithstanding) idyllic. In 1936 he came to Palestine with his parents, and his adult life has been lived in the midst of the convulsive struggle of Israel to become a state, and then to survive and define itself. Amichai made his living as a teacher while studying war—as a soldier with the British army in World War II, with the Palmach in the Israeli War of Independence in 1948, and with the Israeli army in 1956 and 1973. He was formed half by the ethics of his father and half by the cruelties of war.
Throughout his career, he has written about memory and the burdens of memory; about the lingering sweetness and simplicity of his parents' lives set against the perplexities of his own; about war as loss and love as a hedge against loss. The most troubling loss is that of his childhood, left behind in the normal course of life and then destroyed by war. “My childhood of blessed memory,” he calls it, borrowing an expression commonly used when speaking of the dead.
Amichai holds on tightly to whatever he has lost. “What I will never see again I must love forever” is his first article of faith. That is why there are so many elegies of love here. And that is why the God in these poems, who at times seems no more than a figure of speech, deeply embedded in the language, makes his presence strongly felt even in his absence. Amichai's quarrel with God is what stamps this poetry as so unmistakably Jewish. That quarrel carries on the venerable tradition of Abraham, Jeremiah, and Job—though the object of his irony is the Bible as well, not least the visionary fervor of the prophet. As he writes in “When I Banged My Head on the Door,” a poem that may be taken as his ars poetica:
When I banged my head on the door, I screamed, “My head, my head,” and I screamed, “Door, door,” and I didn't scream “Mama” and I didn't scream “God.” And I didn't prophesy a world at the End of Days where there will be no more heads and doors.
What Amichai loves best is the ordinary human being with his pain and his joy, a museum in his heart and shopping baskets at his side. In “Tourists” it's not the Roman arch he wants us to care about, but the man sitting nearby with the fruit and vegetables he has just bought for his family. …
Amichai began to write in 1948; his first collection of poetry appeared in 1955. Since then he has published eleven volumes of poetry, many of them best sellers, as well as novels, short stories, and plays. His poems enjoy an enormous popularity in Israel. They are recited at weddings and funerals, taught in the schools, and set to music. And for a poet so rooted in his own place, his work is remarkably well known outside of Israel, having been translated into some thirty-three languages, including Chinese, Japanese, and Albanian.
These poems, chosen from Amichai's best work over a productive career of nearly half a century, should give some notion of his stylistic range: long poems and short, rhymed and unrhymed, in formal meters and in free verse; poem cycles; prose poems and poems hovering at the borders of prose; poems of an overflowing abundance and poems of a tightly coiled concision. All the translations are our own: Stephen Mitchell translated the poems written before 1969, and I translated the later ones.
The poems lend themselves to translation because they speak clearly and directly, and because Amichai's striking metaphors carry the burden of his meaning. But his language is far more dense and inventive than this may suggest. Reading these poems in Hebrew, one encounters allusions to biblical and liturgical texts on every page. The Israeli reader, even one who has not had Amichai's formal religious education, will have studied the Bible from grade school through college, and is also likely to recognize the kind of liturgical texts that Amichai refers to, such as the Mourner's Kaddish or the Yom Kippur service. Because this is obviously not true of most readers of English, we have often borrowed from or imitated the King James Bible as a way of pointing up allusions that might otherwise have gone unnoticed. On the other hand, modern Hebrew, revived as a spoken language only a hundred years ago, is much closer to the Hebrew of the Old Testament than our own language is to seventeenth-century English, and Amichai's allusions never have a “literary” air. So when we felt that the archaisms of the King James Version intruded awkwardly on the naturalness and ease of Amichai's diction, we found other equivalents. And when an allusion would have required too much explanation, we sometimes chose to disregard it.
To write poetry in Hebrew is to be confronted with the meaning of Jewish experience in all its strangeness and complexity. Amichai's provocative allusions rangin from the witty and mischievous (“The man under his fig tree telephoned the man under his vine”) to the subversive and iconoclastic (“The army jet makes peace in the heavens”)—are one way of wrestling with the angel of history. The necessity of confronting the past is imposed by the language itself; it is Amichai's achievement to have found in that wrestling his distinctive identity as a poet:
to speak now in this weary language, a language that was torn from its sleep in the Bible: dazzled, it wobbles from mouth to mouth. In a language that once described miracles and God, to say car, bomb, God.
This essay …[is] excerpted from The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai, Newly Revised and Expanded Edition, translated by Chana Bloch and Stephen Mitchell, to be published by the University of California Press in September. The essay is part of the Foreword.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4226
SOURCE: Hirsch, Edward. “Yehuda Amichai: Poet at the Window.” In Responsive Reading, pp. 140-52. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999.
[In the following essay, Hirsch explores central themes in the poetry of Amichai, such as love, war, history, and Jewish identity.]
For more than thirty years Yehuda Amichai has been conducting his own highly personal war on forgetfulness and silence. He has the unique ability to render and enact the complex fate of the modern Israeli, the individual man locked in and responding to history. Amichai is a historical poet of the first order, a political writer in the deepest sense of that term. At the same time, he is a writer who always speaks of his own concerns, his private love pangs and personal questions, his parents' history and his own intimate secrets. Part of the achievement of Amichai's work has been the conjoining of these two spheres, always speaking of one in terms of the other. Indeed, one of the central themes of his work has been the way the personal is implicated in the historical, the private impinged upon by the public. Always his poems register the human implications of the political event—in Lorca's phrase, the drop of blood that stands behind the statistics. In a way, the poet is like one of Emerson's “representative men” transferred to Jerusalem and updated for the second half of the twentieth century, a prophet who shuns the traditional role and speaks in the guise of an ordinary Jewish citizen concerned with his people and his place. He is, like Wordsworth, a passionate man trying to speak to other men, and, as a modern Hebrew poet, his work is appropriately steeped in the common imagery of the Prayer Book and the Psalms, the communal imagery and mythology of the Hebrew Bible, the underground stream of Jewish mysticism.
Most often Amichai speaks without the mask of a fictive persona, as an individual witness, a quiet man who is always standing at the window. The poem “Out of Three or Four in a Room” (from Poems, translated by Assia Gutmann) captures and enacts precisely what it means to be a witness, a writer trying to bridge the speechless and enormous distance between the inadequate and false words (cut loose and “wandering without luggage”) and the terrible event. It is a poem that in the example of its making transcends its own pessimism, but it shows too that, as Williams said, “There is nothing sacred about literature, it is damned from one end to the other.”
“OUT OF THREE OR FOUR IN A ROOM”
Out of three or four in a room One is always standing at the window. Forced to see the injustice amongst the thorns, The fires on the hill.
And people who left whole Are brought back in the evening, like small change.
Out of three or four in a room One is always standing at the window. Hair dark above his thoughts. Behind him, the words. And in front of him the words, wandering, without luggage. Hearts without provision, prophecies without water And big stones put there And staying, closed, like letters With no address; and no one to receive them.
Amichai is a poet who may say truthfully that “I go out to all my wars.” He was born in Wurzbürg, Germany, in 1924 and immigrated with his parents to Palestine in 1936. He fought with the British army in World War II and then in three Israeli wars—in 1948, 1956, and 1973. He speaks from experience when he talks of children “growing up half in the ethics of their fathers / and half in the science of war” (from Selected Poetry, translated by Chana Bloch and Stephen Mitchell). One of the shocks that gave rise to Amichai's poetry was the confrontation between the protected world of his childhood (a world of sweet parental love and strict religious observance) and the hard actualities of adult life. As Chana Bloch suggests in her foreword to the Selected Poetry, he has spent his entire adulthood in the midst of Israel's struggle at first to exist, then to survive. He has not escaped that difficult history, or what he calls “the complicated mess” of Israeli life. The poem “Like the Inner Wall of a House” reports that
I found myself Suddenly, and too early in life Like the inner wall of a house Which has become an outside wall after wars and devastations.
Wars and devastations are behind all of Amichai's work. Sometimes the knowledge of war is implicit in his poems, in their background of sadness, terror, and loss—but just as often it is imminent and explicit, violently affecting him. And the place where they impinge most is on his own love life, for Amichai is perhaps first and foremost a love poet, a writer preeminently concerned with the tenderness and ironies of sexual love. And he is continually waking to find that love engulfed by the external historical world. He writes, “In the middle of this century we turned to each other,” thus specifying the personal moment in terms of the larger epoch, and he announces wryly that:
Even my loves are measured by wars: I am saying this happened after the Second World War. We met a day before the Six-Day War. I'll never say before the peace '45-'48 or during the peace '56-'67.
In his perceptive introduction to Amen (1977), Ted Hughes comments on the way in which Amichai's imagery ramifies both outwards and inwards, wedding the private to the public. Hughes writes:
Writing about his most private love pangs in terms of war, politics, and religion he is inevitably writing about war, politics, and religion in terms of his most private love pangs. And the large issues are in no way diminished in this exchange … Each poem is like a telephone switchboard—the images operate lightning confrontations between waiting realities, a comic or terrible conversation between the heavy political and spiritual matters and the lovers.
Perhaps the finest example of Amichai's conjunction of love and politics (or love and war, or love and religion), his imagistic tangle of supposedly separate but inevitably tangled realms, is the poem “A Pity. We Were Such a Good Invention” (also from Poems). This poem is remarkable for its directness and profound simplicity, its unique mixture of the erotic and the political, its subtle tone of outrage and nostalgia. As a love poem, it is worthy to stand beside “The River Merchant's Wife: A Letter” or, more appropriately, “The Good-Morrow” and “The Canonization.” The Amichai of the 1950s and 1960s was a somewhat formal and metaphysical poet, a tender ironist influenced by W. H. Auden (especially in his conjunction of the private and the political spheres) and George Herbert (mainly in his redefinition of the metaphysical conceit); John Donne was an especially strong early influence, and this poem has some of the qualities, though presented retrospectively, of “For God's sake hold your tongue, and let me love …” It reads:
“A PITY. WE WERE SUCH A GOOD INVENTION”
They amputated Your thighs off my hips. As far as I'm concerned They are all surgeons. All of them.
They dismantled us Each from the other. As far as I'm concerned They are all engineers. All of them.
A pity. We were such a good And loving invention. An airplane made from a man and wife. Wings and everything. We hovered a little above this earth.
We even flew a little.
The final memory of this poem, understated and passionate, may be effectively placed against the violent and surgical destruction of the unspecified “them.” Here the lovers are not “stiffe twin compasses,” as in Donne's famous image, but, appropriate to their century, “an airplane made from a man and wife.” There is a sad, ironic, outraged, bitter, and wistful tone in the homely invention of this little hovering aircraft. And, though it is true that there is an enormous burden in this act of remembering, there is also a vehement anger and determination. This is the same poet who will convincingly title another poem “To Remember Is a Kind of Hope.” Because to remember is a kind of hope, particularly as those hopes are embodied in poems.
Amen begins not at the window but in the street, and it starts out not with the poet but with Mr. Beringer, “whose son / fell by the Canal.” Mr. Beringer is the first of many in this book who has lost a son or a husband or a father or a lover. He is grief-stricken and responsible to his dead son, and because of the weight of that responsibility (or rather because of the weight he is losing) the poet becomes responsible to him.
Mr. Beringer, whose son fell by the Canal, which was dug by strangers for ships to pass through the desert, is passing me at the Jaffe gate:
He has become very thin; has lost his son's weight. Therefore he is floating lightly through the alleys, getting entangled in my heart like driftwood.
The poem, “Seven Laments for the Fallen in the War,” goes on to speak of the monument to the unknown soldier, which, ironically and because it is on the enemy's side, will become “a good target marker for the gunners / of future wars.” It remembers Dicky, who was hit “like the water tower at Yad Mordecai”; there “everything poured out of him.” It speaks of “Bitter salt … dressed up / as a little girl with flowers” and a dead soldier who “swims above little heads / with the swimming movements of the dead.” These laments come from a country where “everything [is] in three languages: Hebrew, Arabic, and Death.” He asks the heartfelt question, “Is all of this sorrow?” The answer: yes.
“May ye find consolation in the building of the homeland.” But how long can you go on building the homeland and not fall behind in the terrible three-sided race between consolation and building and death?
And in this world even an old textbook, faulty but tenderhearted, becomes an emblem of a friend who died “in my arms and in his blood.”
I found an old textbook of animals, Brehm, second volume, birds: Description, in sweet language, of the lives of crows, swallows and jays. A lot of mistakes in Gothic printing, but a lot of love: “Our feathered friends,” “emigrate to warmer countries,” “nest, dotted egg, soft plumage, the nightingale,” “prophets of spring,” The Red-Breasted Robin.
Year of printing 1913, Germany on the eve of the war which became the eve of all my wars.
My good friend, who died in my arms and in his blood in the sands of Ashdod, 1948, in June.
Oh, my friend, red-breasted.
One of the remarkable and metaphysical aspects of this sly and sad poem is the way the feelings for the textbook imply, without becoming sentimental, the tender feelings for the friend. The connection is made with lightning-like precision, the name of the robin transformed and infused with new meaning as it comes to represent the dead soldier, frozen in time, red-breasted. And by speaking about this outdated textbook of animals (“year of printing 1913”) the poet lines the poem not only with sorrow, but with warmth and affection too. Indeed, the sixth lament makes this distinction important: “Yes, all this is sorrow” … but leave / a little love burning, always / as in a sleeping baby's room a little bulb.” The lightbulb gives off “a feeling of security and silent love” that keeps us from giving ourselves wholly to grief. It is true that sometimes, as on Memorial Day in the seventh lament, the poem itself gives way, mixing grief with grief, sorrow with sorrow, until the poet (in “camouflage clothes of the living”) cries out, much as one imagines Job crying out:
Oh, sweet world soaked, like bread, in sweet milk for the terrible toothless God.
In these poems Amichai's sardonic Jewish quarrel with God reaches a fever pitch worthy of the biblical prophets. “We begged / for the knowledge of good and evil,” he complains to the Lord in another poem, “and you gave us / all kinds of rules like the rules of soccer” (Selected Poems). But against this, and with a terrible irony infusing a kind of tender hopefulness, the poem juxtaposes its final line: “Behind all this some great happiness is hiding.”
Amichai's war poems are unique in that they are informed by a strong sense of personal responsibility—the self simultaneously implicated in and victimized by the war—or, as one poem puts it, “the hunter and the hunted in one body.” No poem demonstrates this sense of personal responsibility, the individual voice assuming the weight and burden of these collective deaths (and what is that collective but a sum of individuals?) better than the fourth poem in Poems from a Cycle Called ‘Patriotic Songs.’ The poem begins, typically, with a disclaimer about itself (“I have nothing to say about the war”), and it ends, also typically, with a complex and sweet-voiced affirmation.
I have nothing to say about the war, nothing to add. I'm ashamed.
All the knowledge I have absorbed in my life I give up, like a desert which has given up all water. Names I never thought I would forget I'm forgetting.
And because of the war, I say again, for the sake of a last and simple sweetness: The sun is circling round the earth. Yes. The earth is flat, like a lost, floating board. Yes. God is in heaven. Yes.
This final affirmation, in a language that is itself a kind of last and simple sweetness, is particularly poignant in that it is an affirmation of a world that has long been lost, a world that has been initiated into another kind of knowledge. The extraordinary sense of a world that has a flat wooden surface and a calm God can only predate 1913, that dark eve of all our wars, when the West put on its helmet of fire and, like the Hebrew poet, “crossed the borders of being an orphan.” It is now a bloodstained, red-breasted world for adults, and, as an early poem of Amichai makes clear, “God takes pity on kindergarten children … but adults he pities not at all.”
He abandons them, And sometimes they have to crawl on all fours In the roasting sand To reach the dressing station And they are streaming with blood.
It is with this knowledge and through these eyes that one must consider Amichai's final affirmation. Somehow and all at once that affirmation is simultaneously sincere and ironic, terribly honest and tender, deceptively simple and impossible. Perhaps most of all it is impossible. And yet, like Rilke in his self-portrait, the poem does make its affirmation, “it says its yes.”
Reading Amichai's poems is a harrowing experience. The sheer accumulated weight of these losses is enormous. I find it nearly impossible to read these poems, however successful, as a merely literary performance. Their human presence is too close. Even the weakest poems, and some of the little love poems toward the end of the book seem tossed off and merely cute, bear a particular stamp. Ultimately, these poems may not have the stature of, say, Whitman's poems, but, as in Whitman, one cannot read them without simultaneously touching the man who stands behind them. At times, in their deepest moments, in their naked splendor, the simple recital of losses may take on the quality of a sacred litany. Here is Amichai's eleventh “Patriotic Song.”
The town I was born in was destroyed by shells. The ship in which I sailed to the land of Israel was drowned late in the war.
The barn at Hammadia where I had loved was burned out. The sweet shop at Ein-Gedi was blown up by the enemy. The bridge at Ismailia, which I crossed to and fro on the even of my loves, has been torn to pieces.
Thus my life is wiped out behind me according to an exact map:
How much longer can my memories hold out?
The girl from my childhood was killed and my father is dead.
That's why you should never choose me to be a lover or a son, or a bridge-crosser or a citizen or a tenant.
It is no wonder, given the accumulated burden of these losses that the thirty-fourth poem goes on to move in three ascending sentences, from “Let the memorial hill remember, instead of me / that's his job” to
let dust remember, let dung remember at the gate, let afterbirth remember.
Let the wild beasts and the sky's birds eat and remember. Let all of them remember, so that I can rest.
At times the ravages of death and destruction almost reduce the poet to silence. But more often he posits two central consolations: the temporary joys and glories of erotic love (his typical procedure is to use the religious vocabulary of the Psalms to praise his beloved) and the sacred trust of memory. Love is for him a secular salvation, a doomed momentary stay against the furies of the outside world. So, too, remembering is a terrible and exhausting burden in his poems, but it is also one of his only redemptions. Memory itself becomes a hedge against oblivion. Amen is a book of faith and doubt, sorrow and sweetness, astonishment and recognition. But mostly it is a book of memory, a book that continues to remember even as it refuses that very act, even as it longs to rest. But there is no rest. Out of three or four in a room one is always standing at the window.
With the aid of Ted Hughes, Yehuda Amichai has translated his poems from Hebrew into English with surprising immediacy and effect. Many of the poems are written in a style that is disarmingly playful and direct, deceptively simple; they are so artful that at times they appear artless and naked, utterly spontaneous. What a long apprenticeship must precede such simplicity! Much of Amichai's strength rests in the tone and temper of that style, the way in which he strikes the exact registers of feelings, the sympathy that is always flowing outward in his work. Almost always his poems move on the winds of a rich and nearly surreal imagery, somehow both personal and anonymous, absolutely contemporary and yet very ancient. In a way the poems seem like one of the women they describe: “With a very short dress, in fashion / But weeping and laughter from ancient times.”
Amichai is an especially tricky poet to translate. His characteristic linguistic strategy is to bring together in wry confrontation ancient biblical Hebrew and the living language of the streets. His poem “National Thoughts” speaks of a people's struggle to adapt a historical language to harsh contemporary realities:
People caught in a homeland trap: to speak now in this weary language, a language that was torn from its sleep in the Bible: dazzled it wobbled from mouth to mouth. In a language that once described miracles and God, to say car, bomb, God.
This modern Jacob-like struggle with the angel of Hebrew is one of the central issues of Amichai's work. It is also a compelling problem for anyone who chooses to translate him.
Unlike most books of contemporary poems, Amen is filled with other people. These poems speak with a natural and real tenderness of a village Jew (“God fearing and heavy eyed”), a tired gym teacher (“I never realized gym teachers could be sad”), a Czech refugee in London (“She behaves here as in a schoolbook for foreign languages”), and a bride without dowry (“What a terrible blood bath is she preparing for herself”). In a country filled with “all this false tourism” he speaks comically but also with a certain amount of warmth of “a Jewish girl / Who has American hope / In her eyes and whose nostrils are still / Very sensitive to anti-Semitism.” And there is a heartrending poem about a school-teacher who traveled all the way to New York to commit suicide.
People travel far away to say: this reminds me of some other place. That's like it was, it's similar. But I know a man who traveled to New York to commit suicide. He argued that the houses in Jerusalem are not high enough and that everyone knows him.
I remember him with love, because once he called me out of class in the middle of a lesson: “There's a beautiful woman waiting for you outside in the garden and he quieted the noisy children.
When I think about the woman and about the garden I remember him on that high rooftop, the loneliness of his death and the death of his loneliness.
Amichai's poems, as in this elegy for his schoolteacher, always try to keep “the route to childhood open.” Often they speak with warmth, nostalgia, and reverence for his dead father. There are so many lovely lines about Amichai's father here (and “All those buried with him in one row, / His life's graduation class”) that it is hard to resist quoting them all. One poem begins, “My father's cheeks when he was my age were soft / Like the velvet bag which held his praying shawl.” And in “Letter of Recommendation” the son inside the lover breaks loose, and he cries out:
Oh, touch me, touch me, you good woman! This is not a scar you feel under my shirt. It's a letter of recommendation, folded, from my father: “He is still a good boy and full of love.”
I remember my father waking me up for early prayers. He did it caressing my forehead, not tearing the blanket away.
Since then I love him even more. And because of this let him be woken up gently and with love on the Day of Resurrection.
When Amichai speaks of childhood, he does so with a sly and wistful sadness, a longing to cross the barriers of that other. Cocteau tells us that “there are poets and grown ups.” But at times Amichai almost takes Cocteau one step further, as if to say, “there is no such thing as a grownup” and, simultaneously, “we are all in exile from childhood.” Lit up by a dry interior weeping, we are always recalling our lives, lugging around worn-out letters of recommendation from the past, our futile hearts, our endless queries for affection.
In Amichai's poems those queries are most often sent out as a lover. Sometimes his love songs (“Love Song,” “Menthol Sweets,” “Sometimes I Am Very Happy and Desperate”) seem to be too short and unrealized, too imagistically interchangeable. But his finest love poems are filled with a bittersweet tenderness, an ancient mine of wisdom. He tells us that “He who put / masculine and feminine into the language put / into it also departing.” Amichai is best, however, not when he laments a lost love but when he praises: simply, wildly, without restraint. “A Majestic Love Song,” for example, begins majestically.
You are beautiful, like prophecies, And sad, like those which come true, Calm, with the calmness afterward. Black in the white loneliness of jasmine, With sharpened fangs: she-wolf and queen.
He is a poet able to speak of the royal scar and the blind golden scepter; he names a woman's rings as “the sacred leprosy of your fingers.” It is only when the erotic poems move at the speed of such marvelous images that they earn their delicate vulnerability, their deep, heartbreaking voices. And from “You are beautiful, like the interpretation of ancient books” they move successfully into
To live is to build a ship and a harbor at the same time. And to complete the harbor long after the ship was drowned.
And to finish: I remember only that there was mist. And whoever remembers only mist— what does he remember?
Robert Lowell once called Randall Jarrell “the most heartbreaking poet of his generation:” Amichai, too, is a heartbreaking and heartrending poet, and, in an odd way, in a different incarnation, speaking in different language of a different people moving through a different landscape, his poems sometimes remind me of Jarrell's finest and most luminous poems. Artfully simple, direct, and absolutely honest, simultaneously sweet and sorrowful, tender and unsentimental, both poets continually remember the enormous burden and mystery of ordinary adults shouldering their memories, carrying around the secret of their childhoods, the weight of their losses, the endless rituals of their daily lives, which are so utterly original, so utterly “commonplace and solitary.” I would not push the connection, but I cannot shake the feeling that, however different they are, Jarrell's housewives, secretaries, and ball turret gunners are part of the same human band as Amichai's gym teachers, tourists, refugees, and Jewish soldiers. Both poets speak naturally of orphans, warriors, parents, children, and citizens.
Yehuda Amichai is a poet with a genuine talent for rendering the complex interior lives of other people. Human sympathy flows generously out of his work like a great river. He is, in his own small way, part of a tradition that dates at least as far back as the ancient Hebrew prophets. Amen is the book of a representative man with unusual gifts telling the tale of his tribe.
The essay expands on a piece of the same title that first appeared in the American Poetry Review 10, no. 3 (1981).
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SOURCE: A review of Open Closed Open. Publishers Weekly 247, No. 13 (March 27, 2000): 71.
[In the following review, Publishers Weekly offers a favorable assessment of Amichai's poetry collection Open Closed Open.]
Constructing a lineage in which to place himself, Amichai begins these verses of personal and cultural history with a stone from a destroyed Jewish graveyard; and moves on to enact the story of David, recall poems by Ibn Ezra, and even consider Jesus as an instance of “Jewish Travel.” Within this vast context, the 25 longish poems of the collection, originally written in Hebrew, offer everyday acts of alternately joyous and somber reverence for God, “with the same body / that stoops to pick up a fallen something from the floor.” Amichai, who emigrated to Palestine in 1936 and is now 76, places imagined Holocaust memories (“I wasn't among the six million who died in the Shoah. / I wasn't even among the survivors”) adjacent to irreverent reconfigurations of Torah characters, investigates “The Language of Love and Tea with Roasted Almonds,” and asks “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, Why Jerusalem.” The English-only text is generally well-rendered by poet Bloch and Hebrew scholar Kronfeld, but the rhymes can show jingly signs of strain: “Our father Jacob, on the beaten track / carries a ladder on his back // like a window washer to the VIPs. / He does God's windows, if you please.” Despite the moments of levity, mortality dominates each anecdote, whether it be a story of romantic, familial or ancestral love: “The memorial forest where we made love / burned down in a great conflagration // but the two of us stayed alive and in love in memory of the burnt ones the forest remembered.” The book becomes more personally confessional as it progresses (poem 22 is titled “My Son Was Drafted”), as the poet reminisces on his youth, first love and adoration of children. Death, finally, becomes a form of remembrance, where “not even a single act of remembering will seep in / and disturb memory's eternal rest.” This is a searching late book from a writer who acknowledges the high stakes of writing and of life as lived daily.
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SOURCE: Bloch, Chana, and Chana Kronfeld. “Amichai's Counter-Theology: Opening Open Closed Open.” Judaism 49, No. 2 (Spring, 2000): 153-67.
[In the following review, Bloch and Kronfeld discuss Amichai's perspective on God and Judaism, as expressed in his poetry.]
On the cover of Open Closed Open, Yehuda Amichai's new collection of poems, there is a fragment of a broken gravestone with the word “Amen” carved on it. The stone, from a Jewish cemetery destroyed nearly a thousand years ago in his birthplace, Wirzburg, Germany, was given to Amichai by a German professor of theology who has devoted himself to reassembling the broken pieces and reconstructing the gravestones. That “toy of history and fate” is now a decorative object on his writing desk, “a thing of beauty, weighing down papers so they won't fly away.” Five poems referring to the Amen stone are situated at intervals throughout the volume, and other poems conclude with Amen (a secular Amen, to be sure) or incorporate bits of prayer. These poems suggest the nature of Amichai's project in Open Closed Open, a book that gathers up the broken pieces of personal and Jewish history. Like the German professor, Amichai is engaged in the exacting work of recovery, though his object is not to make the pieces “whole again, once again.” He refuses to restore the fragments of history and memory to a spurious wholeness, just as he resists the temptation to look back on the past with the sweet gaze of Jewish nostalgia. “Child's play,” he calls this kind of verbal jigsawing, with a self deflating irony.
Composed over nearly a decade, Open Closed Open is the ripe work of the poet in his sixties and seventies—without doubt his magnum opus. Writing at the peak of his powers, and increasingly conscious of his role as a mediator of cultural memory, Amichai pieces together from an intense and strenuously-lived life a poetic biography of our time. As in his earlier books, he writes about language and love, sexuality and mortality, war and memory, Jerusalem and Jewish history. He continues to argue with a God he stopped believing in long ago, and to wrestle with the traditional texts of his Orthodox Jewish upbringing, elevating the mundane and naturalizing the divine in a tone at once playful and dead-serious. He rewrites the biblical tales, inventing a third son for Abraham, conflating Jacob's two wives into one Racheleah, and imagining Moses putting together a police sketch of the face of God. Amichai's upending of traditional meanings, in its deliberate contrariness, is very Jewish: “But it could also be the other way around,” he contends in the manner of Talmudic argument and counter-argument. At the same time, his need to question the permanence of any one truth, except when it takes the form of paradox and contradiction, is typically modern. In a world where “Change is God,” the only absolute in Amichai's lexicon is le-hefekh, le-hefekh, “vice versa.”
Open Closed Open registers the pressures of living between a rock and a hard place:
Jewish history and world history grind me between them like two grindstones, sometimes to a powder.
“I Wasn't One of the Six Million,” #6
To live by the Jewish calendar is to be caught between yet another set of grindstones, to be always looking ahead or looking back, never simply resting in the moment:
Between the eve of the holiday and the final day the holiday itself gets squeezed, between longing for the past and longing for the future the spirit is ground up as if by two heavy millstones, upper and nether.
“I Foretell the Days of Yore,” #7
Yet Amichai does not succumb to bitterness, nor does he assume the classic Jewish postures of pathos or lament; his matter-of fact directness is enlivened, dependably, by a saving wit. And his credo (ha-dni ha-to ma'amin sheli) remains an anti-credo—“my post-cynical humanism,” he calls it-a sober exuberance about whatever is human, life-size, embodied:
That's the way to live: to stick your hand into the world's infinite outside, turn the outside inside out, the world into a room and God into a little soul inside the infinite body.
“My Son Was Drafted,” #7
The reader familiar with Amichai's body of work will recognize the many allusions to his earlier poetry as well as to his fiction. At the same time, although it resonates with the rest of his oeuvre, Open Closed Open introduces new perspectives, a new urgency. Amichai's desire to understand the feminine, both in women and in himself, takes a bold turn in this book, especially when he writes about the exclusion of women from traditional Jewish practice. He regards the Orthodox Jewish women of his childhood synagogue, segregated behind the mechitza, as teachers of authentic emotion, and the mechitza itself as a barrier stultifying to both women and men:
I studied love in my childhood in my childhood synagogue in the women's section with the help of the women behind the partition that locked up my mother with all the other women and girls. But the partition that locked them up locked me up on the other side. They were free in their love while I remained locked up with all the men and boys in my love, my longing. I wanted to be there with them and to know their secrets and say with them, “Blessed be He who has made me according to His will.” And the partition a lace curtain white and soft as summer dresses, swaying on its rings and loops of wish and would, lu-lu loops, lullings of love in the locked room.
“Gods Change, Prayers Are Here to Stay,” #21
Throughout Open Closed Open, women are the bearers of a special wisdom, keepers-of the-code for the language of love. They mediate between past and future, life and death, knowing both the danger and the privilege of that inbetween state, and they have a thing or two to teach God Himself: that true mercy “is born of the womb, true mercy, / true womb, true love, true grace” (“In My Life, On My Life,” #13).
The notion of Otherness is new in Amichai's poetic vocabulary; he explores both its positive and negative valences, drawing on the multiple meanings of acher, “other,” in Jewish tradition. Empathy with the Other allows him to write “Otherness is love,” “Otherness is God.” But as with all the aphoristic assertions that pepper the book, these statements are subject to reversal; hence “Otherness is Death,” “Otherness killed Ruth” (his childhood love, who died in a Nazi death camp). “Otherness” thus becomes a coded reference to the Shoah, a subject that till now Amichai has attempted mainly in his fiction. By naming Otherness as the killer, he relates the Shoah, often seen in strictly Jewish terms, to universal concerns about persecution and intolerance of difference. At the same time, unlike the history—mongers and the professional Holocausters-the phrase sho'an miktso'i, in Hebrew and English, is Amichai's own barbed neologism—he is adamant in his refusal to make capital of the Shoah:
I wasn't one of the six million who died in the Shoah, I wasn't even among the survivors.
“I Wasn't One of the Six Million,” #6
Death looms large in this collection, informing Amichai's meditations on his personal trajectory and the Jewish journey through time and space. Now, when he can “hear the circles of [his] life closing,” he chronicles with greater urgency than ever, the practical business of looking back and finding connections, making a life cohere. “Things that were lost long ago find their places now,” he writes:
I come upon the missing lids of pots and pans that stayed uncovered, I find the matching pieces, like an ancient contract of clay broken into two parts, unequal but fitting together. Like a mosaic, like a jigsaw puzzle, children searching for the missing pieces. When the game is over, the picture will be whole. Complete.
“In My Life, on My Life,” #11
The Jewish practice of summing up a life in moral terms is traditionally referred to in Hebrew as cheshbon ha-nefesh, an “arithmetic of the soul.” Amichai revitalizes the lofty poetic metaphor of the “Book of Life” by taking it literally, turning it into a child's math textbook:
Now I’ve reached the final pages with the answers. Back then it was forbidden to look. Now it is permitted. Now I check where I was right and where I went wrong, and know what I did well and what I did not do. Amen.
“Israeli Travel,” #6
In other poems, the personal arithmetic is inseparable from the historical or political:
I want to live until all the numbers are sacred, not just one not just seven not just twelve not just three but all the numbers, the twenty-three fallen in the battle of Huleikat … (and the number of the years of my life still X).
“Once I Wrote Now and in Other Days,” #8
Often sardonic, sometimes aghast, in a voice that moves between mischief and rage, tenderness and irony, Amichai wrests a poetry from the horrific “smoke-and-mirror halls of time.”
Open Closed Open differs strikingly from Amichai's earlier work also in its densely-wrought structure. The most deliberately ordered of all his collections, this book displays his mastery of a variety of genres—narrative and lyric poems, elegies, travelogues, epigrams, philosophical meditations, secular midrashim, blasphemous commentary, and iconoclastic prayers. Poems identified by number rather than title are linked in a series of associative sequences that build to a sustained climax, each one standing on its own while forming part of a polyphonic whole. Mood and tempo keep shifting as the poems move between the personal and the collective, the Jewish and the universal. Refrains and key words echo throughout the work, sparking tensions and dissonances as the poems argue with one another.
Among those key words are the “open” and “closed” of the book's enigmatic title, which allude to a Talmudic mashal or parable, worth including:
Unto what may the fetus in its mother's womb be likened? Unto a notebook that is folded up. Its hands rest on its temples, elbows on thighs, heels against buttocks, its head lies between its knees. Its mouth is closed and its navel open. … When it comes forth into the air of the world, what is closed opens and what is open closes.1
Amichai represents life as a temporary closure between two open-ended states, a brief interim between two infinites:
Open closed open. Before we are born, everything is open in the universe without us. For as long as we live, everything is closed within us. And when we die, everything is open again. Open closed open. That's all we are.
“I Wasn't One of the Six Million,” #4
But he doesn't simply reverse common wisdom, equating “open” with death and “closed” with life. His key concepts are always unstable and multivalent, accumulating a wide variety of meanings in the course of the book, some deliberately inconsistent. The “open” and the “closed” alternate as emblems of creative power:
I thought about the power of dammed-up water and the power of water falling in a torrent, the power of weeping and the power of restraint, the power of a woman's hair pulled back like a dancer's and the power of a woman's hair bursting free and open like a dancer's.
“Israeli Travel,” #14
God, too, is not simply “like a door that opens out,” but rather “like a revolving door that turns, turns on its hinges, in and out,” whirling and turning like the wind in Ecclesiastes.
Amichai's resistance to all forms of fixed order often finds expression in a deflating of ceremonial religious practice:
I go against the tide of pilgrims parading in the Old City, brush by them, rub up against them, feel the weave of their clothes, breathe in their smell, hear their talk and their song. … I go against the longings and the prayers to feel their warm breath on my face, the buzz and rustle of the stuff of longing and prayer.
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, Why Jerusalem?” #19
Going in the opposite direction is not only an ideological stance, but also a way of making contact with the material reality of the longings that are always stirring beneath the prescribed orthodoxies.
Sometimes all that Amichai can rescue from his Orthodox childhood are the sensual textures of memory. In a poem about his childhood synagogue, he likens the Torah scrolls to women, and the memory of that oh-so-sensual contact leads naturally to a meditation on time and mortality:
And we dress the rolled-up Torah scrolls in silken petticoats and gowns of embroidered velvet held up by narrow shoulder straps. And we kiss them as they are passed around the synagogue, stroking them as they pass, as they pass, as we pass.
“Gods Change, Prayers Are Here to Stay,” #22
The comfort and pleasure he felt as a child when he wrapped himself in a tallis2 he describes with an innocent eroticism, childlike and quasi-sexual, evoking here too the tactile memory of cocooning, of cuddling up. Now, as an adult, the speaker performs the same gesture with beach towel in hand, and the body remembers. For Amichai only the sensual and the palpable have staying power. Pronouncing “tallis” and “beach towel” in the same breath is a form of sacrilege, to be sure; an observant Jew would hasten to say le-havdil to separate the sacred from the profane, but Amichai enjoys transgressing such boundaries. Here he is proposing not a new hierarchy of towel-and-talks but an equivalence. To him the one is not more holy than the other; rather, the sensual pleasure in itself is holy.
Poetry on religious subjects is often sober and decorous or ecstatic; Amichai's, however, is typically playful, mischievous, irreverent, just this side of blasphemy. It is therefore surprising that, outside of Israel, he tends to be read as a card-carrying religious poet. Or perhaps not so surprising: for all his iconoclasm, he consistently grapples with issues that believers face, and he uses the vocabulary of belief to do so. Yet Amichai is by no means the sweet singer of Israel that is packaged and sold in America. Many English readers remain unaware of the ironic tone and critical edge in his use of religious discourse, both of which would be immediately apparent to an Israeli audience. Amichai's quarrel with God has the feel of a family argument, with intimate love and old anger forever tangled together. The God of his disbelief is literally, biographically, the God of his father. He casts his flesh-and-blood father as a new and improved version of the storm god of Mount Sinai, a new god whose commandments were given “not in thunder and not in anger, / not in fire and not in a cloud, but gently / and with love” (“My Parents' Lodging Place,” # 4). And Avinu Malkenu is exposed as a derelict father, a conniving monarch:
“Our Father, Our King.” What does a father do when his children are orphans and he is still alive? … What does a king do in the republic of pain? Give them bread and circuses like any king.
“Gods Change, Prayers Are Here to Stay,” #7
The poems just quoted come from a sequence called “Gods Change, Prayers are Here to Stay.” Here Amichai for the first time characterizes the longstanding argument with the Jewish God in his poetry as a theology of sorts. The entire sequence in fact amounts to a counter-theology—a critique of monotheism, the idea of chosenness, and Jewish religious practice.
Amichai starts by suggesting that Zionism is no substitute for a theology, though Israel has come to replace God in the modern Jewish Imagination. Panning on Herzl's first name, Theodore, Amichai takes a quick swipe at the subject, portraying the Father of Zionism as a child called home from the scrappy playground of young European nation-states:
Theo, Theo, come home Theo, don’t stay there with the bad boys, Theo, Theo, lo! Gee.
“Gods Change, Prayers Are Here to Stay,” #8
When Amichai turns his gaze on the Jewish God, his counter-theology is provoked by the bare stripped abstraction of monotheism:
I don't want an invisible god. I want a god who is seen but doesn't see, so I can lead him around and tell him what he doesn't see.
“Gods Change, Prayers Are Here to Stay,” #2
Why, he asks, can't the Jewish God be more like a Jew?
The God of the Christians is a Jew, a bit of a whiner, and the God of the Muslims is an Arab Jew from the desert, a bit hoarse. Only the God of the Jews isn't Jewish. The way Herod the Edomite was brought in to be king of the Jews, so God was brought back from the infinite future, an abstract God: neither painting nor graven image nor tree nor stone.
“Gods Change, Prayers Are Here to Stay,” #8
It was paganism, of course, that was mocked by the prophets and rabbis as the worship of trees and stones. The much-touted triumph of monotheism, however, is by no means an unequivocal gain for Amichai. For one thing, it koshers and salts all the blood-life out of Jewish living. For another, it robs Jewish culture of the richness of visual art, and leads to an impoverished relationship with the natural world as well:
Jewish travel. As it is written, “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help”: not a hike to see a tall mountain in all its glory, not a climb to rejoice in the vistas of Nature, but a hike with a purpose, to seek help from the high heavens.
“Jewish Travel,” #1
In a wry pastiche of traditional exegesis, Amichai takes on the rabbinic anxiety about nature as alien, Boyish, a seduction. (One thinks of the Talmudic caveat against stopping to admire the beauty of a tree—‘Mah na'eh ilan zeh “—as a distraction from the study of the sacred text, indeed, as a remnant of pagan worship.) Amichai also pokes fun at the Diaspora Jewish obsession with takhlis, “practical results.” A Jew climbs a mountain not simply because it's there, but “with a purpose,” as if nature had no value for its own sake but were only a conduit to Whence-cometh-my-help.
What Amichai wishes to preserve of the tradition is the text itself, which for him always has a physical presence—palpable and pliable. And what he loves in the text are the tensions, the gaps and contradictions that demand attention and interpretation. This is one area in which he agrees with the rabbis, seeing the culture of commentary as a living process of shaping and reshaping the meaning of Torah. His provocative parodies of rabbinic genres such as exegesis, law, midrash, and prayer have the effect of reviving ossified modes of thought.
Open Closed Open presents several neo-midrashim on familiar biblical characters like Abraham, Jacob, Moses, and David. A number of poems revisit the Binding of Isaac, the major topos of martyrological self perception in Jewish culture, which has by now become a cliche for all seasons in Israel. Amichai tweaks the cliche in “Three Sons Had Abraham,” undercutting the standard-issue pathos with humor. There is an enormous body of liturgical, midrashic, and secular literature on the Binding of Isaac, from the genre of piyyut called Akedah to post-Shoah poetry, in which Isaac was actually sacrificed, as well as an Islamic tradition in which Yishmael was sacrificed.3 By the same logic, Amichai invents a third son for Abraham and names him “Yivkeh” (“he will cry”): “No one has ever heard of Yivkeh, for he was the youngest, / the son that Father loved best, / the son who was offered up on Mount Moriah.” Here Amichai follows the Jewish tradition that associates promise with jeopardy: the chosen one is always in the greatest danger. The poem takes the form of midrash shemot, those after-the-fact etymologies that purport to explain the meaning of names. Amichai plays on the meaning of all three names. Yishmael is the only one whose name includes El, “God”; the other two have El added in the last line of the poem, following the biblical tradition of renaming.4 And Yivkeh is the only one who truly lives up to his name—by dying.
Ultimately, the textual tradition to which Open Closed Open gives greatest prominence is tefillah—prayer or liturgical poetry. But it is the human form of prayerful address rather than the figure of God that Amichai invests with sanctity:
I declare with perfect faith that prayer preceded God. Prayer created God, God created human beings, human beings create prayers that create the God that creates human beings.
“Gods Change, Prayers Are Here to Stay,” #3
Open Closed Open concludes with the most unsettling of the Amen poems, “The Jewish Time Bomb,” a catalogue of relics holy and unholy that gathers force and rage as it proceeds:
On my desk is a stone with “Amen” carved on it, one survivor fragment of the thousands upon thousands of bits of broken tombstones in Jewish graveyards. I know all these broken pieces now fill the great Jewish time bomb along with the other fragments and shrapnel, broken Tablets of the Law broken altars broken crosses rusty crucifixion nails broken houseware and holyware and broken bones eyeglasses shoes prostheses false teeth empty cans of lethal poison. In an early ars poetica, Amichai writes about a stone as it almost stops rolling down the steep hill, in the place where the plain of great renunciation begins, from which, like prayers that are answered, dust rises in many myriads of grains.
“Not Like a Cypress”
The latest gilgul of this stone is the bit of shattered gravestone on his desk, that “survivor fragment” rescued from the killing fields of history. Contemplating the Amen stone, Amichai is able, by the end of the book, to reach a still point beyond blame and complaint. With this broken “Amen” he constructs a response to the forces of death and mass destruction—a response made possible by the human capacity for language, the one transcendence he believes in. For Amichai, the only true prayer is poetry:
And though I know about all this, and about the end of days, the stone on my desk gives me peace. It is the touchstone no one touches, more philosophical than any philosopher's stone, broken stone from a broken tomb more whole than any wholeness, a stone of witness to what has always been and what will always be, a stone of amen and love. Amen, amen, and may it come to pass.(5)
Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Niddah, chapter 3, folio 30a. A variant appears in Leviticus Rabbah 14:8. In “I Foretell the Days of Yore,” # 11, the language of the Midrashic parable is used to express our innate awareness of human mutability: “Ever since I sat folded up in my mother's belly, I have carried inside me the wisdom of the folding chair.”
“Tallis” is the familiar Ashkenazi pronunciation that Amichai used as a child in Germany. Since the poem summons up a childhood memory, we chose that form over “tallit,” the pronunciation in Israeli Hebrew.
Shalom Spiegel, The Last Trial, new ed. Jewish Lights, 1993 [reprint of Schocken, 1967]). For the Islamic tradition, see pages xiv-xv of the Introduction.
Abraham and Sarah (formerly Abram and Sarai) have the “h” from Yahweh added to their names when they are chosen by God.
For their incisive criticism of an earlier version of this essay, we wish to thank Amichai Kronfeld and Naomi Seidman.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1468
SOURCE: Hadary, Amnon. “A Yad for My Friend Yahuda.” Judaism 49, No. 4 (Fall, 2000): 411-15.
[In the following essay, Hadary offers a general assessment of Amichai's poetry, at the time of his death in the year 2000.]
At Jerusalem's Safra Square on September 24th, we went to say Shalom Haver to yet another general, Yehuda Amichai, the reluctant poet laureate of Israel, felled by cancer, “the chief of staff in the war to liberate Hebrew literature,” Yossi Sarid said. He liberated Hebrew from the oy and the goy, from the pathos and piety, the rhyme scheme and the dead letter of tradition and ritual in literature as in life. For all that, he continued to shoulder the Jewish sack of images and insights and expressions as a beloved sacred weight, just as he persisted in carrying the memory of his dead friend who fell in the battle of Ashdod in the War of liberation.
I carried my comrade on my back. And since then I feel his dead body always Like a sky weighing heavily upon me, And he feels my bent back beneath Like a convex segment of the globe. For in the terrible sands of Ashdod, I fell Not just he.
There we were at the public leave-taking of Amichai, hundreds of us, Yehuda's soldiers in the 50-year campaign to make the Zionist state Jewish in a civil, humanist, peace-loving, law abiding, socially just way—we who were Jewish by birth, commitment, culture, language—and secular to the core of our Jewish being. The audience was made up of young and old in approximately equal numbers. All of us filled with sorrow, all of us incredibly enriched by this man. There were barely enough people wearing a kipa to make a minyan. But when Avraham Burg, an Orthodox Jew and Speaker of the Knesset spoke he called Amichai “the foundation stone of Israeliness” and concluded his remarks by saying, “I want to take my leave of you as a religious individual who found roads to God through you.”
In the middle of the twentieth century, Amichai and the readers of Israeli poetry turned to each other, mutually startled by a new immediacy with the Hebrew language.
In the middle of this century we turned to each other, I saw your body casting a shadow, waiting for me, .....I spoke words in praise of your mortal loins, You spoke words in praise of my transient face. I stroked your hair in the direction of the march, I touched the heralds of your end, I touched your hand that never slept, I touched your mouth that perhaps will sing.
When he turned his attention to Auschwitz wrestling with the semantics of the Jewish condition, he showed us the existential difference between “to leave” and “not to remain.”
My son, my son, my head, my head, In this train, I pass Through alien landscape, reading of Auschwitz And learning about the difference Between ‘to leave’ and ‘not to remain.’ My head, my head, my son, my son! The inability to define your pain precisely Impedes the doctors from diagnosing an illness. It means we can never Really love.
He eroticized our intellect and made it aware of the endless bag of tricks the language now offered its citizenry. He taught us to sing and he taught us that yes, we can really love. One of his earliest poems remains a favorite song.
Will you come to me tonight? The laundry in the yard has dried. An insatiable war Is now somewhere else. God's hosts and the earth grew dark, Soon the lights would go out. Two must now consummate The commandment initiating the heavenly fights.
Amichai fused modernity and tradition when he saw sexual taboos as the barbed wire of no-man's land. He deepened the irreverent metaphor when he understood that to make love on Sabbath eve is a re-enactment of God's command “let there be light.” The ordinariness of sheets on a line as a war rages somewhere else was to embark on a heroic transition in Hebrew poetry. His poetry was no less heroic when he departed from more recent traditions such as the pathos-ridden “Silver Platter,” Natan Alterman's patriotic poem for the fallen in the War of Liberation. Very early on Amichai wrote, forsaking melodrama,
Rain falls on the faces of my friends My living friends who Cover their heads with a blanket— And my dead friends, who Don't.
The response of Maurice Samuel at the death of Hayim Greenberg, another man of luminous intimations, comes to mind. Like Greenberg, Yehuda shared with us his joyous knowledge and love of ancient and modern Jewish culture. Of both we can say that: “We must subdue our personal grief by dwelling on the remembered privilege: thank God we knew him.”
In modern Hebrew “Yad” stands for a memorial, mostly applied to memorial institutions. Thus the institution set up in Jerusalem to commemorate victims of the Holocaust is called Yad Vashem and the memorials for fallen soldiers, Yad la-Banim. The miniature hand-shaped pointer that shows the place during the reading of the Torah is also called a yad. It ensures that the sanctity of the scroll is not compromised by the touch of a bare hand. So hide-bound was the tradition about defilement and all the degrees of separation needed to forestall it that the Talmud threatened, “He who holds a Sefer Torah naked will be buried naked.” Amichai, who was a reprobate of holiness, might have relished the embrace of hand, nakedness, and sanctity.
Humanity, not God, was at the center of his work. Classical Jewish sources are central to his work: he wrestled with them and taught us Israelis how they mirror our experience. In the early '80s, even before the Lebanese War, he wrote of the real hero of the Akedah,
The real hero of the sacrifice of Isaac was the ram Who had no idea about the conspiracy of the others. Professedly he volunteered to die in place of Isaac. I want to sing a memorial song about the ram, His curly wool and human eyes, The horns so calm in his living head. When he died they made shofars of them, To sound the blast of their war Or the blast of their coarse joy.
Had he been a synagogue-goer, there are synagogues in Jerusalem today where his poetry would be at home.
Solitary prayer also needs two: One always swaying The other, unmoving, is God. But when my father prayed he stood his ground Upright immobile, forcing God's stirring Like a reed praying to my father.
And in another poem,
I attest with perfect faith Prayers came before God. Prayers created God, God created man And man creates prayers That create God that created man.
When God left the world he forgot the Torah With the Jews who now look high and low for Him Shouting, ‘You forgot something; calling loudly-‘forgot!’ Other peoples think that this is how Jews pray. Ever since then they strive to find biblical clues To ‘where He may be found, To call upon Him While He is near.’ But he is distant.
The heroic transformation Yehuda Amichai effected was to break the gravitational field of traditional Hebrew and send Hebrew literature into a trajectory around modernity. His irreverent poetics work through playful and painful puns, and double-entendre allusions. A seemingly casual reference to a single word, or the fragment of a verse, can catapult what seems to be ordinary Hebrew into a momentous or prophetic commentary. Here and now is central to Amichai's thought even as it is permanently integrated into the continuity of Jewish civilization. Israel has had to address the problem of finding a cultural expression which could remain authentically rooted in its tradition while enabling a confrontation with modernity.
At Safra Square in Jerusalem we took leave of the man Yehuda Amichai, a noble uncontentious Jewish warrior. A yad is for remembrance. He wrote,
Let the memorial hill remember instead of me, that's what it's here for. Let the park in-memory-of remember; let the street that's-named-for remember, let the synagogue named after God remember, Let the Yizkor prayer for the memory of the dead remember. Let the flags remember, those multicolored shrouds of history: The bodies they shrouded long since turned to dust. Let the dust remember. Let all of them remember so that I can rest.
Note on translations: I consulted major translations of Amichai, adapting them to my sense of the originals. These translations were found in Yehuda Amichai: A Life of Poetry, and were translated by Benjamin and Barbara Harshav (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1995). The final poem, “Let the memorial hill remember,” is from Amen: Poems (New York: Harper & Row, 1977), translated by Amichai himself with Ted Hughes.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2932
SOURCE: Biespiel, David. “‘A Final Hard Amen’: Yehuda Amichai, 1923-2000.” Parnassus 25, No. 1-2 (2001): 126-35.
[In the following review of Amichai's Open Closed Open, Biespiel offers a favorable assessment of the poet's accomplishments.]
For nearly half a century, Yehuda Amichai was Israeli poetry's patriarch, a man embodying and embracing his revolutionary time. His followers will remember a period, especially in the Seventies and Eighties, when Amichai seemed to be everywhere. Here in the United States, he gave readings, interviews, and lectures at synagogues, Jewish community centers, Hadassah meetings, and college campuses, from Cleveland's Shaker Heights to Houston's Meyerland, from Yale to Iowa. With his Old Country accent, he presented himself as a regular guy, just your ordinary poet. But he still came across like a prophet from the Promised Land, singing in a language reborn.
I remember seeing him at Dartmouth in the mid-Eighties, after the publication of Chana Bloch and Stephen Mitchell's Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai. In those days, afternoon readings were held in the library. (Even octogenarian Richard Eberhart was an habitue. During most readings, after the introduction was made and the poet began to warm up the small audience, Eberhart, sitting in an easy chair, twiddling his thumbs, would fall into a sound sleep.) Amichai's reading, however, attracted an audience so considerable as to require an auditorium. He began with “God Has Pity on Kindergarten Children” and “When I Was Young, the Whole Country Was Young,” in which he defines his imaginative method as “getting detached and curling into myself.” He got laughs with the opening of the sonnet “When I Banged My Head on the Door”: “I screamed / ‘My Head, my head,’ and I screamed, ‘Door, door.’” But the laughter subsided as the poem glided toward its finale, in which the repeated words “My head, my head. / Door, door.” take on a laconic pathos of consolation. Next Amichai moved the audience with the rueful love poems “A Pity—We Were Such a Good Invention” and “A Precise Woman.” Between poems his banter was keen, ironic, and winsome. He relished playing the messenger, reporting on love and war in a revived tongue. When he concluded with the poem “Tourists,” in which he mildly chastises visitors to Israel who notice only the monuments and historic sites and not the people raising their children and shopping for groceries, the audience almost swooned with delight. The reading reconfirmed for me that Amichai's was the kind of poetry—historical, passionate, lyrical, dramatic, excessive—that one couldn't find in this country, in this language, at this time. I further buried myself in his work, always on the lookout for his newest poems and utterances.
Then, five years later, at Georgetown, I watched an old Jesuit present Amichai with a gold medal for merit in literature, following which Amichai repeated the very reading—badinage included—he had given in New Hampshire. He seemed bored by his own performance. When he read the opening line of “When I Banged My Head on the Door,” nobody laughed. He cruised through poem after poem on auto-pilot. Having hoped to hear new work, I took the stale reading as a personal affront and stopped paying attention to Amichai. He had simply become too much the patriarch, the godfather, the leading man hooked on his press notices. I was certain that he was finished poetically. When his collected poems, Yehuda Amichai: A Life of Poetry 1948-1994, came out, I remained unmoved. Always the same struggle between hedonism and existential despair! Amichai and I were on the outs.
It wasn't until the publication of his beautiful last book, Open Closed Open, that I came back around.
Yehuda Amichai was born in Germany in 1923, during the turbulent Weimar Republic. A year before his bar mitzvah, in 1936, he emigrated with his family to Palestine. Like so many young, early-twentieth-century Zionists, Amichai served in the military. During World War II he fought in Egypt in the Jewish Brigade. Afterwards, he was an infantryman in Israel's War of Independence, and took up arms again in the 1956 War, the Six Day War in 1967, and the Yom Kippur War in 1973.
Yet surprisingly Amichai's first published poems, which appeared in the late Forties and early Fifties, did not directly address this brutal period in Jewish history. As if desperately clinging to the normal, he wrote about his childhood, his parents, his dreams, and his love for women. Elsewhere he reimagined biblical scenes, sketched Israeli landscapes, and indulged in puns that played on differences between ancient and contemporary Hebrew. He drew on the Torah, especially the Psalms, but even more on the Jewish Romantic poets of the early Middle Ages, such as the eleventh-century, Spanish-born Solomon Ibn Gabirol, whose extravagant carnality—the sun “disrobes” at dusk; an adulteress “orders her clouds to flood” her lover “with crystals”—left its mark on Amichai. Also influential on him was a more sober strain of Ibn Gabirol's, in which, for example, he counsels a man to “brace himself” and, when he feels pity, to feel it like a “father for his first-born son.” How close this is to Amichai's own sentiments, expressed for instance in “To Bake the Bread of Yearning,” where Amichai, watching his own young son, observes that the “movements of my father's body in prayer / and mine in lovemaking / are already folded in his small body.”
Another influence was Yehuda Halevi, the Castilian Jewish poet of the twelfth century, whose poems are suffused with religious and Zionist longings; typical are “To Israel, In Exile,” which begins “O sleeper, whose heart is awake, / burning and raging, now wake / and go forth / and walk in the Light of My presence” and “Ode to Zion,” which opens, “O Zion, will you not ask how your captives are / the exiles who seek your welfare?” One of Halevi's favorite themes, that of the Wandering Jew, crops up in many of Amichai's poems, as when he writes that of “three or four in a room / there is always one who stands beside the window.” Amichai's twist on this tradition is to steer the wanderer, “without camouflage [and] before the enemy's eyes,” past border checkpoints and into modern-day Israel. (It should be noted that Halevi influenced not only Amichai but a whole generation of young Israeli Zionist poets in the Thirties and Forties. For the first generation of writers since antiquity to use Hebrew in the vernacular, Halevi was the man.)
Early on, Amichai adopted the language and mindset of the Jewish homesteader and revolutionary: Nature was animate, men were Davids, women Bathshebas. Consider the opening of “Poems for a Woman”:
Your body is white like sand that children have never played in.
Your eyes are sad and beautiful like the pictures of flowers in a textbook.
Your hair hangs down like the smoke from Cain's altar:
I have to kill my brother. My brother has to kill me.
The purified body, the beautiful woman, the flowers and children: Such totems recall those healthy, tanned Kibbutzim youths one used to see in photographs twenty-five or thirty years ago, the boys shirtless and buff, the girls in tank-tops and kerchiefs, all exuberantly promoting their new country with their hard-working bodies. The poem is in part a logo, a letter of recommendation, a fund-raising appeal. But in these lines there can also be heard Amichai's grimmer voice, which, with that disturbing simile (“like the smoke from Cain's altar”), abruptly wrenches the poem from romantic apostrophe into jealousy and murder. The pioneers might have been building a New Eden, but they were human just the same.
By the late Sixties this posture of Amichai's had become even more pronounced. His twenty-two-part poem “Jerusalem, 1967,” published in Now in the Storm, intensified everything in his work; it's his equivalent of Transtromer's “Baltics” or Milosz's “City Without a Name”:
I've come back to this city where names are given to distances as if to human beings and the numbers are not of bus routes but: 70 After, 1917, 500 B.C., Forty-eight. These are the lines You really travel on.
He defines Jerusalem as “the only city in the world / where the right to vote is granted even to the dead,” and later redefines it:
Jerusalem stone is the only stone that can feel pain …
And later, again and again:
Jerusalem is built on the vaulted foundations of a held-back scream …
Jerusalem is a port city on the shores of eternity.
Jerusalem is the Venice of God …
Jerusalem is Sodom's sister-city …
Jerusalem is an unconsenting Pompeii …
Taken together, these definitions reveal much of Amichai's attitude toward landscape, language, memory, history, time, and God. The past is alive in the present, and vice versa. In sorting out his changeable feelings about Jerusalem, Amichai invents a language of and for the city, merging the contemporary and the eternal. The poem ends, as so many of his poems do, with “Amen.”
That affirming word prominently reappears in Open Closed Open:
On my desk there is a stone with the word “Amen” on it, a triangular fragment of stone from a Jewish graveyard destroyed many generations ago. The other fragments, hundreds upon hundreds, were scattered helter-skelter, and a great yearning, a longing without end, fills them all: first name in search of family name, date of death seeks dead man's birthplace, son's name wishes to locate name of father, date of birth seeks reunion with soul that wishes to rest in peace. And until they have found one another, they will not find perfect rest.
(“Gods Change, Prayers Are Here to Stay”)
Putting these fragments together, he says at the end of the poem, is like a “resurrection of the dead, a mosaic, / a jigsaw puzzle.” These lines are the blueprint for the rest of the book, whose poems are generally long, essay-like, and broken into numbered sections, and whose method might be described as archeological. Layer by layer, Amichai chips into history, the Bible, and languages, then diligently whisks away the dust. From the Torah he cites Exodus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Judges, Samuel, Psalms, Ecclesiastes, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel; from the calendar of Jewish festivals and rituals, he singles out Shabbat, Simchat Torah, Sukkot, and the Days of Awe. He attends to kaddish, Adon Olam (the celebratory hymn), and the shema ysrael (the creed that proclaims oneness with God). He lovingly evokes the Huleh Swamp, the Qumran Caves (where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found), Masada and Betar (which fell in the first-century rebellion against the Romans)—places that are as much symbols as landscapes. He even resumes his Jerusalem litanies: Now Jerusalem is, by turns, Atlantis, a merry-go-round, a seesaw, a father, a vessel of symbols, a ship on the sea of memory, a ship on the sea of forgetting.
As always, Amichai goes in for melodrama and excess. Where did he find the “amen stone”? In a graveyard. What kind of graveyard? A Jewish graveyard. When the wind blows, it sweeps “everything” away. When Amichai has a longing, it is a longing “without end.” A woman in love is “like our mother Sarah.” The turtledove's song is not only a “mourning” song but a song of “wooing.” The sound of a “drawer closing” is the “voice of God”; that of a “drawer opening” is, well, the next biggest thing, the “voice of love.”
And yet he is not without a sense of humor, as witness the fifth section of “Gods Change, Prayers Are Here to Stay”:
When God packed up and left the country, He left the Torah with the Jews. They have been looking for Him ever since, shouting, “Hey, you forgot something, you forgot,” and other people think shouting is the prayer of the Jews. Since then, they've been combing the Bible for hints of His whereabouts, as it says: “Seek ye the Lord while He may be found, call ye upon Him while He is near.” But He is far away.
The first four lines sound almost like the shtick of a Borscht Belt comedian, a Jackie Mason type; as the old saw goes, a Jew is a person in continuous argument with God. But then, in the concluding lines, Amichai's signature timbre reasserts itself. Taken as a whole, the passage implicitly plays the theme of forgottenness against that of chosenness.
Another poem characterized by quick modulations in tone is “My Son Was Drafted,” in which Amichai plies his son, about to enter the army, with fatherly counsel. The third section begins:
I want to give him some advice: Listen, my son, don't change. Remember: Thou art what thou art. On a hot day, drink a lot of water—hug it down and change.
Here the biblical cadence breaks in, but is promptly supplanted by a more practical mode. In this vein Amichai continues:
And another piece of advice I remember from my won wars: When you go out for a night patrol, fill your canteen to the top so the water won't make a sloshing sound and give you away.
That's a survivor, a steely veteran, talking. It's one of the things I like best about Amichai—the firsthandedness of experience. By the very next line, however, the singing robes are back on:
That's how your soul ought to be in your body, large and full and silent.
And then, in the following line, comes yet another shift, this time into a sort of goatish, nudge-nudge-wink-wink manner:
(When you make love, make all the noise you want.)
If “My Son Was Drafted” shows Amichai responding domestically to the demands of Israeli life, “Who Will Remember the Rememberers?”, a poem written for Israel's Memorial Day, finds him at his most public and gravely sermonic. Here is the third section:
What is the correct way to stand at a memorial service? Erect or stooped, pulled taut as a tent or in the slumped posture of mourning, head bowed like the guilty or held high in a collective protest against death, eyes gaping frozen like the eyes of the dead or shut tight, to see stars inside? And what is the best time for remembering? At noon when shadows are hidden beneath our feet, or at twilight when shadows lengthen like longings that have no beginning, no end, like God?
These hesitant uncertainties are not just for rhetorical effect; as Amichai humbly confesses, “I wasn't one of the six million who died … I wasn't even among the survivors. / And I wasn't one of the six thousand who came out of Egypt. / I came to the Promised Land by sea.”
In short, Open Closed Open brings to a satisfying culmination several of Amichai's hallmark tendencies: his habits of setting the religious cheek-by-jowl with the secular; of mixing the political and the intimate; of tempering his inner Auden with his inner Rilke. He is alternately whimsical and tragic; by turns fierce, earthy, brooding, vain, moralistic, crazy with lust, ready for death; colloquial here, ecstatic there, and mournful somewhere else. As for the quality of the Chanas' translations, I'm not qualified to judge, but these English versions are sturdy, clear, and moving. Amichai's art does not seem to have been lost in translation.
On the day I finished writing this review, September 22, 2000, 1 heard on NPR the news of Amichai's death, at age seventy-six, from cancer—an eerie coincidence. It was late in the day, and I was pouring hot water over the morning's coffee grounds for another cup. My seven-year-old son was kicking a soccer ball through the kitchen. On the radio, a man spoke with an Old Country accent a lot like my grandfather's: “woman” for woman, that sort of thing. At first I couldn't place the voice, but since I'd finished the piece a mere ten minutes earlier, I immediately recognized the words as the opening of “Gods Change, Prayers Are Here to Stay.” It was Amichai. The station was replaying an interview. He was reading:
In the street on a summer evening, I saw a woman writing on a piece of paper spread out against a locked wooden door. She folded it, tucked it between door and doorpost, and went on her way. And I didn't see her face, nor the face of the man who would read what she had written and I didn't see the words.
On my desk lies a stone with the word “Amen” on it, a fragment of a tombstone, a remnant from a Jewish graveyard destroyed a thousand years ago in the town where I was born. One word, “Amen,” carved deep into the stone, a final hard amen for all that was and never will return, a soft singing amen, as in prayer: Amen and amen, may it come to pass.
Tombstones crumble, they say, words tumble, words fade away, the tongues that spoke them turn to dust, languages die as people do, some languages rise again, gods change up in heaven, gods get replaced, prayers are here to stay.
Some poets define their time, even when they modestly address only their day-to-day concerns. It is we, the readers, who attach our lives to their lines; their poems are the prism through which we view our better and poorer selves refracted. During the second half of the twentieth century, only a few poets worldwide, in a babel of languages, inspired such trust: Celan, Larkin, Milosz, Transtromer, Heaney, Szymborska—and Amichai. Their work seems to read itself, while we tag along. Just so, such lines of Amichai's as “Each day now I hear the circles of my life closing, / the click of buckles, like kisses / of conciliation and love” deserve all the respect they get. They will not be forgotten.