Not Like a Cypress
Not Like a CypressIntroduction
"Not like a Cypress" was first published in 1958 in Two Hopes Away, a collection of poems by Yehuda Amichai; it also appears in the 1996 collection The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai. The poem at first appears to be a work through which the speaker examines various facets of himself, describing himself first as what he is not and then providing a contrasting image that comes closer to what he is. The self that Amichai describes initially appears to be a personal description, but because he digs deeply into the truths about himself, the speaker touches the universal elements that make up all people.
Close reading of the poem reveals the element of death in it. Whether this poem was written as a reflection on the poet's own mortality or about his experiences with war and killing or the loss of his beloved father is not clear. The word "exit" is present in both the first and the last stanzas, so it is difficult to dismiss the theme of death or loss. That Amichai has hidden this theme, embedding it creatively so that readers must search for it, adds to the power of the poem.
Yehuda Amichai, considered one of Israel's greatest poets, was born in Wurzburg, Germany, on May 3, 1924. His family had lived in that part of Germany since the Middle Ages. When the Nazis came into power, Amichai's family left Germany for Palestine and then settled in Israel. Amichai studied Hebrew and, after receiving a religious education, taught Hebrew literature in secondary schools. He later served for many years in the Israeli army, an experience that is often reflected in his writing. As he grew older, Amichai became an advocate of peace and worked with Palestinians toward that goal.
Although he wrote short stories, novels, and plays, Amichai is best known for his poetry, which he began writing in 1949. Amichai was the first poet to write in colloquial Israeli Hebrew. His first collection of poems, Achshav Ubayamin Na'acherim (Now and in Other Days), was published in 1955. Amichai's poem "Not like a Cypress" appeared in his second collection, Bemerchak Shetey Tikvot (Two Hopes Away), published in 1958. In 1982, Amichai was awarded the Israel Prize for Poetry. Four years later, he became a foreign honorary member of the American Academy of Arts. After establishing himself as a major poet, Amichai was invited to the United States to teach as a visiting professor. During the 1970s and 1980s, he often taught at such schools as New York University and the University of California, Berkeley.
Known for his focus on love and loss, whether it was a love of other people or of his country, Amichai wrote eleven volumes of poetry in Hebrew. Many of them became bestsellers. Amichai's poems often are read at weddings and funerals, and some have been set to music; they have been translated into thirty-seven languages. His last collection, Open Closed Open, was published in the United States in 2000. Married twice and the father of three children, Amichai lived his entire adult life in Israel, where he died in Jerusalem on September 25, 2000.
[Text No Available]
In the first line, "Not like a cypress," the use of the negative keeps readers in suspense. They know more is to come. Because the speaker is stating that he is not like something, readers know, or at least imagine, that the speaker must be preparing to tell them what he is like.
In the second line, the speaker qualifies the first line with "not all at once, not all of me." In other words, he catches his readers by surprise. In this line, the speaker limits the image of the first line. He is somewhat but not completely like a cypress. Again, Amichai arouses the curiosity of his readers. What parts of the cypress are like the speaker? What parts of the speaker are like the cypress?
In the third line, the speaker does not attempt to answer specific questions about the cypress but moves to another image that offers clues to what the speaker is like. He is "like the grass, in thousands of cautious green exits." This image is offered in contrast to the cypress tree. Readers are led to compare the two images. A tree is stiff; grass is willowy and soft, more reflective of the changes in the atmosphere in which it exists.
The second part of the line is puzzling. The introduction of the word "thousands" offers a sense of comfort, as in protection by sheer mass, as in a field in which there are thousands of blades of grass. The speaker transforms that feeling with the word "cautious," which implies danger that may be real or merely perceived. In addition, the caution is applied to the phrase "green exits," which symbolizes a sense of leaving or getting away.
Lines 4 and 5 carry a similar feeling of caution but a more playful one: "to be hiding like many children / while one of them seeks." With these lines, the speaker introduces the childhood game of hide-and-seek, carrying with it a sense of caution but without a sense of danger. The caution is gentle because it is encapsulated in the desire to win a childhood game.
The pattern of the poem is set in the first stanza, in which the speaker establishes what he is not like and then provides the reader with an image that better defines him. This pattern is repeated in the second stanza: "And not like the single man, / like Saul, whom the multitude found / and made king." The story of Saul appears in the Bible. Saul was the first king of Israel, a mighty warrior, handsome and popular, who ruled from 1020 to 1000 b.c.e. According to some stories, however, Saul was also weak and was eventually defeated. The speaker in the poem insinuates that he does not want to be like Saul.
The poem continues by replacing the image of Saul with that of something more natural, more neutral, and more nourishing.
But like the rain, in many places
from many clouds, to be absorbed, to be drunk
by many mouths, to be breathed in
like the air all year long
and scattered like blossoming in springtime.
Saul, in contrast, was a soldier who fought and killed for more land. There are suggestions that he was also greedy and jealous. The speaker likens himself not to Saul and his weaknesses but to something more giving. There is also the contrast between the phrase "the single man" in line 6 and the references to the "many" later in the same stanza. There is mention of "many places," "many clouds," and "many mouths." There are also references to the air and the breathing of it "all year long," which provides a sense of the almost eternal. The confines of the image in the beginning of this stanza are contrasted to the boundlessness of rain and air.
In the third stanza, the speaker states that he is "Not the sharp ring that wakes up / the doctor on call,"; there is an abruptness, a sense of emergency, and a disruption of sleep in these lines—all uncomfortable notions. Awakening a doctor from sleep can mean that a life is in danger. The speaker, however, is not a "sharp ring" but is a "tapping, on many small windows / at side entrances, with many heartbeats."
The sound, in other words, is soft and so far away as to almost be inaudible, like a heartbeat. Yet the mention of a heartbeat adds depth to the sound, for it is the sound of life. It is, in contrast to the call in the night, an image of the soft continuance of health rather than the fearful scream of emergency.
In the final stanza, the speaker quiets the images to almost a whisper, beginning with "the quiet exit, like smoke." The going away is carried over from the first stanza with the use of the word "exit." The almost quiet images continue with the mention of the lack of "shofar-blasts," which in Hebrew belief announce a great event. The exit to which the speaker refers is not a great event that needs to be emphasized. It is merely like
… a statesman resigning,
children tired from play,
a stone as it almost stops rolling
down the steep hill….
It is quiet, almost a missed event and yet at the same time something very expected and natural.
The "quiet exit" occurs
… in the place
where the plain of great renunciation begins,
from which, like prayers that are answered,
dust rises in many myriads of grains.
The last lines suggest a death and rebirth. Someone has quietly left, having renounced all connections to his material life, and has become ethereal, like prayers. From that leaving point, however, arises a great sign of life as the dust, possibly the dust of the departed, rises once again in the form of "grains," which are a symbol of food and thus of life.
Hidden in "Not like a Cypress" is the sense of death. This sense is very subtle but is at the same time unavoidable. There has to be a reason for the speaker's using the words "exits" and "exit." The poet's experiences in war and the death of his father influence much of his poetry. The "thousands of cautious green exits" can be interpreted as gravesites. The rain "to be breathed in like air" may be an allusion to tears. And the "sharp ring that wakes up the doctor on call" sounds like an emergency—someone in pain, someone critically ill, someone dying. The "quiet exit" mentioned in the last stanza must be a reference to the last breath of life of someone who is dying. Clearer is the allusion to the "great renunciation," a reference to the final giving up of all things material.
Topics For Further Study
- Mimicking the pattern and form of "Not Like a Cypress," write a poem using similes that state what the subject is not followed by similes that state what the subject is. Choose any theme or subject, but try to follow Amichai's lead as much as possible.
- Research various poetic devices, such as alliteration, assonance, and personification. List at least ten devices and provide definitions for each. Then find examples of these devices in poems you have read. Make up creative examples of each device. Turn the research into a class discussion and exercise.
- Amichai was the first Israeli poet to write in colloquial Hebrew, the common language one might hear spoken on the streets. Note how your vocabulary changes when you are talking to your friends as opposed to how you might talk to a teacher, a parent, or an authority figure in your community. What words do you use with your friends that are not in your vocabulary when you talk to someone (other than a peer) you are trying to impress? Ask a few classmates to help you demonstrate to the class the various ways you alter your language. Have one of your classmates play the role of a distinguished adult you are trying to impress. Another person should pretend to be your best friend. A third might be a parent figure.
- Choose and 'read another poem from The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai. Read both poems in front of the class and then lead a discussion on how the two poems are similar and how they differ from each other. Examine the meaning, structure, and themes of the two poems to find their similarities and differences.
Paralleling the theme of death is the theme of rebirth. This theme is offered in two places. In the second stanza is the mention of springtime. The speaker refers to rain that must be "drunk by many mouths" and then "scattered like blossoming in springtime." The rain, whether it is a literal reference to rain or a figurative reference to tears, is transformed or reborn as flowers. Springtime is representative of the rebirthing of the seasons, when the things that have died in the winter come back to life. In the last stanza, the theme of rebirth is offered in "dust rises in many myriads of grains." Dust is a lifeless form of soil; it is also a biblical reference to bodies turning to dust when they die. Grain, on the other hand, is a sign of life. Bread is made from grain, and in the Bible grain represents the basic form of food, the staff of life.
It is clear that nature is important to Amichai. In "Not like a Cypress," he uses similes to create images that deepen the poem, and all the similes are related to nature. The title and the first line refer to the cypress tree, a resilient conifer that grows in the Mediterranean region. In the third line, Amichai uses grass to build an image. Other natural forms include rain, clouds, air, blossoms, springtime, and grains. Nature grounds the poem, the central message of which is abstract and difficult to explain. The fact that all readers can relate to trees, clouds, and rain helps to create a universal understanding, for which Amichai's poetry is known.
In the first stanza of "Not like a Cypress," Amichai uses the word "me," which leads the reader to consider the poem an offering of self insight. To know both what he is and what he is not, the speaker has to be introspective. He has to know himself so well that he understands himself and can produce the words to expose himself and the images that explain what he has discovered about himself. No reader can definitely make clear what Amichai has truly discovered, but through his exploration of self, the poet exposes elements that are common to all people. In exploring himself, the poet inspires his readers to entertain their own explorations of what they are and what they are not.
Saul, the first king of Israel and a figure in the Bible, plays a minor role in "Not like a Cypress," as do other religious images. The mention of Saul brings to mind the details of his reign and his challenges. The name Saul also stirs a sense of religion classes, which teach the ancient history of the Bible. Using Saul as a reference is not the same as using the name of a politician or an athlete. Saul is chosen purposefully for the religious connotation. "Shofar-blasts" is also a reference to religion, because the shofar is related to several sacred Jewish ceremonies. Shofar blasts are used to remind people of their connection to their religious beliefs. The final stanza contains a reference to prayer.
"Not like a Cypress" is written almost entirely as a simile. Similes are figures of speech in which one subject is likened to another. A sign that a simile is in place is the use of the word "like." The poem begins with a negative simile: "Not like a cypress"; what follows is "but like the grass." This pattern continues throughout the poem, offering readers verbal images of what the subject is and what the subject is not. The use of similes adds depth to a poem by painting pictures with words. For example, without trying to decipher the meaning of these words, the reader can enjoy the following lines for the impressions they give: "… to be breathed in / like the air all year long / and scattered like blossoming in springtime."
An echo in poetry refers to the repetition of particular sounds, syllables, words, phrases, or lines. It can be used for various reasons, among them intensifying rhythm and emphasizing meaning. In "Not like a Cypress," echoes are used throughout, beginning with the first line. The concept of "not like" begins the first three stanzas, tying the poem together linguistically and rhythmically. Answering "not like" is another repetitive concept, "but like," which introduces the contrasting images.
The word "exits" in the first stanza is echoed with "exit" in the final stanza, creating an emphasis that illuminates some of the meaning of the poem. The word "hiding" in the first stanza and the word "found" in the second stanza create a mirror-image echo. The word "children" appears in the first and last stanzas. Readers should pay attention to echoes. Poets have many choices when writing, and choosing the same word more than once is a way to make a point.
Enjambment is a poetic device in which the sense and grammatical construction of a phrase are carried to the next line of a verse. Enjambment is present in every stanza of "Not like a Cypress" and is used to change meaning. The first stanza contains the enjambment "to be hiding like many children." Stopping at the end of the line gives the impression, especially after the word "cautious" in the previous line, that the children may be hiding out of fear. The poet is playing with words to alter the reader's perceptions. A surprise appears in the next line, which reveals that the children are playing a game of hide-and-seek. Only reading the two lines together gives the full meaning: "to be hiding like many children / while one of them seeks."
In the second stanza, enjambment delivers an altered message. Line 7 reads "like Saul, whom the multitude found." If one stops reading at the end of the line, the impression is that Saul is discovered, as if he were hiding (a subtle joke, because in the biblical story, Saul's reaction on hearing he would be made king is to hide). However, there is much more going on than a mere game of hide-and-seek. The eighth line supplies the real message. Saul not only was found but also was made king.
In the last stanza, enjambment is used to suggest a complete change in vision. "A stone as it almost stops rolling" produces an image of a stone that is almost stationary. Motion is all but nonexistent. The speaker does something clever in the next line by adding to the image of the rolling stone the picture of a steep hill and the idea of momentum. In line 21, the stone is almost stopped, and because of the enjambment, the reader all but eliminates the possibility that the stone is still moving. Line 22 reveals that the stone is rolling down a steep hill and probably is moving faster rather than slowing. The speaker has tilted the picture.
Modulation in poetry is the harmonious use of language related to changes of stress and pitch. Although it may be present in any good writing, modulation is emphasized in the writing of poetry, in which the sounds of words are almost as important as their meanings. Reading Amichai's poem aloud, readers can hear and feel the modulation of his carefully chosen words, phrases, and lines.
Most of "Not like a Cypress" follows the rhythm of natural speech, which in English tends to swing back and forth between a stressed syllable and an unstressed one, almost as if one were taking in breath and then releasing it. The first line of this poem has two stressed syllables followed by an unstressed syllable, a stressed one, and an unstressed syllable: "Not" and "like" are equally stressed; the voice drops on "a" and then rises on the first and falls on the second syllable of "cypress." This pattern is not repeated in the second line, but it recurs at the beginning phrase of the third line, "but like the grass." The pattern is close enough to give the reader a sense of sandwiching the first and third lines around the second line. This pattern is repeated throughout the poem, layering tone and pitch on top of rhythm and meaning.
Although he had studied classical Hebrew since childhood, when he wrote poetry, Amichai chose to do so in colloquial Hebrew, the language spoken on the streets and in homes. Hebrew is a Semitic language with linguistic roots in the Afro-Asiatic language family. It is similar in many ways to Aramaic and south-central Arabic. Hebrew is an ancient language. Preserved writings of Hebrew date to 3000 b.c.e., but the language ceased to be spoken around 200 c.e. and was used only in its written, classical form. Hebrew was used to write religious texts as well as legal, scientific, literary, and business documents. In the latter part of the twentieth century, Hebrew was revitalized as a spoken language.
The most influential person in the revival of spoken Hebrew was Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (1858–1922), who was also instrumental in the Jewish national movement. Before the revival, most Jews were brought up speaking the languages of the various countries in which they lived. As people began moving back to what would become the state of Israel, the use of a modern form of Hebrew reconnected the Jews, giving them a single language with which to communicate. As modern Hebrew evolved, influences from languages such as German, Russian, and English found their way into the ancient language. Thus, the spoken and more common, or colloquial, Hebrew differs from the classical form used in much writing.
Some literary critics often consider Amichai's poetry a reflection of the history of his adopted home of Israel. Amichai not only wrote about his country but also served in its military. Israel is in the Middle East along the shores of the Mediterranean Sea and bordered by Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt. Israel's occupation of the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights caused tension between Israel and her neighbors. For more than 3,000 years, Jews had lived in this area, but then they were forced to flee by the rulers of the Roman Empire. In 638 c.e., the area around present-day Israel was conquered by Arab nations. Although some Jews remained in the vicinity, their numbers dwindled drastically. In the 1800s, a new wave of Jewish immigrants began to arrive. Zionism, a national movement to reinstate a Jewish presence in Palestine, was established. By the 1920s, almost 40,000 Jews had moved into the area.
After World War I, the British government helped establish a Jewish homeland in Palestine. As the power of Nazism spread, the numbers of Jews immigrating to Palestine intensified. By 1940, almost half of the population of Palestine was Jewish. By the end of World War II, more than 600,000 Jews were living in the area. The British government continued its influence on Palestine, trying to avert conflicts between the Arab and Jewish cultures by attempting to put a quota on Jewish immigration and to give Arabs and Jews equal rule. However, Great Britain became fully engaged in a fight for its own survival during World War II, and laws that reflected the concepts of shared rule and an immigration quota were not fully enforced.
In 1947, attempts to divide Palestine between Arabs and Jews failed, and war ensued. One year later, the state of Israel was established. The Arab nations surrounding Israel rejected the establishment of the new country, and more fighting took place. During the battles, Israel captured more land, and many Arabs fled. Israel signed peace treaties with many neighboring Arab nations, but fighting over the right to the territory continued. Israel ended its occupation of the Gaza Strip in 2005.
Biblical Story of Saul
According to the Bible, Saul was the first king of Israel. He was appointed king by the prophet Samuel after public pressure demanded that the country have its own king. Before this time, sections of the country had been ruled by various judges, including Samuel, but the people wanted a centralized figurehead, someone who would rule the entire country and protect them.
Saul was a man of great size and was very handsome, which helped make him a popular choice. He was a reluctant appointee, however. He hid when he found out that he was to be made king. Nonetheless, when he learned that the country was threatened by invading troops, Saul rose to the occasion, brought together an army, and saved the country. Saul's heroic acts gave him a sense of pride, and from then on, he took his role as king seriously and faced it without fear.
Saul is believed to have been more of a military king than a ruling monarch. He led victorious armies in many battles. Because Saul did not always listen to the advice of Samuel, who apparently received his words of wisdom from God, Samuel denounced him. Saul eventually was killed in battle. Some interpreters believed that on realizing that he was about to lose a battle against the Philistines, Saul committed suicide.
Compare & Contrast
- 1950s: The Law of Return is established in Israel, allowing Jews from other countries to immigrate to Israel and become citizens. More than 100,000 Jews living in Iraq immigrate to Israel.
Today: Fewer than one hundred Jews live in Iraq.
- 1950s: Great Britain recognizes Israel as a state.
Today: Great Britain helps to broker a ceasefire between Palestine and Israel.
- 1950s: Between 1950 and 1956, more than 1,300 Israelis are killed by terrorist raids.
Today: Between 2000 and 2005, more than 600 Israelis are killed by terrorist raids.
- 1950s: Israeli forces defeat Arab forces to establish the state of Israel.
Today: Israeli forces remove Israeli settlers from the Gaza Strip to return the land to the Palestinians.
A shofar is an ancient instrument made from the horn of a ram. It is used in ritualistic ceremonies, such as the announcement of a coronation, which can be symbolic, as in the coronation of God as king. A shofar also is used to communicate with God. Prayers are sent with the blast of a shofar. Some people believe shofar blasts are a way to chase away evil or weakness. In modern times, shofar blasts are used to announce important events. There are three types of shofar blasts. One is called a Tekiah, which is one long sound. The second is the Shevarim, or three wails. The third type of blast is the Teruah, or nine sobs. One of the symbolic messages sent by shofar blast is a reminder that one has not been abandoned. Another is a signal for people to wake up, not physically but spiritually.
"Not like a Cypress" was written and published early in Amichai's career. No reviews focus specifically on this poem, but Amichai's poetry in general is often studied. In an article written for Judaism, Chana Bloch points out the easy readability of Amichai's poems, which "lend themselves to translation because they speak clearly and directly, and because Amichai's striking metaphors carry the burden of his meaning." Bloch continues by explaining that this statement is not meant to imply that Amichai's language is simplistic. "His language is far more dense and inventive than this may suggest," Bloch writes. For example, there are biblical and liturgical allusions "on every page" of Amichai's texts.
After interviewing Amichai, N. Tamopolsky, writing for Forward, explains that "Amichai has become a human representation of Israel itself, a sort of national testimonial." When Amichai writes about Israel, however, it is through his personal experience. "He writes about things so personal and universal that they are public experiences," Tamopolsky writes. "He is known as a poet of love and Jerusalem, and seems to embody both."
Gila Ramras-Rauch, in a review of The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai for World Literature Today, states
Yehuda Amichai's simple, beguiling, and challenging poetry continues to fascinate readers and translators alike. He is recognized in Israel and abroad for his seeming simplicity of tone, image, and syntax. The centrality of a speaker in Amichai's poetry inevitably reflects the man himself: a gentle, often self-effacing man whose soft voice is frequently in contrast with the bold statements his poems make.
In a review of The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai, which includes "Not like a Cypress," Mark Rudman, writing for the Nation, states that "Yehuda Amichai is by now one of the half-dozen leading poets in the world. He has found a voice that speaks across cultural boundaries and a vision so sure that he can make the conflicts of the citizen soldier in modern Israel stand for those of humankind."
In a Booklist review of Amichai's A Life of Poetry: 1948–1994, Elizabeth Gunderson writes, "In stark, beautiful language, Amichai shares with us a worldview sustained by verbal power, irony, and resonance." A Publishers Weekly review of the same collection refers to Amichai's poetry as "elegant, spacious and perfectly accessible." In a review of this collection for World Literature Today, Ramras-Rauch finds Amichai's poetry to be "a curious mix of an active dialogue with the surrounding world mingled with a contemplative mood." Ramras-Rauch continues, "His ironic tone, alluding to the basic incongruity inherent in everyday existence, also maintains a certain serenity. He is a poet of prolonged implosion that reverberates around his deceptively simple poems."
Joyce Hart is a published author and former writing instructor. In this essay, she examines "Not like a Cypress" to find the meaning that lies in the middle of the contrasts presented in the poem.
From the first line or even from the title of the poem, readers know that Amichai's "Not like a Cypress" is going to be about contrast. If the speaker is "not like a cypress," then what is he like? This question automatically comes to mind as the poem begins. This line sets the pattern of contrasting statements throughout the poem. The contrasts are like boundaries around a field. By providing contrasts—elements that he is not like followed by elements that he is like—the speaker offers readers not only room for their imaginations to fill in the space but also a broad and creative image. By exploring the field that lies between the contrasts, readers become more involved in the poem and are rewarded with an understanding of what the poet is trying to communicate.
The speaker states that he is not like a cypress, "not all of me." Parts of him, however, may be like a cypress, a tree that, in Israel, thrives in harsh conditions—dry and windy. Another interesting fact about the cypress is that millions of cypress trees were planted in the Martyrs Forest in Israel as a memorial to children who had died in the Holocaust. Because the poem also mentions "thousands of cautious green exits, / to be hiding like many children," a connection can be made between the cypress and death. The speaker, however, says that not all of him is like a cypress, at least "not all at once." If the cypress, in the speaker's mind, represents death, that is not all he is. He is also life and playfulness, exemplified by his allusion to children playing hide-and-seek. Taking all this information and trying to form a picture, one might read into the first stanza that the speaker is like a cypress in that he stands tall in the face of challenge. He is mindful of the sorrow that surrounds him, but he is also supple, like the grass.
The speaker uses the word "cautious," which is connected to the phrase "to be hiding." It is not simply that the children are playing a game of hide-and-seek in a field of grass. Something else is going on. By using "to be hiding like many children," the speaker is suggesting that he, too, is hiding. What might be inferred is that sometimes the speaker stands up tall. At other times, however, he does not want to face his challenges, at least not immediately. He sometimes wants to hide, "while one of them seeks." The speaker wants to wait until someone or something finds him. Sometimes he is a man; at other times, he prefers to be like a child.
The second stanza begins with "And not like the single man," giving the impression that the speaker does not want to stand up straight in an open field and be immediately recognized. The speaker implies that if he does not want to be like "the single man," he wants to be in a crowd. This notion links to "to be hiding like many children" in the previous stanza, but even in that stanza the speaker does not want to be the only child. He wants to be included in a group. The speaker also states that he does not want to be like Saul, who is the speaker's example of what it would be like to be "the single man," someone who is responsible for the "multitude." The speaker does not want to be "made king." Saul was a powerful and charismatic man and a popular choice for king. In standing out as he did, however, Saul exposed his strengths as well as his weaknesses. Saul became greedy and disobedient. In some versions of the story, Saul commits suicide. This end, the speaker claims, is not for him.
What Do I Read Next?
- Amichai's Open Closed Open (2000) is the last collection of poems published before the poet's death. The themes that run through many of the poems are love and mortality. Amichai reflects on his life, his children, and his own childhood.
- Amichai's first poems are in The Early Books of Yehuda Amichai (1988). The poems in this collection were very popular in their time and influenced many Israeli poets because Amichai was the first to use Hebrew as it was spoken in private and on the streets.
- Written almost as letters from one culture to another, Voices from Israel: Israeli Poets Speak to America of Life and Home, Anguish and Sorrow, Joy and Hope (1998) is a collection focused on exchanging ideas. The poems are by poets who live in Israel but who speak English.
- A Tale of Love and Darkness (2004) is a memoir by Amos Oz, an Israeli author of many novels. This book is a glimpse into life in Israel through the eyes of a sensitive man who became an important writer.
What contrast to Saul does the speaker offer? He wants to be "like the rain." How does rain differ from the image of Saul? To answer this question, the reader needs to look at the similarities between the first stanza and the second, which contains words that imply large quantities. The speaker not only wants to be like the rain but also wants to be in "many places." He wants to be rain "from many clouds," and he wants to be "drunk by many mouths." These amounts contrast to the quantity in the first line of the stanza, in which the speaker says that he is not like "the single man." It is also similar to the comparison in the first stanza, in which the speaker states that he is not like "a cypress"—one tree.
How else does rain contrast to a man? Rain has no emotion, no ego, no strengths or weaknesses. There is no personality to rain, no name, no history, and no responsibility. Yet rain is essential to life. Air also is essential to life, and that is the next element the speaker mentions. He not only wants to be like rain that quenches the thirst of the multitudes but also wants to be "like the air" that people breathe in "all year long." There is an interesting comparison between a king and natural elements such as rain and air. People depend on their king to make rules for a civil society, to protect them in war, and to provide for them when they are in need. People also depend, even more substantially, on rain and air. The greatest contrast, however, is not to look at a king or rain or air through other people's eyes but to look at the basic characteristics of king or rain or air. A king is well known and has many benefits in undertaking his role, but the task can be overwhelming. Rain and air, in contrast, merely exist. Both are natural, circular processes that constantly refresh themselves. If people are thirsty, rain does not care. If people are suffocating, air is not to blame.
Another contrast between king and rain and air is that a king must do battle, and King Saul was a notorious warrior. Wars imply death. Rain and air imply life. The poet makes sure that his readers get this point. He ends the second stanza with the image of rain and air "scattered like blossoming in springtime." Spring is a time of rebirth. Blossoming stands in stark contrast to the image of kingly wars, or wars of any kind.
In the third stanza, another contrast pits images of life and death against each other. There is the "sharp ring" that wakes up a "doctor on call." This situation sounds like an emergency. In contrast to this possible death situation, the speaker ends the stanza with the word "heartbeats," the image of life.
In the final stanza, the speaker no longer states what he is not like in contrast to what he is like, but the stanza still contains contrast—that between life and death. The stanza begins "And afterward," which may refer to the afterward that comes with death. There is "the quiet exit," the speaker continues, during which everything all but stops, like "children tired from play" and "a stone as it almost stops rolling."
At the moment when everything is stopping, something also is starting, the "plain of great renunciation begins." This great renunciation may be the giving up of the world and all its physicality, its memories, and one's connection to people and cherished goods. It may be the renunciation of ego and self-identity. Renunciation also may be another reference to death. Is the speaker talking about a physical or an emotional or psychological death?
The poem ends, "… great renunciation begins, / from which, like prayers that are answered, / dust rises in many myriads of grains." This image is similar to the earlier image of the rain and the air "scattered like blossoming in springtime." Once again, there is the feeling of rebirth—one thing turning into another. In this final image, dust turns into grain. Dust, which is lifeless, is turned into food, which represents life.
The main contrasts offered in "Not like a Cypress" are that the speaker is not a puffed-up ego, like a king. He is, in contrast, like the unnamed rain. He is not a taker. He is a giver, whether giving means that he is a grassy field in which children play or the basic staples of life—water, air, and food. The speaker does not want to do anything alone but wants to be among the multitudes. Most of all, he is not like death. Rather, he is like life giving birth to itself.
Source: Joyce Hart, Critical Essay on "Not like a Cypress," in Poetry for Students, Thomson Gale, 2006.
In the following essay published shortly after Amichai's death, Fuchs analyzes the major themes in his writing, including religious skepticism, disillusionment with love, and classical allusions.
Yehuda Amichai is known as one of Israel's leading poets. He is credited with pioneering a new idiom, a new poetic trend in Israeli poetry along with Natan Zach and Amir Gilboa. In general terms, Amichai can be said to have created a secularist, skeptical reinterpretation of traditional Judaism and an ironic reassessment of normative Zionism. Amichai is recognized for his penetrating critique of religious and nationalist pieties, and for his sharp questioning of conventional, self-aggrandizing collective beliefs.
It may be best to begin this assessment of Amichai's work by focusing on his ironic approach to traditional faith and his representations of God. In one of his early poems, published in the early 1960s, Amichai writes: "God has mercy on Kindergarten Children / less so on schoolchildren. / And for adults he has no mercy at all / he leaves them alone. / And at times they must crawl on all fours / in the burning sand / to get to the aid station / and they are gushing blood." God who is said to have compassion for kindergarten children does not seem to be responsive to wounded adults—a clear metonymy for soldiers in battle who are left to fend for themselves. If God is compassionate toward kindergarten children, why does he not care about the wounded soldiers? After all, they too must crawl on all fours, like children, having been cut down in battle. Should not God have mercy on the bleeding soldiers, should he not care even more for the wounded who are crawling on "burning" sand? After all, their anguish is much greater. Amichai's God is distant, detached, inscrutable, indifferent, authoritarian, cynical, even ruthless. Amichai refers to God in mechanical terms, at times, labeling God as "the police" that maintains order among various religious groups. His representation of God suggests a secular critique of the traditional conception of God as the redeemer of the chosen people. In Amichai's poetry, God stands for world order, a principle of morality and humanity—God is a metaphor for meaning. But again and again the human quest for meaning is futile, because in much of Amichai's poetry aggression and hostility rule the world.
This poem raises doubts not only about the Jewish religious approach but also about the nationalist interpretation of war. By focusing on the wounded casualties of war, Amichai emphasizes the high price of war. Where the previous generation of Natan Aherman and Avraham Shlonsky presented Zionism as a new secular religion, Amichai rejects the grand pieties of Zionism. Where Shlonsky presented the Zionist endeavor in metaphysical, even mystical terms, Amichai presents this endeavor in prosaic, routine, quotidian terms, dragging the lofty formulas down to earth and examining the underside of each ideological proclamation. For Amichai, the true meaning of Judaism is expressed in the ability to recognize the humanity and religious dimension of the national enemy. To say that Amichai rejected Judaism and Zionism would then amount to a fundamental misunderstanding. What he rejects is the heroic and exclusive aspects of Judaism and Zionism.
In his Jerusalem 1967 cycle, written after the Six-Day War, Amichai questions the consensual "othering" of East Jerusalem's Palestinians. In a poem entitled "Yom Kippur," Amichai describes his encounter with an Arab shopkeeper in East Jerusalem. On Yom Kippur, the poetic "I" dons "dark holiday clothes," a symbol of mourning, and proceeds to stand in front of the Arab shop by Damascus Gate. The poet identifies with the shop-keeper, comparing him to his own father, who had a similar shop in Europe, a shop that was "burned there"—in Germany. Not only does the poet empathize with the Palestinian shopkeeper, he perceives the buttons, zippers, and threads as sacred objects: "A rare light and many colors, like an open Ark." This epiphany becomes the core experience of Yom Kippur. The traditional prayer in the synagogue is replaced by a silent meditation on the human bond between enemies, the conventional ark is replaced by a revelation, the revelation is that the enemy is just as human as the speaker, just as persecuted as his own father was in Europe.
Amichai's pessimistic assessment of the Zionist condition complements his skeptical vision of the human quest for meaning. This quest is bound to fail because the world is torn asunder by hatred and distrust. "Half the people in the world love the other half / Half of the people hate the other half./" Hatred is endemic not only to the Arab-Israeli conflict but to the world at large. "Must I because of these people and those people / Go and wander and change unceasingly / Like rain in its cycle, and sleep among the rocks / And be rough like olive trunks / and hear the moon barking over at me?" Amichai questions the meaning of political factionalism in the name of the individual. Because two groups of people declare war on each other, should then the individual have to resign him/herself to a life of military discipline and deprivation in the natural roughness of an inimical landscape? Later on in the poem, Amichai makes use of an allusion to the Passover Haggadah. The individual "I" finds himself caught between the "stick" and the "fire," between the "water and the ox," and between the "angel of death and God"—the familiar stations of the Had Gadya. While the Haggadah, however, presents God's victory over the various obstacles as a justification of human toil and tribulation, Amichai's poem leaves the reader with the sense of encumbrance and hardship. For Amichai, there is no respite from the awful trial by fire and water; there is no sense of redemption or resolution in the modern day trials imposed on modern Israel. Neither is there any hope for peace or meaning in the world in general for the individual who aspires to privacy and personal contentment.
The question that raises the right of the individual versus the demands of the group is at the very heart of Amichai's novel Not of This Time, Not of This Place (published in Israel in 1963 and in English in 1968). This novel represents the Israeli condition after the Holocaust and the War of Independence as an impossible nightmare. The protagonist Yoel, an archeologist who tries to find a place in his secular Jerusalem community finds himself increasingly alienated from both his friends and his Israeli wife, Ruth. He searches for love and meaning in his childhood past, in memories of pre-Holocaust Germany, specifically in his childhood love for a Jewish girl who was murdered by the Nazis. In addition to his escape from Israeli time, Yoel flees from Israeli culture and discourse by attaching himself to an American lover, Patricia. The vortex of confusion and dissolution into which the protagonist sinks reflects a post-Zionist and post-Holocaust reality in which ideals are no longer possible. The archeologist whose profession is to reconstruct the past is unable to deal with his own personal past, nor is he able to face his present. On the one hand, Amichai seems to imply that individual life in Israel is impossible because of the collective pressures of the immediate Jewish past and the present demands of the new state. The individual cannot find a coherent space or time where he may find a meaningful life, because the collective seems to supersede all individual quests. Amichai's novel was defined by the critic Gershon Shaked as one of the major breakthroughs of the New Wave generation, a generation of writers like A. B. Yehoshua, Amos Oz, and Amalia Kahana-Carmon. This generation sought to give voice to the individual and personal perspective, over against the collectivist desideratum of the previous Palmach generation of the 1940s and 1950s.
This sketch of Amichai's public or critical "persona" was strongly challenged by Amichai when I met him in person in 1981. I met Amichai in Jerusalem and completed my interview with him for my book, Encounters with Israeli Authors, in Austin, Texas, where I taught Hebrew literature as an assistant professor at the department of Oriental Studies. Certain biographical details seem to challenge the perception of Amichai as a native Israeli secularist author. For one thing, he was born in Wurtzburg (Bavaria) and immigrated with his parents to Israel at the age of 12, in 1936, during Hitler's ascent to power. He received an Orthodox education; his father, who appears as a central subject in his poetry, was an observant Jew. Amichai joined the British Brigade, and fought with the Haganah during the War of Independence of 1948. After that war, he was graduated from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, having majored in Hebrew Literature and Bible. He taught in various colleges in Jerusalem and the US for over 40 years. Amichai has been widely translated, and he represented Israel in numerous international forums. In 1975, he won the Bialik award for literature, and in 1981 he was awarded the coveted Israel prize. In my interview with Amichai, I was struck by his consistent rejection of his public and critical persona. He insisted that he did not consider himself part of any aesthetic trend, or poetic coterie. He shied away from the critical consensus about his novel. He told me that the surrealistic juxtaposition of Germany and Israel, the past and the present, was a result of a simple personal experience. He was in love, he told me, with his childhood friend from Germany and as well as with the girl he describes as American. Because in reality one cannot love two women at the same time, he chose to bring the two together in fiction. Amichai dismissed his representation as a secularist ironic writer, arguing instead that he makes constant use of the Bible, Midrash, Siddur, and other traditional sources. Amichai refused to discuss his poetry as an art form. He argued that his poetry is neither a skill nor an art, but rather an expression of a basic need, the need for self-expression. He insisted that he was no poet, but rather "a man who writes poems." Amichai described his poetic activity as a sort of reporting on basic emotional responses to daily events. Just as children describe their emotions in terms of the outside world ("I love you like the whole world"), so he too has the need to describe his emotional responses in metaphoric terms, by using objective correlatives in the outside world.
When I pointed to the despair displayed in his so-called love poems, to a kind of disillusionment with heterosexual love as such, he told me that he usually wrote his poems as a summary of a particular phase in his life. When a person is in love, he told me, he does not analyze or reflect on it. He is too busy experiencing it. When the relationship is over, it is time to think about it and write about it.
Indeed, many of Amichai's love poems refer to the physical remains of love, to an impending separation, or to the results of an actual separation. In "What's it like to Feel a Woman," Amichai refers to the remains of seminal fluids in the body of a woman, and to the woman's remains on the male body. These remains "augur the hell" and the "mutual death" that awaits the lovers. Is the hell the yearning for the full erotic moment, the moment of love that is gone? Amichai does not usually offer information about the circumstances leading to the "mutual death" of the lovers, or to the termination of love relationships, because love in his poems seems ephemeral by definition. In "Once a Great Love," Amichai describes the termination of a love relationship as a violent cutting, which leaves half his body writhing and "twisting like a snake cut in two." The second stanza describes the abandoned lover as a man lost in the "Judean desert." The man remembers the woman, like one who notices the sign "Sea Level" in the middle of the desert. There is no sea, no sign of water or life, just like the woman's face that is no longer there. All that is left is a sign recalling another geological level, or a memory corresponding to another existential and experiential level. The metaphor of a violent cutting recurs in yet another love poem. But whereas this poem alludes to a voluntary separation, "A Pity, We Were Such a Good Invention" alludes to separation as a violent imposition by an outside social intrusion. "They amputated your thighs off my hips. As far as I am concerned they are all surgeons. All of them." The couple's divorce is depicted as a violent surgery. "They" is a general reference to other people who may have meddled in the couple's affairs, or who may have completed the legal transaction. "They" refers to a collective pressure that caused the couple to break up. Amichai indicts the separators as "surgeons" and "engineers"—the practical and lucrative professions that are here indicted for their blindness to the more subtle expressions of love. Amichai uses the unlikely metaphor of a plane to capture the united couple, and the experience of flight to express their erstwhile happiness: "A pity. We were such a good and loving invention. / An airplane made from a man and a wife. / Wings and everything. / We hovered a little above the earth." The couple's divorce is presented in this poem as a violent cutting off of body parts from each other.
Love, whether marital or casual, is bound to end in Amichai's poetry, is bound to die. But its transitory nature cannot obscure its force. The metaphor for love here is an airplane; in another memorable poem, love is compared to the human struggle with a divine force. In "Jacob and the Angel," Amichai uses a Biblical allusion, Jacob's struggle with the mysterious messenger who changes his name from Jacob to Israel to frame a poem about casual love. The process of making love is described as a kind of struggle for playful supremacy. The lover does not know the girl's name, which he learns only when she is called "from upstairs." Jacob, in Genesis 32, is also named twice—his name is changed by the angel who wrestles with him. The use of the Biblical allusion serves a double purpose: on the one hand, it translates the heterosexual encounter into sacral terms. For the lovers, their fleeting moment is indeed sacred, despite its anonymity. On the other hand, the Biblical allusion undercuts the heterosexual encounter by juxtaposing it with a truly momentous encounter between the nation's progenitor and a divine emissary.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Amichai showed a continued predilection for privacy, pensiveness and sensuality, preferring a colloquial insularity to figurative and allusive discourse. The female love object in his poems nevertheless proclaims Amichai's belief in the validity of personal-subjective expression.
In my interview with Amichai, the poet insisted that he wrote poems because they gave him joy. He insisted that he was no professional poet. He objected to the tendency among other poets to philosophize about the poetic process, and to analyze or theorize upon it. He assured me that his poems were spontaneous responses to his personal experiences. Amichai objected to the modernist tendency to use difficult and figurative language. Nevertheless, as Chana Kronfeld demonstrates, Amichai's poetics of simplicity is often combined with aesthetic sophistication and artistic complexity. On the one hand, Amichai succeeded in "generating a truly popular poetic voice able to reach people in the work-a-day world." On the other hand, Amichai's iconoclastic and ironic approach to the traditional idiom and his use of classical allusion and syntactic fragmentation demonstrate his indebtedness to Anglo-American modernism. Amichai's poem "Once a Great Love" reflects the poet's use of incongruous imagery. The image of the snake in the first stanza does not correspond to the metaphor of the Sea Level sign. The juxtaposition of incongruities is even more salient in his poem "Half the People in the World." For the most part, Amichai uses paradigmatic sequencing in order to expose the irrational, arbitrary, and chaotic nature of modern life. In this sense he follows the modernist tradition, even when the break-up of logical progression renders his poems less readable.
Amichai's use of classical allusion also establishes him as a modernist poet. In his poem "Young David" he all but eliminates the story of David and Goliath recounted in 1 Samuel 17. Amichai's David is lonely among the fighters who celebrate his victory, fighters whose masculine swagger and vulgar camaraderie are reminiscent of the Palmach military camp. Where the Biblical David brings Goliath's head to King Saul as concrete proof of the victory he has accomplished, Amichai's David is at a loss about what to do with Goliath's head. Amichai's David is tired and despondent after his victory. The death of his enemy bothers him. He finds no joy in his military accomplishment. Amichai rewrites the Biblical David from a modern, Israeli, secular pacifist perspective. Amichai's David gives voice to the disenchanted individual soldier who remains alienated among his compatriots. Goliath's head lies heavy and superfluous in David's hands. The only literal allusion to the Biblical text is evoked in the "birds of blood" flying away from the battle scene, a subtle echo to the birds Goliath mentions in his taunting speech to David before their confrontation. As David Jacobson notes, "Yehuda Amichai challenges the adequacy of the David and Goliath myth as a basis for understanding the experience of fighting as a soldier in the Arab-Israeli wars." Amichai's Biblical allusions serve as a political critique of Israeli politics. These allusions, however, are multivalent and not always accessible.
In his poem "The Real Hero of the Sacrifice of Isaac," Amichai, contrary to the numerous traditional and modern interpretations of the Akedah, argues that the real hero of Genesis 22 is the ram. Neither Abraham, nor Isaac, nor the angel, nor even God is the true hero of the story. The shift from both human and divine agents to the animal is disconcerting. "The real hero of the sacrifice was the ram / Who had no idea about the conspiracy of the others. / He apparently volunteered to die in place of Isaac." How can a ram "volunteer" to die? The personification of the ram is extreme, and the detailed description of his killing and the production of "shofars" out of his horns deflate the sacral apotheosis that is usually associated with Rosh Hashanah. But to the religious artifact Amichai ties a military context. The "shofars" in the poem "sound the blast of their war"—in the famous antiwar poem of Amir Gilboa, "Isaac," it is the young generation of Israeli warriors who speak through Isaac's voice. Gilboa questioned the sacrifice of Israel's young generation by their fathers, the Zionist political elite that hailed from Europe. Amichai pushes this antiwar poem to further limits. The date of the poem's publication gives us a clue. The year 1982 was the date of the Lebanon war, the most controversial war in the history of the nation. Amichai uses the ram as a metaphor for the many innocent youths sacrificed during that war. If a ram can hardly "volunteer" to be sacrificed, so could the many young fighters hardly have volunteered to die. This volunteer-ism was imposed on them. "Thus, here Amichai is ironically undermining the Israeli army value of volunteerism in a war such as the Lebanon War which does not seem to be justified." Amichai transforms Abba Kovner's famous reference to Jews in the Holocaust who went to their deaths like "sheep to slaughter"—only in his poem the ram is the one who is slaughtered. "The angel went home / Isaac went home / And Abraham and God left much earlier. / But the real hero of the sacrifice / Is the ram."
Amichai's classical allusions are not easily accessible. Neither are his paradigmatic sequences, his combination of incongruities, his dissonant metaphors. Amichai's poetic signature, his ability to deflate sacral pieties, and to celebrate mundane experiences and ordinary reality also requires some interpretive effort. His use of modernist poetics suggests that he is indeed a self-conscious "poet"—the very label he was trying so hard to dispute. We may argue that Amichai is a marginal modernist, or even an anti-modernist, but he is a modernist nonetheless, and one of the leading Hebrew modernist poets of our time.
We began then with Amichai the "persona," we proceeded to investigate this "persona" through the medium of Amichai the "person," and proceeded to examine the "person" through the poet. How then should we approach Amichai, or, who is the "real" Amichai—the persona, the person, or the poet?
We have lost Amichai the person, but we have not lost the important critical corpus that has established him as one of Israel's most important poets. Above all, we have not lost the poet: Amichai's poems continue to be taught in Israeli schools, and selections from his books are required reading in the academe.
Amichai the poet then is not dead, and so while we mourn the death of the person, we give tribute to his lasting legacy and celebrate his poetic art.
Source: Esther Fuchs, "Remembering Yehuda Amichai: Homage to an Israeli Poet," in Midstream, Vol. 47, No. 4, May 2001, p. 27.
In the following review of an updated version of The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai, Ramras-Rauch describes how Amichai "seduces his reader with … simplicity," while opening "a way into a more complex world."
Yehuda Amichai's simple, beguiling, and challenging poetry continues to fascinate readers and translators alike. He is recognized in Israel and abroad for his seeming simplicity of tone, image, and syntax. The centrality of a speaker in Amichai's poetry inevitably reflects the man himself: a gentle, often self-effacing man whose soft voice is frequently in contrast with the bold statements his poems make.
Amichai uses known and familiar materials for his poetry: the images of Jerusalem, his parents, his loves, his children, the marketplace—all act as a storehouse of raw materials for his verse. These familiar materials however, are often left behind when his poetry, without warning, soars into a new verbal reality where paradox, irony, and a certain wonder coexist. In a way, Amichai seduces his reader with his blatant declarative simplicity. The almost prosaic opening allows for a way into a more complex world. His world of analogies, metaphysical conceits, images, and paradoxes changes proportions while still using everyday imagery.
Among other things, is Amichai a political poet? Is there a hidden agenda under his well-turned verse? Are political issues alluded to in his innocent apolitical poems? Amichai's antiwar sentiment has been there from the inception of his writing. On a personal level, for instance, his basic experience in the 1948 war and the death of his close friend Dicky mark Amichai's strong antiwar feeling. In the short cycle "Seven Laments for the War Dead" from Behind All This a Great Happiness Is Hiding he writes: "Dicky was hit…. But he remained standing like that / in the landscape of my memory." The landscape of memory is but one resource for Amichai's warehouse inventory of images. Memory, time, history, people, smells—all float in his poetic orbit. Amichai is a perennial observer. As he says, his verse is haunted by hollow memories.
Amichai's poetry rejects his work as a guide to the perplexed. Love, a constant presence in his lyric work, touches on intimacy and his familiarity with the man-woman bond. At the same time, love is a concept tied to the Platonic idea of Love: Love that overcomes the physical, Love that transcends time, space, and causality. Amichai is bounded by the physicality of experience. Simultaneously, he aches to break away from the very matter that gives him his voice.
In this vein, in the attempt to transcend the expected and the causal, Amichai rejects a continuity of idea or stanza and opts for contiguity as a liberating mode. Simple words and complex notions merge. His poetry is strewn with road signs. The reader who is traversing the lines will, like a child in a drawing book, connect the dotted lines and thus create his or her own poetic map.
Amichai is fortunate to have had excellent translators into English—from Asia Gutman, to Chana Bloch, to Stephen Mitchell, to Benjamin and Barbara Harshav and others. The comprehensive selection A Life of Poetry 1948–1994 appeared three years ago (1994; see WLT 69:2, p. 426). The current volume was first published in 1986 by Harper & Row. Updating that original, the present edition adds several excellent translations from Amichai's 1989 book The Fist Too Was Once the Palm of an Open Hand and Fingers (see WLT 65:1, p. 180), giving the reader another occasion to enjoy the work of a poet whose complex simplicity continues to challenge lovers of poetry.
Source: Gila Ramras-Rauch, Review of The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai, in World Literature Today, Vol. 71, No. 2, Spring 1997, pp. 448-49.
In the following essay, Merrin provides an overview of Amichai's works, focusing on amalgamation and accessibility.
The contemporary Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai is enjoying renewed popularity in this country. What his widening readership can find in the poetry as well as Amichai's ventures into fiction' is a deliberate jumbling of the public and the private, the past and the present, this country and that country, the exalted and the mundane. In his world, wars become mixed up with love affairs; Isaiah mingles ironically with modern technology "the man under his fig tree telephoned the man under his vine"; the dead of Wurzburg, Germany (where Amichai was born in 1924) are seen again in contemporary Jerusalem; and, in one particularly startling move, the injunction of Genesis to "Be fruitful and multiply" gets absurdly associated, by way of sexual "sticky business," with "shaving cream." Here we have a writer of impurity, amalgamation, admixture. In this way, he is the opposite of the writer as alchemist, ceaselessly laboring in an hermetic cell to transmute base metals into gold. Amichai's work rejects preciousness in all senses committing itself to motley, unrefined reality. The poetry is strong as iron alloy is strong, and meant for everyday use.
Because of his conversational voice and his visual metaphors, Amichai translates well. His eleven books of poetry have been rendered into no fewer than twenty-nine languages including Afrikaans, Catalan, Chinese, Drentish (a Dutch dialect), Esperanto, German, Slovak, Urhobo (a Nigerian dialect), and Yiddish. My own Hebrew being limited, for the most part, to the Sabbath and Festival Prayer Book, I have had to rely on English versions. Comparing English versions of Amichai can be a frustrating task: many have tried their hands, and individual poems may make separate appearances under different titles in books more often than not out of print. On the whole, the most powerful and shapely renditions have been produced by (or in collaboration with) the English poet Ted Hughes, and by the American poets Chana Bloch and Stephen Mitchell in the Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai, which has just been reissued with new translations by the University of California Press. Quotations that follow are drawn primarily from Bloch and Mitchell—some of their translations along with Amichai's original Hebrew are included in this issue. When poems do not appear in Selected Poetry, or when lines have seemed to me arguably more forceful in Benjamin and Barbara Harshav's Yehuda Amichai: A Life of Poetry, 1948–1994, I have instead quoted from their more compendious collection.
Characterized by abrupt turns of thought and metaphors so far-fetched that they can recall Samuel Johnson's antipathetic description of English metaphysical poetry ("the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together"), Amichai's poetry nevertheless stays socially engaged and readily accessible. A story circulates that when Israeli university students were called up in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, each packed up his gear, a rifle, and a volume of Amichai's poems. And one can understand the ethics and emotional appeal of a writer just old enough to be a teenage soldier's father, who stands with impeccable pre-World War II Zionist credentials, and whose poetry speaks with an uneffete, commonsensical authority, particularly about the dilemmas and losses of war. It is not surprising to learn, then, that Amichai's books have been best sellers in Israel since the nineteen fifties; nor that he has shunned Tel Aviv cafe society, choosing to live instead in less arty, historically layered Jerusalem, where he is often seen carrying bags of fruits and vegetables from the marketplace. His stance is perhaps best summed up in one of his favorite expressions of value—used by him to describe the sort of language he prefers as well as to praise his favorite authors (among these, the Prophets; the medieval rabbi-poet Samuel Hanagid, who wrote out of a mixed Jewish and Arab culture during the Moorish reign in Spain; and the urbanely ironic and colloquial W. H. Auden): Yehuda Amichai is "down to earth." "God's hand is in the world / like my mother's hand in the guts of the slaughtered chicken / on Sabbath eve," he tells us; and "doubts and loves / dig up the world / like a mole, a plow."
In a 1992 Paris Review interview, Amichai tells a story about how, during his World War II service in a Palestinian unit of the British army (his family having immigrated to Palestine in 1936), he first came into contact with modern English poetry—an incident quite literally "down to earth":
Between 1944 and 1946 we did a lot of underground work—smuggling arms and Jewish immigrants into what was then Palestine. We began preparing, on a small scale, for a Jewish state—we were actually preparing for a new conflict while the one we were in was fading away. One event in Egypt had an extremely important impact on my life. It was in 1944, I think, we were somewhere out in the Egyptian desert. The British had these mobile libraries for their soldiers, but, of course, most of the British soldiers, being from the lower classes and pretty much uneducated, didn't make much use of the libraries. It was mostly us Palestinians who used them—there we were, Jews reading English books while the English didn't. There had been some kind of storm, and one of the mobile libraries had overturned into the sand, ruining or half-ruining most of the books. We came upon it, and I started digging through the books, and came upon a book, a Faber anthology of modern British poetry—the first time I read Eliot and Auden, for example, who became very important to me. I discovered them in the Egyptian desert, in a half-ruined book. The book had an enormous impact on me—I think that was when I began to think seriously about writing poetry.
With this episode the older Amichai, retrospectively proud of his military exploits and upper-class education, presents for the literary/historical record a self-epitomizing image: a young Zionist soldier-reader, groping in foreign sand for the secular, poetic word. And the text unearthed is not in Egyptian hieroglyphics or ancient Hebrew, but self-consciously modernist, twentieth-century English. Ironically (and Amichai is a great relisher of ironies), this digging excavates a future instead of a past: Amichai will produce his own brand of modern poetry—a mixture that stirs together Biblical Hebrew and phrases from the diasporan siddur with a newly evolving, spoken Hebrew suddenly called upon to accommodate the new nouns and new realities of cars and ketchup, Pepsi-Cola and tanks:
Caught in a homeland-trap: To talk now in this tired tongue, Torn out of its sleep in the Bible: blinded, It totters from mouth to mouth. In a tongue that described Miracles and God, now to say: automobile, bomb, God.
Amichai's self-described "mixed sensibility," then, merges with and emerges from the historical occasion that was the birth of the modern Jewish state and the reawakening of the Hebrew tongue. It is Amichai's genius as a writer to have seized this moment in Jewish history as a literary opportunity and to have seen in his own personal history a microcosm of Israeli national experience:
When I was young, the whole country was young. And my father was everyone's father. When I was happy, the country was happy too, and when I jumped on her, she jumped under me. The grass that covered her in spring softened me too, and the dry earth of summer hurt me like my own cracked footsoles. When I first fell in love, they proclaimed her independence, and when my hair fluttered in the breeze, so did her flags. When I fought in the war, she fought, when I got up she got up too, and when I sank she began to sink with me.
In its egocentricity, exuberant and unabashed, its revolutionary energy, and its evocation of youthful accord with a responsive, feminized Nature, these opening lines of "When I Was Young, the Whole Country Was Young" recall, of course, Wordsworth's Romantic posture—and particularly Book XI of The Prelude, in which Wordsworth, recounting the optimism and excitement surrounding his first exposure to the French Revolution, famously exclaims, "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, / But to be young was very Heaven!" Yet the overall arc of Amichai's lyric is not Wordsworthian but self-consciously anti-Romantic, swerving as it does from the heroic to the humdrum, from the blithe to the blighted, with an unmistakable ironic undertow and with characteristic insistence on prosaic, pathos-deflating ordinariness. Here is the poem's final stanza:
Afterward I bought myself some non-kosher salami and two bagels, and I walked home. I managed to hear the evening news and ate and lay down on the bed and the memory of my first love came back to me like the sensation of falling just before sleep.
Anti-heroism, reduced expectations, undercutting of what at first had seemed universal and absolute, with a sense of fragmentation and individual isolation: this poem, so self-consciously about "sinking" and "falling," is very much in line with Western iconoclastic writing of the nineteen fifties. "When I was young" is at the same time a markedly idiosyncratic and local incarnation of modernist tropes and dilemmas, a specifically Jewish work that takes stock of four decades of life in the "Promised Land."
The poem is enriched if one has read Amichai's earlier writing, where the analogy is repeatedly drawn between his beloved orthodox father (dead of a heart attack at sixty-three, at the very commencement of Amichai's writing career) and God the Father; or if one is aware that, like so many of his generation of pioneer Zionists, the young Amichai repudiated orthodoxy; or if one happens to know that when the family immigrated from Germany, Amichai's father and uncle opened a small factory in which they made salami sausages. What is ironically evoked in the last stanza, then, as the speaker goes home with his solitary meal of "non-kosher salami," is not only a dissolution of the original, Edenic reciprocity of speaker and country, but also a personalcum-national turn away from kashrut and religious orthodoxy, as that orthodoxy was embodied by the previous, largely European generation ("my father was everyone's father").
Religious rebellion is never, however, a settled issue. And it reenacts itself throughout Amichai's poetry, which obsessively conjures up the figure of the simultaneously revered and rebelled-against father, and which repeatedly alludes to sacred texts in order to expose—sometimes with nostalgia, more often with some blend of worldly cynicism and good-natured humor—the gap between what we might think of as the Old Word and the New World. As just one example of this allusive practice, here from another poem is this soldier-poet's sardonic commentary on a phrase from the traditional Memorial Service:
God-full-of-Mercy, the prayer for the dead. If God was not full of mercy, Mercy would have been in the world, Not just in him.
Irreverent as they are, Amichai's frequent textual commentary and reinterpretation are in the tradition of Rashi and other Talmudic commentators. His ambivalent and argumentative stance puts him, as Amichai himself acknowledges, squarely in the tradition, too, of Abraham and Job: "I think my sense of history and God, even if I am against history and God, is very Jewish. I think this is why my poems are sometimes taught in religious schools. It's an ancient Jewish idea to fight with God, to scream out against God."
The unresolved family quarrel throughout "When I was young" is not only with God the Father, but also with the modern Jewish nation that for Amichai's generation seemed to promise a utopian community, but that ended up—as of course it had to end up—as one more morally culpable nation among other culpable nations. When this advocate of the land-for-peace settlement (and former Haganah commando) writes, "I managed to hear the evening news," he is evoking the commonplace close of an ordinary day; but he is also inviting his reader to imagine hearing what he no doubt heard: the next in what seems to be an interminable series of news reports about Arab-Israeli mutual mistrust and violence. Since the early, heady days of socialist idealism, Israel and her writers perforce have dealt with guilt and with all the grubby pragmatics of nationhood; reluctantly, they have had to come down to earth. It is a resigned, world-weary, but residually romantic speaker who goes to sleep at the end of the poem with only "the memory" of his first love.
Amichai has written a remarkable number of poems having to do with the erotic life: it is almost (as others have remarked) as though, having given up on religion, the poet made an absolute value out of love. Almost, but not quite—because nothing in Amichai's gallimaufry of a world is allowed to stand as absolute or unadulterated. The love poems are elegiac as well as earthy; the speaker looks back, sad-eyed yet ruefully smiling, on sexual experiences now inextricably intertwined for him with limitation and loss. Here, for example, from his 1963–1968 volume Now in the Din Before the Silence, is the brief love poem "Pity, We Were a Good Invention":
They amputated Your thighs from my waist. For me they are always Surgeons. All of them.
They dismantled us One from another. For me they are engineers. Pity. We were a good and loving Invention: an airplane made of man and woman, Wings and all: We soared a bit from the earth, We flew a bit.
Some cruel and unspecified "They" have sundered the harmless lovers, but there is in any case something endearingly impossible about the lovers' hopeful "Invention," just as there is something endearingly impossible about every lover's dream of overleaping all obstacles. Even before the baneful interference, these two managed to get off the ground only "a bit"—the counterforce of reality always tugging their quixotic flying machine back down to earth, toward disillusion and dissolution. The scientific or technological language—"amputated," "surgeons," "dismantled," "engineers," "Invention," "airplane"—is fresh and unsettling in the context of sexual love; the poet seems something of a surgeon himself as he cuts up syntax into neat, brief units. This extreme terseness is a little frightening, suggesting both the zombie-like numbness of the victim and possibly even identification to some extent with the oppressor. The result here as elsewhere in Amichai is a complex tone, mixing helplessness and assertiveness, feyness and frisson, affection and anger, woefulness and whimsy.
From the beginning of his writing career Amichai's love poetry has inclined toward the pessimistic and worldly. In this, if not in sexual preference, Amichai follows his most important English model, W. H. Auden, who also composed modernist love poems in a wartime setting—among them the beautiful and frequently anthologized "Lullabye" (1937), which begins: "Lay your sleeping head, my love, / Human on my faithless arm." Amichai has composed a number of Audenesque lullabies. His "Lullaby 1957" borrows Auden's ballad-like stanza and incorporates colloquial language and everyday urban imagery reminiscent of Auden. Here is its concluding quatrain:
Let us fall asleep. In the dark corridor The electric meter will go on Keeping score, all night, Always awake, and we shall not worry.
In Auden's case (in "Lullabye" and elsewhere), the use of present tense is a means of holding on to the ephemeral moment and drawing a wishful, charmed circle around the lovers—threatened from within by the expectation of homosexual infidelity and from without by social disorder and hostility. Amichai tries, much less successfully, for a similar effect: his "Keeping score" has a forced cleverness, and the uncharacteristic present and future tenses give him trouble. Amichai in his own voice is almost always a love poet of the past tense, of "we were" rather than "we are." But it must also be noted that "Lullaby 1957" clearly suffers in translation, as do others of Amichai's earlier and more formally traditional verses, and that the Hebrew text has a wider effective range of tenses.
A predilection for the distant perspective is bound up with Amichai's most telling difference from Auden: his use of love poetry as a field for specifically Jewish reenactment, rebellion, and rumination on history. Frequently juxtaposing erotic descriptions and religious texts, Amichai tweaks the law of the father(s) and brings the spiritual realm abruptly and often shockingly down to earth. At the same time, he points to the ephemerality of sexual bonding, its flimsiness as a substitute for religious belief. Here, for instance, is a passage describing a sensual, skewed Sabbath (black instead of white, despairing rather than renewing) from Amichai's longest poem (some forty-two pages), "The Travels of the Last Benjamin of Tudela." Words in quotation come from Lecha Dodi, the familiar, beautiful hymn for welcoming the Sabbath as a metaphorical bride:
This could have been a song of praise to the sweet, imaginary God of my childhood. It happened on Friday, and black angels filled the Valley of the Cross, and their wings were black houses and abandoned quarries. Sabbath candles bobbed up and down like ships at the entrance to a harbor. "Come O bride," wear the clothes of your mourning and your splendor from the night when you thought I wouldn't come to you and I came. The room was drenched in the fragrance of syrup from black, intoxicating cherries. Newspapers, scattered on the floor, rustled below and the flapping wings of the hemlock above. Love with parting, like a record with applause at the end of the music, love with a scream, love with a mumble of despair at walking proudly into exile from each other. Come O bride, hold in your hand something made of clay at the hour of sunset, because flesh vanishes and iron doesn't keep….
Amichai's intermingling of the sensual and spiritual recalls strategies of metaphysical poets such as John Donne, but the Anglican metaphysical and the Jewish modernist own very different poetic projects. In his early love poems, Donne spiritualizes sex; his later, religious poems sexualize the sacred, making religious subject matter concrete and apprehensible. Donne's transposition of phrases and images may be lewd or pious, silly or psychologically tortured: always, Donne is showy, and always his work situates itself within an orthodox Christian context. Amichai's admixtures of the sacred and the sexual can be as flamboyant, but they are un-Donneish in their post-existential registration of both religious and romantic inadequacy.
Perhaps because Amichai is underscoring a philosophical point, in his love poetry whom we meet is not so much this or that woman as all women, the abstract Female. Whether or not Amichai's poems echo individual encounters, disconcertingly, the women encountered remain on the whole voiceless and faceless, the speaker's emotions not much different toward each one, and each subsumed under the rubric of Love-That-Had-To-Be-Lost. Here are the concluding lines of a lyric from Amichai's 1989 book, From Man You Came and to Man You Shall Return:
I'm still inside the room. Two days from now I will see it from the outside only, The closed shutter of your room where we loved one another And not all mankind.
And here are lines from a poem in his 1963–1968 collection:
And to be alone is to be in a place Where we were never together, and to be alone is To forget you are like this: to want to pay for two In a bus and travel alone.
We know in each case that the speaker is feeling woebegone, yet his voice participates in, even precipitates, the distancing that pains him. Because we are allowed to see his experience "from the outside only," the grief in these poems remains iconic, generalized, at some emotional remove; nor do we know anything in particular about the woman whose presence the speaker mourns. This tonal sameness and this blurring of otherness arise from Amichai's more or less conceptually constant, if metaphorically various, treatment of love. It makes sense, of course, to internalize God as a concept to be turned over and over in the mind while the concept remains essentially unchanged; it likewise makes sense that a dead father would become internalized and fixed in time, so that scenarios replay or repeat with limited variation. But there is something discomfiting about this recording of one lost love after another in which the speaker never (or hardly ever) appears to come into contact with a separate and unique individual as densely specific as himself. To harp on this last point might become dreary, humorless (the last things one wants to appear in the presence of a master of tragicomedy), but it remains a disappointment in work otherwise marked by uncompromising complexity.
The voice of an Amichai poem—we might be able to spot even an unattributed Amichai—comes to us with a tone at once funny and sad, fanciful and commonsensical, sweet and bitter, fluid and laconic. What makes the diverse elements cohere is a somehow recognizably Jewish and Israeli variety of irony, at once lugubrious and tough-minded. If Amichai quarrels with his diasporan fathers, he does so—ironically—by borrowing their method of coping and their tone of voice. Indeed, he sees him-self as adopting the voice and view of his own father: "Irony is integral to my poetry. Irony is, for me, a kind of cleaning material. I inherited a sense of humor and irony from my father, who always used humor and irony as a way of clarifying, clearing, cleaning the world around him. Irony is a way of focusing, unfocusing and focusing again always trying to see another side. That's the way I see, that's the way I think and feel, that's the way I live—focusing and refocusing and juxtaposing different shifting and changing perspectives."
A capacity for entertaining multiple perspectives and an attempt "to see another side" may be, in the end, the only hope for peace, in the Middle East, or anywhere—which is why Amichai's particular deployment of humor and irony carries a certain amount of political as well as poetic freight. In section five of "Jerusalem, 1967," a long poem emerging from the experience of the Six-Day War, Amichai (whose father, previous to his Israeli incarnation as a sausage-maker, had been a wholesale distributor of tailoring goods in Germany) shows us how possible and yet impossible it is to make a human connection with someone on "another side":
On Yom Kippur in 1967, the Year of Forgetting, I put on my dark holiday clothes and walked to the Old City of Jerusalem For a long time I stood in front of an Arab's hole-in-the-wall shop, not far from the Damascus Gate, a shop with buttons and zippers and spools of thread in every color and snaps and buckles. A rare light and many colors, like an open Ark.
I told him in my heart that my father too had a shop like this, with thread and buttons. I explained to him in my heart about all the decades and the causes and the events, why I am now here and my father's shop was burned there and he is buried here.
When I finished, it was time for the Closing of the Gates prayer. He too lowered the shutters and locked the gate and I returned, with all the worshipers, home.
This long noncommunication, which conjoins the incompatible elements of irony and prayer, takes place in a surprising and generous image in front of a homely "Ark of the Covenant," a cluttered Arab tailor's shop in the Shuk. The phrase "all the worshipers" may be read as wishful thinking, encompassing Arab and Jew alike, humanity in general. Yet the speaker here, in spite of his somewhat self-congratulatory and sentimental assertion that he stood "For a long time," comes across as someone realistic, someone who regret-fully concedes the division between Arab and Jew brought about by "all the decades" of irrevocable "causes and events." He returns to his home in the still-embattled city together with the worshipers who are Jewish. What the shop/"Ark" has on display, we notice, are small, assorted inventions for closing more easily repaired rents or gaps than that between the shopkeeper and the Yom Kippur worshiper: needles and thread, buttons and zippers and snaps. But the poem reminds us that wishful thinking alone cannot join what history has separated.
The refusal to proffer simplistic solutions: Amichai's speaker here and in most poems is a man who, despite wide-ranging experience and an astringent intelligence, finds himself, like most of us most of the time, morally troubled and perplexed. And the most perplexing subject for this poet/speaker is the significance of Jewish history. On the one hand, history is clearly the wellspring of his humane art and the source of his most effective metaphors. On the other hand, history is, as Amichai himself acknowledges, the ultimate cause of the ongoing inhumanity that he abhors. In the following passage, for instance, the poet's wry genealogical metaphors come out of and comment on an extensive history of sufferings and reprisals (the phrase "eye to eye" wearily echoing the Old Testament edict of "an eye for an eye"):
Joy has no parents. No joy ever learns from the one before, and it dies without heirs. But sorrow has a long tradition, handed down from eye to eye, from heart to heart.
"I hate war," Amichai has said, "So I hate history."
It is unsurprising, then, that one of Amichai's most accomplished volumes of poetry is entitled simply Time; unsurprising, too, that one of his best single poems takes up the time-obsessed book of Ecclesiastes, which Amichai has praised as "a great, great poem of human despair." In "A Man Doesn't Have Time," Amichai characteristically argues with and even parodies the passage that begins "For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven." The poem's opening lines:
A man doesn't have time to have time for everything. He doesn't have seasons enough to have a season for every purpose. Ecclesiastes was wrong about that. A man needs to love and to hate at the same moment, to laugh and cry with the same eyes, with the same hands to cast away stones and to gather them, to make love in war and war in love. And to hate and forgive and remember and forget, to set in order and confuse, to eat and digest what history takes years and years to do.
This is as good a description of the mixed world of Amichai's poetry as we are likely to get—set down in a straightforward manner by a man of many words whose writing somehow manages to retain the authority of a man of few words; by a Jew who wrestles with his history and his God; by a poet whose aesthetic and ethical project is both "to set in order and confuse."
Source: Jeredith Merrin, "Yehuda Amichai: Down to Earth," in Judaism, Vol. 45, No. 3, Summer 1996, pp. 287-98.
In the following review, Rudman praises the universal reach of Amichai's voice and vision.
Yehuda Amichai is by now one of the half-dozen leading poets in the world. He has found a voice that speaks across cultural boundaries and a vision so sure that he can make the conflicts of the citizen soldier in modern Israel stand for those of humankind. What happens to the self in his poems reverberates through the body politic. Amichai's wit is also considerable; he can say virtually anything and give his words enough sting to defuse both sentimentality and hyperbole:
if I pull out the stopper
after pampering myself in the bath,
I'm afraid that all of Jerusalem, and with it the
will drain out into the huge darkness.
("You Musn't Show Weakness")
Amichai's work is governed by a single trope: the body is the world body—alive, sensual, fleshy—and in it the private and the public come together for better:
When you do nice things to me
all the heavy industries shut down.
("Poems for a Woman")
and for worse:
your thighs from my hips.
As far as I'm concerned, they're always
doctors. All of them.
("A Pity. We Were Such a Good Invention")
Assia Gutmann, in her earlier translation of the poem above, had used the word "surgeons" for "doctors" ("They are all surgeons. All of them."), and the sense and syntax of her lines retain a striking accusatory music.
Translation is a matter of coincidence. Translators don't seek the right word so much as the spirit of the phrase. If they are lucky they will find a style that corresponds to that of the original text. In the case of Marquez, for instance, the immediate resource is Faulkner; in the case of Neruda and Vallejo, it is Whitman. In Yehuda Amichai's case, it is the Bible, notably the Psalms and the Song of Songs. It is no accident that the psalmic strains of his poetry translate as well as they do.
Another reason Amichai's poetry translates well is that his imagery, drawn as it is from myth, history and common experience, unlocks a world that is not the property or domain of one language: "Children move with the footsteps of someone else's grief / as if picking their way through broken glass" ("Seven Laments for the War-Dead"). But there are many layers of irony and allusion that are lost when we abandon "a language that once described / miracles and God' and is now made "to say car, bomb, God' ("National Thoughts").
Other writers have managed this transformation of the self and its language, but they have done so mainly in epic forms: Blake in the "Prophetic Books," Joyce, Williams in Paterson, Olson in the Maximus Poems. This method of metaphor in which the body becomes the world body allows Amichai to be quick, lyrical and cryptic, yet still make larger outward connections. In fact, he cannot avoid it, and envisions his life turned into a revolving door. A private man forced to wear a public mask, he sings of division. Yet the strain he feels in his life does not come across as strain in his work.
All the days of his life my father tried to make a man of me,
so that I'd have a hard face like Kosygin and Brezhnev,
like generals and admirals and stockbrokers and financiers,
all the unreal fathers I've established instead of my father …
I have to screw onto my face the expression of a hero
like a lightbulb screwed into the grooves of its hard socket,
to screw in and to shine.
("Travels of the Last Benjamin of Tudela")
As we can see from this wry self-portrait, Amichai knows how to leaven hard truths with humor.
But Amichai embraces the public sphere only through the self. In an early poem he compares his life to Venice: everything that is streets in others is "love, dark and flowing" in him. He submits all of his experiences to the pressure and presence of love before they can make their way into a poem. In this way he has, and no mean feat this, reclaimed the genre of the love poem for serious poetry. Personal without being private, serious without being solemn, he seeks relief and ease through the balm of love, writes as a man motivated to "go out to all [his] wars" and come back on account of love.
Amichai adopts a prophetic tone with remarkable ease. "He doesn't have seasons enough to have / a season for every purpose," he writes in "A Man Doesn't Have Time." When we speak of Biblical simplicity, we are really talking about a manner of address, a certain directness. Amichai has always been able to speak directly rather than employ metaphors for his thoughts. Metaphors are contained within the body of his poems rather than serving as a casement for them. His poems begin where most poems end. He begins without a mask, with the screen torn off and the scream in its place:
Now that I've come back, I'm screaming again.
And at night, stars rise like the bubbles of the drowned,
and every morning I scream the scream of a newborn baby
at the tumult of houses and at all this huge light.
Amichai has been blessed in his translators: Assia Gutmann, Ted Hughes, Harold Schimmel, Ruth Nevo and now Chana Bloch and Stephen Mitchell. They have all ably conveyed the concrete particulars of his world, but Bloch and Mitchell get inside the text and render a subtler, more complex and formally expert Amichai than we have seen before in English. Many people who know both Hebrew and English well think that the Mitchell/Bloch translation is excellent and that it supersedes the earlier translations, but those of use who have been reading Amichai since the first translations appeared find it difficult to shake off their authority. There's a world of difference in the placement of a word. Assia Gutmann translated a line in one of his most memorable lyrics as "Hair dark above his thoughts," which isolates in an uncanny way the hair from the head, locates the source of the thoughts in the brain beneath the hair, turns the physical perception into an image of the character's psychological and spiritual condition and, in doing so, interprets the "thoughts" for us:
Out of three or four in a room
One is always standing at the window.
Hair dark above his thoughts.
("Out of Three or Four in a Room")
Stephen Mitchell's version returns us to the thing itself, "his dark hair above his thoughts." [Emphasis added.] Gutmann's image stresses displacement, isolation; Mitchell's version—and he uses a comma after the preceding line instead of a period—stresses continuity of being in the world, ordinariness.
Reading the Selected Poetry, it occurred to me that Amichai's poetry resembles the work of James Wright more than that of any other contemporary American poet. Both poets are able to submerge their imaginations in momentary events; both root their poems in specific places (Israel, the Midwest) and move from the anecdotal to the universal; both use a narrative voice but write lyrics rather than narrative poems; both explore the possibilities of poetry through contexts and placement. They share the capacity to speak directly while retaining an eerie edge to what they say—and unsay. In Wright:
The carp are secrets
Of the creation: I do not
Know if they are lonely.
The poachers drift with an almost frightening
Care under the bridge.
("Lifting Illegal Nets by Flashlight")
Plunged into the dark furrows
Of the sea again.
("Stages on a Journey Westward")
Jerusalem, the only city in the world
where the right to vote is granted even to the dead.
Dicky was hit.
Like the water tower at Yad Mordekhai.
Hit. A hole in the belly. Everything
came flooding out.
("Seven Laments for the War-Dead")
Amichai, longing to be released from the burden of memory at the end of a long incantation in "Songs of Zion the Beautiful," pleads: "Let all of them [the scrolls, the flags, the beasts, the birds] remember so that I can rest." It is our good fortune that he is not likely to be granted his wish.
Source: Mark Rudman, Review of The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai, in Nation, Vol. 243, December 6, 1986, pp. 646-48.
Amichai, Yehuda, "Not like a Cypress," in The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai, edited and translated by Chana Bloch and Stephen Mitchell, University of California Press, 1996, pp. 12-13.
Bloch, Chana, "Wrestling with the Angel of History: The Poetry of Yehuda Amichai," in Judaism, Vol. 45, No. 3, Summer 1996, pp. 298-300.
Gunderson, Elizabeth, Review of A Life of Poetry: 1948–1994, in Booklist, Vol. 91, No. 3, October 1, 1994, p. 230.
Ramras-Rauch, Gila, Review of A Life of Poetry: 1948–1994, in World Literature Today, Vol. 69, No. 2, Spring 1995, pp. 426-27.
――――――, Review of The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai, in World Literature Today, Vol. 71, No. 2, Spring 1997, p. 448.
Review of A Life of Poetry: 1948–1994, in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 241, No. 35, August 29, 1994, p. 66.
Rudman, Mark, Review of The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai, in Nation, Vol. 243, December 6, 1986, p. 646.
Tamopolsky, N., "Visiting the Poet of Jerusalem," in Forward, Vol. 97, No. 31,020, March 24, 1995, p. 10.
Abramson, Glenda, ed., The Experienced Soul: Studies in Amichai, Westview Press, 1997.
Amichai, who has taught at universities all over the world and whose work is studied at major international schools, is considered the most important Hebrew writer of the twentieth century. In this book, Amichai authorities from major universities in various countries examine the poet's work and discuss his major themes and influences. The result is a comprehensive scholarly overview of Amichai's significant body of work.
Hirsch, Edward, How to Read a Poem: And Fall in Love with Poetry, Harcourt Brace, 1999.
Whether readers are new to poetry or not, Hirsch's book can enlighten them about the reading of poems. Hirsch knows his material well and teaches others to recognize the beauty in poetry.
Munk, Michael L., The Wisdom in the Hebrew Alphabet, Artscroll, 1986.
Hebrew is an ancient language in which each letter of the alphabet contains symbolism. Letter combinations form more than words. There are hidden meanings. This book is a beginner's guide to those meanings.
Sacharov, Eliyahu, Out of the Limelight: Events, Operations, Missions, and Personalities in Israeli History, Gefen Publishing House, 2004.
Sacharov's book has been called the untold story of how the state of Israel was formed. Sacharov was instrumental in the foundation of the state, and he tells the story with authority.
Warren, Bargad, and Stanley F. Chyet, eds., No Sign of Ceasefire: An Anthology of Contemporary Israeli Poetry, Scirball Cultural Center, 2002.
Readers who want to familiarize themselves with late-twentieth-century and early-twenty-first-century Israeli poets should start with this collection. Poets include Leah Aini, Erez Biton, Admiel Kosman, and Rivka Miriam.