Yehuda Amichai (1924-2000) – posted 11/10/2013
It has been almost a year since I have used this space to highlight any of my favorite poets. I would easily place Yehuda Amichai in that category. He was also probably Israel’s most popular poet and it is easy to see why. He has the accessibility and charm of a Langston Hughes.
Amichai has a kind of everyman down-to-earthness. In his poems, it is like he is speaking to ordinary people in a totally unpretentious and understandable way. He also has a very Jewish bittersweet and melancholy sensibility. He once said that he wrote in order to comfort himself about life, about wars, and about difficulty.
I discovered Amichai reading Tikkun Magazine back in the late 80’s. In its initial issue, I believe, they ran Amichai’s long autobiographical poem, The Travels of Benjamin the Last, of Tudela.
Amichai was born into an Orthodox Jewish family. His family spoke both German and Hebrew. When he was eleven, his family immigrated to Mandate Palestine, a move that turned out to be a life-saver. Mandate Palestine was the entity carved out under British administration from 1920 to 1948. This was before the State of Israel came into existence.
As a young man, Amichai was a member of the Palmach, the strike force of the Haganah. They were a military force in defense of the Jewish community. Amichai described the Haganah as a very mainstream movement. He was personally very skeptical of ideologies. He was a person of the left though. To quote him: “We were young – socialists, Zionists – and we believed in a new and better world.” He said that the main principle of his military group was to hold back and not retaliate. That was not always a popular position.
Amichai ultimately had quite a bit of military experience. He volunteered and joined the British Army to fight in World War II. He fought in the Negev during Israel’s War of Independence. He later fought in the 1956 Sinai War and the 1973 Yom Kippur War. However, he was not a poet of any military braggadacio. In his poems, he hardly seems a fan of any war. He believed in non-violence but he was not absolutist. He, after all, was living in the era of the Nazis.
After his early war experience, Amichai went to Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He studied to be a teacher. After working in Haifa, he moved back to Jerusalem where he lived most of his life. He has written many beautiful poems about Jerusalem although he hated the idea he was a Jerusalem poet.
In an interview with the Paris Review, Amichai said that all poetry is political. This is because real poems deal with a human response to reality and politics is part of reality. It is history in the making. He said:
“My politics are very much rooted in a humanist context. My politics were not based as such on Marxist theory, but rather on the principle pf maximum justice and equality among people. Of course I was always aware that people are not born with equal talents and capacities but I believed that a social system had to maximize opportunities and freedom for all human beings…I’ve lived through so many betrayals of romantic political ideals – the main thing I believe now is to do as much as possible to prevent war.”
In the Paris Review interview, he described himself as an Israeli secular humanist. He said whoever reads his poetry could never arrive at fundamentalist, absolutist thinking. He stated that there’s an old Jewish saying: if you meet the devil, take him with you into the synagogue. Try to take the evil of politics into yourself, to influence it imaginatively – to give it human shape.
I did want to recount one story Amichai tells in the Paris Review interview. During the Israeli War of Independence, he described his military group happening onto an Egyptian detention camp in the Sinai Peninsula. There, Egyptian liberals, socialists and communists had been imprisoned by King Farouk. Amichai participated in liberating the camp. The Israelis and the Egyptians embraced one another. Amichai said that he felt he was part of a new world, breaking down monarchy and imperialism.
I do not know nearly enough Hebrew to read untranslated Amichai. One translator, Robert Alter, has written:
“Amichai’s exploitation of indigenous stylistic resources is often connected with his sensitivity to the expressed sounds of the Hebrew words he uses and with the inventive puns, which are sometimes playful sometimes dead serious, and often both at once. But what is most untranslatable are the extraordinary allusive twists he gives to densely specific Hebrew terms and texts.”
So I guess a lot is lost in translation. Critics credit Amichai with being a pioneer in developing a colloquial Hebrew.
I did want to offer up some of Amichai’s poems to share. It was hard to decide which ones to use. I am picking ones I randomly liked. For those of you who might like to explore more, I would mention “Yehuda Amichai: A Life in Poetry 1948-1994” translated by Benjamin and Barbara Harshav and The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai. This volume was translated by Chana Bloch and Stephen Mitchell.
In The Middle Of This Century
In the middle of this century we turned to each other
With half a face and full eyes
Like an ancient Egyptian painting,
For a short while.
I stroked your hair
Against the direction of the march.
We called each other
Like names of cities that one passes through
Along the road.
Beautiful is the world waking up for evil.
Beautiful is the world falling asleep for sin and grace.
In the discordance of our being together, you and I.
Beautiful is the world.
The earth drinks people and their loves
Like wine, in order to forget. Impossible.
Like the contours of the mountains of Yehuda,
We too will not find peace.
In the middle of this century we turned to each other,
I saw your body, casting a shadow, waiting for me.
The leather straps of a long voyage
Are tightened diagonally across my chest.
I spoke words in praise of your mortal loins,
You spoke words in praise of my transient face,
I stroked your hair in the direction of the march,
I touched the heralds of your end,
I touched your hand that never slept,
I touched your mouth that perhaps will sing.
The dust of the desert covered the table,
We did not eat on it.
But I wrote on it with my finger the letters of your name.
I Have Dead People
I have dead people, buried in the air.
I have a bereaved mother while I’m still alive.
I am like a place
At war with time.
Once, the green color rejoiced
Near your face in the window.
Only in my dreams
Do I still love hard.
People in the Dark Always See
People in the dark always see people
In the light. It’s an old truth, since sun and night
Were created, people and darkness, and electricity.
A truth exploited by those who make war
For easy killing in an ambush, a truth that enables
The unhappy to see the happy, and the lonely — people in love
In a brightly lit room.
Yet true life is led between dark and light:
“I locked the door,” you said,
An important sentence, full of destiny.
I still remember the words,
But I forgot on which side of the door they were said,
Inside or outside.
And from the only letter I wrote to you
I remember only the bitter taste of
The stamp’s glue on my tongue.
I was born in 1924. If I were a violin my age
I wouldn’t be very good. As a wine I would be splendid
Or altogether sour. As a dog I would be dead. As a book
I would begin to be expensive or thrown out by now.
As a forest I would be young, as a machine ridiculous,
And as a human being I’m very tired.
I was born in 1924. When I think about humanity
I think just about those born in my year.
Their mothers gave birth with my mother,
Wherever they were, in hospitals or in dark flats.
On this day, my birthday, I would like
To say a great prayer for you,
Whose load of hopes and disappointments
Pulls your life downward,
Whose deeds diminish
And whose gods increase
You are all brothers of my hope and companions of my despair.
May you find the right rest,
The living in their life, the dead in their death.
He who remembers his childhood better
Than others is the winner,
If there are any winners at all.
I sat in the waiting room with bridegrooms many years
Younger than me. Had I lived in ancient days,
I would be a prophet. But now I wait quietly
To register my name and the name of my beloved in the big Book
Of Marriages and to answer questions I can still
Answer. I filled my life with words,
I gathered in my body information that can feed the
Intelligence services of several countries.
With heavy steps I carry light thoughts,
As in my youth I carried thoughts heavy with destiny
On light feet, almost dancing with so much future.
The pressure of my life brings my birthday closer
To my death day, like history books,
Where the pressure of history brings those two
Numbers together with the name of a dead king,
Just a hyphen separating them.
I hold on to the hyphen with all my being,
As to a life raft, I live on it,
And the oath not to be alone is on my lips,
The voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride and the voice
Of children playing in the streets of Jerusalem
And in the mountains of Yehuda.
Gods Come and Go, Prayers Remain Forever
I saw in the street on a summer evening
I saw a woman writing words
On a paper spread on a locked wooden door,
She folded it and slipped it between the door and the doorpost
And went off.
I didn’t see her face or the face of the man
Who will read the writing and not the words.
On my desk lies a rock with the inscription “Amen,”
Piece of a tombstone, remnant of a Jewish graveyard
Ruined a thousand years ago in the city of my birth.
One word, “Amen” carved deep in the stone,
Hard and final, Amen to all that was and will not return,
Soft Amen: chanting like a prayer,
Amen, Amen, may it be His will.
Tombstones crumble, words come and go, words are forgotten,
The lips that uttered them turn to dust,
Tongues die like people, other tongues come to life,
Gods in the sky change, gods come and go,
Prayers remain forever.