“The Poetry of Yehuda Amichai,” edited by Robert Alter (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 576 pages, $35)
Yehuda Amichai is a name that every serious reader of poetry should know. By far Israel’s greatest poet of the 20th century (he died in 2000), he transcends national boundaries to zero in on the essential elements of the human condition: love, war, childhood, parents, politics, sex and God – all with a haunting, existential presence.
And though he has had several books translated into English, only now do we have a single volume that spans the breadth of his career, from his revolutionary, early vernacular poems to his late-in-life meditations on memory and Moses. Not only that – which is invaluable in its own right – but we have a compendium expertly edited by Robert Alter, whose knowledge of Hebrew remains exemplary, bringing us a bountiful, authoritative harvest of verse.
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Alter’s introduction also proves invaluable, tracing the arc of Amichai’s oeuvre and elucidating the subtleties that translators often wrestle with or miss altogether: punning, alliteration, slant rhymes, allusions. One critic has called him a secular psalmist. And no doubt his imaginative fidelity to the biblical traditions – even as he held no Orthodox belief in God – fuels his verse with a lasting power. Imagery and metaphors that almost all of us would recognize spring up in vivid lyrics, recalling our past or perhaps our present practices. This religious force – for it can only be called such – makes Amichai’s poems unforgettable and approachable, rewarding and profound, creating a tension of belief and unbelief that remains unresolved.
Nowhere is such ambivalence about the divine more striking than in the tenderness of a father’s blessing for his son at the boy’s bar mitzvah.
I’m on my way from believing in God
and you’re on your way toward it: This too
is a meeting point of a father and a son.
It’s evening now. The earthball is cooling,
clouds that have never lain with a woman
pass overhead in the sky, the desert
starts breathing into our ears,
and all the generations
squeeze a bar mitzvah for you.
This comes from Amichai’s early-middle period, in which he was known for naming harsh realities plainly. But the poem shows the emotional suppleness of paternal love laid out in a distinctively moving voice with startling metaphors: “clouds that have never lain with a woman.”
Hearing that voice is no easy task, however; more than a dozen translators, including Alter, take their place in the lineup. One entire book included in this collection, “Time,” was translated by Amichai in collaboration with Ted Hughes. Other translators worth noting are Stephen Mitchell and Benjamin and Barbara Harshav. The result of this conglomeration of English-speaking poets is for the most part fluid, thanks to Alter’s guiding hand. About his own efforts, he says, “I have also sought in my editorial choices and in my translations to intimate the artful disjunctions and disruptions and the purposeful disorientations of the Hebrew.”
This power of language is driven home in an early war poem, “The Smell of Gasoline,” which concludes with phrases echoing the final words of the kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead.
In the earth, raw materials leave their mark,
Not extracted like us from silence and dark,
A jet makes peace in the sky for all,
For us, and all those who love in the fall.
Here we have poetry as an act of disjunction, sacred power exchanged for secular. Such proficiency helps explain why Amichai was regarded as a national treasure in Israel.
Other poems from his early period, like “Not Like a Cypress” and “I Want to Die in My Bed,” testify to his signature mix of emotions: laughter and lamentation in equal measures, at times playful, always personal, always self-possessed. And in the midst of it all he expresses a strong affinity for high, liturgical poetry, albeit often in an ironic tone. It is the form that resonates with him; he will supply the critical (in both senses of the word) content.
Some may say that he shines brightest in his later, denser poems, with their long lines and wry wit, showing an earnestness as he approached mortality. Yet the shorter, more controlled poems of his earlier years excel at revealing his feelings clearly, teasingly, easing our navigation through verse after verse.
On the death of his mother:
She left by the one and only door
through which all the dead leave the world.
It’s the one and only door
through which we enter the world.
And her new family name
like that of them all:
Her full name from now till the resurrection:
On the mercy of God:
God full of mercy.
Were God not full of mercy
there would be mercy in the world, and not just in Him.
I, who plucked flowers on the mountain
and looked in all the valleys,
I, who hauled from the hills dead bodies,
can say that the world is empty of mercy.
Born in Bavaria in 1924, Amichai grew up in an Orthodox home before his family moved to Israel. As such, he had a staunch love-hate relationship with Jerusalem, full of “old Jews,” as he put it and slow to run the race of modernization, which has let it survive, “all the victories are clenched inside her / hidden inside her. All the defeats.”
Just as there is room for a curmudgeonly warmth in his emotions for Jerusalem, so Amichai is able to slip in a place for God, even though the deity may be only a shadow of his former self.
Underneath the world God lies stretched on his back,
always repairing, always things get out of whack.
I wanted to see him all, but I see no more
than the soles of his shoes and I’m sadder than I was before.
And that is his glory.
I would call Amichai’s sensibility a type of faithful humanism, protesting injustices and vulnerabilities when necessary, yet staying ever open to the transcendent.
And what should that openness proclaim?
I want to sing a psalm of praise to all that remains
here with us and doesn’t leave, doesn’t wander off like migratory birds,
will not flee to the north or the south, will not sing “In the East is my heart,
and I dwell at the end of the West.”
In the presence of such resonant praise, we can say that Amichai has indeed left us a poetry full of mercy.
Arlice Davenport is books editor for The Eagle. Reach him at 316-268-6256.