Book review

New English collection opens the doors to Yehuda Amichai’s unforgettable poetry

Israel’s greatest modern poet is revealed in all his diversity, sensuality and universality

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

Yehuda Amichai in 1986. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)
Yehuda Amichai in 1986. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

Yehuda Amichai arrived in the land of Israel, as he noted in one of his poems, too late for the cedars, too late for A.D. Gordon, and too late for the hay wagon of Kibbutz Degania. But when Amichai put pen to paper in 1955, after fighting in World War II and in the War of Independence, Haim Gouri, the dean of Palmach-era Hebrew verse, reportedly said that he felt he had been “stabbed in the back.” Gouri glimpsed one of Amichai’s phrases – “I see you taking something out of the refrigerator, illuminated from the inside by a light from another world” – and saw the end of an era and the passing of a torch.

That torch remained in the hands of Amichai, Israel’s most beloved poet, for many decades, till his death in 2000. A newly released collection of his work in English offers by far the most diverse and complete look at his poetry, showcasing many new translations (by 13 translators) and roughly, at 550 pages, a third of his work.

Edited by Robert Alter, the great translator of Psalms and other books of the Bible, “The Poetry of Yehuda Amichai” weaves the personal and the universal, the sensual and the theological, and is, even in English — which must pave over some of the depth of the original — one of the brightest and most flavorful fruits to have grown on the tree of Israeli culture.

Amichai’s early predecessors tended to dress their Hebrew in the velvet gowns and silver ornamentation traditionally bestowed on Torah scrolls. Amichai, who was reminded of the grandeur of women when looking at those dressed up scrolls, kept his verse accessible.

Yehuda Amichai (Moshe Shai/Flash90)
Yehuda Amichai (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

To be sure, the Hebrew is layered with complexity and allusion and it winks in and out of different registers, Alter said in a phone interview, but “he made a point of not striking any pose as a poet.”

This enabled the following five-line poem:

Rain falls on the faces of my friends;
on the faces of my living friends
who cover their heads with a blanket –
and on the faces of my dead friends
who cover no more. (Translation: Robert Alter)

The precise and plainspoken verse animates an image that isn’t easily shaken.

The same sensibility guided him when contemplating the vigor of his children and the feebleness of his age: “I want to light my eyes/ from their eyes,/ as on a dark nocturnal street/ a man asks for a light/ for his last cigarette.” (Robert Alter)

The Poetry of Yehuda Amichai
The Poetry of Yehuda Amichai

More darkly but in the same vein, he wrote of Auschwitz: “the numbers on the forearms/ of the inmates of extermination/ are the telephone numbers of God,/ numbers that do not answer/ and now are disconnected, one by one.” (Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld)

Having grown up Orthodox, in Germany and then in Palestine, Amichai’s poetry is drenched in liturgical allusion and Bible references and much engaged with the notion of God. Some of his early poems are damning. “God’s hand in the world/ like my mother’s hand in the guts of the slaughtered chicken/ on Sabbath eve,” he wrote. “What does God see through the window/ while his hands reach into the world?/ What does my mother see?” (Stephen Mitchell)

At approximately the same time, in the late fifties, he thrashed the beautiful prayer chanted over the graves of the newly dead. “God full of mercy,” he wrote, evoking the name of the prayer. “Were God not full of mercy/ there would be mercy in the world, and not just in Him.” (Alter)

Later in life, in 1998, two years before his death, he wrote that he yearned for a God who “is like a door that opens out, not in” but that instead He was like a revolving door “whirling and turning, without a beginning, without an end.”

He had “a nostalgia for the presence of God, which he did not believe in,” Alter said.

He pointed to a short poem called “God’s Fate,” where Amichai, born Ludwig Pfeuffer, wrote that God’s fate now is like the fate of the trees and the stars and the moon “when people stopped believing in them and began believing in Him.” (Alter)

What never wavers though is his fascination with, and hunger for, women. Of King Solomon’s anticipation of Queen Sheba he wrote, “…he knew that her soul’s form was like the form/ of her supple body, which he would soon embrace –/ as a violin’s form is the form of its case.” (Mitchell)

The lust and the love in his poetry are often fleeting, brief flashes of warmth in the winter and temporary relief in the summer. They are often tinged with melancholy, as when his first love, clutching the “colored balloons” of his thoughts, casually releases them to the sky, severing the relationship.

And they are sometimes funny. “I saw a man wearing a skullcap embroidered/ with the pattern of the underwear/ of a woman I loved a long time ago. // He didn’t understand why I looked at him/ and why I turned back after he passed…” (Benjamin and Barbara Harshav)

But being honest about the many faces of male desire also has its pitfalls. In one instance, translation was at fault. In “Poems of Akhziv” Amichai described learning “to relate to your sex/ as to a face.” He continued, “I speak its ancient tongue/ It is wrinkled and made of older stuff/ than all the remembered generations written in books// it relates to us/ as to distant offspring,/ playing.” (Alter) But prior to this collection the three existing English translations of the poem all had a four-letter obscenity for the female genitals, Alter noted. The Hebrew word Amichai chose is erva, Leviticus’ preferred term for private parts.

“There is no English equivalent of erva, which gets you the biblical resonance of something that is taboo and strongly associated with the exposed nakedness of either the male or female body,” Alter said, “so in the end when I did translate it, I opted for ‘sex,’ which doesn’t give you quite what the Hebrew does but violates the sense of the original less.”

In “Hike With a Woman” there are no difficult words; just the poet’s realization that women are ill suited to travel and war. Her “thighs become heavy and her buttocks sway like a tired flock,” he wrote, “and you are filled with great joy/ for the world/ in which women are like that.” (Alter)

In “Songs of Zion the Beautiful,” a searing 39-section poem, some of the sections are omitted from the English. One of them describes a gym teacher. He is sitting in the sun, his shoes shined, his forehead creased. In an improvised translation, it reads like this: “I didn’t know that gym teachers could/ be sad. He is tired/ and he wants nothing but,/ that the pretty tourist at the table beside him/ will rise before him and walk with the churn of her round buttocks/ which she brought with her from her lands./ He wants nothing more.”

But this is not the heart of his poetry and of this collection. Rather it is a stunning collection of doors that “open out” toward images and insights that crown Jerusalem “a port city on the shore of eternity” and the “Venice of God,” and other doors that whirl magnificently, spinning on their hinges, lingering in the mind of the reader. “The sound of a drawer closing — the voice of God,” he wrote. “The sound of a drawer opening —the voice of love,/but it could also be the other way around.”

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