The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai by Yehuda Amichai Download (read online) free eBook (PDF ePub Kindle)

The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai

Yehuda Amichai is Israel’s most popular poet as well as a literary figure of international reputation. In this revised and expanded collection, renowned translators Chana Bloch and Stephen Mitchell have selected Amichai’s most beloved and enduring poems, including forty new poems from his recent work.

from Tourists:Once I was sitting on the steps near the gate at David’s Ci

from Tourists:Once I was sitting on the steps near the gate at David’s Citadel and I put down my two heavy baskets beside me. A group of tourists stood there around their guide, and I became their point of reference. “You see that man over there with the baskets? A little to the right of his head there’s an arch from the Roman period. A little to the right of his head.” “But he’s moving, he’s moving!” I said to myself: Redemption will come only when they are told, “Do you see that arch over there from the Roman period? It doesn’t matter, but near it, a little to the left and then down a bit, there’s a man who has just bought fruit and vegetables for his family.”
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    PGR Nair

    Mar 23, 2015

    rated it
    it was amazing

    Shelves:
    poetry

    AMALGAMATING AGONY AND ECSTASY: POETRY OF YEHUDA AMICHAI

    Yehuda Amichai (1924-2000) is a national icon in Israeli. No funeral, festivity or wedding in Israel passes without the fragrant whiff of his poetry. Everything he has witnessed in his life have filtered out through the prism of his consciousness and Jewish sensibilities as poetry. One can even say he was the liberator of Jewish language shackled in the shibboleth of rigor and torpor. Employing the style and idiom of a post-modernist, Amic

    Yehuda Amichai (1924-2000) is a national icon in Israeli. No funeral, festivity or wedding in Israel passes without the fragrant whiff of his poetry. Everything he has witnessed in his life have filtered out through the prism of his consciousness and Jewish sensibilities as poetry. One can even say he was the liberator of Jewish language shackled in the shibboleth of rigor and torpor. Employing the style and idiom of a post-modernist, Amichai’s poems resoundingly reflect the human drama with an acute sense of the epoch he lived. Love, death, war, eroticism, history memory, patriotism, alienation, spirituality –all these and many more are the deep undercurrents in his oeuvre.

    Amicha is the most autobiographical of all the poets I have read so far. In an interview with Lawrence Joseph in ‘The Paris review’, Yehuda Amichai said: I never felt any sense of separation between an inner and outer world, and I don’t feel it now. Real poets, I think, turn the outer world into the inner world and vice versa. Poets always have to be outside, in the world—a poet can’t close himself in his studio. His workshop is in his head and he has to be sensitive to words and how words apply to realities. It’s a state of mind. A poet’s state of mind is seeing the world with a kind of double exposure, seeing undertones and overtones, seeing the world as it is. Every intelligent person, whether he’s an artist or not—a mathematician, a doctor, a scientist—possesses a poetic way of seeing and describing the world.

    His poetry is volatile, heart-burdened, ironic,nostalgic, irreverent, funny, angry, gentle and tender. At times I feel he is the Stravinsky in poetry in the way he startles us with unpredictable metaphors. His poetry is a symphony of our existence. Even with all his oddities, the beauty is that this poet remains remarkably accessible, imaginative, unburdened by artificiality and often conversational in his poems.

    It is his historical consciousness that makes Amichai’s poems at once tragic and humorous, tender and tough, direct and intricate. Al though he has fought in two wars, against the Germans and against the Arabs, he cannot accept the simplifications of nationalisms. He sometimes finds a detachment from his own country. The poem cited below shows the seamless meshing of his personal life with that of his country. It is soaked in simplicity and directness of emotions.

    From WHEN I WAS YOUNG THE WHOLE COUNTRY WAS YOUNG

    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.
    Now I’m beginning to come apart from all that:
    like something that’s glued, after the glue dries out,
    I’m getting detached and curling into myself.

    What I like best about Amichai is that he doesn’t put on the image of a great poet. His self-deprecating humour is indeed a humanizer. His natural instinct is to describe what is tangible, immediate, and concrete and the need to reach out to his backdrops. Therefore his sorrows become our sorrows. The next two poems will illustrate it.

    From FOR MY BIRTHDAY

    Thirty-two times I went out into my life,
    each time causing less pain to my mother,
    less to other people,
    more to myself.

    Thirty-two times I have put on the world
    and still it doesn’t fit me.
    It weighs me down,
    unlike the coat that now takes the shape of my body
    and is comfortable
    and will gradually wear out.

    In a number of poems, Amichai focusses on the holiness of all aspects of existence-Physical, sensual and spiritual. The need to display a tough, macho exterior image is contrasted with inner feelings as sensitive and delicate as those of Jewish women who faint during wedding in this poem. One cannot resist noticing the heart-breaking line – Sometimes I come crashing down inside myself in this poem.

    YOU MUSTN’T SHOW WEAKNESS

    You mustn’t show weakness
    and you’ve got to have a tan.
    But sometimes I feel like the thin veils
    of Jewish women who faint
    at weddings and on Yom Kippur.

    You mustn’t show weakness
    and you’ve got to make a list
    of all the things you can load
    in a baby carriage without a baby.

    This is the way things stand now:
    if I pull out the stopper
    after pampering myself in the bath,
    I’m afraid that all of Jerusalem, and with it the whole world,
    will drain out into the huge darkness.

    In the daytime I lay traps for my memories
    and at night I work in the Balaam Mills,
    turning curse into blessing and blessing into curse.

    And don’t ever show weakness.
    Sometimes I come crashing down inside myself
    without anyone noticing. I’m like an ambulance
    on two legs, hauling the patient
    inside me to Last Aid
    with the wailing of cry of a siren,
    and people think it’s ordinary speech.

    Memory and forgetfulness are a persistent theme in his poetry. In a short later poem, “forgetting someone”, the confusions of love are felt in ordinary ways: “Forgetting someone/is like forgetting to turn off the light in the backyard/ so it stays lit all the next day/But then it is the light/that makes you remember”. In another poem he says:

    AN ETERNAL WINDOW

    In the garden I once heard
    a song or an ancient blessing.

    And above the dark trees
    a window is always lit, in memory

    of the face that looked out of it,
    and that face too

    was in memory of another
    lit window

    Amichai’s gift for understatement is most evident in the poem below. Perhaps readers can identify with it as we live in times of war and terrorism. Amicahi wonderfully demonstrates in this poem how a bomb’s detonation included the entire world in its circle.

    THE DIAMETER OF THE BOMB

    The diameter of the bomb was thirty centimeters
    and the diameter of its effective range about seven meters,
    with four dead and eleven wounded.
    And around these, in a larger circle
    of pain and time, two hospitals are scattered
    and one graveyard. But the young woman
    who was buried in the city she came from,
    at a distance of more than a hundred kilometers,
    enlarges the circle considerably,
    and the solitary man mourning her death
    at the distant shores of a country far across the sea
    includes the entire world in the circle.
    And I won’t even mention the crying of orphans
    that reaches up to the throne of God and
    beyond, making
    a circle with no end and no God.

    Amichai starts the description of the bomb explosion with a recitation of cold, technical facts -the diameter of the bomb, its range and the number of casualties. It gives the mind something concrete, objective to grasp when trying to contemplate the enormity of the murder. But then, unexpectedly and rather jarringly, he segues into a personal sketch of one of the victims and her grieving lover, “the solitary man mourning her death / at the distant shores of a country far across the sea”–two lines I find especially poignant. These cold numerical facts are intended only to make us realize that the diameter increases infinitely to include those affected: four dead and eleven wounded, two hospitals and a graveyard, the solitary man, the crying orphans, and God. It is incredible how a small explosion can reach a man in a country across the sea, and God in the heavens.

    Amichai’s conversational, somewhat detached tone (“And I won’t even mention…”) throughout the poem, intensifies the horror of sudden violent death and the raw emotional loss that accompanies. As the poet concludes, taken far enough, the dimensions of these numerical measurements become too vast, too mysterious, for either human or divine calculus. How far this circle of loss extend? I don’t know. Ultimately the poet says, it is ‘ a circle with no end’.

    How odd it is to consider why oftentimes it requires a tragedy before man can be aware that each one is inextricably connected to and responsible for each other and to the entire universe. What an individual does or fails to do, no matter how small, has repercussions to the same universe beyond what one consciously know.

    “God Has Pity on Kindergarten Children” is one of his most quoted and anthologized poems. The poem also typifies Amichai’s inclination, especially in his early poetry, to challenge and to transform in an acutely ironic fashion the traditional perception of God as merciful. Amichai had a complex relationship with Orthodox Judaism and conducted a grand theological argument with the Almighty, rejecting any submissive reverence and the certainties of an exclusive faith.

    GOD HAS PITY ON KINDERGARTEN CHILDREN

    God has pity on kindergarten children.
    He has less pity on school children
    And on grownups he has no pity at all,
    he leaves them alone,
    and sometimes they must crawl on all fours
    in the burning sand
    to reach the first–aid station
    covered with blood.

    But perhaps he will watch over true lovers
    and have mercy on them and shelter them
    like a tree over the old man
    sleeping on a public bench.

    Perhaps we too will give them
    the last rare coins of charity
    that Mother handed down to us
    so that their happiness may protect us
    now and on other days.

    The poem typifies Amichai’s inclination, especially in his early poetry, to challenge and to transform in an acutely ironic fashion the traditional perception of God as merciful. Amichai had a complex relationship with Orthodox Judaism and rejected a submissive reverence and the certainties of an exclusive faith. The title “God Has Pity on Kindergarten Children” positions the reader to expect a poem praising God’s benevolence, but it quickly develops into a searing tract about a universe devoid of higher kindliness.

    At first we are told that God does show mercy, but it is dispensed in a discriminatory manner, only to those who are regarded as totally pure—kindergarten children and, to a lesser extent, schoolchildren. In a sense it is not just God who offers his concern and protection to the innocent and powerless, but also the institutions of home, kindergarten, and school that proffer a shield. On the other hand, God denies the vulnerable grownups (embodied here as soldiers) of his sanctuary, even though soldiers are customarily in more peril than small children. Amichai marshals the image of soldiers crawling on all fours in the hot sands toward the first aid station, bloodied and wounded, to underline the idea that combatants (in this instance, during the war of independence) were not the objects of God’s watchfulness. This particular image struck a chord with Israelis, who were all too well acquainted with the high cost of successive wars. In this poem the soldiers, left entirely alone, have reverted to their infant state, dragging themselves as children do to be tended to. More broadly, this “last station” could symbolize the final destination for all of us.

    The second stanza convey the message that omnipotence does not have a duty to provide protection against danger or death. In the end, only love acts as a buffer for suffering adults. Only “true lovers” may well be deserving of God’s love. The idea developed in this poem—that only love can afford redemption that only love will drive away pain and cruelty—is a recurring theme in the Amichai poetic corpus.

    The last section of the poem suggests that generosity and empathy handed down in the form of “coins of compassion” by a mother (or mother figure) may generate happiness for the adults shunned by a discriminating God. Acts of maternal charity, Amichai says, will lead in turn to our protection. The referencing of “the mother” evokes the association of “motherly love” with its accompanying warmth and affection, remembered from childhood.

    The poem avers that human beings should not rely on God for refuge or mercy, but must be responsible for their own safe conduct. Amichai is asserting, contra Jewish religious dogma, that human goodness, kindness, and love are far superior shields and can function as a worthy substitute for God’s uncertain protection. Compassion is to be reclaimed here on Earth, rather than from the heavens, so evidently impoverished of kindness.

    The above poem can be classified as a modern opus, an existential meditation on the relationship between us and our creator. It confirms God’s presence in human affairs, but demonstrates humankind’s loss of faith and profound disappointment in what can only be seen as divine indifference to the uncertain lives of human beings.

    I had mentioned earlier the ‘tender’ aspect of his poetry. Here is a poem that I posted in Facebook on a Father’s day for which I received very good feedback. Amichai had brimming admiration and veneration for his father. This poem pay tributes to paternity.

    LETTER OF RECOMMENDATION

    On summer nights I sleep naked
    in Jerusalem .My bed
    stands on the brink of a deep valley
    without rolling down into it

    In the daytime I walk around with the Ten
    Commandments on my lips
    like a tune someone hums to himself.

    O touch me, touch me, you good woman!
    That’s not a scar you feel under my skirt, that’s
    a letter of recommendation, folded up tight,
    from my father:
    “All the same, he’s a good boy, and full of love”

    I remember my father waking me or early prayers.
    He would do it by gently stroking my forehead, not
    by tearing away the blanket.

    Since then I love him even more .
    And as his reward, may he be wakened
    gently and with love
    On the Day of Resurrection.

    The poem resonates with warmth, nostalgia and reverence for his dead father. It deeply conveys his sacred passion, unabashed feeling and tenderness. One has the feeling that, for Amichai, the road to childhood is still open.

    Playful wit doesn’t work against the feeling, but in tandem with it in this poem. Unlike many modern poets, Amichai is a deep-rooted emotional poet who never shies away from displaying his emotions. It is this emotional fervour that alchemizes a love line like “O touch me, touch me, you good woman!” into a memorial poem and prayer for the dead. To feel that the poet himself is ‘a letter of recommendation’ has a rare breath of warmth. I like the sweet, gentle and religious father in his poem.

    On a lighter note, it made me smile to read the line-He would do it by gently stroking my forehead, not by tearing away the blanket. – as tearing the blanket away is still one last act I do to wake up my two lazy boys.

    The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai is translated by two different translators, unfortunately with differing sensibilities, Stephen Mitchel (poems written till 1969) and Chana Bloch (poems after 19690) . While Chana Bloch beautifully captures the essence of Amichai, Mitchell’s translation is more literal. I am saying this as I have another poetry collection of Amichai’s early poetry exquisitely translated by Assia Gutmann and my comparison showed the pitfalls of Mitchell. Here is the translation of one of his most famous poems by Assia Gutmann

    A PITY. WE WERE SUCH A GOOD INVENTION

    They amputated
    Your thighs off my hips.
    As far as I’m concerned
    They are all surgeons. All of them.

    They dismantled us
    Each from the other.
    As far as I’m concerned
    They are all engineers. All of them.

    A pity. We were such a good
    And loving invention.
    An aeroplane made from a man and wife.
    Wings and everything.
    We hovered a little above the earth.

    We even flew a little.

    This poem is wonderful in its directness and profound simplicity, its unique mixture of the erotic and the political, its subtle tone of outrage and nostalgia. The poem starts off with the image two lovers torn apart (by the inhuman societal force ‘they’) and concludes with the image (metaphor of aeroplane) of what they created. In Mitchell’s translation, he uses ‘doctors’ instead of surgeon thus losing the sarcasm. The ending in Mitchell’s translation is ‘we even flew’ and that vital ‘a little’ is missing. Despite this, as a single volume covering the poetry of his lifetime, this book is probably the best that I would recommend.

    To sum up, Yehuda Amichai was one of the greatest artists of 20th century and his poetry is a forceful and fanciful fusion of the beauty and pain of our existence.


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