My first encounter with Amichai was at College Street, in the form of a second hand book, entitled, Yehuda Amichai: Selected Poems. Published by Penguin Books, dated 1971, the poems translated into English by Assia Gutmann and Harold Schimmel in collaboration with Ted Hughes at once brings us to the most celebrated poet of Israel. The selected poems are a world at once colloquial and universal, sentimental and witty. It unfolds the man and the poet Amichai, one whose Jewish identity is inextricably interlinked with his poetry, if not overtly explicit. These selected pieces are peopled with God and Jews, mother, father and child, with bombs and Orange groves, with angels and dogs, with remembrances and forgetting, with Bedouins and Jerusalem.
At a time, when Biographical criticism may seem obsolete, with the baggage of the death of the author, and writing occupying that neutral space obliterating all identity, Amichai’s poems showcase a kind of deliberateness of identity. It is at the same time important not to deny that the literariness of the poems is never subservient to the identity politics of the man. Yehuda Amichai, considered a stalwart of Israeli poets, was born in Wurzburg, Germany to Orthodox Jewish parents, who in 1936 emigrated to Mandate Palestine. As a man who actively engaged himself in the war against Germans as well as the Arabs, his is a voice at once poetical and political.
What struck me as a reader of Amichai’s poems are certain peculiarities that form his poetic voice. At the outset, it is the language deployed by Amichai, that grabs our attention. The different poems in this collection at once showcases the tension in language, language which is at once rooted in a Biblical tradition and at the same time, a product of an angst generated out of War and Exile, a certain timelessness juxtaposed with the contemporary culture. The pull of contraries mark a kind of irony, which itself is a hallmark of most twentieth century writings. Take for instance the poem, Two Songs of Peace:
“My love was not in the war.
She learns love and history
Off my body, which was in two, or three.
And at night.
When my body makes battles into peace
She is bewildered.
Her perplexity is her love. And her learning.
Her wars and her peace, her dream.”
As we note in this poem, the idea of war and peace as a simultaneity is brought about seamlessly in the topos of Amichai’s work. The states of transition from being ‘bewildered’ to ‘perplexity’, to ‘learning’ and ‘dream’ are not clear cut but seem to be defy linearity of logos and time. This idea of language being contained and at the same time escaping fixity is further continued in the next stanza of the same poem.
“And I am now in the middle of my life.
The time when one begins to collect
Facts, and many details,
And exact maps
Of a country we shall never occupy
And of an enemy and lover
Whose borders we shall never cross.”
One recognises how the element of continuity, of exactitude as demarcated by ‘maps’ and ‘borders’ is contrasted with the idea of not being able to ‘occupy’ or ‘cross’. The usage of paradoxes as well as the usage of the sacred and the profane marks the language of Amichai’s poetry as in the poem National Thoughts…. “To speak now in this tired language/ Torn from its sleep in the Bible-/ Blinded, it lurches from mouth to mouth-/ The language which described God and the miracles,/Says:/ Motor car, bomb, God.” In the words of Michael Hamburger, in his introduction to this text, this use of contraries, ‘sets up an ironic tension between the deity worshipped in Biblical times and the purposes which the old religion can be made to serve in the age of motor cars and bombs.”
The rubrics of Amichai’s poetic works in this collection poignantly captures the themes of migration, of exile and his unique relationship with the Other. As he himself confessed in an interview published in the Paris Review, he is acutely aware of his Jewish belonging and upbringing, as well as being an upholder of Zionist ideology. The selected poems in this collection showcase the importance that he attaches to his status as a diasporic Jew as well as the poetic consciousness shaped by the fact that his parents migrated to Palestine. This awareness of being (dis)located, of the problematic relationship with the homeland, of the fear of perpetually fleeing is reflected in many of the poems in this collection. In My Parents’ Migration, he laments that he has never been able to makepeace with the fact of his parents migrating, and how home has always been shifting, lacking constancy… “For my silence among the houses/ Which are always/ Like ships.”This same angst is reflected in another poem.. “Don’t leave me. Please. Please./ You’re not leaving/ I’m not./ Close one eye. Speak in a loud voice./ I can’t hear- I’m already far away.” (Eye Examination) or the line, “Of all the things I do,/ Parting is the inevitable one.” (In My Worst Dreams). At the same time, it is interesting to note, that despite his leanings towards Israel, he is never a jingoist or exclusionist. In his dreams, the Other, the Stranger is a perennial presence, indelibly etched. This stranger is not just an intruder, but one who he cannot imagine his homeland without, one with whom he cohabits… “And into these dreams/ There shall also come strangers/ We did not know together.”(If With a Bitter Mouth). For Amichai, home is not only the place that one longs for but also where someone else would come to stay.. “And what I shall never in the world return to/ And look at,/ I am to love forever. Only a stranger would return to my place.” (The Place Where I’ve Not Been). Drawing upon the Abrahamic tradition, he almost recognises a brethren in the Other, an idea which is espoused in another poem of his… “I shall therefore travel through my life like Jonah in his dark fish,/ We’ve settled it between us, I and the fish, we’re both in the world’s bowels,/ I shall not come out, he will not digest me.” (Two Quartrains).
Taking cue from this perspective, I must necessarily digress, if only to come back to a recurring dream I have often had… Across the windows, a dimly lit room in which both Amichai and Mahmoud Darwish sit across the table. Their voices are inaudible and interspersed with laughter and silence. Undoubtedly, I realise time and again how the relationship between I and the Other, in Amichai’s poems cannot be understood in isolation. In his poems, I hear the echo of another poet, beyond the barbed wires and barricades. Darwish, a contemporary of Amichai, was also his poetic rival, with words and memory as the only weapon of choice. Just as Amichai’s poems in this selection showcase a complex relationship with the Other, so does Darwish, as in his poem “He is Quiet and So am I”: “He is quiet and so am I./ He sips tea with lemon, while I drink coffee./ That’s the difference between us.”This unique relationship between the self and the Other as proposed by Amichai, where “The many dreams I now dream of you/ Prophesy your end with me” is strangely mirrored by Darwish as well and one which shows how memory gets into the way of history.. “If I were someone else on the road I’d belong to this road/ there’d be no going back for me or for you..”
At the heart of the themes of exile and Other, is the singularly dominant image of Jerusalem that marks many of Amichai’s poems. Jerusalem becomes a metaphor for not only his Jewish identity, a ‘port city on the shores of eternity’ or the ‘Venice of God’ (Jerusalem, Port City), but also a space of contestation claimed by different cultures and traditional symbols.. “And the policemen and the flags and the high masts of churches/ And mosques and the smokestacks of synagogues and the boats/ Of praise and waves of mountains.” (Jerusalem, Port City). Whatever Jerusalem may come to denote, it is the constant symbol and reminder of his identity, which he must preserve through his words and memory… “If I forget thee, Jerusalem,/ Let my blood be forgotten./ I shall touch your forehead,/Forget my own,/ My voice change/ For the second and last time/ To the most terrible of voices-/ Or silence.” (If I Forget Thee, Jerusalem).
On a desolate evening, as I gaze languidly across the windows of my ever shifting homes, the smell of the partially tattered book and its yellow pages, gives me another reason to read Amichai. In this collection of poems, one finds a deep level of intimacy, a tone at once personal as well as universal. In his ambivalent relationship with God and his own staggering faith, his personal relationship with his mother, of his reversible role as both the child and the father of his child, his poems at the same time transcend his dreams and longings, to become a plea of humanity to remember against the tide of oblivion and at the same time realising its futility.. “I demand of others/ Not to forget. Myself, only to forget./ In the end, forgotten.”