Culture and feelings, a guided tour by the poet Amichai

on Dec 1, 2019 in Hand Baggage | No Comments

Yehuda Amichai (1924-2000) is one of the great Hebrew poets. He published his first book Now and in Other Days in 1955, worked at a university and as a teacher at a prep school. Poetry distinguished his entire career. Amichai has a book entitled: Now in the Noise – Poems. And that’s what it is: poetry like something that suddenly appears amongst the noise, a kind of light when someone seems to have lost their sight. For example, somebody who is lost and finds their way when they listen to certain verses, as if the verses were directions.

There is always the religious and military issue as backdrop, but family is the focal point of most of Amichai’s work:

“the door to my home is the
younger daughter of Heaven’s door”

These verses demonstrate the rapid change of scale, as well as showing that the only way to finish anything is to start at the beginning, one small step at a time. You do not start with a huge leap straight to the finish. As such, the only door you have access to is the one in your house, and it’s from that door, says Amichai, that you should make a large, essential door.

In Amichai’s work, his relationship with his father always seeps into his verses:

“(…) when my father died
they took him from his place and the place was left empty,
like a well in the middle of the road with its iron cover raised”

This precision when using metaphors when talking of absence: a well, a hole in the middle of the road: the absence of his father. This precision can also be found in another poem:

“all night they screamed your empty shoes
by the side of your bed”

A bodily absence that is announced by objects.

There’s an accurate and touching tenderness when dealing with family relationships:

“An old blindman kneels
to tie his grandson’s show”

Of course, Amichai’s mother is also present in his verses:

“My mother was a spaceship of salvation”

Physical, psychological and religious salvation quickly placed in a very earthly field – it is his mother that saves and not a religion or Messiah – and, at the same time, that salvation is seen as something extraordinary, beyond the realm of normal possibilities: his mother as something terrestrial and non-terrestrial – a “spaceship” – a very common combination in Amichai’s poetry.

This affection found in Amichai’s poetry is almost always very corporeal:

“rest your head upon my shoulder because my shoulder knows things”

A shoulder knows things, non-intellectual things, non- -rational things. The shoulder does not know mathematics, nor linguistics, nor a country’s history. A shoulder knows what its anatomy and physiology know. And it knows what is essential: being strong alongside a falling head; the shoulder does not leave the other’s head helpless. The shoulder stays, solid, as if it were eternally stable matter. It is there, beside you, and you can rest your head on the shoulder. The shoulder knows things that are much more important than those you learn at school: the shoulder knows how to be silent and just be a support. As such, the shoulder becomes more important than the brain or intellect at certain moments.

The Hebrew poet’s work also gives the impression that the exterior day, the news and harsh reality circulating outside the house are not essential. The essential is found from the front door inwards.

In a poem called “Love before the Start of the Sabbath”, Amichai provides this very simple but decisive image:

“Inside the bedroom, I stain your skin
with daily paper fingers”

Here are two typical verses by Amichai: there is the exterior, the world – and what you love at home. In this passage, at first glance, there is something that seems merely physical. Like everybody, we have already had this experience: the material, the newspaper print, staining our fingers, that is something concrete. However, if we look more closely at these two verses, we see that it isn’t only the ink that besmirches the beloved body’s skin, but the very news itself, the very content that the ink writes on the paper; as if the century and its events disturbed the loving caress, sullying it.

Yehuda Amichai, a great Hebrew poet, who all of us should read to understand this part of the world better.


by Gonçalo M. Tavares


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