OPEN THE GATES:
From the Hebrew: Karen Alkalay-Gut
The gentle and powerful poetry of Yehuda Amichai is known to a wide range of readers, and loved with unmatched intensity. One of the reasons for this emotional reaction is Amichai’s simple love of life and his awareness of the profundity of the experience of daily living, intensified by the fact that this living occurs in a country charged with meaning and continuous moral choice. Poetry, he has said, is like a prayer, and indeed helps the individual to come to terms with life in a way similar to that of prayer. But Amichai’s poems are not prayers—in the sense that they do not repeat formulas or accept predetermined solutions for problems. Every experience is a prayer in itself, and each poem is a unique vision of an experience in a moment of time. Whether Amichai is describing the process of carrying his ex-wife’s bed down the street in Jerusalem or watching the Israelite in front of him follow Moses through the desert, the poem is a sum of the common experience and the unrepeatable understanding.
Amichai moved with his family from Germany to Israel in 1936 when he was 11. His salvation from the Holocaust and his religious upbringing colors much of his approach to experience, despite the immediacy of this experience. And his experiences are many and intimately involved in the events of this century. In World War II he fought with the Jewish Brigade of the British Army, then joined the Palmach, fighting in the War of Independence on the southern front. Following the war, Amichai attended Hebrew University, studying Biblical texts and Hebrew literature, and taught in secondary schools.
Amichai is a prolific writer and has published eleven volumes of poetry in Hebrew, two novels, and a book of short stories. He has been translated into 33 languages, and there are numerous books in English..
My own interest in translating Amichai emerges from a profound love of his poetry as well as a love for the sound of his poems in Hebrew. When Robert Frost said that poetry is what gets lost in translation, I suspect he meant the sound, the music of the words. And despite the numerous and popular translations of Amichai’s poetry into English, it seems to me that this music has not always come through, the simple melody of the Hebrew language.
The poems I selected come from all of the various periods of his life, although I’ve chosen to emphasize the sensual, the spiritual and the philosophical side of Amichai, the grappling of the poet with the significance of his own life and the lives of those he loves. The final poems seem to me to gather up many of the themes he has dealt with in previous works and bring them to a conclusion, as if he is standing at the Day of Judgment. “Open for me the gates of justice,” begins the prayer, and in these poems it becomes clear that many of Amichai’s poems have echoed this prayer.
Tel Aviv 2000
THE CLOSING OF JAFFA PORT*
ON RABBI KOOK’S STREET*
THE SAME PATTERN, THE SAME STITCH*
I GUARD THE CHILDREN IN THE SCHOOL-YARD*
THE NATURE PRESERVE AT EIN GEDI*
NOW SHE BREATHES*
A MEMORY OF LOVE—WHAT WILL BE?*
ON THE DAY OF ATONEMENT*
THE CITY WHERE I WAS BORN*
A WOMANIZER IN JERUSALEM*
WE DID WHAT WAS EXPECTED OF US*
Dante Coffee House in New York - 3*
Dante Coffee House in New York - 2*
Dante Coffee House in New York - 1*
THE LAUNDRY BASEMENT*
FROM MAN THOU ART AND TO MAN THOU SHALT RETURN*
EVENING WITH THE CHILDREN*
THE ONE AND ONLY DOOR*
A DANGEROUS LAND*
IN A RESTAURANT*
IN A RUSTIC INN IN GERMANY*
ARROW LAKE IN NEW YORK STATE*
NEW YORK UNIVERSITY*
THE BODY IS THE REASON FOR LOVE*
MY MOTHER DIED ON SHEVUOT*
A MEMORIAL OF LOVE—OPENING THE WILL*
WHAT I LEARNED IN THE WARS*
From GODS COME AND GO, PRAYERS REMAIN FOREVER*
I know a man who made himself the ideal woman of his desires:*
Memorial Days are now over. The discrepancy between the names*
I believe with perfect faith in the resurrection of the dead because,*
A color picture with a plowman and horse from the beginning of the century*
AND WHO WILL REMEMBER THOSE WHO REMEMBER*
THE JEWISH TIME BOMB*
ABOUT THE POET*
ABOUT THE TRANSLATOR*
THE CLOSING OF JAFFA PORT
They closed the port at Jaffa.
My beloved, close the portals of the sea!
In my youth they dressed me on the Sabbath
in a sailor blouse over my four-cornered fringe
and a sailor hat on my head.
My ancestors did not think of the sea and its ships.
Now you close the sea and its doors.
The warehouses are empty. My beloved is with me.
In the evening sadness someone said suddenly, “Women
whose voices are hoarse love more.” Don’t analyze,
don’t explain these words.
Close the portals of the sea.
ON RABBI KOOK’S STREET
On Rabbi Kook’s Street
I walk without this good man—
A streiml he wore for prayer
A silk top hat he wore to govern
fly in the wind of the dead
above me, float on the water
of my dreams.
I come to the Street of Prophets—there are none.
And the Street of Ethiopians—there are a few. I’m
looking for a place for you to live after me
padding your solitary nest for you,
setting up the place of my pain with the sweat of my brow
examining the road on which you’ll return
and the window of your room, the gaping wound,
between closed and opened, between light and dark.
There are smells of baking from inside the shanty,
there’s a shop where they distribute Bibles free,
free, free. More than one prophet
has left this tangle of lanes
while everything topples above him and he becomes someone else.
On Rabbi Kook’s street I walk
-- your bed on my back like a cross—
though it’s hard to believe
a woman’s bed will become the symbol of a new religion.
THE SAME PATTERN, THE SAME STITCH
I saw a man wearing a colorful cippah
in the same pattern as a piece of underwear
of a woman I loved
He didn’t understand why I was looking at him
and why I turned around after him
and he shrugged his shoulders and went on.
And I muttered to myself: the same
Colors, the same stitching, the same pattern,
the same stitching, the same pattern.
I sit in the waiting room with other grooms
younger than me by many years. If I lived in olden times
I’d be a prophet. But now I wait quietly
to register my name with my love in the big book
of marriage and respond to questions I can still
answer. I have filled up my life with words,
have gathered in my body enough information to support
the secret services of several countries.
With heavy steps I bear light thoughts:
As in my youth when I bfate—heavy thoughts on light feet
--almost dancing from so much future.
The pressures of my life bring the date of birth closer
to the date of death, as in history books,
where the pressures of history affixed these two
numbers together next to the name of a dead king,
and only a dash separates them.
I hold onto this dash with all my might.
Like a lifeline, I live by it
with a vow—not to be alone—on my lips,
the voice of the groom and the voice of the bride
the voice of rejoicing children outside Jerusalem
and the towns of Judea.
I GUARD THE CHILDREN IN THE SCHOOL-YARD
I guard the children in the school-yard.
The dog is part of me, I hear
the echoes of his barking from within.
And the shouts of children, like wild birds
rise up. Not even one shout
will return to the mouth it emerged from.
I am an old father guarding instead of the great God
who is eternally primping with His eternal youth.
During the Holocaust, I ask myself, did
son rebel against father? Did father beat
son between the barbed wire fences?
Was there quarrel between mother and daughter
in the annihilation shacks?
A disloyal and defiant son in the transport cars?
A generation gap on the platforms of the abyss?
Oedipus in the Death Cells?
I guard the children in their games.
And sometimes the ball bounces over the wall
and bounces and bounces down from yard to yard
and rolls into another reality.
But I lift my face and see above us,
as in a terrible vision, the bearers of dominion,
the exalted in honor, vowing and boasting,
the clerks of war, the dealers of peace
the treasurers of fate—ministers and presidents
decorated with multi-colored responsibility.
I see them skipping over us
like the angels in the plague of the first-borns’ death.
And their groins yawning, dripping
with the filth of nectars, like sweetened motor oil
and their soles crushing like the feet of the Demon,
and their heads in the sky, stupid as flags.
THE NATURE PRESERVE AT EIN GEDI
I have to pay money for entrance
to a place where I have memories
of wonderful things that happened to me in the past:
this is the distance of years, that is the love of country
and this is my life.
A waterfall of joy into the pool of sadness,
so simple and easy: sound and froth.
And the big stone where nearby we made a campfire
has remained black. Thus it remembers,
and this is the color of its remembrance.
So I threw away the admission ticket,
and called the place, Chambers.
NOW SHE BREATHES
Now she’s breathing quietly, I said. No, now
she is screaming from within in great pain, said the doctor. He
asked my permission to remove the wedding ring from her finger,
because it was very swollen. I gave permission because of her pain and because
my father never left her alone in his life. We twisted
the ring as if it were a magic ring in legends, but
it didn’t come off and no miracle occurred. The doctor asked
permission to cut off the ring and he cut it off with the delicacy
of careful tongs.
Now she is laughing, she is practicing the laughter of there.
Now she is crying, she is outgrowing the tears of here.
Her passport photo was taken many many years ago.
She hasn’t travelled abroad since she arrived
in the land of Israel. A death certificate
doesn’t require a photograph.
A MEMORY OF LOVE—WHAT WILL BE?
The jasmine flowers have broken the rules of night
and the sound of rotating sprinklers the summer.
Thigh, thigh, hand, hand—
thus is the dirge of lovers still together.
The sunset shows them
the possibilities of other lives.
Like a cleft between two forests, so is their sleep,
exposed and empty and secure from fire
and afraid that suddenly it will come.
But in the morning, immediate questions instead of blessings:
Even the cries of surprise are questions:
How goodly, how great are thy deeds, what will be?
ON THE DAY OF ATONEMENT
On the Day of Atonement in 1967
I put on my festive dark suit and went to the Old City in Jerusalem.
I stood for a long time before the alcove shop of an Arab
not far from the Damascus Gate, a store
of buttons and zippers and spools
of multicolor threads and snaps and buckles.
A splendid multi-colored light, like an open Holy Ark.
I told him in my heart that my father too
had just such a shop of threads and buttons.
I explained to him in my heart of all the decades
and the events and the reasons I am now here,
and my father's shop is burned up there and he is buried here.
When I finished it was the hour of Ne'ila.
He too pulled down the shutter and locked the gate
And I returned home with all the worshippers
*Ne'ila is the final prayer of the Day of Atonement, when the gates to heaven are locked as the fates of all have been sealed.
THE CITY WHERE I WAS BORN
The city where I was born was destroyed by cannon.
The ship that brought me here was later sunk in the war.
The threshing-floor in "Hamadiya" where I loved burned down.
The kiosk in Ein-Gedi was exploded by enemies.
The bridge in Ismailiyeh that I crossed
over and over on the evening of my love,
was torn to shreds.
My life is being eradicated behind me according to an exact map.
How long will the memories hold out?
The little girl of my youth was murdered and my father died.
Hence do not choose me as a lover or a son,
or a bridge-crosser, tenant, or citizen.
There was an old ache in the garden just planted
three years ago. On a stone stage musicians sat
and played. I knew the man playing trumpet
just like I knew the old ache,
but the woman with the transparent dog
in the transparent dress, I did not know.
And she had large thighs for painters
and long hair for poets
and a forehead for dreamers of bold dreams
and breasts for tired heroes.
But her eyes remained just for herself:
She was still a virgin in her eyes.
I went to testify for my friend that he was eligible to get married
on the day that the remains of snow remained in the dark clefts
of the city. The promise of a marriage
created a reddish light and the pale sun over all
was a hole in the winter, and the skies were filled with God,
this too from the fear of emptiness.
I sat in a café next to Mr. Rosenfeld,
the old toy dealer. Now he is far away
from children and nearer to angels.
Both of us were tired: I from my testimony
and he from his old age. Early in the morning
he'd brought a full jar or urine for testing
and I brought my tears for testing
somewhere else: It is permitted to eat and drink
before and to eat and drink after.
A WOMANIZER IN JERUSALEM
The dresses of two women
are drying on one line on the balcony of his home.
He passes from the house of forgetting to the house of memory
and from the house of memory to the house of forgetting.
Knocking on the wooden door like a quiet call
to war or forbidden love.
From Silwan village a call comes from the mosque.
He does not know what is a dirge to them
and what a cry of joy.
They don't know
if he's laughing or crying.
A woman who deals with matters of the past
is lying in bed with a man who is doing something in the present.
The necromancer with the owner of a new car.
Her white dress hangs on the clothesline on the balcony
and cools down the heat wave.
Next to it hangs his colored shirt with its sleeves down
still dripping. Praying in reverse.
Together they are making extended love
as compensation for everything.
Everything their forefathers dreamed of doing
they are doing to each other,
a lot from behind, very animalian.
And at midnight the bearded voyeur arrives.
He peeks through the slats.
He is perhaps one of the absolutely last prophets
gathering material for his vision.
WE DID WHAT WAS EXPECTED OF US
We did what was expected of us.
We went out with our children
to pick mushrooms in the same for
we’d planted when we were children.
We learned the names of wild flowers
whose smell was as sweet
as senselessly spilt blood.
We put great love into small bodies.
We stood alternately enlarged and diminished
in the eyes of the mad, divine bearer of binoculars.
And in the war between light and darkness
we loved the good and quieting dark,
and hated the aching light.
We did what was expected of us.
We loved our children
more than our homeland.
We’ve dug all the wells in the ground
and now we’re digging into space—
wells, wells, without beginning and without end.
We did what was expected of us.
We arranged out lives in flower beds and shade,
and straight pleasant walks
as in the garden of an asylum for the insane.
Our despair is domesticated and grants us tranquility.
Only the hopes remain—
wild and vociferous hopes
break the night and tear the day.
We did what was expected of us.
We were like those who enter a movie theater
passing the flushed or pale exiters
weeping quietly or laughing out loud.
And they enter without a second glance, without
turning, into the light and the darkness and the light.
We did what was expected of us.
From far away everything looks like a miracle,
but up close even a miracle doesn’t look like one.
Even a crosser of the divided Red Sea
saw only the sweating back
of the walker in front of him
and the movement of his large thighs.
And all the rest, with a quick side glance—
multicolored fish within the walls of water,
as if observing a sea from behind glass walls.
The real miracles occur at the next table
in a restaurant in Albuquerque.
Two women sat there, one with a slant
zipper, so beautiful
the other said, “I had to control myself
and I didn’t cry.”
And later in the red halls
of a strange hotel I saw
boys and girls holding in their arms
tiny children they had borne
who themselves were holding
tiny, sweet dolls.
Dante Coffee House in New York - 3
They’re digging a hole in the street in front of the big window.
The privates of the earth are exposed in public
like a dirty drunk whose clothes are torn.
And a surveyor balances his transit
on its thin legs and measures straight lines
through it all, as through an empty wasteland.
And a young woman at a nearby table
said to her girlfriend: “I got a small part
in a new play: to enter a room,
pass through, and walk out the other door.”
So she spoke and arose to go.
Stay, stay here beside me,
stay until at least one prophecy is fulfilled.
But she left and I remain. Half the cake
on my plate and half inside me.
The spoon fell on the floor.
Sometimes a man bends over to pick up something
that fell from his hand, and when he straightens up,
the world has changed and become something else.
Dante Coffee House in New York - 2
Four waitresses talk among themselves
in the language of the isle of Malta. In their mouths
enemies in their lives are resurrected, crusaders and muslims—
their sweet talk mixes them together like history,
the words make peace.
The one with hair tight to her head
like a helmet, mixes drinks
with a ringing of spoon and glass. She knows
the soul is made of glass.
On the shelf are wine goblets
turned upside down, silent, silent.
And lies gleam out for a quick coupling.
Dante Coffee House in New York - 1
Four waitresses (one of them eagle—pretty)
serve here under the aegis of strong thugs.
They are the soul, the thugs are the body.
And one of them is eagle-pretty. On her narrow waist
is a wide belt with a silver buckle.
The buckle is the answer.
No, because the buckle is the secret.
The belt is the answer.
In a closed valley far from here
the evening wind blows
from one place to another.
THE LAUNDRY BASEMENT
The laundry basement in a big house. There I love
to be, there the sky is temporal, and outside
in front of the high windows, the world is at its noisy evil.
The laundry basement. The meeting place of the angry grey-haired man
with the girl naked under the last sheet left her.
The rest of her clothes, outerwear with underwear,
eden and hell, spin together in enthusiastic dizziness
in the drums of the machines, like the games of chance,
for a new distribution of fates and bodies.
The laundry basement. Among the steam of sweet soaps
there rises within me a great desire
to change my life from beginning to end.
I embrace the warm scented basket
and rise in the drunken elevator
like a man who dreams a dream within a dream
and he must wake up
again and again
to return to this world.
FROM MAN THOU ART AND TO MAN THOU SHALT RETURN
Death in war begins
with the descending of stairs
by one young man.
Death in war begins
with the silent closing of a door,
death in war begins
with the opening of a window to see.
Therefore do not weep for he who departs,
weep for he who descends the steps of his home,
weep for he who put his keys
into his last pocket.
Weep for the photograph who remembers instead of us.
Weep for the remembering paper,
weep for the unremembering tears.
And this spring
who will arise and say to the dust:
From man thou art and to man thou shalt return.
EVENING WITH THE CHILDREN
The Hanukkah candles in a box,
the folded clothes in the closet
the children in their beds, the rooms in the house.
Rooms sometimes give birth to smaller rooms
dark-velvet padded boxes
for precious tools and silver trophies of the soul.
And there are people who are soft and open
and there are people in whom all is closed and pressed
like fossilized fish
or fossilized birds.
I am good hearted, not out of good heartedness
but from the decay of my long life.
And outside the window the night wind blows
and a large network is unfolded there:
“Relations among men.”
Requests stuck in the cracks of the wailing wall
scraps of wrinkled and adhered paper.
On the other hand a note stuck into an old iron door
half hidden by a jasmine tree.
“I couldn’t come,
I hope you’ll understand.”
THE ONE AND ONLY DOOR
She went out of the one and only door
through which all the dead leave the world.
It is the same one and only door
through which one enters the world.
And her new last name
is the same as everyone’s:
Her entire name from now until the resurrection:
A DANGEROUS LAND
A dangerous land. A land full of suspicious objects
and trapped people. And it’s all supposed to be
the beginning of a new religion: each birth, each death,
every thorn fire in the field, each smoke.
Even the lovers have to be careful of what they do and say—
hands outstretched for an embrace, whisper at midnight,
hidden weeping, gazing into the distance, the descent
of stairs in a white dress—all are the beginning of a new religion.
Even the migrating birds know this,
when they come in the spring and don’t stay in the fall,
like the gods of the land who don’t stay either:
and he who says “here was” is a prophet of mercy,
and he who says “here will be” is a prophet of wrath.
And from north to south is an unending summer celebration
and warnings of deep or stormy water
with warnings of water drying up off the face of the earth.
And monuments of memory resting over all, like weights
so that the history of the land will not fly in the wind, like papers.
IN A RESTAURANT
I eat dinner by myself in a restaurant.
The plate elongates from so many longings.
I stretch out a shaven cheek to the alien city.
My reflection trembles in the glass, like the head
on the paper money tossed on the table,
thethin stem of the glass is the soul.
A sign hangs by a string on the door: “Open.”
Sitting inside I see only
the other side, “Closed.”
IN A RUSTIC INN IN GERMANY
Rain falls. The rain always falls
from the past to the future, like words.
The Holy Trinity sits opposite me in the inn:
Jesus, Peace, died in Jerusalem—
like me, probably.
Wet coats hang on hangers,
I speak to them as if they were human.
On the heavy wooden table the wine in the glass
remembers its whole life, like a man
the moment before his death, from grapes to now.
Rain falls outside and within vapors and men mingle,
for all mankind are vapors.
ARROW LAKE IN NEW YORK STATE
Promises of a better world
that were promised to people a generation or two ago,
brought me to a place I never thought I’d be.
No one marches into the rising sun, no one sets in a fiery red,
but everyone moves a bit forward to places
where happiness rises or sets.
And like tourists we compare without blinking
the rustling map and the visible landscape.
Next to the lake on a white painted bench
sit two people who perhaps were lovers
or perhaps will be. Their voices reached me
but I didn’t understand the words.
Words only hint at the direction
of the speaker’s life and from where he came,
like smoke after a disappearing airplane
which remains a little after the noise
has sunk in the silence of skies.
And a man next to me said:
“Come, we’ll drink honey wine. You’d be surprised
what you can make wine from.” Even
from the dimness in this closed house,
even from tears, even from words.
NEW YORK UNIVERSITY
On the wide sidewalk opposite the university gate
an old woman in a wheelchair sits.
The doctor has ordered her to be seated here
so the flow of young men and women will rinse
her every day, like healing spring waters.
She is freed, freed. Freed from the body
and freed from the soul and from the blood that is the soul,
freed from desires and freed from sudden fears
and from fear for me, freed from honor and freed from shame
freed from hope and despair and from fire and from water
freed from the color of her eyes and the color of her hair,
freed from furniture and freed from spoon knife and fork,
freed from the Jerusalem on High and from the lower Jerusalem
freed from identity and identity card,
freed from the round seals
and from the square seals
freed from copies and freed from staples.
She is freed, freed.
And all the letters and all the numbers
which ordered her life are also free
for new combinations, new fates and new games
of all the generations to come after her.
THE BODY IS THE REASON FOR LOVE
The body is the reason for love
then it is the fort that guards it
then it is the prison of love.
But when the body dies, love breaks out free
and with great abundance,
like a slot machine that breaks down
and suddenly with a thundering ringing spills out all the coins
of all the generations of fortune.
MY MOTHER DIED ON SHEVUOT
My mother died on Shevuot at the end of the harvest.
Her elder brother died in 1916 in the war,
I almost died in 1948
and my mother died in 1983.
All of mankind die at the end of the counting,
brief or long.
All of mankind fall in the war.
They all deserve a wreathe and an official letter and a ceremony.
When I stand next to my mother’s grave
I seem to salute
and the hard words of the Kaddish are like a volley of shots
into the clear summer sky.
We buried her in Sanhedria next to my father’s grave.
We saved her a place
as in a bus or a movie theater:
we put flowers and stones there so that her place wouldn’t be taken.
20 years ago the cemetery was on the city’s border
facing the enemy’s position.
The headstones were a good defence against the tanks.
But in my youth there was a beautiful botanical garden here—
lots of plants with small wooden signs
with the names of the plants in Hebrew and Latin:
the common rose, the Middle Eastern sage
and the common shout, the ornamental cry
the annual weeping and the perennial mourning
the red remembering and the aromatic remembering.
The remembering and the forgetting.
A MEMORIAL OF LOVE—OPENING THE WILL
Now I am still inside, in the room,
that in a few days I will see only from outside
The closed blinds of your room, where we loved each other,
and not all of humanity.
And we will turn to new lives
in the special way of fastidious
for death, turning to the wall as in the bible.
The God who is above the breathed air
who made us two eyes and two feet
gave us also two souls.
And we will open these days
on some distant day, as one opens
the Will of the Dead,
years after his death.
WHAT I LEARNED IN THE WARS
What did I learn in the wars:
To march in time to the swinging of arms and legs
like a pump pumping an empty well;
To march in procession and to be alone in the fray,
To bury myself in pillows and covers and the body of my beloved,
and to shout “Mother”, without her hearing,
and to shout “God”, without believing in Him—
and even if I did believe in Him
I would never tell Him about war
the way we keep from children their parents’ atrocities.
What else did I learn? I learned to keep open an escape route:
Abroad, I take a room in a hotel
near the airport or train station,
and even in halls of rejoicing
always look for the little door
with EXIT written over it in red letters.
Battle too begins
like rhythmic dance drums, and its end
is “withdrawal with the dawn.” Forbidden love
and battle both, at times, conclude this way.
But above all I learned the knowledge of camouflage,
so that I would not stand out, not be recognized,
so I would not be distinguishable from my surroundings
even from my beloved,
so I would seem a bush, or a sheep,
a tree, a shadow of a tree,
a doubt, a shadow of a doubt,
an electrified fence, a dead stone
a house, a cornerstone.
If I were a prophet I would dim the brilliance of vision
and black out my faith with black paper
and cover with netting my thoughts of divine chariots.
And when the time comes I’ll put on the camouflage of my end:
the white of clouds and an expanse of sky blue
and endless stars.
Here on Ashkelon beach we have come to the end of memory
like rivers that come to the sea.
The recent past sets into the far past
and the past rises from its depths to the near.
Peace, peace to near and far.
Here among the ruins of statues and columns
I ask, how did Samson raze the temple
where he stood blind and said,
“Let my soul perish with the Philistines!”
Did he embrace the columns as in final love
or thrust them away from him
to be alone in his death?
From GODS COME AND GO, PRAYERS REMAIN FOREVER
On the street, one summer evening,
I saw a woman writing words
on paper spread out on a locked wooden door.
And she folded it and put it between the door and the mezuzah and went away.
And I didn’t see her face nor the face of the person
who would read the note,
and I didn’t see the words.
A stone rests on my desk with the word “Amen” written on it.
It is a piece of a tomb, a vestige from a Jewish cemetery
destroyed a thousand years ago, in the city where I was born.
One word, “Amen,” is cut deep into the stone—
A hard and final Amen for all that is past and will not return,
a soft and melodious amen like a prayer.
Amen and amen, and may it be His will.
Tombstones break, words pass, words are forgotten,
lips that uttered them turn to dust,
languages die like people,
and other languages are resurrected,
gods in the heavens change, gods come and go.
Prayers remain forever.
Jewish Theology, Theo, Theo. As a child I knew a boy
Whose name was Theodore, like Herzl, but his mother called him
Theo. Theo from the playground. Come home Theo.
Don’t stay there with those bad children,
Theo Theo, low, gee.
I want a God who is visible and not seeing, so I can guide him
and tell him what he doesn’t see. And I want
a visible and seeing God. I want to see
how he covers his eyes, like a child playing at being blind.
I want a God, like a window, that if I open
I will see the heaven when I stay at home,
I want a God like a door that opens only outward,
But God is like a door revolving on an axis,
In and out, spinning on an axis
With no beginning and no end.
I say with perfect faith
that prayers precede God.
Prayers created God.
God created man,
And man creates prayers
that create God who creates man.
God is the stairs that ascend
to a place that no longer there, or that isn’t there yet.
The stairs are my faith, the stairs are my despair.
Our father Jacob knew this in his dream.
The angels only decorated the rungs of the ladder
like a fir tree decorated at Christmas,
and the song of ascension is a song of praise
to the God of stairs.
When God left the land he forgot the Torah
with the Jews, and ever since they have been looking for him,
and shouting after him, “You forgot something, you forgot!” in a loud voice.
And everyone thinks that this is their prayer, the prayer of the Jews.
And ever since they endeavor to find hints in the Bible
of where He is found, as it is written, “Ask where God is found,
call Him for He is near.” But He is far away.
Bird footprints on the sand on the beach,
like the handwriting of someone who made notes
to remember things, names, numbers and places.
Footprints of birds in the sand at night
remain in the day as well, but I never saw
the bird who left them. As with God.
Our Father our King, What does a father do
whose children are orphans while he still lives? What can a father do
whose children are dead and he remains a mourning father to the end of days?
Weep and not weep, not remember and not forget.
Our Father our King, what can a king do
in the Republic of pain? Give them
bread and circuses, like all kings:
Bread of memory and circuses of forgetting.
bread and longing, longing for God
and for a better world. Our Father my King.
The Christian God is Jewish, something of a whiner
and the God of the Muslims is an Arab Jew from the wilderness, a little hoarse.
Only the God of the Jews isn’t Jewish.
The way Herod the Edomite was imported to be King of the Jews,
That’s how God was imported from the infinite future,
a conceptual God, with no image no portrait no tree no stone.
The Jewish people read the Torah to God
all year long, a chapter a week,
like Sheherezade who told stories to save her life,
and by the time the Celebration of the Torah comes around,
He forgets and we may begin again.
God like a tourist guide
describes our lives and explains to visitors
and tourists and the children of God, “This is the way we live.”
“There is no God like our God, no master like our Master,” we pray.
“There is no God like our God, no master like our Master,” we sing in loud tones.
And He does not respond. And we raise our voices and sing
“Who is like our God, who is like our Master,” and he does not move
and doesn’t turn to us. And we add with the power of pleadings,
“Thou art out God. Thou art our Master.” Maybe you’ll remember
us now? But he remains indifferent, even
turns to us with strange and cold eyes.
And we’ve stopped stinging and shouting and whisper to him
reminding him of something personal, something small,
“you’re the one who brought our fathers near,
to the scented pipe.” Perhaps now you’ll remember?
(the way a man reminds a woman of old love:
don’t you remember how we bought shoes
in the little shop on the corner and outside
it was raining hard and we laughed a lot?)
And it seems that something awakens in Him and maybe He recalls,
But the Jewish people are already over it.
Even for solitary prayer two are needed:
Always there is one who is moving
and the other who doesn’t move is God.
But when my father prayed he stood in place
erect and unmoving, forcing God to move
like the reeds, to pray to my father.
Communal prayer: Is it better to ask, give us peace
with shouts and cries, or to ask peacefully and quietly?
For if we ask quietly, God will think
we do not need peace and quiet.
Morning Psalms. Innocence ascends from people
Like vapors ascending on high from hot food
that become God and sometimes other Gods.
I know a man who made himself the ideal woman of his desires:
He took the hair from a woman passing by in a bus window,
the forehead from a cousin who died in her youth, the hands
from a teacher in his childhood, the cheeks from a girl, his first love.
He took the mouth from a woman he saw calling from a phone booth,
the thighs from a maiden lying on the sand by the sea,
the sidelong glance from this one, the eyes from another,
and the waist from an ad in the paper. From all these he fashioned
a woman he truly loved. And when he died they all
came to him, with amputated limbs, faceless, with eyes gouged out,
hair torn, arms cut off, with a wound instead of a mouth.
And they demanded what was theirs, and demanded what was theirs,
and cut from his body, and sliced and pulled from his flesh.
and left him only his lost soul.
Memorial Days are now over. The discrepancy between the names
of the streets and those living in them is growing
and the hope diminishes for those who hope.
Oh, those other days! The autumn flowers
had the smell of yeast cakes and the children
had names from the Bible, the seasons appeared like orchards
and people like the trees of Eden:
trees of knowledge, knowing good and evil.
A new generation uses the hope of the passing one
like tough tools to crack the future,
and one generation’s disappointments are the reinforcement
of new aspirations and new delusions.
And the river is still called river even when it holds no water
And joy is still called joy.
I believe with perfect faith in the resurrection of the dead because,
like a man who wants to return to a beloved place, leaves behind
a book, a basket, glasses, a tiny photo, on purpose
so he’ll have an excuse to return, so the dead leave
life and will come back.
Once I stood in the mist of a distant autumn
in an abandoned Jewish cemetery, although not abandoned by its dead.
The gardener was a specialist in flowers and the seasons of the year
and not a specialist in buried Jews.
Yet even he said: They practice every night for the resurrection.
A color picture with a plowman and horse from the beginning of the century
like one from the Judean settlements, hangs on the wall of the summer house
in a far away land over the sea. And outside is a wide plot of grass
surrounded by flowers. And on the grass stands an empty chair.
And I said to myself, sit on it, sit and remember,
sit and judge, or some one else will sit there.
to remember and judge. And whatever happened an hour ago
and whatever happened at the beginning of the century in that settlement,
and there were trees whose leaves rustled in the wind
and there were trees who stood silent. And the wind
is the same wind. And the rustle and silence of the trees
and what happened and what could have happened
is as if they never were, but the wind is the same wind
and the chair is the same chair to remember and judge
and the plowman in the picture continues plowing things
that never were, and to sow things that never will be.
AND WHO WILL REMEMBER THOSE WHO REMEMBER
Verses for Memorial Day—A hymn of remembrance
for those who died in war. Even the remembering generation dwindles and dies,
half in ripe old age and half in unripe old age,
and who will remember those who remember?
How does a tombstone begin? A car burns in red flame
in Sha’ar Ha’Gai. A car burnt black. The skeleton oa car.
The frame of another car burnt in an accident somewhere else.
The frame was painted in anti—rust color, red
as that flame. Next to the frame a wreathe of dried flowers.
Dried flowers compose a Wreath of Remembrance,
Dried bones compose a Vision of the revival of dried bones.
And somewhere, far from here, hiding between the bushes,
is a cracked marble slate and on it names. A branch of oleander
hides most of them like a shock of hair on the face of a beloved.
But once a year the branch is moved aside and the names are called,
and in the firmament a flag flying half mast furled gaily
like a flag flying full mast—easy, easy, happy in its colors and in the wind.
And who will remember those who remember?
And how does one stand in a Memorial Ceremony? Erect or bent,
rigid like a tent or limp as in mourning,
head humbled like the guilty or raised in defiance against death,
eyes wild or frozen like the eyes of the dead,
or shut, to view the stars within?
And what is the best time to remember? Noon
when the shadows are hidden beneath our feet, or dusk
when the shadows grow long like longings
with no beginning and no end, like God?
And what shall we sing in the service? Once we sang the song of the valley,
“Who opened fire and who there fell,/ between Beit Alfa and Nahalal.”
Now I know who it was that opened fire
and I know the name of the one who fell.
He was my friend.
And how shall we mourn? In the dirge of David for Jonathan and Saul,
“Lighter than eagles, braver than lions,” shall we lament.
Had they really been lighter than eagles,
they would have flown up, above the war
and not been injured. We would have seen them from below
and said, “Here are the eagles, here is my son, here my man, here my brother.”
And had they really been braver than lions
they would have stayed lions and not died like humans.
We would have fed them from our hands
and stroked their golden manes.
We would have tamed them in our homes, with love:
my son, my man, my brother, my brother, my man, my son.
I went to the funeral of Ehud who was torn apart in a bombing,
far from here, newly dead in a new war.
And they told me to go to the new funeral home:
“It’s over there right next to the big dairy.
If you follow the scent of milk
you can’t go wrong.”
Once I was walking together with my small daughter,
and we met a man who asked how I was and I asked
how he was—as in the Bible. And she asked, how
do you know him? And I said, “He was with me in the war.”
And she answered and asked, “If he was with you
in the war, how is it that he is not dead but still lives?”
No one has heard of the fruit of the jasmine.
No poet has sung a hymn in its praise.
All sang drunken to the jasmine flower,
its strong aroma, the whiteness of its pale leaves,
the power of its flowers and the strength of their lives,
short like the life of a butterfly and the life of the stars.
No one has heard of the jasmine fruit.
And who will remember those who remember?
THE JEWISH TIME BOMB
On my desk is a stone with “Amen” engraved on it, one shard
saved from the thousands of broken gravestones
in Jewish cemeteries. And I know that all these shards
now fill up the great Jewish time bomb
with the rest of the shards and pieces: broken Tablets
and broken altars and broken crosses and rusty crucifixion nails
with broken household vessels and sacred vessels and broken bones,
and shoes and glasses and artificial limbs and false teeth
and empty tin cans of deadly poison. All of these
fill the Jewish time bomb until the end of days
and though I know of all this and of the end of days
this stone on my desk gives me peace.
It is the stone of truth that cannot be disputed,
the stone of the wisdom of all the stones of wisdom,
stone from a broken tomb
and whole beyond all wholeness.
It is a witness stone of all that has transpired in the world
and all that shall transpire in the world, a stone of amen and of love.
Amen, amen, and may it be His will.
The following poems have been reprinted from journals in parenthesis: JAFFA PORT (Modern Hebrew Literature), ON RABBI KOOK’S STREET (Massachusetts Review), LATE WEDDING (Tel Aviv Review), I GUARD THE CHILDREN IN THE SCHOOL-YARD (Prairie Schooner), THE NATURE PRESERVE AT EIN GEDI (Tel Aviv Review), NOW SHE BREATHES (Modern Poetry in Translation), WE DID WHAT WAS EXPECTED OF US (Partisan Review, Harpers) MIRACLES (International Quarterly, Modern Poetry in Translation), “Dante” Coffee House in New York - 3 , “Dante” Coffee House in New York - 2 (Amelia), “Dante” Coffee House in New York - 1 (Amelia), THE LAUNDRY BASEMENT (Tel Aviv Review), FROM MAN THOU ART AND TO MAN THOU SHALT RETURN (Tel Aviv Review), EVENING WITH THE CHILDREN (Tel Aviv Review), JERUSALEM 1985, THE ONE AND ONLY DOOR (Tel Aviv Review),A DANGEROUS LAND (Tel Aviv Review), IN A RUSTIC INN IN GERMANY (Tel Aviv Review), NEW YORK UNIVERSITY (Prairie Schooner), FREED (Tel Aviv Review), MY MOTHER DIED ON SHEVUOT (Modern Poetry in Translation), WHAT I LEARNED IN THE WARS (American Voice, Atlantic Monthly), ASHKELON BEACH (International Quarterly), AND WHO WILL REMEMBER THOSE WHO REMEMBER (Prairie Schooner) The five final untitled poems appeared in the JERUSALEM REVIEW.
ABOUT THE POET
Yehuda Amichai was born in Wurzburg, Germany in 1924 and moved to Israel at the age of 11. In World War II he fought with the Jewish Brigade of the British Army, and then joined the Palmach, fighting in the War of Independence. Amichai later studied Biblical texts and Hebrew literature at Hebrew University. He died on September 22, 2000 in Jerusalem.
Amichai’s publications include eleven volumes of poetry in Hebrew, two novels, and a book of short stories, much of which has been translated into thirty-three languages, especially English.
ABOUT THE TRANSLATOR
Karen Alkalay-Gut has published twelve volumes of poems in English and four in Hebrew translation, in addition to a biography of Adelaide Crapsey and numerous critical articles. Her translations of numerous Israeli authors have appeared in journals around the world.