The Poet­ry of Yehu­da Amichai

Robert Alter, ed.
  • Review
By – February 15, 2016

In his intro­duc­tion to The Poet­ry of Yehu­da Amichai, Robert Alter, the edi­tor of the vol­ume and author of some of the trans­la­tions it con­tains, strikes a note of frus­tra­tion. He wor­ries that in trans­la­tion, Amichai’s poems lose the allu­sions, dou­ble mean­ings, and inven­tive sound play that char­ac­ter­ize their Hebrew orig­i­nals; trans­lat­ed into Eng­lish, these rich­ly allu­sive poems seem to focus mere­ly on sim­ple, dai­ly life. Con­clud­ing that trans­lat­ing Amichai is worth the effort any­way, Alter hopes that Amer­i­can read­ers will be able to dis­cern at least some of that rich­ness” of Amichai’s orig­i­nals in this new vol­ume. It’s a good thing Alter has giv­en us the chance to try.

The col­lec­tion con­tains the work of more than a dozen trans­la­tors of Amichai’s work. In anoth­er editor’s hands, this might have cre­at­ed a cacoph­o­nous or inco­her­ent final prod­uct, but under Alter’s inge­nious arrange­ment the com­pi­la­tion beau­ti­ful­ly focus­es atten­tion on Amichai’s unique voice. In addi­tion to Alter’s intro­duc­tion, the book con­tains an index of titles and first lines, as well as a sec­tion pro­vid­ing brief notes on many of the poems.

An endur­ing jux­ta­po­si­tion through­out Amichai’s poet­ry stems from the way his atten­tion darts between sweep­ing spir­i­tu­al or exis­ten­tial ques­tions and com­mon­place images and sen­sa­tions, like the hair on the back of a woman’s neck or an open refrig­er­a­tor door. Some of Amichai’s most stun­ning lines move with light­ning quick­ness between the quo­tid­i­an and the tran­scen­dent. God’s hand is in the world / like my mother’s hand in the guts of the slaugh­tered chick­en / on Sab­bath eve,” he writes in an ear­ly poem. Oth­er ten­sions exist in Amichai’s work, too, such as the dis­tinct­ly mod­ern tone he retains even in the evo­ca­tion of ages, peo­ples, or texts long past, and his resis­tance and attrac­tion to the Ortho­dox Judaism in which he was raised. In a poem recast­ing the litur­gy from the Days of Awe, Amichai composes:

Under­neath the world, God lies stretched on his back,
always repair­ing, always things get out of whack.
I want­ed to see him all, but I see now more
than the soles of his shoes and I’m sad­der than I was before.
And that is his glory.

It is fas­ci­nat­ing to trace Amichai’s range from long poems like The Trav­els of the Last Ben­jamin of Tudela” and Songs of Zion the Beau­ti­ful” to short lyrics like the num­bered poems from his book Time, trans­lat­ed into Eng­lish by Amichai and the British poet Ted Hugh­es. The final sec­tion of The Poet­ry of Yehu­da Amichai con­tains the entire­ty of Amichai’s last book, Open Closed Open (1998), as trans­lat­ed by Chana Bloch and Chana Kro­n­feld. With their loos­er, more con­ver­sa­tion­al style and long lines, these late poems dif­fer in form and tone from Amichai’s pre­vi­ous work. How­ev­er, as Amichai focus­es with ever more inten­si­ty on the mean­ings of his life and death, the par­tic­u­lar bril­liance of his wis­dom and vision endure.

Relat­ed Content:

Lucy Bie­der­man is an assis­tant pro­fes­sor of cre­ative writ­ing at Hei­del­berg Uni­ver­si­ty in Tif­fin, Ohio. Her first book, The Wal­mart Book of the Dead, won the 2017 Vine Leaves Press Vignette Award.

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