The forms are so various that one may wonder if one could define poetry satisfactorily. But there is no question when the poetry transcends play and places us in another dimension. This is where Amichai takes us and while he is playful –among other things – he is not a player at poetry. He is dry, adroit and impassioned within fewer seconds than it takes you to read this sentence. He has you in his grasp and does not let go.
Reviewed by Bob Williams
Open Closed Open
by Jehuda Amichai
2000, ISBN 0-15-603050-0, $14.00, 184 pages
This is the last of Amichai’s books. A prolific writer in prose and poetry, his works in English (eighteen of them) are listed in the frontmatter. This translation of his poems from Hebrew by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld conveys the beauty and honesty of Amichai’s poetry.
Born in 1924 in Würzburg, Germany, where his family had lived since the Middle Ages, Amichai’s parents left Germany for Palestine in 1935. Amichai grew up with the state of Israel and although a pacifist, participated in its battles. His writings quickly attracted attention and he spent many years in the United States as guest of various universities. The failure of the committee to award him the Nobel Prize has been another of the blunders that distinguishes this strange group of clueless judges.
If poetry is as unpopular as it is often described, one perceives that there is more available (thanks to the Internet) than one can possibly absorb. In addition there are chap books published and self-published. Most of this is dismissible and much of the remainder is a form of sophisticated play about which one may feel the same enjoyment that one feels about the performance of a good gymnast. The forms are so various that one may wonder if one could define poetry satisfactorily. But there is no question when the poetry transcends play and places us in another dimension. This is where Amichai takes us and while he is playful –among other things – he is not a player at poetry. He is dry, adroit and impassioned within fewer seconds than it takes you to read this sentence. He has you in his grasp and does not let go.
Amichai’s intoxication with words permeates his poems. The intensity of his need to personify ideas, to put clothes on them and to make them nature’s naturals, is Shakespearian.
As for truth and lies, in time
even an old lie yellows and fades like an ancient relic
and looks more reliable than a shiny new truth
with its wet paint.
In Amichai’s world the very old and the very new exist side by side. Angels and airplanes go together with little fuss. He is also concerned with remembering and forgetting, twin faces of all the human possibilities. He is chary about God who seems to him to have done too much in the way of forgetting. Amichai embraces the world but has not forgotten caution or the stresses between belief and disbelief. Out of all this and the Jewish tradition he extracts an unfailing magic.
Most of the poems are three or four pages long. The translators provide notes in explanation of the many Biblical and historical references. This is a very thoughtfully constructed book and a model of what such books should be.
Of the books that exist for entertainment there are many. Here is a book that is an experience and one not to be missed.
About the Reviewer: Bob Williams is retired and lives in a small town with his wife, dogs and a cat. He has been collecting books all his life, and has done freelance writing, mostly on classical music. His principal interests are James Joyce, Jane Austen and Homer. His writings, two books and a number of short articles on Joyce, can be accessed at: http://www.grand-teton.com/service/Persons_Places