Arts/Literature

WordsDay: Yehuda Amichai, rogue poet

by Maria Rainier

For those of you who aren’t acquainted with Yehuda Amichai, he was a brilliant poet with a strong command of both the German and Hebrew languages, born in Germany in 1924. He died just a decade ago of cancer, leaving a legacy of both greatness and unconventional behavior. As Israel’s greatest modern poet, his writing was well respected, yet controversial – though Amicahi was raised in an Orthodox Jewish family, his poetic imagery has been called sacrilegious by critics.

To many others, myself included, this is one of the many absorbing traits of Amichai’s poetry: he doesn’t claim to be certain of faith, religion, or social mores. At times, he takes comfort in religion, and at others, it frustrates him and becomes a source of inner contention. No matter how you feel about religion, reading a bit of Amichai poetry is a must – you will be challenged, your suspicions will be confirmed, you will question what you know, and you will learn to have faith.

The following is an excerpt from some analyses I have written on Amichai’s pieces, and I hope that it will inspire you to delve deeper into this world of rogue religion and personal reality.

“Like the Inner Wall of a House”

Like the inner wall of a house
that after wars and destruction becomes
an outer one –
that’s how I found myself suddenly,
too soon in life. I’ve almost forgotten what it means
to be inside. It no longer hurts;
I no longer love. Far or near –
they’re both very far from me,
equally far.

I’d never imagined what happens to colors.
The same as with human beings: a bright blue drowses
inside the memory of dark blue and night,
a paleness sighs
out of a crimson dream. A breeze
carries odors from far away
but itself has no odor. The leaves of the squill die
long before its white flower,
which never knows
the greenness of spring and dark love.

I lift up my eyes to the hills. Now I understand
what it means to lift up the eyes, what a heavy burden
it is. But these violent longings, this pain of
never-again-to-be-inside.

Many of Amichai’s poems exhibit a marked departure in both content and tone from one stanza to another. In “Like the Inner Wall of a House,” the poem’s three stanzas are each distinct from one another and move from historically contextualized personal reflection, through a brightly visualized daydream, to the religiously heavy angst of the last stanza. The overall effect is one of barely realized déjà vu: the content of the first stanza is again dealt with in the second, but it comes from the mouth of a different speaker. In the first stanza, the speaker is “Like the inner wall of a house / that after wars and destruction becomes / an outer one” (Bloch & Mitchell, 96). It is not until one experiences life’s devastation and pain that one arrives, becomes self-actualized, and bares the inner walls as the outer ones with no sense of nudity or vulnerability. The same idea is conveyed in the second stanza, but in a more abstract way:

I’d never imagined what happens to colors.
The same as with human beings: a bright blue drowses
inside the memory of dark blue and night,
a paleness sighs
out of a crimson dream.

This time, the speaker’s inner wall is represented by “bright blue” and resides within “the memory of dark blue and night” (96). Taken within the context of the first stanza, the speaker wonders how anyone can know what lies within a color, within a person, unless adversity brings it out. This idea brings in the third stanza and its Biblical reference which, ironically, is to Psalm 121. Allusion to a well-known comforting passage of the Bible contributes heavily to Amichai’s meaning here:

I lift up my eyes to the hills. Now I understand
what it means to lift up the eyes, what a heavy burden
it is. But these violent longings, this pain of
never-again-to-be-inside.

The first sentence is taken directly from the Bible: “I lift up my eyes to the hills – / where does my help come from? / My help comes from the Lord, / the Maker of heaven and earth.” The same chapter goes on to state that “Indeed, he who watches over Israel / will neither slumber nor sleep” (Psalm 121:4). What, then, does it mean to lift up the eyes to the hills within the context of Amichai’s poem? At this point, it is helpful to understand the poet’s attitude toward God’s presence in the humanity-deity relationship. Despite the reassurances of Psalm 121, Amichai believed that, at times, God was and still can be absent from the relationship. Specifically, the Shoah (Holocaust) had a strong impact on Amichai’s belief that God does slumber while watching over Israel (Eshel 154). Thus, lifting up his eyes to the hills, the speaker in “Like the Inner Wall of a House” realizes two things: first, that help from the Lord does not always come, and second, that the resulting pain from an absent God shows us who we are on the inside.

“Like the Inner Wall of a House” represents Amichai’s talent for using the Bible (or Torah) to drive home his points in an ironic and elegant fashion. It also shows a distinct way of grouping stanzas that, at first reading, seem unrelated. However, once the content and tone of the poem are explored in more detail, Amichai’s meaning becomes clearer and an informative relationship among stanzas emerges. The abstraction of the first stanza within the second eventually leads the reader to view the same content from different perspectives, preparing him or her for the layered communication of the third and final stanza.

_____

Bloch, Chana and Stephen Mitchell, eds. The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai. Trans. Chana Bloch and Stephen Mitchell. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996. Print.

Eshel, Amir. “Eternal Present: Poetic Figuration and Cultural Memory in the Poetry of Yehuda Amichai, Dan Pagis, and Tuvia Rübner.” Jewish Social Studies 7.1 (2000): 141-166. Web. 8 April 2010.

NIV Quest Study Bible. Grand Rapids: The Zondervan Corporation, 2003. Print.

_____

Maria Rainier is a freelance writer and blog junkie. She is currently a resident blogger at First in Education, researching areas of online degree programs. In her spare time, she enjoys square-foot gardening, swimming, and avoiding her laptop.

2 replies »

  1. Ironically, as I read your discussion of rogue religion and personal reality, “Nirvana” by The Cult shuffled up on my iTunes.

    Really interesting piece, Maria. Thanks for contributing.

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