In the centerpiece of Open Closed Open
, the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai ponders his most treasured keepsake, "a triangular fragment of stone from a Jewish graveyard destroyed / many generations ago." This object is, needless to say, more than a souvenir: throughout the zigzagging lines of "The Amen Stone," it allows Amichai to reconstruct bits and pieces of the past, "fragment to fragment, / like the resurrection of the dead, a mosaic, / a jigsaw puzzle. Child's play." The ensuing narrative leads the poet directly into his nation's history. Yet this is not merely a political but a personal resurrection, for Amichai sees himself as the stone's well-weathered counterpart, a byproduct of time. And he, too, has experienced an inevitable erosion: "Jewish History and World History / grind me between them like two grindstones / sometimes to a powder."
Throughout the collection, Amichai returns again and again to this convergence. In "Once I Wrote 'Now and in Other Days.' Thus Glory Passes, Thus the Psalms Pass," for example, he chronicles the destruction of Huleh swamp, an open ecosystem drained by the Israeli government during the 1950s to fight malaria and provide arable land:
Now half a century later they are filling it with water again
because it was a mistake. Perhaps my entire life
I've been living a mistake
Indeed, Amichai's misgivings seem to extend to the very foundations of the modern Israeli state. Might not the "bright-colored birds" who fled the swamp "for their lives" be figures for the displaced Palestinians? Huleh, we learn, was eventually restored. But sowing the seeds of peace is as precarious an enterprise as rebuilding a fragile ecosystem.
Elsewhere, "My Son Was Drafted" records a father's concern and fear for his military-age child. Amichai wishes his son were joining an army without a war, where soldiers serve as decorations around monuments, where the ornate and impractical replace the camouflaged and tactical. But here, too, the father has a few spiritual heirlooms to pass on to his son, which incidentally allow him to open up yet another closed system:
I would like to add two more commandments to the ten:
the Eleventh Commandment: "Thou shalt not change,"
and the Twelfth Commandment "Thou shalt change. You will change."
My dead father added those for me.
A man, Amichai suggests, is more pliable once he has been opened up, refreshed, newly defined. Cultures, alas, are not so flexible. But the rich language of Open Closed Open
, which has been meticulously translated by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld, holds out the hope that nations, too, might submit to the Twelfth Commandment. --Ryan Kuykendall
From Publishers Weekly
Constructing a lineage in which to place himself, Amichai begins these verses of personal and cultural history with a stone from a destroyed Jewish graveyard; and moves on to enact the story of David, recall poems by Ibn Ezra, and even consider Jesus as an instance of "Jewish Travel." Within this vast context, the 25 longish poems of the collection, originally written in Hebrew, offer everyday acts of alternately joyous and somber reverence for God, "with the same body/ that stoops to pick up a fallen something from the floor." Amichai, who emigrated to Palestine in 1936 and is now 76, places imagined Holocaust memories ("I wasn't among the six million who died in the Shoah./ I wasn't even among the survivors") adjacent to irreverent reconfigurations of Torah characters, investigates "The Language of Love and Tea with Roasted Almonds," and asks "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, Why Jerusalem." The English-only text is generally well-rendered by poet Bloch and Hebrew scholar Kronfeld, but the rhymes can show jingly signs of strain: "Our father Jacob, on the beaten track/ carries a ladder on his back// like a window washer to the VIPs./ He does God's windows, if you please." Despite the moments of levity, mortality dominates each anecdote, whether it be a story of romantic, familial or ancestral love: "The memorial forest where we made love/ burned down in a great conflagration// but the two of us stayed alive and in love in memory of the burnt ones the forest remembered." The book becomes more personally confessional as it progresses (poem 22 is titled "My Son Was Drafted"), as the poet reminisces on his youth, first love and adoration of children. Death, finally, becomes a form of remembrance, where "not even a single act of remembering will seep in/ and disturb memory's eternal rest." This is a searching late book from a writer who acknowledges the high stakes of writing and of life as lived daily.
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