An Open Question
The big issues frighten and fascinate Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai. War, peace, love, and haunting, unanswerable questions are the commodities he trades in, and that grand mentality is one reason why his moving poems have broad international appeal.
For decades, the widely translated Amichai has written short, memorable poems full of double meanings, Biblical references, and the sharp pain of living with an ancient religious tradition in a modern political landscape. And of course, there have been dozens of love poems to women -- and to the poet's home city of Jerusalem.
Open Closed Open, a new translation from Hebrew into English of what many critics are calling Amichai's magnum opus, reveals a book that is strikingly different in structure from his previous collections. This ambitious collection, translated by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld, is divided into chapters which each contain a single long poem, broken into many small parts.
The book's ambition is also evident in its subject matter. Instead of focusing on an individual moment between a man and a woman, or one isolated thought, as many of his earlier poems did, these large poems tackle life itself in almost every stanza. This is the work of a mature poet who now feels comfortable writing openly about immortality. Early in the book, the explanation for the title appears:
Open closed open. Before we are born, everything is open
in the universe without us. For as long as we live, everything is closed
within us. And when we die, everything is open again.
Open closed open. That's all we are.
These lines, like so much of this book, are deeply rooted in Jewish tradition. Here, the poet alludes to a frequently uttered prayer which thanks God for keeping the openings of the body open, because that is what allows life to continue. Of course, the cyclical tone is reminiscent of Ecclesiastes, and the repetition of phrases is prayerlike.
The "open closed open" theme returns in the book's closing chapter, titled "And Who Will Remember the Rememberers?" This passage starts off in typical Amichai style, with a mundane detail that then veers into a profound thought:
Have I mentioned that my father, in the wisdom of his hands,
knew how to prepare parcels for transport,
packed tight and sealed tight
so they wouldn't come undone along the way like me?
Then Amichai addresses what "transport" usually refers to in Jewish history books:
So much death in everything, so much packing and transport,
so much open that will never close again, so much closed
that will never open.
The question of who will remember the "so much closed that will never open" plagues Amichai throughout the book. Another huge, haunting presence is the issue of faith and doubt. Raised in an Orthodox Jewish home, the poet has lived most of his life as a secular man. Many of his previous poems touched on how modern events challenge faith.
Here, Amichai writes -- rather surprisingly -- that looking back, he realizes that he has been faithful in his own way. In the book's opening poem, "And What Is My Lifespan? Open Closed Open," Amichai takes the phrase "I believe with perfect faith," which in Jewish liturgy is followed by the phrase "the coming of the Messiah," and gives his own view of what he has come to believe:
I believe with perfect faith that at this very moment,
millions of human beings are standing at crossroads
and intersections, in jungles and deserts,
showing each other where to turn, what the right way is,
which direction. They explain exactly where to go,
what is the quickest way to get there, when to stop
and ask again. There, over there. The second
turn-off, not the first, and from there left or right,
near the white house, right by the oak tree.
They explain with excited voices, with a wave of the hand
and a nod of the head: There, over there, no not there, there,
as in some ancient rite. This too is a new religion.
I believe with perfect faith that at this very moment.
That's just one of the book's many attempts at describing what the poet believes. In the second long poem-chapter, titled "I Foretell the Days of Yore," Amichai tries again. He doesn't depict himself as a rebel who has not kept the major tenets of the Jewish faith, which is what he did in previous volumes. In this mature book, he repeatedly calls himself a believer, a man observant of commandments. Here again he offers his own twist:
Now after many years of living I begin to see
that I rebelled only a little, and I do observe
all the laws and commandments.
I observe the law of gravity, that is, the law of the earth's attraction,
with all my body and all my strength and with all my love;
I observe the law of equilibrium and the law of the conservation of matter:
my body and my body, my soul and my soul, my body and my soul.
Amichai often expresses spiritual issues in the language of the secular world, here borrowing from the scientific vocabulary. A few lines later, he makes it even more concrete, as he describes getting to know himself, his own body and his own soul:
I begin to understand, as I would with an old car,
what makes it work, the action of pistons and brakes,
reward and punishment, be fruitful and multiply,
forget and remember, bolts and springs,
fast and slow, and the laws of history.
The Biblical injunction "be fruitful and multiply" and its constant emphasis on both reward and punishment begin to make sense for the poet as he reaches old age. Of course, in Amichai's traditional open-ended style, he uses "begin to understand." Even after all these decades of chronicling faith and doubt, lust and love, and war and peace, he knows he has only begun. At the end of the volume, as at the beginning, all those "open" questions are "open again."