The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai

amichai

with Chana Bloch

University of California Press 1996

Yehuda Amichai is Israel’s most popular poet as well as a literary figure of international reputation. Renowned translators Chana Bloch and Stephen Mitchell have selected Amichai’s most beloved and enduring poems from his eleven volumes and have included forty new poems from his recent work in this revised and expanded collection.

Excerpts


Ibn Gabirol

Sometimes pus,
sometimes poetry —

always something is excreted,
always pain.

My father was a tree in a grove of fathers,
covered with green moss.

Oh widows of the flesh, orphans of the blood,
I’ve got to escape.

Eyes sharp as can-openers
pried open heavy secrets.

But through the wound in my chest
God peers into the universe.

I am the door
to his apartment.

 

Not Like a Cypress

Not like a cypress,
not all at once, not all of me,
but like the grass, in thousands of cautious green exits,
to be hiding like many children
while one of them seeks.

And not like the single man,
like Saul, whom the multitude found
and made king.
But like the rain in many places
from many clouds, to be absorbed, to be drunk
by many mouths, to be breathed in
like the air all year long
and scattered like blossoming in springtime.

Not the sharp ring that wakes up
the doctor on call,
but with tapping, on many small windows
at side entrances, with many heartbeats.

And afterward the quiet exit, like smoke
without shofar-blasts, a statesman resigning,
children tired from play,
a stone as it almost stops rolling
down the steep bill, in the place
where the plain of great renunciation begins,
from which, like prayers that are answered,
dust rises in many myriads of grains.

 

Through Two Points Only One Straight Line Can Pass
(Theorem in geometry)

A planet once got married to a star,
and inside, voices talked of future war.
I only know what I was told in class:
through two points only one straight line can pass.

A stray dog chased us down an empty street.
I threw a stone; the dog would not retreat.
The king of Babel stooped to eating grass.
Through two points only one straight line can pass.

Your small sob is enough for many pains,
as locomotive-power can pull long trains.
When will we step inside the looking-glass?
Through two points only one straight line can pass.

At times I stands apart, at times it rhymes
with you, at times we’s singular, at times
plural, at times I don’t know what. Alas,
through two points only one straight line can pass.

Our life of joy turns to a life of tears,
our life eternal to a life of years.
Our life of gold became a life of brass.
Through two points only one straight line can pass.

 

The Visit of the Queen of Sheba

1. Preparations for the Journey

Not resting but
moving her lovely butt,
the Queen of Sheba,
having decided to leave, a-
rose from her lair
among dark spells, tossed her hair,
clapped her hands,
the servants fainted, and
already she drew in the sand
with her big toe:
King Solomon, as though
he were a rubber ball, an
apocalyptic, bearded herring, an
imperial walking-stick, an
amalgam, half chicken
and half Solomon.

The minister of protocol
went too far, with all
those peacocks and ivory boxes.
Later on,
she began to yawn
deliciously, she stretched like a cat
so that
he would be able to sniff
her odif–
erous heart. They spared no expense,
they brought feathers, to tickle
his ears, to make his last defense
prickle.
She had been brought
a vague report
about circumcision,
she wanted to know everything, with absolute precision,
her curiosity
blossomed like leprosy,
the disheveled sisters of her corpuscles
screamed through their loudspeaker into all her muscles,
the sky undid
its buttons, she made herself up and slid
into a vast commotion,
felt her head
spin, all the brothels of her emotions
were lit up in red.
In the factory
of her blood, they worked frantically
till night came: a dark night, like an old table,
a night as eternal
as a jungle.

2. The Ship Waits

A ship in the harbor. Night
Among the shadows, a white

ship, with a cargo of yearnings,
some temperate, some burning,

a ship that desire launches,
a ship without a subconscious.

Already among the sails
sway the Queen’s colored veils

made of the silk of sparrows
who had died of their tiny sorrows

before they could flutter forth
to the cool lands of the North.

It’s worthwhile, at any rate,
for the white ship to wait

cheek to cheek with the dock
and let itself gently rock

between ideas of sand
and ideas of ocean, and

endure its insomnia
till morning, etc.

3. Setting Sail

She called her thighs to return to each other,
knee-cheek to knee-cheek, and her soul
was already a zebra of moods, good and bad.
In the oven of her body, her heart
rotated on a spit. The morning screamed,
a tropical rain fell.

The forecasters, chained to the spot, forecasted,
the engineers of her sleep went out on weary camels,
all the little fish of her laughter fled
before the shark of her awakening rage. In her armpits
faint-hearted corals hid,
night-lizards left their footprints on her belly.

She sat in bed, sharpening her charms and her riddles
like colored pencils. From the beards
of old blowhards, she had had an African apron made,
her secrets were embroidered on scarves.
But the lions still held the laws
like the two tablets over the holy ark
and over the whole world.

4. The Journey on the Red Sea

Fish blew through the sea and through
the long anticipation. Captains
plotted their course by the map
of her longing. Her nipples preceded her like
scouts,
her hairs whispered to one another
like conspirators. In the dark corners between sea and ship
the counting started, quietly.
A solitary bird sang
in the permanent trill of her blood. Rules fell
from biology textbooks, clouds were torn like contracts,
at noon she dreamt about
making love naked in the snow, egg yolks
dripping
down her leg, the thrill of yellow beeswax. All
the air
rushed to be breathed inside her. The sailors
cried out
in the foreign language of fish.

But underneath the world, underneath the sea,
there were cantillations as if on the Sabbath:
everything sang each other.

5. Solomon Waits

Never any rain,
never any rain,
always clouds without closure,
always raw-voiced love.

Shepherds of the wind returned
from the pasture.
In the world’s court-
yards, blossoms of stone opened
consecrated to strange gods.
Trembling ladders dreamt about
humans dreaming about them.

But he
saw the world,
the slightly torn
lining of the world.
And was awake like many lit stables
in Megiddo.

Never any rain,
never any rain,
always raw-voiced love,
always quarries.

6. The Queen Enters the Throne Room

The dewy rose of her dark pudenda
was doubled in the mirrored floor. His agenda

seemed superfluous now, and all the provisions
he had made for her, the decrees and decisions

he had worked out while he was judging the last
of the litigants. Then he rolled up his past

like a map; and he sat there, reeling, giddy,
and saw in the mirror a body and a body,

from above and below, like the queen of spades.
In the bedroom of his heart he pulled down the shades,

he covered his blood with sackcloth, tried
tried to think of icebergs, of putrefied

camel flesh. And his face changed seasons
like a speeded-up landscape. He followed his visions

to the end of them, growing wiser and warm,
and he knew that her soul’s form was like the form

of her supple body, which he soon would embrace —
as a violin’s form is the form of its case.

7. Who Could Stump Whom

In the pingpong of questions and answers
not a sound was heard
except:
ping … pong …
And the cough of the learned counselors
and the sharp tearing of paper.

He made black waves with his beard
so that her words would drown in it.
She made a jungle
of her hair, for him to be lost in.
Words were plunked down with a click
like chessmen.
Thoughts with high masts
sailed past one another.
Empty crossword puzzles filled up
as the sky fills with stars,
secret caches were opened,
buckles and vows were unfastened,
cruel religions
were tickled, and laughed
horribly.
In the final game,
her words played with his words, her tongue
with his tongue.
Precise maps
were spread, face up, on the table.
Everything was revealed. Hard.
And pitiless.

8. The Empty Throne Room

All the word games
lay scattered out of their boxes.
Boxes were left gaping
after the game.

Sawdust of questions,
shells of cracked parables,
woolly packing materials
crates of fragile riddles.

Heavy wrapping paper
of love and strategies.
Used solutions rustled
in the trash of thinking.

Long problems
were rolled up on spools,
miracles were locked in their cages.
Chess horses were led back to the stable.

Empty cartons that had
“Handle With Care!”
printed on them
sang hymns of thanksgiving.

Later, in ponderous parade, the King’s soldiers arrived.
She fled, sad
as black snakes
in the dry grass.

A moon of atonement spun around the towers
as on Yom Kippur eve.
Caravans with no camels, no people,
no sound, departed and departed and departed.

 

As for the World

As for the world,
I am always like one of Socrates’ students:
walking beside him,
hearing his seasons and generations,
and all I can do is say:
Yes, certainly that is true.
You are right again.
It is exactly as you have said.

As for my life, I am always
Venice:
everything that is streets
is in other people.
In me—love, dark and flowing.

As for the scream, as for the silence,
I am always a shofar:
hoarding, all year long, its one blast
for the terrible Days of Awe.

As for the deeds,
I am always Cain:
a fugitive and a vagabond before the deed that I won’t do,
or after the deed that
can’t be undone.

As for the palm of your hand,
as for the signals of my heart
and the plans of my flesh,
as for the writing on the wall,
I am always an ignoramus: I can’t
read or write
and my head is empty as a weed,
knowing only the secret whisper
and the motion in the wind
when a fate passes through me, to
some other place.

 

Jerusalem

On a roof in the Old City
laundry hanging in the late afternoon sunlight:
the white sheet of a woman who is my enemy,
the towel of a man who is my enemy,
to wipe off the sweat of his brow.

In the sky of the Old City
a kite.
At the other end of the string,
a child
I can’t see
because of the wall.

We have put up many flags,
they have put up many flags,
To make us think that they’re happy.
To make them think that we’re happy.

 

Before

Before the gate has been closed,
before the last question is posed,
before I am transposed.
Before the weeds fill the gardens,
before there are no more pardons,
before concrete hardens.
Before all the flute-holes are covered,
before things are locked in the cupboard,
before the rules are discovered.
Before the conclusion is planned,
before God closes his hand,
before we have nowhere to stand.

 

Mayor

It’s sad to be
the mayor of Jerusalem—
it’s terrible.
How can a man be mayor of such a city?
What can he do with it?
Build and build and build.

And at night the stones of the mountains crawl down
and surround the stone houses,
like wolves coming to howl at the dogs,
who have become the slaves of men.

 

Resurrection

Afterward they will get up
all together, and with a sound of chairs scraping
they will face the narrow exit.

And their clothes are crumpled
and covered with dust and cigarette ashes
and their hand discovers in the inside pocket
a ticket stub from a very previous season.

And their faces are still crisscrossed
with God’s will.
And their eyes are red from so much sleeplessness
under the ground.

And right away, questions:
What time is it?
Where did you put mine?
When? When?

And one of them can be seen in an ancient
scanning of the sky, to see if rain.
Or a woman,
with an age-old gesture, wipes her eyes
and lifts the heavy hair
at the back of her neck.

Reviews


For sheer energy of imagination, for the constantly renewed sense of poetry’s ability to engage reality, Amichai has no close competitors on the Israeli scene, and perhaps only a few worldwide.
— Robert Alter, New York Times Magazine

The book emphasizes, as none of the others have, Amichai’s range — that he’s a love poet, a war poet, a citizen, and a historian, and not just on different days, but all at the same time.
— Matthew Flamm, Village Voice

Yehuda Amichai is by now one of the half-dozen leading poets in the world. He has found a voice that speaks across cultural boundaries and a vision so sure that he can make the conflicts of the citizen soldier in modern Israel stand for those of humankind. His wit is considerable: he can say virtually anything and give his words enough sting to defuse both sentimentality and hyperbole.
— Mark Rudman, The Nation

Yehuda Amichai is that rarest of modern writers, an ironist beyond irony. After all the delicate craftsmanship of his poems there remains a kind of manful literalness, a stubborn belief in the saving power of directness…. Here is writing that is fully the match for its onerous occasions. And as thelucky readers of this collection will learn, Amichai’s famous “spoken” language is spoken by nobody but Amichai.
— Leon Wieseltier

Yehuda Amichai’s splendid poems, refined and cast in the desperate foundries of the Middle East, where life and faith are always at stake, exhibit a majestic and Biblical range of the topography of the soul…. He is a psalmist utterly modern, yet movingly traditional.
— Anthony Hecht

Buy This Book