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Seven Laments for the War-Dead -- Yehuda Amichai

Guest poem sent in by Vidur Bhandari
(Poem #1108) Seven Laments for the War-Dead
 Mr. Beringer, whose son
 fell at the Canal that strangers dug
 so ships could cross the desert,
 crosses my path at Jaffa Gate.

 He has grown very thin, has lost
 the weight of his son.
 That's why he floats so lightly in the alleys
 and gets caught in my heart like little twigs
 that drift away.

 As a child he would mash his potatoes
 to a golden mush.
 And then you die.

 A living child must be cleaned
 when he comes home from playing.
 But for a dead man
 earth and sand are clear water, in which
 his body goes on being bathed and purified

 The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
 across there. On the enemy's side. A good landmark
 for gunners of the future.

 Or the war monument in London
 at Hyde Park Corner, decorated
 like a magnificent cake: yet another soldier
 lifting head and rifle,
 another cannon, another eagle, another
 stone angel.

 And the whipped cream of a huge marble flag
 poured over it  all
 with an expert hand.

 But the candied, much-too-red cherries
 were already gobbled up
 by the glutton of hearts. Amen.

 I came upon an old zoology textbook,
 Brehm, Volume II, Birds:
 in sweet phrases, an account of the life of the starling,
 swallow, and thrush. Full of mistakes in antiquated
 Gothic typeface, but full of love, too. "Our feathered
 friends." "Migrate from us to warmer climes."
 Nest, speckled egg, soft plumage, nightingale,
 stork. "The harbirngers of spring." The robin,

 Year of publication: 1913, Germany,
 on the eve of the war that was to be
 the eve of all my wars.
 My good friend who died in my arms, in
 his blood,
 on the sands of Ashdod. 1948, June.

 Oh my-friend,

 Dicky was hit.
 Like the water tower at Yad Mordekhai.
 Hit. A hole in the belly. Everything
 came flooding out.

 But he has remained standing like that
 in the landscape of my memory
 like the water tower at Yad Mordekhai.

 He fell not far from there,
 a little to the north, near Houlayqat.

 Is all of this
 sorrow? I don't know.
 I stood in the cemetery dressed in
 the camouflage clothes of a living man: brown pants
 and a shirt yellow as the sun.

 Cemeteries are cheap; they don't ask for much.
 Even the wastebaskets are small, made for holding
 tissue paper
 that wrapped flowers from the store.
 Cemeteries are a polite and disciplined thing.
 "I Shall never forget you," in French
 on a little ceramic plaque.
 I don't know who it is that won't ever forget:
 he's more anonymous than the one who died.

 Is all of this sorrow? I guess so.
 "May ye find consolation in the building
 of the homeland." But how long
 can you go on building the homeland
 and not fall behind in the terrible
 three-sided race
 between consolation and building and death?

 Yes, all of this is sorrow. But leave
 a little love burining always
 like the small bulb in the room of a sleeping baby
 that gives him a bit of security and quiet love
 though he doesn't know what the light is
 or where it comes from.

 Memorial Day for the war-dead: go tack on
 the grief of all your losses--
 including a woman who left you--
 to the grief of losing them; go mix
 one sorrow with another, like history,
 that in its economical way
 heaps pain and feast and sacrifice
 onto a single day for easy reference.

 Oh sweet world, soaked like bread
 in sweet milk for the terrible
 toothless God. "Behind all this,
 some great happiness is hiding." No use
 crying inside and screaming outside.
 Behind all this, some great happiness may
 be hiding.

 Memorial day. Bitter salt, dressed up as
 a little girl with flowers.
 Ropes are strung out the whole length of the route
 for a joing parade: the living and the dead together.
 Children move with the footsteps of someone else's grief
 as if picking their way through broken glass.

 The flautist's mouth will stay pursed for many days.
 A dead soldier swims among the small heads
 with the swimming motions of the dead,
 with the ancient error the dead have
 about the place of the living water.

 A flag loses contact with reality and flies away
 A store window decked out with beautiful dresses for women
 in blue and white. And everything
 in three languages: Hebrew, Arabic and Death.

 A great royal beast has been dying all night long
 under the jasmine,
 with a fixed stare at the world.
 A man whose son died in the war
 walks up the street
 like a woman with a dead fetus inside her womb.
 "Behind all this, some great happiness is hiding."
-- Yehuda Amichai
           (trans. Stephen Mitchell, Chana Bloch)

Note: Amichai is probably the most widely translated Hebrew poet. This
September marked his second death anniversary.

"Seven Laments..." carries Amichai's trademark simplicty, his ability to
bring out the poignancy in the ordinary. Any comment I offer would be
ineffectual. Although the individual sections stand by themselves, the poem
works best as a whole. People I've shared the poem with ask me which lament
I like best, but I refuse to ponder that. I transcribed the poem from the
book "Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai" and have tried to faithfully
reproduce the published format, but it is rather lengthy, so it's possible
it isn't perfect.

It is said Amichai is a difficult poet to translate because he used a lot of
clever word play -- he would use similar sounding Hebrew words to bring
subtle (and not so subtle) twists in meaning. Obviously much of this was
lost in translation. "Seven Laments..." was translated by Stephen Mitchell
(who remains my favourite translator of Rilke) and Chana Bloch (who lives
and works in Berkeley, California). Chana Bloch and I exchanged email some
time ago about the work and life of this extraordinary person. She was
fortunate enough to spend extended periods of time with Amichai in Israel,
working on translations.


Biography and appreciation of Amichai:

38 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

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As they balance up and down,
Are singing the beautiful song,
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