Open Closed Open
The "magnum opus" of 77-year-old Yehuda Amichai, Israel's top poet, is the verbal equivalent of an oratorio or an opera. Reading 175 pages of poetry steeped in Jewish scripture and tradition would be a daunting task without Amichai's ability to lace the deadly serious with the playful. He gives the reader a Whitmanesque ride through catalogs of things past and present, things of the body, mind, and spirit, laments and praise, all discussed in a tone both reverent and irreverent.
The collection opens and closes with "the amen stone," "a triangular fragment of stone from a Jewish graveyard destroyed/ many generations ago . . . one survivor fragment/ of thousands upon thousands of bits of broken tombstones in Jewish graveyards." (The stone in question sits on the poet's desk.) Amichai sees the stone as a symbol of himself and the Jewish people. He titles one of his sections "I Wasn't One of the Six Million: And What is My Life Span? Open Closed Open." This image of opposites works on the poet's imagination as he plays with many other pairs: hope/despair, blessings/curses, remembering/forgetting, past/present, pain/joy, change/immutability.
Amichai's feelings about God are ambiguous; the poems suggest, with some bitterness and more longing, an absent God, a God who abandoned His people in Auschwitz, "an invisible god in high heavens. . . . And when prayers ascend on high, they fall/ back down like shrapnel from anti-aircraft shells/ that have missed their target." Nonetheless, Amichai is hopeful. While Emily Dickinson described hope as "a thing with feathers," Amichai calls it barbed wire, a minefield to keep out despair. He says it is "like a faithful dog . . . I call her: Hope, Hope, come here, and she/ comes to me."
This free-verse collection is well worth its considerable cost; it is the mature work of a mature thinker; it is musical, philosophical, whimsical. The poems work through the traditions, ancient and modern, of the Jews, but the intellect informing the poems is not exclusive but expansive and inclusive. The prevailing spirit of the volume is more open than closed.