Books: Amichai's University

Two delightful collections of the poetry of Yehuda Amichai and Else Lasker-Schüler.

Yehuda Amichai in 1962.
FOR SOME decades now Yehuda Amichai (1924-2000) has been the best known and most widely translated of modern Hebrew poets. While Israel’s poetry scene remains ever feisty, I don’t think any contemporary Israeli poet in the years following Amichai’s passing has come close to anything like Amichai’s renown.
Though the poet’s career dates back to the beginnings of the state, he is still deeply admired at home, and in the Englishspeaking world the name Amichai remains virtually synonymous with the very notion of modern Hebrew verse. Some of this secular poet’s verses are even included in the Reform Movement’s current prayer book. His fame has been further reinforced by Nili Scharf Gold’s 2008 scholarly biography, “Yehuda Amichai: The Making of Israel’s National Poet,” by “Yehuda Amichai: A Life of Poetry 1948- 1994,” assembled and translated in 1994 by Benjamin and Barbara Harshav, and by this updated and even heftier collection published just now by Robert Alter.
While the Harshav volume is quite splendid, Alter’s selection is superior in that it is more comprehensive and calls upon over a dozen different translators (including both Alter and the Harshavs). As Professor Emeritus of Hebrew and Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley, Alter has long been arguably the premier American translator of Hebrew, both contemporary and biblical.
He says that for the present volume he chose the best translations wherever they could be found. This even includes translations other than those for the poems in “Time” (1978) rendered by Amichai himself in collaboration with the UK’s late poet laureate Ted Hughes. On occasions when Alter says he could find no suitable translations he commissioned new ones; on numerous occasions the editor simply translated poems himself, showing off his chops with lines like: “A conference on language: colloquial, baroquial, poetic, pathetic…” Unlike the Harshavs, Alter provides an introduction and notes to his collection, but both of these bits of apparatus are minimal.
Apparently the editor preferred allowing the poems to speak for themselves. And speak they do, even if in translation they inevitably sacrifice much of their biblical resonance and colloquial Israeli sparkle. In his introduction, Alter remarks on the fact that even as the great bulk of Amichai’s writing is rooted in specific Israeli locations and experiences, his work has “traveled” with amazing ease (he has been translated into some 40 languages).
And yes, whatever has been lost in the Hebrew, these poems exhibit an amazing universality.
No better proof of this is seen in the fact that time and again, in reading these poems I felt that rare but most gratifying of reading experiences, the neck-prickling frisson that signals: wow, this poet is articulating exactly feelings and perceptions that have visited me and that I’ve labored (in vain) to put into words myself.
Like virtually anyone with an interest in Israeli verse I’d read many of the poems in this new collection before; but to those who think they know Amichai, let me say it is highly rewarding to encounter him all over again. Some may think they have “done” Amichai, but I found him far from done with – not when he writes so movingly about loves lost and found, about Jerusalem of stone and of spirit, about wars and their cost and their ever-rippling aftereffects.
Amichai accomplishes these feats by calling on his acute sensibilities, his famed conversational tone of one-on-one address to the reader, and his inexhaustible fund of metaphors and similes. (Sometimes one gets the impression that Amichai never met a simile he didn’t like, i.e., “At a pay phone, I saw a woman making a call, / and crouching at her feet, a large musical instrument in a black case, / like a dog.”) And yes, it must be admitted that as a man who produced poems by the kilo (Alter says a complete collection would require three times the 550 pages of the present volume), Amichai always finds the music but not always the lyrics. By which I mean with Amichai you always know you’re reading verse, but not always in what the verse is in service. An example, from “Evening Promenade on Valley of the Ghosts Street”:
In this house here, my good friend once
Now he’s no longer my friend. We grew
apart, distant
Beyond recognition, like a landscape
That flattens into a map. But the house
is still standing,
And the door is the same door that opened for me,
then closed.
That’s how, with some trepidation,
a new religion takes shape….
The music is surely in the air, but for me it’s not the landscape that flattens, it’s the simile that falls flat. And that last line reeks too much of Leonard Cohen’s quasimystical non sequiturs. But I quote some lines that are off only because they are so rare (and because reviewers are required by law to quibble and carp).
Were I to start quoting the great poems I’d be filling the entire issue of this magazine and more. That means all 30 pages of the autobiographical “The Travels of the Last Benjamin of Tudela”; the heart-wrenching “Seven Laments for the War-Dead”; the clear-eyed and prophetic “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, Why Jerusalem?” (“Sometimes Jerusalem is a city of knives / Even the hopes for peace are sharp, to cut through / the hard reality…”); the lusty love songs that happily recall Pablo Neruda; the tender reminiscences regarding the poet’s parents; the sheer playfulness (he even plays on his name: “My name is Yehuda. The stress is on the hu, / Yehu, yoo-hoo – a mother’s voice calling her little boy in from play”); the poems regarding the fate of the Jews, the fate of God, the fate of the land and oh so many others.
The only thing better than this “Poetry of Yehuda Amichai” would be a bilingual edition.
After all, we are reading a translation of Amichai, not Amichai himself, and toggling between the two languages would be instructive, both to discover what is lost in translation – and what is found. Teasingly, however, Robert Alter allows us exactly one poem in the original Hebrew from each of the poet’s 12 volumes. Readers who relish Amichai in Hebrew and English on facing pages might seek out Schocken’s 1981 collection called “Love Poems.” Studying the travails and triumphs of the translator is a reward in itself.
Still, for any reader of Israeli poetry in English, just let me say, Amichai again? Absolutely.
IN ONE of his poems Yehuda Amichai references his fellow German-born Jewish poet Else Lasker-Schüler (1869- 1945), and indeed, in 2000 Amichai wrote an introduction to Lasker-Schüler’s “Selected Poems” (edited and translated by Jeanette Litman-Demeestère and Audri Durchslag-Litt and published by Green Integer Press). Amichai also noted that as a youth he would see the septuagenarian Lasker-Schüler, somewhat bedraggled in her tatty bohemian outfits and costume jewelry, wandering the streets of Jerusalem.
It was an ignominious end for a woman who had been a popular and prize-winning poet in Berlin’s lively post-World War I era, when she lived and loved among the German Expressionist painters and writers.
Today Lasker-Schüler has hardly been forgotten. She has been the subject of several biographies and critical studies, her life has been dramatized on film and on BBC Radio, a Jerusalem street is named for her, a memorial was erected (and later vandalized) in the Jerusalem Forest, and most importantly, her work is repeatedly reprinted. Yet unlike, say, Amichai’s verse, that of Lasker-Schüler appears fixed in an unfashionable and somewhat musty lyrical romanticism.
The latest collection of Lasker-Schüler’s work is “My Blue Piano,” edited and translated by Brooks Haxton, a professor at Syracuse University. This slim volume is not nearly as large as the “Selected Poems” nor as comprehensive as the bilingual “Your Diamond Dreams Cut Open My Arteries” (1982), translated and edited (with a valuable 50-page introduction) by Robert P.
Newton and published by the University of North Carolina Press. But Haxton’s new offering nonetheless makes for a fine reading experience.
Even my poor German allows me to judge that Haxton, a poet in his own right, has rendered Lasker-Schüler’s work with something far from dogged faithfulness. Yet he consistently captures her dizzying lyricism, which is arguably more rewarding than mere accuracy. In the title poem, for example, where another translator renders “Ich beweine die blaue Tote” as “I weep for the blue departed,” Haxton has it as “My blubbering enters the blue of death,’ which strikes me as considerably richer.
Or consider “Mein Liebslied” (“My Love Song”), which begins: “Wie ein heimlicher Brunnen / Murmelt mein Blut / Immer von dir, immer von dir.” In an earlier translation, we get: “My blood is a murmur / Like a secret spring / Always of you. Always of you.” But Haxton has this as: “Wellings homeborn in my blood / murmur me always, always you,” which I think at once more inventive and yet seemingly more faithful in conveying the lovesickness that inflames the poet.
Lasker-Schüler was frequently inflamed, rushing into and out of marriages, hurtling into and out of affairs, repeatedly writing about biblical figures with airy intimacy, forever teetering somewhere between this world and some fantastical world of her imagination. She illustrated the former famously in “Fortissimo,” the concluding stanzas of which are:
We felt it both the same:
the Smyrna carpet seemed a lawn
and palms in the cool above us wafted
while our blood began to burn.
And when our yearning tore away
and broke back onto us in swells,
we sank into the Smyrna moss
gone wild and screaming like gazelles.
Else Lasker-Schüler was eccentric in the extreme, even loopy. (“I’m not a human being,” she once declared, “I’m weather.”) But whatever she was, she was always herself, and her poetry, in this fresh and shrewd translation by Brooks Haxton, will, like Alter’s Amichai, move and delight readers of English verse anew.