Open Closed Open: Poems

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9780151003785: Open Closed Open: Poems

Amichai writes of the language of love, and tea with roasted almonds, of desire and love. Of a Jewish cemetery whose groundskeeper is an expert on flowers and seasons of the year, but no expert on buried Jews; of Russian shirts embroidered in the colors of love and death; of Jerusalem, the city where everything sails: the flags, the prayer shawls, the caftans, the monks' robes, the kaffiyehs, and young women's dresses. The poet tenderly, mischievously, breaks open the grand diction of the revered Jewish verses and supplications and suddenly discovers the light that his own experience casts upon them. Here, the bread of memory and the circuses of forgetting, nostalgia for God and a better world, dust and heat, and tamarisk trees that stand as flight attendants for the next millennium, saying, "You can still get a seat on the third millennium before liftoff." Open Closed Open-poems at once meditative and playful, anxious and full of hope, sung in a language of biblical directness and meaning, that through the microcosm of the everyday give us the gift of the world at large.

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Review:

In the centerpiece of Open Closed Open, the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai ponders his most treasured keepsake, "a triangular fragment of stone from a Jewish graveyard destroyed / many generations ago." This object is, needless to say, more than a souvenir: throughout the zigzagging lines of "The Amen Stone," it allows Amichai to reconstruct bits and pieces of the past, "fragment to fragment, / like the resurrection of the dead, a mosaic, / a jigsaw puzzle. Child's play." The ensuing narrative leads the poet directly into his nation's history. Yet this is not merely a political but a personal resurrection, for Amichai sees himself as the stone's well-weathered counterpart, a byproduct of time. And he, too, has experienced an inevitable erosion: "Jewish History and World History / grind me between them like two grindstones / sometimes to a powder."

Throughout the collection, Amichai returns again and again to this convergence. In "Once I Wrote 'Now and in Other Days.' Thus Glory Passes, Thus the Psalms Pass," for example, he chronicles the destruction of Huleh swamp, an open ecosystem drained by the Israeli government during the 1950s to fight malaria and provide arable land:

Now half a century later they are filling it with water again
because it was a mistake. Perhaps my entire life
I've been living a mistake
Indeed, Amichai's misgivings seem to extend to the very foundations of the modern Israeli state. Might not the "bright-colored birds" who fled the swamp "for their lives" be figures for the displaced Palestinians? Huleh, we learn, was eventually restored. But sowing the seeds of peace is as precarious an enterprise as rebuilding a fragile ecosystem.

Elsewhere, "My Son Was Drafted" records a father's concern and fear for his military-age child. Amichai wishes his son were joining an army without a war, where soldiers serve as decorations around monuments, where the ornate and impractical replace the camouflaged and tactical. But here, too, the father has a few spiritual heirlooms to pass on to his son, which incidentally allow him to open up yet another closed system:

I would like to add two more commandments to the ten:
the Eleventh Commandment: "Thou shalt not change,"
and the Twelfth Commandment "Thou shalt change. You will change."
My dead father added those for me.
A man, Amichai suggests, is more pliable once he has been opened up, refreshed, newly defined. Cultures, alas, are not so flexible. But the rich language of Open Closed Open, which has been meticulously translated by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld, holds out the hope that nations, too, might submit to the Twelfth Commandment. --Ryan Kuykendall

Book Description:

Published in hardcover by Harcourt, 2000, 0-15-100378-5

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