An Autumn Evening With Amichai

In his beautiful, haunting poem, Summer Evening By A Window With Psalms, widely renowned Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai wishes for a more peaceful and compassionate world, far away from the suffering that he has so often witnessed.

In the third stanza in particular, Amichai draws on images from the Psalms:

I think: how many still waters
would be able to provide a night of stillness,
and how many green pastures, wide as deserts,
would provide an hour of tranquility
and how many valleys of the shadow of death
do we need for there to be a merciful shadow
in the harsh sunlight.

What, indeed, would it take—how many still waters, how many green pastures, how many valleys of the shadow of death would it take for there to be consolation in the modern world? Given the atrocities of the 20th century through which Amichai lived, one can hardly imagine how many it would take.

In 2011, Robert Alter, professor emeritus of the University of California at Berkeley, wrote a detailed analysis of this poem as part of a broader look at Amichai’s oeuvre in the Jewish Review of Books. He reflected on the fact that ‘shade’ in Psalms “is a recurring term for protection, but no such protection is forthcoming in a world where deserts stretch wide around.”

“The speaker is contemplating the biblical text—he is, as he sits at the window on a summer evening, “with” Psalms—in the light of his own existential knowledge of the world,” adds Alter. “The ancient Hebrew words stand before him, and their message of comfort and reassurance does not match what he sees in the world.”

And yet it’s not a sense of hopelessness or despair that we get from these lines but one of longing. In the next stanza, Amichai’s lively imagination and metaphorical leaps surprise us once again:

I look out from the window: one hundred and fifty
psalms pass through the evening twilight,
one hundred and fifty psalms, great and small.
What a great, splendid and fleeting armada!

Amichai has a way of making us appreciate what is there, right in front of us, even when we know it will not last and, ultimately, will be lost in time. I love this fleeting armada; it passes by, it only touches our lives momentarily and disappears over the horizon; but it provides a fleeting sense of comfort and consolation.

The speaker seems to be saying, “So the green pastures and valleys won’t provide an hour of tranquility, but at least they’ll provide a few minutes.” Amichai’s dry sense of irony helps us to laugh ruefully and to console ourselves in the face of disappointment.

For Amichai, I think that language itself is often a refuge, and poetry often provides solace in the most vulnerable of times. He takes refuge in the shade and protection afforded by words themselves.

While doing research for The Amichai Windows, I stumbled across Amichai’s credo about poetry among his papers at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library of Yale University. In an article entitled, I Write in Hebrew Because, he wrote that “I started writing poetry, using my words to come to terms with my life’s extremes and heal myself and go on living.”

Later on, I came across an interview with Amichai, Between the Pen and the Paper, that ran in 1965 in the Israeli daily, Ha’aretz. “A poem is like a lullaby that you sing in order to calm yourself,” said Amichai. “There are poems that if I hadn’t written them, I would have been completely lost.”

While Amichai wrote to heal himself, many of his poems have helped each of us, too. But what, you wonder, have I done with this poem visually? That will have to wait for another blog post . . . !

For now, here’s the entire poem:

Summer Evening By A Window With Psalms by Yehuda Amichai

A careful examination of the past—
how my soul stirs up within me like souls
in the nineteenth century before the great wars,
like curtains that want to free themselves
from the open window and fly.

We are comforted by short breaths
as after a run; we are always
healed. We want to reach death
healthy and intact, like a murderer
who is sentenced to death but was wounded
while being captured, and his judges want him
to recuperate in time for the gallows.

I think: how many still waters
would be able to provide a night of stillness,
and how many green pastures, wide as deserts,
would provide an hour of tranquility
and how many valleys of the shadow of death
do we need for there to be a merciful shadow
in the harsh sunlight.

I look out from the window: one hundred and fifty
psalms pass through the evening twilight,
one hundred and fifty psalms, great and small.
What a great, splendid and fleeting armada!

I say: the window is God
and the door is his prophet.

–Translated by Rick Black–

 

 

 

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Filed under Hebrew Poetry, Translating Amichai, Yehuda Amichai

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