On a visit to Israel in May for a book launch of The Amichai Windows at Tmol Shilshom cafe in Jerusalem, Rick Black had a chance to talk with Ron Nesiel, host of the show, “The Weekly Journal” on Kan-Reshet Bet.
As part of the 20-minute segment, Nesiel also spoke with Hebrew literature Prof. Avner Holtzman of Tel Aviv University about Amichai’s work and played a Yossi Banai song of an Amichai poem, I Told You That it Would be so and You Didn’t Believe.
A link to the Hebrew radio show is here; broadcast on Saturday, May 26, 2018, the segment begins at 42:30 of the hour-long program. For those who would prefer the English, a translation is below . . .
Ron Nesiel: We’ll stay with literature but go from prose to poetry. In any case, we’re marking 60 years since the publication of Yehuda Amichai’s book, Two Hopes Away, which was published 60 years ago by HaKibbutz HaMeuhad in 1958.
Together with his first published book, these two volumes launched a revolution in Hebrew literature in the 1950s. A major motif of both volumes, but in particular of Two Hopes Away, is the window . . . and the motif of looking out and looking in a window is what inspired the creation of a new, extraordinary volume, The Amichai Windows. The creator is Rick Black, a former reporter for The New York Times in Israel. He was here this month and presented his new book at Tmol Shilshom café in Jerusalem, the same café that Yehuda Amichai used to visit. It took Black ten years to complete this project.
A bilingual edition in Hebrew and English of 18 Amichai poems, it’s not your ordinary book or even an elegant album. The enclosure is in the shape of a window in which is placed each individual poem; each poem is a work of art in and of itself meticulously crafted. One has to see it in order to understand his huge investment and a price that is compatible with it. Rick has made only 18 copies, each one of which costs $7,500 dollars, no less.
The windows motif, as I have mentioned, appears in several of the poems in the new collection, and one of the main poems is Among Three or Four by the Window, which like all of the poems in the collection, Rick translated himself.
Among three or four in the room
one always stands by the window.
Compelled to see the injustice amid thorns
and the fires on the hillside.
And how people who left whole
are returned in the evening like small change to their home.
The image here in this first stanza that got me was the line, “how people who left whole are returned in the evening like small change to their home.”
Nesiel: What thoughts, what memories does this make you think of?
Black: For me, it’s the idea of a soldier returning, who is no longer whole as he was before he left for war from his house. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be something from a war; it could be anything, illness or something else. That’s life—that’s a part of life.
Nesiel: Yes, the poetry of Yehuda Amichai became very popular and prominent, especially in the last decade of his life when a lot of books and articles and research papers were written about him. But the direction that Rick has chosen is truly unique: it’s the complete antithesis to the fast, to the modern pace of life, to the desire for the “instant” that’s so common now in society.
Black: I think it’s my reaction to all that, to all of the speed and the “instant feedback” and all of that. I wanted to slow down the reader so that they could sit in a chair by a soft light and open each poem and have time to think about it—and to allow each poem to penetrate deep within their soul and thereby experience the world.
Nesiel: Rick comes from the newspaper trade, and from dealing with the harsh aspects of life though it’s not apparent from his soft voice, and he has found solace in recent years in poetry and art. Actually, Rick had the opportunity to meet Amichai in the U.S. and both the man and in particular his poetry left a deep impression upon him.
Black: Amichai was kind of father figure for me. When we met in Philadelphia, I had started at that time to want to be a poet and aspired to write poems and things like that myself, and he very much encouraged me.
Nesiel: Did you show him your poems?
Black: No, no.
Nesiel: You were embarrassed?
Black: Kind of, you could say that. But also in terms of life itself. I was a reporter here in the first intifada and the Persian Gulf war, and I reported on all kinds of horrors and everything stayed inside me, you know. And so how do you react to those things? What do you do with all of those feelings and experiences?
So, I turned to poetry and to art and he told me that poetry had helped him to balance all of the horrors of war and love, too. He said, “Rick, you have to love again. Don’t be so closed off like that. You have to open up again.”
I didn’t think about it when I had the idea to do a book with a motif of windows, but during the Gulf war I lived in a neighborhood called, Neve Shaanan., a very small neighborhood behind the Israel museum and their sculpture garden. At that time, they were building the botanical gardens [of Hebrew University] on the other side. From my back window, though, I was able to see that famous sculpture, the one with four letters that spell out the word, L O V E. I had to seal off my window so that I couldn’t see it because of the war. But Yehuda, he opened the window for me again.
Nesiel: Indeed, “Yehuda opened the window for me again.” So, Rick has already returned to the United States with his artist book. He showed it here to people and there are some institutions who are quite interested in it but, in the meantime, he has only sold two copies in the U.S., only one to Yale University where Amichai’s papers are kept and another to the Library of Congress in Washington. I hope that at least one copy will end up here in Israel and will be exhibited in the National Library, for example.
In the meantime, Rick is exploring ways to share his artist book with a wider audience, either as an exhibition or in the form of a video. We will wait and see and provide updates but in the meantime, we’ll say “Shalom” to Hebrew literature professor Avner Holtzman.
Holtzman: Shalom, good morning.
Nesiel: You know, we were talking about windows and in one of the poems Amichai wrote, “I am tired of doors. I want windows, only windows.” He always has this tension in his poems between the calm of a home, where home is like a fortress, and wars, violence and other things outside.
Holtzman: It’s true. I think that’s the secret spell of Amichai’s poetry, that’s what makes it both near and dear to so many people. Amichai himself and the hero of his poems is a man who has experienced all that has happened in terms of the Jewish/Israeli experience in the 20th century. He himself said that he had participated in all that was possible to be a part of – from the Second World War to the Six-Day War and onwards.
But his poetry tries to fortify the private “I,” the man who loves, the man of flesh and blood who lives his life in this world and deeply suspects metaphysical concepts such as God or eternity or the soul as well as non-metaphysical concepts, such as history and the state. The hero of Amichai always sees the face of individuals and their private life. He said in one of his poems, “Not like a cypress, not all at once, not all of me, but like the grass.”
Nesiel: That’s true. That’s a poem from the collection, Two Hopes Away, in which many of his most famous poems appear, God Full of Mercy, Sort of an Apocalypse, I Want to Die in my Bed . . . how were these poems different from other poems that he had written up until then?
Holtzman: Well, Yehuda Amichai came onto the Hebrew poetry scene in 1955 with his first book, Now and in Other Days, and the older generation of critics didn’t know what to do with it or how to understand it. A poet who writes about prosaic experiences, everyday experiences—a woman takes something out of a refrigerator in a seemingly simplistic style without Alterman-esque images, without the “living dead” of Chaim Guri.
What does he write? Rain falls on the faces of my friends, on the corpses of his friends that are left in the field . . . there was astonishment and opposition to this type of poetry. Actually, his second book, Two Hopes Away, was accepted more warmly and understood more than his first book. There are a lot of things that one could say about these poems but if I were to talk about one thing in particular, it’s the incredible power of his metaphors. There’s nothing like his metaphors. “My father built a great worry around me like a dock” or “The memory of my father is wrapped in white paper like slices of bread for the workday,” or “God’s hand in the world is like my mother’s hand in the entrails of the slaughtered chicken on Sabbath eve.” That’s a complex metaphor about the cruelty of God and how it breaks up the lives of people . . .
Nesiel: Nonetheless with all of these penetrating images there were those who afterwards criticized his poetry that perhaps he’s too soft and he answered beautifully in the last interview that he granted to Avirameh Golan during the last stages of his illness when he said, “I intentionally inject softness into my poems. Life is harsh enough.” In Amichai, there’s almost always a sliver of solace, isn’t there, even in his harshest, most difficult poems?
Holtzman: Yes, yes, it’s true, even when he’s talking about himself as a prophet, it’s “I am a poor prophet” or “a prophet at a military base.” It’s always a prophet dressed in everyday clothes, never in the pose of a prophet preaching from a mountaintop.
Nesiel: Last question—at the poetry festival in Metulla on Shavuot, they surveyed the crowd about the next national poet and Roni Somek was chosen. He is a student of Yehuda Amichai who certainly was influenced by him. But, basically after the disappearance of Yehuda Amichai and Chaim Guri, whom you mentioned earlier, we don’t have a poet who captures the life of the nation.
Holtzman: That’s true. There are those who say that since Chaim Nahman Bialik we haven’t had a national poet because he was the last one around whom there was a clear consensus. . . but I think that if there was an inheritor to Bialik in the hearts of the people, it truly was Amichai. And after him, the scene is so divided that perhaps we’re in an age when we don’t need a national poet.
Nesiel: Professor Avner Holtzman, thank you very much.
Holtzman: Thank you.
Nesiel: To conclude, we’ll hear Yossi Banai who died 12 years ago at this time of year. We’ll hear a well-known and beloved poem of Yehuda Amichai, I Told You That it Would be so and You Didn’t Believe, which is from his first collection, Now and in Other Days. This song, which Banai wrote from Amichai’s poem, was only released two years ago to mark the tenth anniversary of Banai’s death. Listen, how beautiful it is . . .
–Translated by Rick Black–