Time: Poems by Yehuda Amichai
While some poets can be read exclusively in their poems, without our having recourse to anything else written by them, or without our knowing anything of their biography, this is not the case with Stanley Kunitz. Mr. Kunitz has been for many years of a long life a busy man of letters; his achievements as editor, teacher, reviewer, and translator are worthy ones. Yet these are, perhaps, less dramatic qualifications for fame than having died young or become a political activist or written a manifesto denouncing all American poets influenced by T.S. Eliot.
To report that Mr. Kunitz has published five volumes of poems (the present one includes new poems which he calls “The Layers”), that he received the Pulitzer Prize for his 1928-1958 collection, that he has been Consultant to the Library of Congress, lectured at several universities, and ably translated poems by Akhmatova and Voznesensky: all this, though it locates him for those who are casual readers of poetry and endows his name with intellectual respectability, is, in some sense, inadequate.
Stanley Kunitz is not a monumental poet, nor is he a spectacular one; he is notable for his intelligence, and intelligence tends to wait a longer time for recognition or acquires it within a relatively limited circle. If Mr. Kunitz had never written a poem, he would be a hero in my books for having been the co-editor of Twentieth Century Authors, a reference work I have hunted in vain to buy since I first discovered it on the shelves of the Royal Library in Stockholm. An encyclopedic record of its subject, crammed with personal histories frequently supplied by the authors represented, it has refreshing critical estimates that support or challenge the reputations enshrined. There is no publication to replace it, no other biographical dictionary known to me which is at the same time so copious, anecdotal, and judicious. These volumes are not listed on the credits page of the book under review, perhaps because Mr. Kunitz himself may not value them as highly as I do.
Among his other valuable contributions, in my opinion, are certain short reviews which are included in a book of his essays and conversations entitled A Kind of Order, A Kind of Folly (Little, Brown, 1975). These are seldom longer than six pages, sometimes only three; they are a relief from much of the exegetical pomposity around us. In small compass Kunitz manages to capture the qualities of, among others, Wallace Stevens, Conrad Aiken, Robinson Jeffers, Marianne Moore, Louise Bogan, Randall Jarrell, and, above all, Theodore Roethke, whose work he has since written about with strong insight.
The record stands, honorable and useful. If there have been moments, either in his verse or in his prose, when Mr. Kunitz has appeared to prefer the consuming blaze to the measured view, he has confessed, sooner or later, that such has not been his fate, save within the domain of metaphor:
Formal verse is a highly selective medium. A high style wants to be fed exclusively on high sentiments. Given the kind of person I am, I came to see the need for a middle style—for a low style, even, though that may be outside my range.
By a low style, I infer that he means a form of address more idiomatic than any he has himself used.
Among the earliest poems represented here (from the 1930 collection) is one called “I Dreamed that I Was Old,” in which the poet was already shedding a histrionic tear for the wisdom which he felt confident he would later acquire—“in stale declension / Fallen from my prime, when company / Was mine, catnimbleness, and green invention….” Obviously he was then deciding that sweet as are the green inventions and the visceral energies of youth, the crown of life is not ecstasy but wisdom. If I say that the intellectual bent which led him into the complementary duties of teaching and criticism is a marked feature of his poetry, I am not implying that his verse is lacking in sensuousness or conflict, only that in it Apollo has the upper hand to Dionysus. Three poems, from three periods of his work, will better epitomize what I want to point out than a spate of short quotations.
“Father and Son” (in the 1944 volume) was, I take it, a decisive poem in his development, wherein, whatever else is going on, the pursuit of the lost father is described with intense anguish and is finally relinquished. From its lyrical opening,
Now in the suburbs and the falling light
I followed him, and now down sandy road
Whiter than bone-dust, through the sweet
Curdle of fields, where the plums
Dropped with their load of ripeness…
it rises to a clamor of dependence and invocation:
At the water’s edge, where the smothering ferns lifted
Their arms, “Father!” I cried, “Return! You know
Your son, whirling between two wars,
In the Gemara of your gentleness,
For I would be a child to those who mourn
And brother to the foundlings of the field
And friend of innocence and all bright eyes.
O teach me how to work and keep me kind.”
If the poem had ended there we might have justifiably regarded it as poised between sentiment and schmalz. The two lines that in fact and beautifully terminate it—
Among the turtles and the lilies he turned to me
The white ignorant hollow of his face
—staunch the flow, seal the wound, cancel the outcry, save the poem.
Thereafter, the most effective poems are those in which the personal lament is diverted during the course of the recital by an abrupt shift of attention or by a willed inclusion of qualifying details—as in “The Thief,” where, having been robbed of his wallet in Rome, the poet fats his revenge by mingling imprecation with a cold eye cast at the history which, in the form of lantern slides, had seduced him into going to Rome in the first place.
But the past that tempted me, the frozen pure
Was a pedagogic lie. All’s motion here,
And motion like emotion is impure,
A flower flawed by mutability,
Religion by its ruins, and yet thereby
More lovely and more graced, perhaps
Losing ground in his argument, he revises his description, relating the cynical present to the voluptuary past:
…the assassin motorcyclists charge,
Wolves prowl in the streets under arcades of bells,
Tiberius grovels through his dungeon halls
Dreaming of boy-sized fishes in his bath.
He fails to resolve his anger at the situation—it cannot be resolved except by time—but he resolves the poem, with an adroitly uncompromised finale that retains to the last the belligerence of his dialogue with “Mater Cloaca.”
Here in my blistered room
Where the wind flaps my ceiling like a sail
(A miracle, no doubt, to be left at that!)
I recognize the gods’ capricious hand
And write this poem for money, rage, and love.
Kunitz’s most impressive poem is, I think, “The Approach to Thebes,” a judgment which I don’t impose on other readers as “objective” (if objectivity is either important or possible). I happen to admire poems in which a personal agony is transformed by assimilation in a historical—or mythic, it’s the Oedipus story—setting. The opening lines are as close to a baroque diction as Kunitz ever wrote; every modifier is unusual and irrevocable.
In the zero of the night, in the lip- ping hour,
Skin-time, knocking-time, when the heart is pearled
And the moon squanders its uran- ian gold,
She taunted me, who was all music’s tongue,
Philosophy’s and wilderness’s breed,
Of shifting shape, half jungle-cat, half-dancer,
Night’s woman-petaled, lion-scent- ed rose….
With regrets that I can’t quote all the splendor of the poem, I cut to the end of the first section, where the compensatory satisfaction is followed, in the next passage, by the traditional judgment:
I can bear the dishonor now of growing old.
Blinded and old, exiled, diseased, and scorned—
The verdict’s bitten on the brazen gates.
Then comes, line by line, the reversal, the crescendo of self-revelation.
Children, grandchildren, my long posterity,
To whom I bequeath the spiders of my dust,
Believe me, whatever sordid tales you hear,
Told by physicians or mendacious scribes,
Of beardless folly, consanguineous lust,
Fomenting pestilence, rebellion, war,
I come prepared, unwanting what I see,
But tied to life. On the royal road to Thebes
I had my luck, I met a lovely monster,
And the story’s this: I made the monster me.
I’d call that wholly successful as poetic impersonation and moral subtlety. And it is allied with what seems to me to be the central obsession in Kunitz’s poetry, if obsession is an appropriate figure for verse that respects “the need for a middle style”: the conviction that at some strategic moment, which only the self knows, the poet (the artist) must “[slash] an exit for himself”—that is, from the ordered medium and the dissimulation, in order to express (and in this context he quotes Ortega y Gasset) “the terror of facing single-handed…the ferocious assaults of existence.” From a later collection (The Testing-Tree, 1971), “The Artist” crucially embodies the strategy.
His paintings grew darker every year.
They filled the walls, they filled the room;
eventually they filled his world—
all but the ravishment.
When voices faded, he would rush to hear
the scratched soul of Mozart
endlessly in gyre.
Back and forth, back and forth,
he paced the paint-smeared floor,
diminishing in size each time he turned,
trapped in his monumental void,
raving against his adversaries.
At last he took a knife in his hand
and slashed an exit for himself
between the frames of his tall scenery.
Through the holes of his tattered universe
the first innocence and the light
came pouring in.
Clearly, the setting of this poem derived from Kunitz’s infatuation with nonfigurative painters, though the subject of the poem need not be limited to that reference. The many compliments this poet-critic has produced for prominent painters must have flattered them, but Kunitz’s art criticism has remained literary, and I fear that he contributed more than his share to that transcendental vocabulary enlisted to praise the canvases of Mark Rothko.
Concerning the poem itself, as aesthetic doctrine: the extent to which liberation—or “innocence and the light”—may be purchased by slashing an exit, and plucking bright honor from the pale-faced moon, is arguable. I don’t myself believe the unpaintable can be painted (God knows they’ve tried it) or the last unspeakable word spoken. I don’t think Stanley Kunitz believes so, either. I think he appreciates the rhetoric of freedom in aesthetic gestures because it has a political ring. In his practice, as I have noted, he observes the central amenities. This is to say: he prefers lucidity to excrutiating difficulty (note that “The Approach to Thebes” is grounded on iambic pentameter and that “The Artist,” neither spasmodic nor vehement, consists of six complete sentences in sequential order); he shows a classical respect for the pulse of nature in art (he has stated, “For the poet, even breathing comes under the heading of prosody”); and he almost invariably judges the experience in the poem, even while he is conveying it. Conspicuous, in the most convincing of Stanley Kunitz’s poems, is the tension produced in them by a controlled inhibition of the passion that threatens to break through.
That “a poet without a sense of history is a deprived child” is an aphorism of Stanley Kunitz to which Yehuda Amichai would readily assent, while finding it too self-evident to bear underlining. He lives in history as a fish does in water. Born in Würzburg, 1924, Amichai emigrated with his family to Israel in 1936. Würzburg, one of the rococo showcases of Central Europe, was on March 16, 1945, “eighty-five percent” demolished by Allied bombers in, if I recall, thirty-five minutes. I spent two weeks in that town in 1963 and never encountered anyone who had been living there in 1945. To the expectant eye, the notable buildings were still standing, their façades recognizable from the architecture books. The buildings had been restored, the population replaced. Throughout Europe, but especially in Germany and Poland, nothing is more uncanny than this palpable existence of something which is not really there! And this theme of dislocation, of places wiped out behind him, while remaining nominal, haunts the verses of Amichai, who has been witness to the same kind of dispersal and replacement during all the days of his exile. As he says in one of his poems, “and since then the town / and since then the whole world.”
Such information as we are given about Yehuda Amichai is sketchy. He fought in the British army during World War II, for the Hagganah in 1948, and in the war of 1968. He wrote a novel, dated 1955, Now and in Other Days, which has been translated into English. A radio play in 1962, Bells and Trains, was followed by a theater piece staged by the Habbimah Theatre, 1964—The Journey to Nineveh. All these were, I presume, written in Hebrew. Time is Amichai’s fourth volume of poems published in English. Previous volumes were translated by, or written with the help of, Ted Hughes; this one, I understand, Amichai wrote himself in English.
He writes lyrics in Biblical cadences. Reading them, we may remember that Hebrew, largely the language of the Old Testament, is the ultimate source of what we admire as “free verse.” By a miracle of continuity and empathy, the several translators of the vintage Bibles infused English with the tropes and cadences of the Hebrew and the Aramaic tongue. Hence it may be no surprise to discover that an Amichai poem is alive to the ear and never reads like a translation. Even so, to reflect that Amichai’s first non-Hebraic language was German is to concede him an astonishing talent for writing our language unimpeded by a lingering trace of the structures and compounds of German syntax.
People here live inside prophecies that came true
as inside a thick cloud after an explosion
that did not disperse.
And so in their lonely blindness they
touch each other between the legs, in the twilight,
for they have no other time and they
have no other place,
and the prophets died long ago.
Amichai’s speech has a transparent quality, as if he were talking to you, little preoccupied with constructing a composition with its own laws and its own peculiar consistency. You never feel the mind searching for the right word. The word, in his poems, has the weight of a thing or it is part of a simile that evokes an event or an ambiguous presence. In a sense, these eighty poems are not distinct entities; one reads them as if the whole were a continuous soliloquy under the pressure of reminding itself that “to everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.” Amichai’s simplicity is deceptive; the poems are simple because he employs a conversational inflection; almost any poem begins with a certain forthrightness of statement. Yet the more clearly the poet observes, the more inscrutable becomes the image he conjures as his verse moves imperceptibly into the domain of the incongruous, even the surreal.
The noncombatant poet, elsewhere, learns to value “the sharp apex of the present moment” with his imagination. In the geographical and political terrain of the Mediterranean east, where peace is likely to break out tomorrow, or never, and the morning comes up as a red shudder over the palms and cypresses, any desert dweller—Semitic, Hamitic, Berber, or Paul Bowles—is bound to be impressed and governed by the phenomenon of mirage. Several of Amichai’s most arresting poems depend on the double force of mirage, one of which is the rapid replacement of the population, even as the poet lives on in a state of disbelief at his own survival. He tends to see others as doubles of himself or as incarnating a younger version of himself who died a long time ago, or made love to someone who died.
I passed a house where I once lived:
A man and a woman are still together in the whispers.
Many years have passed with the silent buzz
of staircase bulbs—on, off, on.
The keyholes are live small delicate wounds
through which all the blood has oozed out
and inside people are pale as death.
I want to stand once more as in my
first love, leaning on the doorpost
embracing you all night through, standing.
When we left at early dusk the house
started to crumble and collapse
and since then the town
and since then the whole world….
Dwelling in the land of his forefathers, Abraham, Jeremiah, Ruth, and Esther are all but visible to the poet; the remains of the schoolgirl he saw yesterday or of the commandant he met last year have been scattered by a land mine. Sometimes Amichai expresses a kind of tiredness in the face of mortality, eternal recurrence, and the omnipresent rage for compassion. He seems sympathetically bitter as he addresses someone (perhaps his own rearguard shadow) who is laying up treasures which moth and rust will corrupt.
I can see you grasping
desperately at all that sur- rounds you,
books, children, a woman,
but you don’t know that this
is nothing but pulling
dry twigs and dead branches to your body
for the big fire
in which you’ll burn.
Is this not reminiscent of “a crackling of thorns under a pot?”
Amichai tempers Ecclesiastes with Solomon. His despair is never absolute; resignation is not yet the last word. A poetry of survival is necessarily a carnal poetry; these poems are about vanity under the sun and the absurd sweetness of that vanity—lust of the blood, hosannas for the young—when faced with the evidence that flesh is temporary. The dog barks, the caravan passes. And another caravan. As long as the moving hand of the poet transfigures what his senses receive, the mystery of personality remains a holy thing.
Departure from a place where you had no love
includes the pain of all that did not happen
together with the longing for what will happen after you leave.
On my last evening I saw on the floor
of the balcony across the street
a small and exact square of light
bearing witness to great emotions
which have no limits.
And when I went early in the gray morning
to the railway station
many people were passing me
carrying lists of wonderful strange names
which I’ll never come to know,
postmen, tax collectors, municipal clerks
and others. Perhaps angels.
Of the many poems in this book that testify to the mystery, this one, No. 62, is for me the most powerful, for it does consummately what Keats said poetry should always do—fill the reader with wonder.
Still in Print December 20, 1979