This review was composed before the untimely death of Mr. Amichai on September 22, 2000, at the age of seventy-six.
It took Yehuda Amichai roughly ten years to write Open Closed Open, a suite of poems, or more truly, a long poem divided and subdivided into sections, but thematically and musically braided beautifully into something like symphonic unity and grandeur. It may be thought of as a brilliant enlargement of a major poem written earlier in the poet’s career, “Travels of the Last Benjamin of Tudela”; but whereas that was a moderately long poem dealing with much of the same materials, at least as they regard the poet’s biography, this new work is nothing less than an heroic achievement of the spirit, a lofty and sometimes raucous meditation on the history of his nation, his faith, and his heart. As the earlier poem was not implausibly compared to Wordsworth’s The Prelude, which is subtitled The Growth of a Poet’s Mind, Open Closed Open may be regarded as an account of the composition, the piecing together out of fragments, of the poet’s soul. It is as deeply spiritual a poem as any I have read in modern times, not excluding Eliot’s Four Quartets, or anything to be found in the works of professional religionists. It is an incomparable triumph. Be immediately assured that this does not mean devoid of humor, or without a rich sense of comedy. There is, in fact, an important ingredient of irreverence that plays a central part in the poet’s deepest meditations.
It may be claimed that irony—even, on occasion, an irony attributed to the behavior of God—is a central element in the Old Testament; one need point only to the Books of Jonah and Job. And the sacred commentaries are almost equally ironic. There is a Jewish tradition of “religious irony” which, Ithink, has no true Christian parallel. To be sure, there are little moments of jest, as in the pun on Peter’s name (though this jest has become a point of bitter contention between Catholics and Protestants); and Christian theology, as well as scripture, is certainly rich in paradox. The Christian irony that the most perfect of “men” should be singled out for excruciating punishment and death is somehow either veiled or mitigated by its turning out to be, in the end, a foreordained part of a redemptive plan to which the sacrificial victim assented with full knowledge of the salvational benefits his death would confer. But Jewish irony, the meditative fruit of the patriarchs and prophets, the psalmists and scribes, is often given to levity, though no less serious for all that.
In “Travels of the Last Benjamin of Tudela” (the first Benjamin was a twelfth-century traveler who wrote an account of a journey through Europe, Asia Minor, and Africa; the last is Amichai himself, who in the course of his career covered much of the globe), we encounter this passage:
eight empty …