Wednesday, July 30, 2008

>Yehuda Amichai's "Summer Evening By The Window With Psalms," The New Yorker 7.28.08


“Summer Evening By The Window With Psalms"

Amichai, who died in 2000 at age 70, is a wonderful poet.  Like other well-known poets of the Middle East (Adonis, Saadi Youssef—who may be my favorite from the area—both Muslims), Amichai’s work is often riddled with cultural conflict manifested via personal battle, or vice versa.  The poems of Adonis (pronounced Ah-doo-niece), the exile, constantly shift, comfortable in their pleasure one moment and uncomfortable the very next, and they seek resolution of that flux and flummox.  The works of Youssef (another exile, though not known as the exile) are built with similar such shifts, though the imagery is more apt to remain concretely grounded in the present; Adonis is apt to turn mystical and start talking about stones and trees and seawater of archetypal essence, whereas Youssef is more likely to remain situational by using imagery from within relatively immediate—in time and space—observation: condoms, cars, bullets.  As such, his work is more confrontational, in a proximate sense, than Adonis’.  The uneasiness present in Amachai’s work falls someplace in between that of these other two poets.  He directly addresses conflict, be it personal or cultural (as though there is a difference), but his tone is so matter of fact that often neither the tragedy nor the comedy stands out as dominate, leaving the reader to figure out the proper sentiment.  Often he does this by following a relatively benign image, idea, or both with a relatively dangerous one.  To cut the discrepancy, the pace and tone of his language remains the same.

Consider the opening lines of “The Diameter of the Bomb” (Time, 1978):

The diameter of the bomb was thirty centimeters

and the diameter of its effective range about seven meters

with four dead and eleven wounded.

They read like a manual, like a very distanced news report whose attention to seemingly trivial details  underscores the fifteen victims of the explosion.  As the poem expands, so does the bomb’s diameter until its circle of victims has grown to include city buildings, a woman from “more than a hundred kilometers away,” and the man who misses her “at the distant shores of a country far across the sea.”  But, the deadpan delivery of the opening lines remains consistent, which makes the bomb’s burgeoning effects all the more strange, displacing, and dreadful, the full effects of which culminate in the poem’s cataclysmic last few lines:

And I won’t even mention the howl of orphans

that reaches up to the throne of god and

beyond, making

a circle with no end and no God.

And consider this same movement in Amachai’s “God Has Pity On Kindergarten Children” (Now and in Other Days, 1955):

God has pity on kindergarten children.

He has less pity on school children.

And on grownups he has no pity at all,

he leaves them alone,

and sometimes they must crawl on all fours

in the burning sand

to reach the first-aid station

covered with blood.

I respond to that with numerous ouches.  And what’s not to like about the syntactic inversion in line three to draw more attention to grownups and to the notion that he (God) has no pity at all and less attention to God himself, whose name/reference is capitalized (because of its strategic placement) in each of the first two lines but not in the third.  And what’s not to like about the last two lines whose enjambment causes covered with blood to refer not just to grownups but to the first-aid station as well, which could be either laden with blood for transfusions and such or could be splattered with it from who knows what kind of explosion.  Ouch, and ouch again.

Anyway, these shifts and this battle with God (or god) are prominent in the great host of Amichai’s work and as such are present in “Summer Evening By The Window With Psalms” (translated from Hebrew by Robert Alter), published posthumously.  The opening stanza, in which the speaker rather gently compares his soul to “curtains that want to pull free / of the open window and fly” is contrasted with a similarly-voiced simile in the second stanza: the soul (now transformed into a we, as though Amichai projects for all of us) is “like a murderer sentenced to death, / wounded when he was caught, / whose judges want him to heal before / he’s brought to the gallows.”  There’s been a sharp shift in outlook and judgment here: curtains at the whim of wind are quite different from a murderer prone to the whims of executioners.  In either case, something other than itself is the soul’s driving force, something outside the soul moves the soul, something other than the self.

This meditation continues in stanza three, running more deeply internal and psychological now than it did in the opening stanzas wherein the speaker was physically located (by title) by the window.  It questions how much experience with peace and tranquility is necessary to actually achieve peace and tranquility, how many beautiful nights by the window and with the transcendent presence of psalms are requisite to feel—to be—beautiful and transcendent, “how many valleys of the shadow of death do we need / to be a compassionate shade in the unrelenting sun.”  The lines ring of Dylan’s “Blowin’ In The Wind,” and most definitely the speaker ponders the dilemma on an equally social scale.

Moments later, however, we’re back in the concrete moment, looking out the window at a flock of birds, or perhaps stars or people (the poem doesn’t literally say), that pass by as the “hundred and fifty / psalms” of the Old Testament.  And what an interesting experience of the psalms this must be!  To see them outside the body as opposed to bearing them inside the body, which, normally, must vocalize them into existence from their static position on the page.  Here they are dynamically off the page, in the air, and discrete from the speaker physically and psychically.

Then, Amichai’s terrific last stanza:

I say: the window is God

And the door is his prophet.

Peace, tranquility, grace—each must be lived rather than witnessed to bring round its full effect, to transform those who seek it into compassionate shades in the relenting sun.  To do this requires the prophet, that is to say people, not just god who is as much a barrier to salvation as he is the eye through which it may be observed.  Achieving personal peace is a social endeavor.

As such, it would seem Amichai’s speaker is no closer to god nor to resolving his dilemmas at the end of the poem than he was at the beginning.  The meditation is lovely, but unless the speaker gets off his duff and mingles with the psalms flying by or walking down the street, little is received beyond the grasp of theory.  And harmony—god—the poem suggests, isn’t received by theory but by practice.  

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