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A Poem by Yehuda Amichai


Poet's Choice

By Robert Hass
December 13, 1998

Eyes are on the Middle East again as we enter the holiday season. I have been browsing in a book called "After the First Rain: Israeli Poems on War and Peace" (Dryad), edited by Moshe Dor and Barbara Goldberg and translated by a number of eminent American poets. It begins with a foreword by Shimon Peres, who recalls in spare, evocative language the ideals and the assassination of his friend Yitzhak Rabin. The poems, of course, speak about the tragedy of war and the longing for peace. Great poetry doesn't necessarily get made out of important subjects. But this is an urgent subject, and the poems address it eloquently. War-weariness, piercing sadness, hope. One of the most eloquent is "Seven Laments for the War Dead" by Yehuda Amichai. Here is a section of it:

Is all of this
sorrow? I don't know.
I stood in the cemetery dressed in
the camouflage clothes of a living man: brown pants
and a shirt yellow as the sun.

Cemeteries are cheap; they don't ask for much.
Even the wastebaskets are small, made for holding
tissue paper
that wrapped flowers from the store.
Cemeteries are a polite and disciplined thing.
"I shall never forget you," in French
on a little ceramic plaque.
I don't know who it is that won't ever forget:
he's more anonymous than the one who died.

Is all of this sorrow? I guess so.
"May ye find consolation in the building
of the homeland." But how long
can you go on building the homeland
and not fall behind in the terrible
three-sided race
between consolation and building and death?

Yes, all of this is sorrow. But leave
a little love burning always
like the small bulb in the room of a sleeping baby
that gives him a bit of security and quiet love
though he doesn't know what the light is
or where it comes from.

This translation from the Hebrew is by Chana Bloch.

("Seven Laments for the War Dead" is reprinted from "After the First Rain: Israeli Poems on War and Peace," edited by Moshe Dor and Barbara Goldberg, published by Syracuse University Press in association with Dryad Press, 1998. Reprinted with permission of the Regents of the University of California.)

Robert Hass, former U.S. poet laureate, is the author, most recently, of the collection "Sun Under Wood."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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