Angry Waves

C.H. Sisson

  • Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai translated by Chana Bloch and Stephen Mitchell
    Viking, 173 pp, £12.95, October 1986, ISBN 0 670 81454 7
  • Hurricane Lamp by Turner Cassity
    Chicago, 68 pp, £12.75, May 1986, ISBN 0 226 09614 9
  • Selected Poems by Robert Wells
    Carcanet, 95 pp, £2.95, September 1986, ISBN 0 85635 669 7

The writing of verse is a disease to which too little attention has been paid by the public health authorities. The number of more or less unavoidable cases is small, but the contagion is everywhere. The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai shows clearly, even through the medium of translation, that its author is among the small number in whom the disease was, if not congenital, at any rate not to be avoided by any reasonable precautions. From his earliest years he undoubtedly had, as he says,

blood that wanted to get out in many wars
and through many openings,

and one can believe him when he says:

        it knocks against my head from the inside
and reaches my heart in angry waves.

Indignation does not itself make verses, though there is Classical authority for saying that it does. Indeed it covers many acres of paper which can only be read with a yawn by the relatively small number of people who are looking for poetry, whatever comfort they may give to those who favour such roundabout methods of promoting a cause, good, bad or, like most causes, merely muddled. Amichai is a complicated character in whose make-up indignation, sometimes violent, is certainly a constituent, but only one of many, which contrast with and qualify one another. He is also a man of what might well be called political commitment, though it is not of a kind which shuts out all but a limited range of impressions. He is resolute only about being what he is.

What he is, historically and biographically, is summed up by Chana Bloch, in her ‘Foreward’, as follows: ‘Born in Würzburg, Germany, in 1924, he grew up in an Orthodox Jewish home with its strict religious observance and its protective God, as inescapable as family. His father was a shopkeeper, his grandfather a farmer, and his memories of childhood (the political circumstances notwithstanding) idyllic. In 1936 he came to Palestine with his parents, and his adult life has been lived in the midst of the convulsive struggle of Israel to become a state, and then survive and define itself ... He was formed, as he would say, half by the ethics of his father and half by the cruelties of war.’ The relevance of this story to his work is constant, and it is this which has given him an audience far wider than could have come to him through the mere accident of being a poet. ‘In a nation where only three million people read Hebrew, it is remarkable that each of his books sells about fifteen thousand copies. The poems are recited on public occasions, taught in schools, set to music.’ His work has been translated into 20 languages. He is thus, as Bloch says, ‘remarkably well-known outside Israel’, though it must be added that this is less remarkable than it would have been for a poet ‘so rooted in his own place’, had that place been anywhere else but Israel. The evident facility of circulation must owe something to the diaspora and to the grim history which has attracted so much attention over recent years.

Amichai’s poems are written in Hebrew, and one may regret that Bloch did not extend a little her extremely interesting remarks on this subject. ‘Modern Hebrew,’ she says, was ‘revived as a spoken language only a hundred years ago.’ That sounds like dragging the 19th century screaming into Old Testament times, and must have had a profound effect on the new speakers and their successors, as well as presenting unique problems to the translators. The poems are full of references to Jewish liturgical texts, which the translators have dealt with where they could by words ‘borrowed or imitated’ from the Authorised Version of the Bible. Since modern Hebrew is, Bloch tells us, ‘much closer to the Hebrew of the Old Testament than our own language is to 17th-century English’, Amichai’s allusions are never, apparently, felt to have ‘a “literary” air’. This suggests some delicate questions of balance. The English of the 17th century is perhaps not so very remote; it is in any case in organic relationship with the speech of our own day, by natural descent, so to speak, meanings having changed in the course of time as our mode of living has changed. The violent resuscitation of Hebrew a hundred years ago must have given the language a traumatic new start. How have all the changes of the centuries been reflected in the modern language? No doubt it has, like many other languages, borrowed a host of technical expressions from Anglo-Saxon or other contemporary sources. Such developments are superficial. What one would like to know – and what only someone profoundly versed in both ancient and modern Hebrew could begin to tell one – is what was imported into the modern language by the linguistic and other experience of those who learned to speak it. What effect had the new wine on the old bottles? Liturgy is a great preserver of meanings – a function unhappily scorned by many contemporary Christians – but new people and new times are always pressing on all languages, and relentlessly demand subtle changes which it is one of the functions of literature to suggest. The vigour one senses in Amichai’s work, through these clearly very competent translations, seems to indicate profound tensions between old words and new meanings. How much of this is a general cultural phenomenon, and how much is due to the individual energies of the poet, it is impossible for the reader without Hebrew to guess.

It appears, however, that the liberal individualism so widely – and on the whole so superficially – spread over the Western world has little place in Amichai’s work.

We forget where we came from. Our Jewish names
from the Exile give us away ...

Circumcision does it to us,
as in the Bible story of Shechem and the sons of Jacob,
so that we go on hurting all our lives.

What are we doing, coming back here with this pain?
Our longings were drained together with the swamps,
the desert blooms for us, and our children are beautiful.

Even the love poems in this volume carry historical and communal overtones. The religion and the people – in effect the near-desperate politics of Israel – are present even in intimate encounters. Love and war are close together:

The war broke out in the fall, at the empty border
between grapes and citrus fruit.

The sky blue as the veins
in the thighs of a tormented woman.

The shades of ancient vengeance are never very far away.

After you left me
I had a bloodhound sniff at
my chest and my belly. Let it fill its nostrils
and set out to find you.
I hope it will find you and rip
your lover’s balls to shreds and bite off his cock –
or at least
bring me one of your stockings between its teeth.

The violence and physicality of much in these poems comes over with the crudity of a newspaper or a television drama. Whether that is the force of the original one cannot know. Certainly the transmutation which the language and rhythm of poetry give to the most recalcitrant subject-matter can rarely be felt here. How could they be? The history of literature shows how slow and partial is the assimilation of the poetry of one language in another – a process extending sometimes over centuries and never entirely finished. The task of producing anything like an equivalent of the selected work of a contemporary poet in another language is strictly impossible. What Chana Bloch and Stephen Mitchell have done, however, is to give us enough of the content, complex and difficult as it clearly is, to convince us that we know something of the kind of literary phenomenon Yehuda Amichai is, and to leave us with a little more understanding of the real world of Israel. It is a valuable service, the more so since we hear so much from the ineptitude of newsmen and politicians.

With Hurricane Lamp we are in a different world. Turner Cassity was born in 1929 in Jackson, Mississipi. A note in this volume says that ‘he attended Millsaps College, Stanford University before receiving his education in the US Army and the South African Civil Service’ – an attempt, perhaps, to dissociate him from the academic circles to which one might otherwise suppose him to belong. ‘Mr Cassity,’ the note continues, ‘is currently catalog librarian in the R.W. Woodruff Library, Emory University.’ One may speculate as to the significance of the further note in which the author expresses his ‘appreciation to the National Endowment for the Arts, with the aid of a grant from whom this volume was completed’. None of this biographical matter has the sort of intrinsic interest which lends news value to Amichai’s volume. This is not necessarily a disadvantage to the poet, for the accidents which, in all but the darkest generations, leave a few people stranded with that title are largely beyond the considerations which affect contemporary circulation.

Cassity writes verse which requires close attention. He is always trying to say something and is as far as possible from any mere drunken waving of words. He has a natural ingenuity of mind – not unlike that evinced by many clever people in a diversity of fields generally held to be remote from poetry – which does not instinctively look for simplification. This turn of mind has its drawbacks. A bee is after all a bee: we are not the wiser for his being introduced to us as ‘The insect born of royalty’, with the additional information that he has Marx

And worker housing as a life, has sex
Or clover honey to his pleasure.

The poem, entitled ‘Why Fortune is the Empress of the World’, goes on to ask: ‘What then is human wholly?’ The answer to this oddly worded question can only be, one might think, ‘a human being’, but Cassity immediately throws across the reader’s path another question, ‘Is it heart?’, to which the answer can only be ‘No.’ All this I find rather tiresome. What Cassity is really getting at, as he explains in the second paragraph of his poem, is ‘that it is not possible ... to think of animals as gambling.’

We, on the other hand, at our most threatened
Turn instinctively ... to Reason? No.
To Fortune, as a mindlessness of mind.
The random we create creates us.
In overcrowded life-boats, we draw lots.

Well, there is something in it, but I am not convinced that the reflection could not have been put more simply in epigrammatic prose – a difficult art and one rarely practised in an age in which everyone is encouraged to resort to verse on the slighest occasion. But it is the function of literature – whether in prose or verse – to give the simplest and most effective expression to whatever has to be said.

The question must always be whether particular poems fit the author’s perceptions like a glove or how far they involve material which is merely ornamental – and that includes all complexities which are not strictly necessary. In the case of ‘Why Fortune is the Empress of the World’ the structure of the poem can, so to speak, be dismantled to leave only a simple observation. This is less evidently or, it might be contended, not at all the case with the short title poem, ‘Hurricane Lamp’. The problem for the critical reader of the book as a whole is how often this process of dismantling can be carried out on other poems. This is a book for those who hate facility and are willing to give the poet a sporting chance to explain himself. The poems are closely tailored, every buttonhole complete. Cassity seems to have worked at his poems, but he may sometimes have forgotten that, in poetry, the only kind of labour which pays is the kind which submits itself entirely to the poetic process.

The Selected Poems of Robert Wells also give the impression of having been carefully worked over, but he is not plagued with quirkiness or ingenuity, as Cassity seems often to be. In his poems the sensible world matters for its own sake rather than for the sake of any notions that can be carved out of it, though to be sure all human perception is informed by a long heritage, whatever claims it makes to novelty or innocence. Wells makes no such claims; he is aware of the human element in landscape. He is a scholar familiar with Virgil and Theocritus; he is also one who has worked as a farm hand in the English West Country and in vineyards not far from Horace’s villa. His observation is that of someone who understands the uses of land.

Heather, bracken, whortleberry fail.
My solitude is like this patch
Of stones, set randomly together
Against the encroachment of gentle grass,
     And without use or change.

Wells is, however, far from being merely a rural poet and his acute sense of physical presence extends to areas at once physiological and psychological, as in ‘Virginity’, where he notes that that condition

        graced the body’s peace and its alarm,
And glittered with the impulse that it stayed.

To the command ‘Follow your instinct’ his response (in ‘Disco’) is: ‘My instinct is to stand perfectly still.’ The quietness and patience of his observation is akin to the ‘negative capability’ which is at the root of all poetry. He is undoubtedly a poet and, as his attractive translations of the Georgics and Theocritus show, capable of learning from poets outside the mood of our times. The question about his future as a poet must be how far he will continue his journey in depth, beyond the speaking surfaces of things.