Academic journal article Shofar

A Train Trip to Satan's Territory: The Poem "My Son, My Son, My Head, My Head," by Yehuda Amichai

Academic journal article Shofar

A Train Trip to Satan's Territory: The Poem "My Son, My Son, My Head, My Head," by Yehuda Amichai

Article excerpt

Absalom my son, my son Absalom; if only I had died instead of you; Oh Absalom, my son, my son."

(II Samuel 18:33)

Yehuda Amichai was born in Germany in 1924. Once the rise of the Nazi monster could neither be denied or ignored, he and his family escaped from there and arrived in Israel. Accordingly, one might expect that at least a significant cluster of poems by Amichai would address the Holocaust. This assumption, however, is at odds with the aesthetic reality of Yehuda Amichai's "poetic republic." Indeed, one can trace very few "Holocaust poems" among his many thousands, composed during the course of over five decades. Did he deliberately suppress the Holocaust's atrocities in order to challenge the verbal nature of his literary medium, and to translate its verbality into roaring muteness? One will never be able to tell. Nevertheless, these considerations are entirely irrelevant when one addresses aesthetically the poetry of Yehuda Amichai (or any other artist's work). The psychological or autobiographical intentions that are invested in the literary text have no place in the investigative realms of the literary scholar. He or she focuses on the literary text per se and addresses its aesthetic texture only, while dismissing any information that is not invested in the text itself.

My Son, My Son, My Head, My Head(1)

Yehuda Amichai

My son, my son, my head, my head,

Riding this train I am going through

A foreign landscape, reading about Auschwitz

And learning the difference

Between "to leave" and "not to stay."

My son, my head, my son, my head.

The roads are wet like a drowned woman

Who was pulled out of the river as dawn broke

After a frantic search of delirious lights.

Now it is quiet:

A dead body beams.

My head, my head, my son, my son!

The lack of capability to define pain precisely

Makes it difficult for physicians to trace an illness

And forever deprives us of

Loving truly.

One of the most noticeable aesthetic-rhetorical phenomena in this poem is the first line that commences each of the poem's three stanzas. It clearly reads -- and indeed sounds -- like an echoing lament, a tormented, mournful cry of a person hurt, haunted, and suffering over the loss of a son. This heartbreaking cry repeats (with slight changes that will be discussed later) three times; and each time, this mournful lament opens the stanza. Two qualities of pounding rhetoric are conferred on the cry, the first being that the repetitions of the lament triple its "rhetorical echo."

Second, placing that mournful cry at the very beginning of each stanza further reinforces its rhetorical power. The beginning (like the ending) of each and every text is the most powerful point when it comes to rhetorical potency and impact. However, while the thrice-iterated lament, placed in the most powerful rhetorical spot, is endowed with a uniquely echoing sound, the repetition may also introduce a poetic peril. A too "tight," precise repetition may produce a sense of mechanical, lifeless rigidity. To combat this danger, each of the three cries is slightly different in its word order, a compositional change that injects a desirable lively rhetorical flexibility into the repetition pattern. In this way, the poem achieves a rhetorical balance between pounding reflections, on the one hand, and animated flexibility, on the other.

The thematic nature of that lamenting cry, one that keeps repeating "my head, my head," yields a piercing impression of a man who is holding his bowed head with the palms of his hands, while forcefully pressing his pounding temples, as if to silence the shriek that is causing his head to throb (reminiscent of a powerful Van Gogh painting). Most certainly, that visual reflection of the verbal cry further reinforces its forceful sound. Undoubtedly, the fact that the echoing lament is based on a biblical allusion considerably enhances its power. …

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