ON THE COVER OF OPEN CLOSED OPEN, YEHUNDA AMICAHI'S new collection of poems, there is a fragment of a broken gravestone with the word "Amen" carved on it. The stone, from a Jewish cemetery destroyed nearly a thousand years ago in his birthplace, Wurzburg, Germany, was given to Amichai by a German professor of theology who has devoted himself to reassembling the broken pieces and reconstructing the gravestones. That "toy of history and fate" is now a decorative object on his writing desk, "a thing of beauty, weighing down papers so they won't fly away." Five poems referring to the Amen stone are situated at intervals throughout the volume, and other poems conclude with Amen (a secular Amen, to be sure) or incorporate bits of prayer. These poems suggest the nature of Amichai's project in Open Closed Open, a book that gathers up the broken pieces of personal and Jewish history. Like the German professor, Amichai is engaged in the exacting work of recovery, though his object is not to make the pieces "whole agai n, once again." He refuses to restore the fragments of history and memory to a spurious wholeness, just as he resists the temptation to look back on the past with the sweet gaze of Jewish nostalgia. "Child's play," he calls this kind of verbal jigsawing, with a self-deflating irony.
Composed over nearly a decade, Open Closed Open is the ripe work of the poet in his sixties and seventies-without doubt his magnum opus. Writing at the peak of his powers, and increasingly conscious of his role as a mediator of cultural memory, Amichai pieces together from an intense and strenuously-lived life a poetic biography of our time. As in his earlier books, he writes about language and love, sexuality and mortality, war and memory, Jerusalem and Jewish history. He continues to argue with a God he stopped believing in long ago, and to wrestle with the traditional texts of his Orthodox Jewish upbringing, elevating the mundane and naturalizing the divine in a tone at once playful and dead-serious. He rewrites the biblical tales, inventing a third son for Abraham, conflating Jacob's two wives into one Racheleah, and imagining Moses putting together a police sketch of the face of God. Amichai's upending of traditional meanings, in its deliberate contrariness, is very Jewish: "But it could also be the oth er way around," he contends in the manner of Talmudic argument and counter-argument. At the same time, his need to question the permanence of any one truth, except when it takes the form of paradox and contradiction, is typically modem. In a world where "Change is God," the only absolute in Amichai's lexicon is le-hefekh, le-hefekh, "vice versa."
Open Closed Open registers the pressures of living between a rock and a hard place:
Jewish history and world history
grind me between them like two grindstones, sometimes
to a powder.
"I Wasn't One of the Six Million," #6
To live by the Jewish calendar is to be caught between yet another set of grindstones, to be always looking ahead or looking back, never simply resting in the moment:
Between the eve of the holiday and the final day
the holiday itself gets squeezed, between
longing for the past and longing for the future
the spirit is ground up as if by two heavy millstones,
upper and nether.
"I Foretell the Days of Yore," #7
Yet Amichai does not succumb to bitterness, nor does he assume the classic Jewish postures of pathos or lament; his matter-of-fact directness is enlivened, dependably, by a saving wit. And his credo (ha-ani ha-lo ma' amin sheli) remains an anti-credo-"my post-cynical humanism," he calls it--a sober exuberance about whatever is human, life-size, embodied:
That's the way to live: to stick your hand into the world's
infinite outside, turn the outside inside out,
"My Son Was Drafted," #7
the world into a room and God into a little soul
inside the infinite body. …