Yehuda Amichai is considered Israel’s greatest modern poet. Born in 1924, in Germany, Amichai attended high school and college in Jerusalem. Amichai wrote his novels and poems in Hebrew, many of which have been translated into English and other languages. During his life, Amichai served in many wars of the twentieth century, including World War II (for the British army), the Israeli War of Independence (also known as al-Nakba in Arabic, “The Catastrophe”), the Sinai War (1956), and the Yom Kippur War (1973). Amichai’s poems are often personal, often describing daily encounters in a war-ravaged country, and many of his best poems can be arresting in their frank, matter-of-fact tone and Amichai’s unusual language, turn, and imagery.
…and as I walked up my street
the twentieth century was the blood in my veins…
Amichai’s poem “Autobiography, 1952” is an intensely personal poem about the poet’s own biography up until 1952, the time he composed this poem. Notice how Amichai combines personal details, often surprising, to mark important moments of his own historical timeline while also revealing the complex repercussions of making human choices, for good or bad, in the twentieth century.
My father built over me a worry as big as a shipyard
and I left it once, before I was finished,
and he remained there with his big, empty worry.
And my mother was like a tree on the shore
between her arms that stretched out towards me.
And in ’31 my hands were joyous and small
and in ’41 they learned to use a gun
and when I first fell in love
my thoughts were like a bunch of colored balloons
and the girl’s white hand held them all
by a thin string–then let them fly away.
And in ’51 the motion of my life
was like the motion of many slaves chained to a ship,
and my father’s face like the headlight on the front of a train
growing smaller and smaller in the distance,
and my mother closed all the many clouds inside her brown closet,
and as I walked up my street
the twentieth century was the blood in my veins,
blood that wanted to get out in many wars
and through many openings,
that’s why it knocks against my head from the inside
and reaches my heart in angry waves.
But now, in the spring of ’52, I see
that more birds have returned than left last winter.
And I walk back down the hill to my house.
And in my room: the woman, whose body is heavy
and filled with time.