Flowers, fragrances, and memories: the different functions of plant images in Amichai's later poetry

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Date: Annual 1992
From: Hebrew Studies(Vol. 33)
Publisher: National Association of Professors of Hebrew
Document Type: Essay
Length: 9,049 words
Lexile Measure: 1270L

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This article argues that Yehuda Amichai's poetry of the 1970s and 80s ought to be considered an integral part of his literary canon. It does so through an analysis of the transformation processes in his figurative language and structures. Images of vegetation serve as a kind of prism through which to observe changes in the poetics.

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Although Yehuda Amichai won the prestigious Israel Prize for the "revolution he created in Hebrew poetry," (1) his later poetry, from 1968 to date, (2) has been neglected or even ignored by academic studies and largely denounced by reviewers. His early work (1948-1968) (3) which received great attention at the time of its publication (4) has been hailed as the Amichai canon. This article seeks to demonstrate the significance of Amichai's later poetry and to argue that these poems should be considered integral to his literary achievement. (5)

Amichai's work from the late 1970s and 1980s is characterized by an intensified command of poetic language and devices. His voice becomes more suggestive and individualized. This turn inward is manifested specifically by an idiosyncratic reworking of conventional linguistic materials. The tensions between existing literary or spoken use of language and the poet's personal diction, between the common and the rare, and between the general and the specific combine to create the distinctive texture of the later poetry.

The underlying assumption for this study is the structuralist principle that a poet's work is a dynamic system. A poetic phenomenon that appears early in a poet's corpus may shrink or expand during the poet's creative lifetime; at times it is repressed, while at other times it is emphasized or recycled. Therefore, a study of the transformations of poetic components throughout a body of work must focus on the relationships between that system's various elements.

One may, of course, look at this from the opposite direction: any poetic unit that is visible late in the work has its own history and emerges from a reservoir that was available to the poet at the beginning of his career. The poet's ability to reshape "used" materials may demonstrate his poetic maturity. By working backwards in order to trace dominant poetic elements and phenomena, by identifying poetic mechanisms, and by analyzing their functions within the system, one can reconstruct a poetic biography that highlights key events and critical junctures in the body of work. Using this approach, I seek to demonstrate how Amichai's career, which in the eyes of some of his critics peaked at the outset and then declined, has in fact been reinvigorated. To reach this conclusion, I propose to read the work from the end to the beginning, in a way that corresponds to the model of analytic treatment: first identifying important surviving phenomena, examining them, and then exposing their roots and the ways they were first expressed. Reading backwards de-familiarizes and liberates the work of the well-known poet from automatic responses and expectations of readers long familiar with it.

The literary thought, terminology, and analytic tools of this study rely heavily on the theoretical-empirical structure developed by Riffaterre and are presented in his "semiotics of poetry." (6) This study adopts certain terms (original or reinterpreted) from Riffaterre's theory. The reinterpreted concept of idiolect, which Riffaterre inherited from semiology (Barthes 1978, p. 21), is central to this discussion. The idiolect is the reservoir of norms, word combinations, and personal images that are unique to a specific author or speaker and, at times, a specific group. The idiolect includes linguistic usages that define and separate the specific writer, speaker, or group from the rest of the users of the language (Riffaterre 1978: 146). At the same time, the idiolect must stem from the common language--otherwise, it would lose its communicative quality. The tend sociolect complements the term idiolect. Riffaterre defines it as the reservoir of linguistic habits, hidden myths, and familiar classical texts that are common knowledge among a language's readers and speakers. It also includes "ready-made" linguistic materials, tropes, and stereotypical images actualized in fixed forms in the reader's mind (Riffaterre 1978: 5, 15, 39-40). A third useful concept in this study, the term interpretant, is "a sign that translates the texts' surface signs and explains what else the text suggests" (p. 81). This sign has a unique function, since it serves as a kind of guide to the reader, directing and alerting him to hidden intertexts by means of a quotation or mention of an intermediary text. At times the interpretant is a dual sign (p. 86), such as a pun, carrying one meaning in the given text while pointing to another in a different text.

In the opinion of most of his critics, the essence of Amichai's poetry is its figurative aspect. (7) Therefore, my study of the transformation of his linguistic materials focuses on the image which is the main element carrying meaning in his poetry. The changes in Amichai's imagery demonstrate his poetic development. This is particularly evident in the process by which Amichai appropriates ready-made materials and transforms them into idiolectic ones. My analysis concentrates chiefly on the fate of these idiolectic images and on the ways in which they are loaded with meaning.

Three dominant sets of images emerge from close reading of his work: plants, children, and protective containers (which are variations on the theme of the sheltering womb). Each one of these, if scrutinized, would demonstrate a similar developmental process.

A study of plant imagery soon reveals a movement from the general to the specific, a pattern followed in all his figurative language. Images of plants serve here as a kind of prism through which one can observe changes in Amichai's poetics as his career develops. The selection of plant images for this analysis is almost dictated by the poetry at hand, since for Amichai, the world of plants is an unending source of images.

He employed plant images in his earliest poems. His first book, 1962-1948 : [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.], (8) begins "In my childhood / there stood weeds and masts on the shore" ("When I was a Child," p. 11) and continues "At the corner of the field stood two cypress trees" ("At the Corner of the Field," p. 11). He closes one of his most recent collections, Me-Adam, with "small red fruits prepare to be buried in snow" ("Fall in Connecticut," p. 101) and "a Tree of Knowledge in your garden" ("Susan Tichy, a Poet from Colorado," p. 104). As classified below, plant images appear in many variations: trees in general, specific trees, shrubs, flowers, and parts thereof. At a certain stage the plants become part of the poet's primary materials. They cease to be a secondary vehicle for meaning and become part of an independent language that expresses personal messages through an idiolectic code.

Plants serve as signifiers not only in Amichai's poetic idiolect but also in the general sociolect. Analysis of plant images, therefore, facilitates study of the interaction between the poems' language and general diction. The relationship between convention and Amichai's image is a meeting place between two major simultaneous, graduated processes. First is the distancing between the poetic (idiolectic) use of the image and its normative (sociolectic) use. The second process is the progression of the image from being general ("flower," "bush") or common in literature ("olive tree," "rose") to being individual, idiolectic, and personal ("sage," "acacia") and/or rare ("inula").

While in his early works Amichai tended to select universal or familiar images to which conventional meanings have adhered, he later developed a strong preference for selecting rare, personal, idiolectic images. The use of those images in the later poems is subtle, multifaceted, and unconventional. The early poetics, which had a simple relationship (positive or negative) with convention, based on universal experiences and common usages, makes way for a poetics that deepens and enriches meaning through a subtle reworking of ready-made materials or by drawing from private associations. The experiences expressed by these idiolectic images are specific and concrete. There is a clear correlation between the tendency towards personal, skeptical expression and the proliferation of rare images.

This article discusses three of the categories of images that I have identified. The first category is more common in the early poetry, and the other two are typical of the more recent work. The categories are:

(1) Images deeply rooted in convention: they either closely follow existing meanings in the language, or they reverse them completely. This kind of image is common in Amichai's early poems, where it often serves to shape a universal situation but does not describe its unique aspects.

(2) Images representing "actual" experience: these evoke in the poetic "I" specific memories of actual moments.

(3) Rare images functioning as interpretants: they constitute necessary keys to understanding the poem.

The types and functions of plant images may serve to illustrate these categories in Amichai's poetry. The late poems still contain "trees," "grass," "flowers," "thorns," and "fruits," (9) but these are few in number. The images of specific, and often, rare plants gradually attain a more central presence.

In the early collection Shirim, for example, a "tree" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]) or "trees" appear as an image or in the landscape in twenty-one poems, (10) flowers in twenty-seven, (11) olive trees in fourteen. (12) In the 283 pages of this book the geranium (p. 191) appears once, the oleander ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]) once (p. 191), and jasmine once (p. 195). These are the only rare plants in the book. In the 104 pages of Me-Adam the word "tree" or "trees" is mentioned nine times and "flowers" only four times. (13) Rare plants, however, grow in abundance: hedera-helis (ivy; p. 11), oleander (pp. 40, 48), inula (Zrn; p. 40), jasmine (pp. 40, 46, 60), cassia (p. 53), sage (p. 16), bird of paradise (p. 89), corn (p. 70), and alfalfa (p. 70). In She'at Ha-Hesed there are just nine "trees" and four "flowers" in 127 pages, while rare plants blossom throughout: rosemary (p. 14), basil (p. 14), mint (p. 14), dwarf lemon (p. 26), gourd ricinus ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]; p. 74), eucalyptus (p. 78), sunflower (p. 126), watermelon (p. 126), tamarisk ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]; p. 90), carob (pp. 90, 113), low acacia lemon (p. 102), and laurus nobilis (laurel; p. 109). In the 101 pages of Shalva there are only three "trees" (pp. 42, 55, 96) and two "flowers" (pp. 35, 50). Rare plants, however, flourish. In addition to cherries, which to the Hebrew reader denote the European milieu but otherwise are almost devoid of literary associations (pp. 8, 81), we find the squill ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]; p. 21), sage (p. 21), wild honeysuckle (p. 23), pear (p. 31), watermelon (p. 51), lily (p. 53), tamarisk (p. 77), thorny acacia (p. 64), bougainvillea (p. 92), and berries (p. 93).

In the books from the intermediate period, there are fewer images of rare plants than in the later ones, but proportionately more than in the earlier volumes. While the earlier cAkhshav Ba-Rallash contains only five rare plants in 208 pages (dwarfed tamarisk, mint, sage [all on p. 204], dandelion [p. 1911, and grataegus [p. 181]), Ha-Zman sprouts four rare plant images in eighty pages: dandelion (p. 2), arum (p. 57), tamarisk (p. 80), and fern (p. 64). Velo' 'Al Menat Lizkor in 139 pages includes six rare plant images: calotropis ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]; p. 99), anastatica ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]; p. 99), oak and visum (p. 101), pansies (p. 133), and oleander (p. 111).

We see, then, that starting in the late 1970s and increasingly in the 1980s, there is a distinct shift in the choice as well as in the elaboration of plant images. In Me-Adam, for example, an almost botanical terminology reflects the adoption of an intimate and personal poetic voice.

Amichai's increasing tendency to include rare plants in his vocabulary of images and his desire to develop them point to a deliberate choice of the personal and idiolectic. He moves away from using common plants, with their conventional meanings, preferring an idiosyncratic botany--a system of plants sensitive to the subtle nuances he wishes to express. Like a painter who abandons thick brushes in favor of finer ones that can sketch detailed, personal miniatures, Amichai casts away generic images and selects precise ones instead.

The frequency of general and common plant images in the early stage of Amichai's writing illustrates how convention not only determined the choice of plant images but also influenced their poetic function: their significance remains within the framework of the familiar and the expected. Here are four examples from the early poetry of conventional ideas expressed by use of commonplace metaphors from the spoken language: (14)

(1) "I am a man living with plans for blossoming and withering" ('Akhshav Ba-Racash, p. 53): an equation of youth and love with blossoming, and old age and death with withering.

(2) "A last leaf which represented the whole tree" (Shirim, p. 171): the tree will follow the leaf's path--it, too, will die. The falling of leaves symbolizes death.

(3) "And then we felt unripe since then we ripened" (Shirim, p. 54): young people, at the beginning of their love, are like green fruit. Ripening parallels the fulfillment of their love.

(4) "I who cross the street / only where it is permitted / I was called to dwell with roses" (Shirim, p. 177). This is an example of a conventional use of the rose in an early poem. The poem deals with love. The sudden "call to roses," directed towards this average, "middle of the road" man, symbolizes the effect of love on him. In this instance the rose as a symbol of love is unambiguous and easily understood.

In his early poems Amichai resorted consistently to the common stock of sociolect images. At times, however, he reversed their meanings in striking ways. For example, in a poem about parting from a friend in New York, Amichai reverses a conventional image to express sadness and death. He writes about a statue in the park which, unlike the surrounding trees, does not blossom in the spring:

In the park stood a stone man statue and wondered with pain this spring as well why it didn't grow leaves like the trees around it. Every spring this pain anew ... ('Akhshav Ba-Ra'ash, p. 147)

As Amichai's poetry became increasingly expressive of personal feelings rather than abstract ideas, it tended towards greater precision and turned increasingly to rare plants for its images. In an introspective poem from 1977, Amichai explicitly describes the shift from his early (and almost total) identification with the country to his later introversion. The lines "when I was young, the land was young ... when I fought she fought, where I rose she rose" (Time, poem 32) define not only the biographical parallelism between a man and his country but also suggest poetic choices appropriate to a poetry which speaks for a whole generation. This would dictate use of a declarative language that relies heavily on conventional, easily understood, and easily identifiable intertexts. But the subsequent statement "now I disconnect and roll into myself" can be read not only as a biographical comment about concentrating on one's own life and retreating from identifying with one's generation, but also as a self-aware poetic statement about change in the guiding principles of writing. The "roll into myself" is manifested linguistically through private images. When those images come from the world of plants, they tend to be more esoteric and precise: acacia instead of tree; oleander instead of flower. These are plants which are free of sociolectical or literary connotations, and they do not convey any symbolic content other than that granted to them by their author. At the same time, each one of these supposedly precise images carries a multitude of meanings. This is only a surface paradox; Amichai uses the specific image to convey feelings and psychological contents that are never one-dimensional. His poetic art lies in employing the precise image to convey complex, rich, and sometimes, ambiguous emotions.

Amichai prefers the precise and esoteric over the common and general for several reasons. In some cases, the sound of the given plant name leads to the choice of image: for example, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] (marvah, "sage") and [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] (marveh, "assuage thirst"). In other cases, it is the meaning of the words that form the plant's name that accounts for the image (e.g., [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.], literally, "aristocratic laurel"; [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.], "wild honeysuckle"). Sometimes the need for precision in the description of a landscape, or the attempt to personify the plant, determines the choice of a particular image. In some works the rare image itself can serve as the key to deciphering the poem's meanings. At other times, a given flower or tree ties in with a particular memory where the associative link layers the significance of the image in a personal, idiolectic, and yet still intelligible way.


The poem "In the Muhraka" (a scenic overlook on Mount Carmel) reconstructs bygone love at the site of the lovers' first tryst.

Here in the place where the noble laurel is growing now as glorious trees and no longer as a shrub, we heard then our last melody for the first time ... (She'at Ha-Hesed, p. 109)

The flowers and herbs of a place seen with such intimacy function as a scenic backdrop for the description, as a symbol of disappointment, and as a stimulus to memory. From the opening line of the poem the distant time and emotion are evoked by means of the rare plant image. According to the Hebrew dictionary, the [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.], "laurel" is "another name accepted among botanists for a shrub that is commonly named '[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]' [daphne] (laurus nobilis)." The same dictionary defines [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] as "the name of an evergreen decorative shrub, from the genus [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] (laurel) that grows also in the Land of Israel. The ancient Greeks and Romans used to adorn the heads of victors with laurel wreaths..... he leaves of [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] (laurel) are also used as spices. Nowadays botanists name this shrub '[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]."'

Amichai's desire for precision results in a sort of two-step process. He could simply have written "plant," but "dafna" would be more specific. However, he rejects "dafna" as too colloquial and chooses, instead, "car 'asili," the botanic name. The adjective "noble" might have guided this choice, because it is the Hebrew translation of the Latin nobilis and means noble or aristocratic. For the Hebrew reader, it conveys the sense of a remote and unattainable world of royalty which heightens the sense of estrangement and alienation that "now" exists on the mountain where "joy" once reigned. This is beauty from a different, inaccessible sphere, similar to the bygone love. The noble laurel's growth has an ironic twist: as the shrubs grew into magnificent trees, the love, that was young when they were, withered away. The plant's royal, noble, and triumphant connotations emphasize further the magnitude of defeat and loss suffered by the separated lovers. The relationship of the past to the present is made concrete by the growth of the puny shrub into a glorious tree. The love story is believable and authentic because of the precise topographical rendering and the vivid use of the image of the laurel.

On the one hand, the noble laurel emphasizes a singular feeling and the wish to describe that feeling as it was in the place where it happened and through this, perhaps, to relive it. On the other hand, these words depict an emotional remoteness from that feeling, as if a scientific and sterile approach to describing the plant life of the lovers' hiding place might ease the pain of their severed connection. Amichai here exploits the noble laurel on various levels: (a) its connotations in the sociolect (laurel implying victory); (b) the effect of the adjective "noble"; (c) the scientific and emotional neutrality implied in the botanical terminology; (d) the laurel's peculiar ability to grow as both shrub and tree, a poignant testimonial to time's passage; and (e) the authenticity derived from the description of the actual landscape of the lovers' nest that evokes the memory of the splendor that once nestled in the Muhraka.

The external simplicity of his later poems, such as "In the Muhraka," is only a simulacrum, and thereby a component of the trap the poet sets for his readers. As I see it, this textured use of language counters those critics who accuse Amichai's later work of being shallow and without "inner layers." (15) While the earlier poetry attempts to touch the essence of experience, Amichai's later predilection for conveying singular experiences finds expression in particular details. When dealing with plants, he achieves precision by shifting from the general to the specific, from the common to the rare.


The aroma of Proust's madeleine was the stimulus for a revolution in literature. The influence of the sense of smell on Amichai's poetry is considerably more modest, but it fits into a discussion of the function of plant images, especially flowers, as stimuli of memories and longings. (16) I am referring not only to jasmine or roses, whose fragrances are commonly thought to evoke certain emotions, (17) but also to the aromas of other flowers that serve as scenic background or ornamentation during important moments in the speaker's life.

2.1 The thorny acacia: the tunnel to childhood

The sense of smell aids efforts to reach the past; aromas help memories surface from the depth of the unconscious. As can be seen from a quote taken from the poem "Spring Song" (Shalva, p. 64), the use of a specific flower is not arbitrary:

There too is the tunnel of the thorny acacia Blooming in fragrant yellow balls. I can crouch down and go through it to my childhood on the other side ... (Great Tranquillity, p. 55)

The acacia's scent is what leads to the haven of childhood. Taken as a whole "Spring Song" is a summation of the speaker's life. As he states, "In the morning I rise like a light plane / and look over my life." The longings also bring forth "the smoke of burning of leaven (hametz) in the yard." Although the smell of the smoke is only implied, it belongs to the memories that trail in the path of "the airplane of fragrance" which "melts among flowering orchards" (Great Tranquillity, p. 55). The acacia's scent has the power to return the speaker to his childhood. The vehicle that transports the speaker from the present to the past is a reconnaissance plane qualified in the Hebrew original by the adjective "fragrant" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]). The psychological and emotional mode of transportation is not the airplane but rather the fragrance, and the blooming acacia facilitates the voyage of the adult traveler to his childhood. Abstract movement in time is made concrete by movement in space, thereby justifying the use of an image that denotes the physical landscape of that journey, that is, the acacia. In fact, the acacia simultaneously fulfills several functions: it is the motive for the voyage, the vehicle as well as the road itself, and the landscape of that road.

2.2 The sage: plant life word-play

The pleasant smelling sage ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]) appears in the poem "In the Mountains of Jerusalem" (Great Tranquillity, p. 21), although the scent of the herb is not actually mentioned. The function of this rare plant image is twofold: on the surface the sound marvah, "sage" supplies a play on words with its homonym marveh, "assuage thirst." This accentuates the contrast with thirst later in the poem. The pun gains irony because sage, which is itself a dry plant, grows in semi-arid climates and cannot, in fact, quench thirst. The principal function of the image, however, lies in the painful revelation that wounds of the past never truly heal:

Canceling a night of love in the Negev makes a flower (18) grow in the hills of Jerusalem, things empty and fill up but you are not always with the ones that fill up, and the sage [marvah] does not always assuage thirst [marveh] but tears a deep wound in forgetfulness, evokes a memory of an old thirst ... (Great Tranquillity, p. 21)

It is precisely the sage, and not a different plant, that makes this revelation possible. Furthermore, the image has an additional layer of significance: things are not what they are called, since "what is called marvah does not give marveh." It is as if the names of plants, objects, or even people only tease the speaker, raising his expectations only to disappoint them. This may be a hint of the fickle nature of language: words do not really carry their supposed meaning and, therefore, cannot be trusted. The image also expresses the trauma that forgetfulness is an illusion. It is enough merely to smell or see the sage in order for the memories one wished to repress to float to the surface. The sound and the content of the name "marvah" fuse to communicate both an emotional wound and a metapoetic statement.

2.3 The wild honeysuckle: memories of battle and youth

The combination of fragrance and melody that expresses longing in "In the Muhraka" occurs in a different poem and triggers another experience. In "The Narrow Valley" (Great Tranquillity, p. 23) the speaker visits a place that once was an arena of battle, terror, and death, but where a group of young hikers is now kindling a bonfire. The figures of this group may also allude to the fighters who camped in that area during the war. The speaker singles out "the prettiest among them" and "the strongest among them." The first stanza describes both the hikers and the bonfire; the last stanza is devoted to their departure. In the middle, memories "shell" the speaker, seizing control of him:

Young people picnic in the narrow valley where I once fought a battle: they camp next to the fear and build a bonfire in the trenches of death.

The prettiest girl among them smooths her hair with a toss of her head the strongest boy among them brings wood for the fire. The shelling is going on the explosive has changed for the better, a smell of blossoming wild honeysuckle in the air and the sound of a song.

In the evening, when they go, the landscape straightens out: the narrow valley will rise like a dent in a ball, and the view will be smooth as oblivion. (Great Tranquillity, p. 23)

The wild honeysuckle and its fragrance, along with the melody, throw the speaker into emotional turmoil. The image functions in numerous ways. First, it is likely that the vegetation in the valley is similar to that which grew during the war. Its appearance and fragrance cast the speaker back to his experiences of battle and fear. The mere presence of the honeysuckle "in the narrow valley" is enough to evoke the memories. Second, the "smell / of blossoming wild honeysuckle in the air and the sound / of a song" assault the senses like shells. Instead of the roar of exploding shells and the smell of gunpowder, the flowers intoxicate the speaker, and for a brief moment they restore his youth. "The prettiest," "the strongest," "the fragrance," and "the melody" resurrect the past.

Finally, the image also functions through the meaning of the flower's name. The poem not only exploits the flower's natural habitat and fragrance but also the semantic fields to which the flower's name belongs. In Hebrew the name of the honeysuckle is ya'ara, which is derived from yacar 'forest'. The combination of ya'ara and pera'it 'wild' trigger associations of primordial passions and wild adventures. These elements are bound up with youth, virility, and sensuality. Ya'ara is also a woman's name. Coupled with the "prettiest among them," the feminine word combination "ya'ara pera'it" expresses a longing for a dangerous and tempestuous lifestyle and for bygone love. In spite of the fears of the past, memories, like smells, possess an alluring and seductive element, actualized by the image.

When the shelling stops and the young people depart, "the landscape straightens out." The narrow valley, suffused with sensations from the past, rises "like a dent in a ball," and the memories aroused by the fragrant blossom are lost again. A dull sorrow for the present numbness of the speaker's senses and for the lost days of heroism and youth replaces the moment of vulnerability. The excitement was caused by the sudden sight of the special flower, its allusive name, and the specific associations it aroused. The repressed battle experience ("where I fought a battle") rises to the surface by means of the precise image, which functions simultaneously on various levels. The image opens a window on the speaker's emotional universe. It is the force motivating both the lyric "I" and the poem.


Cherries--the trees and the fruit--are rare in the Israeli landscape, both actual and literary, and seldom appear in Amichai's writing. But it this image's rarity, for the most part, that gives it the complex function of interpretant. This can be seen clearly in the 1980 collection Shalva, which marks a turning point in Amichai's poetic development. The word "cherry" appears once in Amichai's epic of 1968, "Travels of the Last Benjamin of Tudela" ('Akhshav Ba-Ra'ash, p. 97), where it conveys the tension between the European and the Mediterranean: "The brown, round eyes you had, according / to the pattern of ripe cherries, will get used to / oranges ..." (Selected Poetry, p. 60). In this early form, the rare plant image transmits the European child's feelings of being foreign and forced to adjust to the Israeli landscape. This figurative material was later transformed into a multilayered sign that can penetrate psychological depths and expose interpersonal tensions. In its new role, the "cherry" serves as the key to deciphering the two poems in which it appears in Shalva.

"A Meeting with My Father" tells of Amichai's visit with his father in Haifa's Cafe Atarah in October 1947:

My father came to me in one of the intermissions Between two wars or between two loves As if to an actor resting backstage in half-darkness, We sat in the Cafe Atarah On Mount Carmel. He asked me about my small room And if I was coping on my modest teacher's pay.

Daddy, daddy, before you made (19) me you must have made Cherries that you loved, Black with so much redness! My brothers, sweet cherries From that world.

The time was the time of evening prayer. My father knew I no longer prayed And said, let's play chess The way I taught you as a child.

The time was October 1947, Before the fateful days and the first shots. And we didn't know then I'd be called the generation of '48 And I played chess with my father, checkmate '48. (Great Tranquillity, p. 19)

The central role of Amichai's father in his poetry is already axiomatic. The fateful nature of the meeting's time is also clear. And yet, despite the dramatic circumstances, the poem's language is colloquial and unassuming for the most part. While the description of a meeting with his father in an early poem is full of pathos and slightly ironic grandiosity ("Let's drink, my father, to my flowers, to ideas" ("Your Life and Death My Father," Shirim, p. 28), here, the conversation is trivial ("my modest teacher's pay"). The father's sensitivity is heartwarming. He knows that his son does not go to evening prayers, but instead of scolding him, he offers to substitute a chess game, "the way I taught you as a child." The threads of intimacy spun throughout the poem are torn apart by "the rustle of the wings of history." The gentle conversation makes way for a vocabulary of war propaganda: "fateful days," "October 1947," "first shots," "the generation of '48.' (20)

The poem's first and third stanzas report the conversation in the cafe. The period's historical events invade the fourth stanza and the intimate world of the father and son. The "mate" (as in checkmate) that concludes the poem emphasizes the threat of death that the enlisted son will soon face. The impending war is present throughout the poem, but in a curious way. Its horror is dulled by the parallel to love ("Between two wars or between two loves") and by the theatrical light cast on it: "My father came to me in one of the intermissions ... As if to an actor resting backstage in half darkness...." But other than this theatrical simile and the concluding pun, the poem's language is couched in the prosaic details of an intimate father-son chat. The poet alludes to the historical times--a month before the crucial United Nations vote on the creation of a Jewish state and the outbreak of Israel's war of independence--only in the closing stanza.

This poem vividly shows the development of Amichai's writing. The details of the fleeting moment are frozen in time. Whether or not this moment is symbolic, it exists in its own right. Amichai's desire for authentic expression motivates his choice of image. The second stanza, which contains the image, is also the most ambiguous one. At the same time, it holds the clue to deciphering the poem. For a few lines the logical, sane, restrained tone vanishes, and a child's scream bursts out, the child who dwells inside the supposedly calm adult speaker:

Daddy, daddy, before you made [begot] me you must have made Cherries that [whom] you loved, Black with so much redness! My brothers, sweet cherries From that world.

The cherries are a rare plant image that embodies both internal and external conflict. In the Israeli sociolect the cherry serves as a reminder of Europe. In the poem the Israeli son feels a certain alienation from his European father: the father begot cherries ("brothers") before begetting the son, who soon will be an Israeli soldier who fights for his country. "Cherries you loved" ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]) is an allusion to the binding of Isaac: "Thy son whom thou lovest" (Gen 22:2). The Hebrew verb [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.], "you begot" underscores both the biblical intertext and the ancient connection between fathers, sons, and the land. But the beloved counterparts of the soldier-son who sits in Cafe Atarah will not be sacrificed as a burnt offering, while that may be the speaker's fate.

The line, "My brothers, sweet cherries / From that world," can be interpreted as follows: the cherries are the fruit of the father's dream. He yearns for that world, and they are the sons he might have begotten had he stayed in Europe. These brothers/cherries compete with the Israeli son for the father's love. A widely-known early sonnet from Shirim, "My Father Fought their War for Four Years" (Poems, p. 6), supports this interpretation. There the father is said to have "formed" his son "out of his little calms" during World War I. (The word "banah" [literally "built"] must be interpreted as the father's mental construction of the child he was to have.) But he failed to bequeath the peace for which he yearned to his warrior-son. The father's dreams of tranquillity and their "fruits" (the brothers/cherries) were left in Europe. The cherry image may express the pair's longing for the sweetness and wholeness that were never attained in the present.

"A Second Meeting with My Father" (Shalva, p. 18; Great Tranquillity, p. 88) creates an imaginary encounter at the same cafe:

Again I met my father in Cafe Ararah. This time he was already dead.... I said: Happy are those Who have a patisserie next door to a coffee house, You can call inside: "Another cake, more Sweetness, let's have more!"

Happy is he whose dead father is next door to him And he can call him always.

Oh, the eternal scream of children "I want, I want!" Until it turns into the scream of the wounded.

O my father, chariot of my life, I want To go with you, take me along, Put me down next to my house And then continue on your way alone.

We left. And a man remained in the comer, One hand amputated ... (Great Tranquillity, p. 88)

The reader can easily conclude from these twin poems, as well as from many others, (21) that the father's predominant characteristic is sweetness. On the surface (mimetic) level, this quality is conveyed in the first poem by the father's gentle, soft words. The cherry image in the first poem and the cake image in this one carry the same meaning on the semiotic level. The son's longing for his father intensifies in the poem "A Second Meeting with my Father," in which the speaker calls to his father: O my father, chariot of my life, I want / To go with you, take me along....

The urgent plea "My father, the chariot of my life" alludes to Elisha's cry to Elijah as he ascended to the sky: "My father, my father, the chariots of Israel and its horsemen" (2 Kgs 2:12). Although the first poem's cry "Daddy, daddy, before you made me you must have made / Cherries that you loved" is more ambiguous then the direct "Take me along" of the second meeting, it is nevertheless an expression of yearning for the father, his sweetness, and for the alien European world-the place of luscious cherries. With the father's death, his dreams are no more, and the place where he was bom ceases to exist. The Israeli son misses the people and fruits who vanished with his potential brothers/cherries. The double cry present in the two "Cafe Atarah" poems-"Daddy, daddy," "my brothers, my brothers," and "I want, I want"-conforms to the traditional format of a eulogy, (22) and the cherries have evolved into a component of that eulogy.

The cherry's rarity in both Amichai's poetry and the Israeli landscape intensifies the effect of distance and longing that it evokes. This specific image stirs up a private emotional world to which the general terms "tree," "fruit," or the textually loaded "grape vine," or "olive branch," could not have alluded. The significant gradations in the distance between sociolect and idiolect can be demonstrated by comparing the elaboration of the cheery image with that of the tree image in the early poem "Your Life and Death My Father" (Shirim, p. 28). Here, the common plant image retains its conventional meaning: "The tree in the yard was a prophet, and I did not know." Despite the son's refusal to absorb the message, the poem implies that, as expected, the tree's life cycle predicts that of man, and that its demise foreshadows the father's death. (23)

In contrast to this early adherence to the ready-made association with tree, in the 1980 poem "A Meeting with My Father," the plant image's function is more complex. In addition to lamenting the father, it possesses his unique sweet quality. The image also suggests conflicts in the relationship between father and son. Furthermore, while the early poem is enveloped in a quasi-philosophical aura ("Let's drink, my father, to my flowers and to the ideas"), the later one reconstructs dialogue in specific detail. The universal images of "trees" and "flowers" are replaced with the individual and precise image of the cherry.

This plant image is further developed and reinterpreted in only one other poem in Shalva, titled [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] ["On the Mountain"] (p. 81). It is not included in the English translation Great Tranquillity, perhaps because of its strong local flavor and use of slang. The episode it retells is, on the face of it, entirely different from that of "A Meeting with My Father." It is anchored in the recent past, not in 1947. The speaker is a father (not a son) who is picnicking with his family and friends. No wars or farewells loom on the horizon. The poem's structure aids the serene tone: three of the poem's six stanzas are figurative and poetic; three use slang and low diction. Although Amichai uses prosaic language in both "cherry" poems, the linguistic gap is wider in "A Meeting with My Father." There the cherry image is in the shortest, most stylized stanza, which contrasts sharply with the three remaining simple stanzas through its classical allusions, vocabulary, and rhythm.

Deciphering the cherry image lies, in part, in reading the two poems in light of each other. "On the Mountain" confirms and validates the critical role that the cherry image plays in these two texts and in their "interinterpretation." The book itself invites the reader to read these two poems together because they are the only ones to employ the word "cherry." This poem introduces the image in the first stanza:

In the valley, the cherry became domesticated But not entirely It needs nurturing In thorn and stone pastures, we are here (Shalva, p. 81)

The European fruit is a stranger to Israel's thorny landscape. It struggles to adjust to the stone pastures, a poor substitute for the green fields of its natural habitat. Successful absorption depends on the amount of care and tending it receives. The "I" in this poem apparently identifies with the cherry, as seen from the enjambment that connects the first and second stanzas. The last line of the first stanza "In thorn and stone pastures, we are here," if read as one unit, may imply that the "we" includes the cherry as well as the poetic "I," both of whom dwell in stone pastures. The biblical allusion creates an intertextual irony. Unlike the psalmist, who "shall not want," because God makes him "lie down in green pastures" (Ps 23:1-2), the speaker and the cherry are wanting. Since the Lord is not their shepherd, they are forced to adjust to "thorn and stone pastures." As the poem unfolds, it is revealed that a scream is buried here, too:

   And family and nature, night and sleep
   All that wishes to be named "bosom"
   closed themselves, no one heard
   that in your swollen belly, a fetus was screaming.

The poetic "I" who can hear this soundless cry is none other than the son of the father from the previous poem. The fetus echoes the speaker's call to his own father: "Daddy, daddy, before you made me you must have made I Cherries." It is only through the cherry image that this textual patrilineal chain can be reconstructed. This image signifies

the fruit of the man's seed. (It may not be a coincidence that bosoms "close themselves" while the male speaker picks up the fetal distress signal.) The father "begot cherries/brothers" in one poem, while in the other, the equation of the fetus to the cherry is made explicit at the poem's end:

   The fetus will also reach night and tranquility
   And the cherry also will find a place.

The dynamic of the relationship does not change when the son himself becomes a father. The father "begot cherries" and dreams, and so does his son. Like his father before him, the speaker will always respond to his child, since "happy is he whose dead father is next door to him / And he can call him always" (Great Tranquillity, p. 88).

The origin of the fruit image as a man's seed is found in "My Father Fought their Wars for Four Years" (Poems p. 6): the father "felt" in his "fingertips ... a tickle of blossom / and prepared for fruit." The "fruit" for which the father yearned in his youth was later recycled and transformed into the layered cherry image. While the early fruit image expresses the link between father and son, it does not contain the different aspects of paternal love and pain expressed by the specific "cherry." Through this late image, the many facets of the father's love are revealed, as well as the conflicts and eternal longing wrapped in that love. The plant image retains the conventional meaning of fruit--fruit of the tree is like fruit of the womb (although the image reverses genders)--but the deliberate choice of the rare cherry enriches the image's meaning. Contents of sweetness and love, estrangement and alienation, closeness between father and son who are rooted in different worlds, and adjustments and yearning layer this new idiolectic image.

The poetic functions of rare plant images, such as laurel, acacia, sage, honeysuckle, and cherries, are varied. It is evident that the choice of images from the world of plants becomes more refined and subtle in Amichai's later poetry. He values these images because their rarity is not simply exotic decoration. It is, instead, a means of enriching, layering, and loading the image with new and idiosyncratic meanings. In addition, he moves from choosing broad images that convey general truths to ones that are specific but plumb psychological depths. The inclusion of esoteric, marginal plants in his figurative vocabulary is one of the manifestations of the way Amichai trades universal and conventional expressions for concrete and personal ones. This manner of writing derives from his increased awareness of emotions and openness to them, as well as from the poetic mastery which creates images for those emotions.



1963 1962-1948 [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] [Poems]. Jerusalem.

1969 1968-1963 [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] [Now in the Storm]. Jerusalem.

1971 [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] [In Order Not to Remember]. Jerusalem.

1977 [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] [Time]. Jerusalem.

1980 [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] [Great Tranquillity: Questions and Answers). Jerusalem.

1982 [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] [The Hour of Grace]. Jerusalem.

1985 [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] [From Man Thou Art and to Man Thou Shalt Return]. Jerusalem.


Abramson. Glenda, and Tudor Parfitt, crans.

1983 Great Tranquillity: Questions and Answers. New York.

Amichai, Yehuda, author and trans.

1979 Time. New York.

Bloch, Chana, and Stephen Mitchell, eds. and trans.

1986 Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai. New York.

Guttman, Asia, trans.

1968 Selected Poems. London.


Abramson, Glenda

1989 The Writing of Yehuda Amichai: A Thematic Approach. Albany.

Arpali, Boaz

1986 [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] [The Flowers and the Vase: Amichai's Poetry 1948-1968]. Tel Aviv.

Balaban, Avraham

1982 [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] Yediot Aharonot (December 3 1).

Bartana, Orzion

1979 [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] Yediot Aharonot (June 15).

1980 [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] Yediot Aharonot (April 25).

Barthes, Roland

1977 "Rhetoric of the Images." Image Music Text. Stephen Heath, comp. and trans. New York. Pp. 32-51.

1978 Elements of Semiology. Annette Lavers and Colin Smith, trans. New York.

Basel, Hillel

1982 [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] Yediot Aharonot (April 30).

1986 [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] Iton 77 10: 20-23.

Blat, Avraham

1963 [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] Ha-Zofe (October 4).

Feingold, Ben-Ami

1963 "1962-1948 [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] Ha-Boger (May 24).

Gilan, Maxim

1959 [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] Lamerhav (September 4).

Ginosar, Yosef

1988 [1986] [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] Ychudit Zwik, ed. Tel Aviv.

Gold, Nili Scharf

1984 "Images in Transformation in the Recent Poetry of Yehuda Amichai." Prooftext 4: 141-152.

Harari, Josue V.

1979 "Introduction." Textual Strategies: Perspectives in Post-Structuralist Criticism. Josue V. Harari, ed. Ithaca. Pp. 17-72.

Levit, Anat

1986 [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] Iton 77 10: 24-25.

Leshem, Giyora.

1986 [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] Moznayim 49: 20-23.

Miron, Dan

1963 "Reading Two Love Poems by Yehuda Amichai " Anaf. Jerusalem. Pp. 196-236.


1988 [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] Moznayim 63/2: 9-19 and 6313: 9-18.

Ramras-Rauch, Gila

1977 [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] Alei Siah 4/5: 172-175.

1986 [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] Moznayim 49/8-7: 16-19.

Riffateme, Michael

1978 Semiotics of Poetry. Bloomington/London.

1979 "Generating Lautreamont's Text." Textual Strategies: Perspectives in Post-Structuralist Criticism. Josue V. Hared, ed. Ithaca. Pp. 404-420.

1983 Text Production. Terese Lyons, trans. New York.

Sachs, Arich

1966 "The Poetry of Yehuda Amichai" Jewish Chronicle (September 14).

Sadan-Lubenstcin, Nili


1983 "Imagist Patterns in Amichai's Poetry." Iton 77 44: 63-69 and 45: 93-99.

Shavit, Zohar

1971/72 [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] Keshet 53/1: 161-170.

Zach, Nathan

1966/67 [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] Yokhemi 5: 40 44.

Zandbank, Shimon

1963 [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] Amot 1/5: 93-95.

Zifer, Beni

1981 [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] Ha-Aretz (November 13).

Zwik, Ychudit

1982 [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] Moznayim 44/6: 10-13.

1988 "Introduction." [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] Tel Aviv.

(1) The judges' decision is quoted in Zifer (1981). In that article Zifer anoints Amichai as the "national poet." Critics often describe Amichai as a "pillar of Hebrew literature." See, for example, Levit (1986: 24), Barrel (1986: 20), Bartana (1979), and Zach (1966).

(2) This periodization follows Miron (1986). According to him, a poetic "breakthrough" determines a beginning of a period--even if only a few of the poems of the period contain the changes in poetics. With this principal in mind, and based also on the responses of critics, I divided Amichai's corpus into three periods: (1) 1948-1968 (Arpali [19861, in the only in-depth study of this period, shows it to be a coherent, homogeneous body of work within the oeuvre); (2) 1968-1979--this is an intermediate period, containing hints of the changes that will occur later; and (3) 1980 to date. 1980 is the year in which Great Tranquillity: Questions and Answers appeared. This marked the turning point a major shift in poetics which continues to date.

(3) For the differences in attitudes of the critics toward the different periods, see, for example. Zandbank (1963), Blat (1963), Feingold (1963), and Arpali (1986), who discuss the early period; as against Shavit (1971), Ramras-Rauch (1977), Bartana (1980), and Balaban (1982) who discuss the later periods.

(4) The history of Amichai's reception by the critics is summarized in Zwik's introduction to the collection of articles written about the poet. The articles selected for this collection are themselves proof of the change in attitude. Out of ten representative articles, only one (Ginosar 1988) deals exclusively with the later poetry, two mix old and new (Zwik 1982 and Barrel 1986). and the rest concentrate on early Amichai.

(5) The complete study is included in my forthcoming book on Amichai's late poetry (Schocken, 1993). The first steps of this study were published in my article in Prooftext in 1984.

(6) Riffaterre (1978) presents this theory in a book by the same name and in numerous articles (see bibliography). Additional works consulted in this area are Harari (1979) and Barthes (1977). Although the present study is strongly influenced by Riffaterre's work, it takes issue with his theory, particularly in the areas of commitment to there being one correct reading and in resorting to external, but relevant, disciplines.

(7) See, for example, Zach's important article (1966) in which he states that the world of images is Amichai's signature. Gilan (1959) declared that Amichai is the "master of images" in Hebrew poetry. See also Sachs (1966), Sadan-Lubenstein (1983), Miron (1963) and Arpali (1986).

(8) This 1963 collection is considered the core of Amichai's canon. References in this article to Amichai's works and to translations of his works are as follows:

1963 1962-1948 :[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] (references to the original work or my translations are marked as Shirim; translations taken from Bloch and Mitchell (19861 as Selected Poetry; translations taken from Guttman (19681 as Poems).

1969 1968-1963 [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] (references to original or my translations as 'Akhshav Ba-Ra'ash. One translation is also taken from Selected Poetry).

1971 [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] (references to original or my translations as Velo' 'Al Menat Lizkor).

1977 [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] (references to original as Ha-Zman; references to Amichai's 1979 translation of his own work as Time; some translations of Ha-Zman arc also taken from Selected Poetry and are so marked).

1980 [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] (references to original or my translations as Shalva; translations taken from Abramson and Parfitt (19831 as Great Tranquillity).

1982 [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] (references to original or my translations as She'at Ha-Hesed).

1985 [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] (references to original or my translations as Me-Adam).

(9) Trees appear in Me-Adam (p. 47, 53); Shalva (p. 96); and Shecat Ha-yesed (pp. 33, 62). Flowers appear in Shalva (pp. 35, 50); She'at Ha-Hesed (p. 108).

(10) Pp. 14, 15, 16, 28, 44, 52, 54, 67, 87, 99, 143, 171, 172, 185, 186, 223, 239, 245, 281.

(11) Pp, 18, 20, 23, 30, 35, 45, 58, 59, 69, 70, 78, 87, 91, 110, 120, 126, 148, 171, 182, 200, 204, 213, 214, 227, 233, 243, 265, 269.

(12) pp, 18, 21, 78, 83, 86, 99, 103. 177, 220, 222, 239, 274, 280, 282.

(13) Trees, pp, 21, 40.47. 53, 61, 70. 83, 90, 101. Flowers, pp. 12, 15, 29, 32.

(14) see Arpati (1986: 264).

(15) See, for example, Ramras-Rauch (1986) and Leshem (1986).

(16) See Sam-Lubenstein (1983).

(17) For example, poems about jasmine appear in She'at Ha-gesed (pp. 23 and 74) and in Me-Adam (pp. 1 and 40); and about the rose in Me-Adam (p. 64) and Poems (p. 6).

(18) In the Hebrew hatzav. "squill."

(19) to Hebrew, literally, "begot."

(20) There were many personal poems in the early period as well, but the general tone and atmosphere expressed identification with the generation. See Miron (1988).

(21) See, for example, poem 21 in Time: "The figure of a Jewish father .../.../ And he has documents of mercy and / papers of love .../ And at night, lonely and slowly he cooks jam, / stirring round and round .../ white and sweet for coming generations" In addition, the chapter devoted to the father in Amichai's poetry in Abramson (1989) confirms this portrait of the father.

(22) See, for example, King David's lament for his son. "Absalom. my son. my son Absalom" (2 Sam 1:5). The repetition is characteristic of the genre of eulogy throughout Jewish literature.

(23) Arpali (1986: 80) demonstrates how, in Amichai's poetry, nature's cycle runs parallel to human life.

Nili Rachel Scharf Gold

Columbia University

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|A209799716