Yehuda Amichai wrote in a modern Hebrew strongly influenced by its ancient heritage. His originality is most powerfully expressed in his use of metaphor. These lines of verse from his magnum opus, Open Closed Open, beautifully represent his manner of compressing great feeling and thought into a few words. And the thought and feeling here concern his rather wonderful appreciation of human consciousness. “Before we are born, everything is open/ in the universe without us.” I’m reminded of Martin Buber’s use of the mystical saying “In the mother’s body man knows the universe, in birth he forgets it.” The womb is, in other words, the “primal world that precedes form.” Using metaphor in a new and artful way, both writers are attempting the impossible: to use their great gifts to define the tiny enormity of human nature.
Near the end of the longer poem this is excerpted from, Amichai writes: “Forgotten, remembered, forgotten/ Open, closed, open.” We know the universe, contain it within ourselves before and after consciousness. There’s great sadness in this thought, and great praise. “For as long as we live, everything is closed/ within us.” Yes, we are citizens of the state of human nature, enlarged and limited by its opaque and wondrous desires. In a sense, this is a definition of love itself — love and most certainly death.
“And when we die, everything is open again.” Only then are we one with the universe, and with God. I have no doubt Amichai would strongly disagree with everything I’ve said here, as I may myself tomorrow morning. But the moment is an island and a metaphor, and each must be respected, for a moment. In other words, in forgetting we open to the miracle of revelation, and in remembering — well, some few, like Yehuda Amichai, write great poems. Open, Closed, Open.
We tend to think of life as closed, open, closed. Birth is often seen as a transformation from the closed womb into the open world, and death and the grave are perceived as closure. Yehuda Amichai reverses this convention, presenting us with a beautiful midrash on a talmudic passage from the talmudic tractate Niddah: “[A]s soon as [the fetus] comes into the world, everything which had been closed opens, and that which was open closes….” (31b) In Amichai’s poem, both transitions — from the womb to the world, and from the world to the grave — represent shifts of energy. When we open our eyes for the first time, we absorb and enclose within us the fullness of the world, and when we close our eyes for the last time, that which was contained within us is released and becomes open again.
While the talmudic quote focuses on birth, Amichai’s poem, written toward the end of his life, asks us to consider the transition to death and challenges us to focus on what it is that death opens up. Much of Amichai’s last book is devoted to theology and to reflections on Jewish texts. The narrator talks about God, a lot, but does not talk to God.
Life, in these poems, precludes the possibility of connecting with the transcendental or with that which is and will always be open. Instead, life is confined to the here and now of the self, and openness exists only in the absence of a self. What is closed is what Philip Schultz describes as “being one with the universe, or with God.”
Only texts can approximate eternity. Spoken words pass, writes Amichai, and the lips that utter them turn to dust, but prayers — and I would suggest, Amichai’s poems — are here to stay. Reading his poems brings them back to life by embodying them in a self, our own selves, and in so doing, we close/enclose them.
I want to suggest that Yehuda Amichai’s “Open Closed Open” is a radical and subversive masterpiece. While seeming to reify the stark contrast between open and closed, Amichai actually threatens to disrupt the discontinuity of these binary states when he invites us elsewhere in the poem to taste the sweet eternity of the present: “…the Now is always with me, where I go is the Now…” Later, when pondering “…who will remember the rememberers?”, he points toward an awareness that can perceive continuity across states of consciousness. Amichai is encouraging us to look directly to the irrepressible movement of our earthly lives to discover a relationship with God that could permeate and connect every moment of our existence to transcendence. Perhaps Amichai’s lament of the closed stems not from the inevitability of our waking slumber but from our unwillingness to search for this sacred union. The choice is always present. Musing on the “correct way to stand at a memorial ceremony,” Amichai asks, “…eyes gaping frozen like the eyes of the dead, or shut tight, to see stars inside?”
Rather than accept Amichai’s invitation to “focus on what death opens up,” in Vered Karti Shemtov’s words, we regularly avert our gaze. In so doing, we blind ourselves not only to what Shemtov calls “shifts of energy” that occur in birth and death, but also to the rich potential shifts that occur with each breath — if we notice and hear them.
Open Closed OpenBy :
The full sequence of this poem is found here.