Memorial day for the war dead. Yehuda Amichai – Analysis

Memorial day for the war dead.
Add now the grief of all your losses to their grief, 
even of a woman that has left you.  Mix
sorrow with sorrow, like time-saving history,
which stacks holiday and sacrifice and mourning
on one day for easy, convenient memory.
Oh, sweet world soaked, like bread, 
in sweet milk for the terrible toothless God. 
"Behind all this some great happiness is hiding." 
No use to weep inside and to scream outside. 
Behind all this perhaps some great happiness is hiding.
Memorial day.  Bitter salt is dressed up 
as a little girl with flowers.
The streets are cordoned off with ropes,
for the marching together of the living and the dead.
Children with a grief not their own march slowly,
like stepping over broken glass.
The flautist's mouth will stay like that for many days. 
A dead soldier swims above little heads
with the swimming movements of the dead,
with the ancient error the dead have
about the place of the living water.
A flag loses contact with reality and flies off. 
A shopwindow is decorated with
dresses of beautiful women, in blue and white.
And everything in three languages:
Hebrew, Arabic, and Death.
A great and royal animal is dying 
all through the night under the jasmine
tree with a constant stare at the world.
A man whose son died in the war walks in the street 
like a woman with a dead embryo in her womb.
"Behind all this some great happiness is hiding."
Yehuda Amichai (1924-2000)

Yehuda Amichai was born in Germany to an Orthodox Jewish family and became steeped in Judaism and fluent in Hebrew. The family moved to Israel when he was 12 years old. He is considered, both in Israel and internationally, as Israel’s greatest modern poet, and one of the leading poets worldwide. Note that this is an English translation from the Hebrew.

The Title – Memorial Day started as an event to honour Union soldiers who had died during the American Civil War. It was inspired by the way people in the Southern states honoured their dead. … This meant that from 1971, the Memorial Day holiday has been officially observed on the last Monday in May.

S1 … However, as you will realise when reading the poem Memorial Day has been expanded by his words to include all who suffer from the death of a loved one. This includes the metaphorical death associated with the separation by a woman. And what is suggested in the very first stanza that why not make it a Memorial Day for all who are in a state of grief. A mixing of sorrow with sorrow.

 S2 … There is so much sorrow in the world, and so much sorrow caused by the sad imperfection of humanity that there is a complaint to a toothless God who does nothing to alleviate the situation. Is this a factual statement though? But there is a to touch of optimism in that maybe some sweet happiness exists behind the horror

S3 … Children who are perhaps impervious to grief, or at least extensive grief, join in the memorial walking as if stepping over broken glass. I do like the way grief is identified with the symbol broken glass.

S4 … I don’t know how long it takes a flautist’s mouth to reshape. Perhaps the suggestion that grief is likewise lasting. A dead soldier swimming above little heads indicates to me the dead are alive to the children but above their comprehension. The dead are in an alien environment like existing in water and needing to swim.

S5 … Memorial days tend to give emphasis to nationality and sometimes this becomes too dominant – a flag loses contact with reality and flies off. Israel and Judaism can be symbolically compared to a beautiful woman dressed up on display. Blue and white are theologically important colours in Judaism. But there is always a certain shadow when thinking of Israel. In this poem represented by three languages attaching to everything alluding to the Palestine conflict with the resultant language death. Hebrew and Arabic and the respective nations must coexist although as we have seen so clearly in recent days any hope for a lasting peace between the warring factions is unlikely.

S6 … My thought is that the great royal animal must have religious significance. This may be a reference to the dying of ‘that religion’ as it looks on in disgust at what is happening in the region. Again inaction is associated with staring and this is in line with the toothless nature of God already mentioned in the second stanza.

S7 … A very moving way to carry a dead person within the grief of the living – like a woman with a dead embryo in her womb. But the ending line is not a line of ‘perhaps’ but a line stating that behind all this some great happiness IS hiding. There is a note of optimism.

Hopefully that latent happiness will surface with the advent of a lasting peace in the region. But this is a poem about sorrow in general and for those in great sorrow for whatever reason there is still that great hidden happiness however hard it may be to realise.

Yehuda Amichai on Wikipedia – Yehuda Amichai – Wikipedia

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