Poet Rosebud Ben-Oni on the poetry of Yehuda Amichai, promises, and a love that keeps us strangers
It was not until our very last conversation— when you asked if I read you Amichai’s Poems of Jerusalem to keep you at a distance, to keep you from ever becoming a truth— that I realized we did not have time at all. In love, like the writing of poetry, one has to make careful decisions, whether it is where a heart or line might break. Eventually, one has to choose between what they will hold close and what they will let go in order to make a life—or a poem— complete.
Now, over two years later, the orchid on my desk is dead. The orchid my husband bought me, the orchid that stayed in a perpetual state of half-blossoming and half-death. The orchid is gone, but I am always thinking of you when I finish a new poem. With every new ending I write, you are there. You, the unspoken promise that binds meaning to that otherwise white, barren and blank space.
During those nights over Skype, I would turn the orchid in its little terra cotta pot in my hands. I kept it in view, so you would see it. The orchid experiences different states to see what best to exist, you said, reading from your phone a cleaned-up Google English translation of what you meant in Korean. Back then I thought I knew exactly what you meant. I thought such language rooted in inexact translation had possibilities. I thought those words offered a future because we were trying so hard to understand each other, despite speaking through a computer, despite the language and cultural barriers. It was difference that brought us together, you as a musician and I as a poet, to collaborate on a project. I never thought our attempts to communicate would give me such hope when my own Jewish faith had rooted me in lifelong doubt. Somewhere along the way, I started to believe conversations like ours might lead toward a future like the one in Amichai’s “Wildpeace” in which peace comes
without the big noise of beating swords into ploughshares,
without words, without
the thud of the heavy rubber stamp: let it be
light, floating, like lazy white foam.
Do you remember when I first read you this poem, in Hebrew— which you could not understand, but insisted on hearing me speak— and then in English? I pronounced each word, pronounced slowly and carefully, even though you did not know Hebrew at all. Your English was better than my Korean, and I tried to explain as best as I could what the words meant. You were so intent on understanding that I felt heard as a Jew, heard in a way I never felt in Jerusalem. It was such a simple, strange feeling: the more Amichai poems I shared with you, the more I began to believe in the “wildpeace” of Jerusalem— a city in which I failed to make a life— and believe that I would live to see a future in which peace was possible.
I began to believe in a day that world powers would cease in fighting over Jerusalem, she who was meant to be an international spiritual refuge, less a city and more a song that belonged to everyone, an idolatry of space we had come to worship with our guns and borders and walls. I spoke freely of this Jerusalem with you, of a strange longing I could not quite see as wholly as I should have because somewhere along the way your words began to take on the same strange longing. They became part of my larger longing, that imagined, ever-growing future that never left me, the same one I could not quite grasp onto even after we shut our computer screens. I knew what was happening. But I believed we had all the time in the world to figure out how to be friends who echoed each other beyond spacetime and earthly boundaries.
My sweetest friend. How wrong I have been.
My eyes want to stream to each other
like two neighbor lakes.
To tell each other
all they have seen.
My blood has many relatives—
they never visit.
But when they die
my blood inherits.
“Six Songs for Tamar”
My husband who tried to save the orchid. He tried many times. He is a constant, this man I married in front of a woman rabbi who conducted an Orthodox service almost completely in Hebrew in front of Hebrew-nonspeaking friends and family— that is, my Mexican family on my mother’s side. Only my parents, my brother and I understood the Hebrew. This rabbi was the only one we could find who’d marry us because although I was raised an observant Jew, my background is mixed— my mother having converted from Catholicism— and my husband is Chinese and (still) not sure if he wants to convert to Judaism. None of my father’s side showed up. My Jewish side was completely absent. My whole life has been like this: something crucial goes missing while still needing some sort of translation for those present. I have explained my entire life to others who do not understand how two very different cultures can contain both love and intolerance for what they bear and birth. History is not always the most useful guide for how to navigate such perilous channels; in fact, it rarely is.
It was not until I read and attempted to explain Amichai’s poems to you— poems rooted deeply in a history of a particular pain and longing— that language became something more than a life that could live or die. It made me reexamine the choices I have made in my own life, the choices that bind me to an eternal future-present in which one thing— or person—remains a constant.
Late last year, I lost my Aunt Olivia. She passed away quite suddenly on November 1st, All Saint’s Day. Ten years ago, she had a “webbing” of a brain tumor removed and lost most of her mobility, her ability to reason, her right to memory. She was a strong, vibrant woman before her illness: a Chicana activist, a single mother, the life of any party. My family thought her incredible brain would heal itself. We were wrong. I was not there when she died but across the country in New York City, far from her home on a hill of Chula Vista where you can see the flickering lights of neighboring Tijuana. My mother, her older sister, would joke that Aunt Olivia had moved all the way from the Rio Grande Valley only to trade in one borderland for another. And even though my mother’s family is now scattered all over the country, we always seem to be in other’s business, a kind of present perfect in our lives as much as a past continuous. We never let anyone transition completely; we talk about our dearly departed as if they are still alive.
I received the news of her death early that morning, so early that when I opened the window to the fire escape outside, my neighborhood was still bathed in low cloud-cover and streetlight. I tried not to read the stars I could not see in the sky, the stars that will one day implode and burn out. And I tried not to read into it when, only two days before my aunt died, you lost a friend who had been like an uncle and an older brother to you, an elder you looked up to.
Even now, I try not to think too much about what it means that even apart, you and I have seen death together.
Several weeks after my aunt died, you wrote to me for the first time in two years. You were in New York on business, that you lost someone, someone dear, that you were not there when he died, but in another country. You asked if we could meet, only for a day, during the safe, daylight hours. So much had happened to you, events that made you question your faith in yourself and what it meant to be alive. Your sentences were long, without punctuation but clear.
So I fretted over my desk where the orchid is no longer half-blooming and half-dying. Then I fretted on the 7 train, which without reason kicked off its passengers at Queensboro Plaza, asking for us to wait for a train with no clear promises as when it would arrive. On the platform, I ended up taking a different train on a different line, throwing the whole day out of step. As I tore through Grand Central to make it to teach my class on time, I thought of the strange timing of our shared loss. How even apart we had seen death together. Two years have passed. The orchid is dead. I am not the same person you once knew.
Later that evening, I waited until my husband came home to tell him that you wrote to me. My ever-calm, ever-empathetic husband said that it sounded like you were in pain, that it was up to me, that he trusted me. He took my head in his hands and kissed me. He has never asked about the falling out between you and me; he knows we lost financial backing for our project, but he has never asked, not once, why we stopped talking. He kissed me again. We had dinner, and I thought about the countless hours he spent memorizing the Hebrew he needed to say for our wedding ceremony. The words he memorized but did not exactly understand. The words he still says to me from time to time, a scattering of syllables and sounds that have lost some of their cohesion, a jumble of seemingly incoherent love that I understand perfectly. Sometimes I correct him. Most of the time I do not.
Before we went to sleep, I picked up my edition of Amichai’s Poems of Jerusalem and Love Poems, a Hebrew-English bilingual edition, the same one I used to read to you. I opened a page at random to this stanza from “In the Middle of This Century,” which I bracketed.
Dust from the desert covered the table
at which we did not eat.
But with my finger I wrote on it
the letters of your name.
We meet a few days later. I arrive at a friend’s apartment where you are staying. I do not read you this poem. I do not ask if you remembered the time I showed you your name in Hebrew, in the hard, boxy block script you preferred over the everyday cursive. I do not ask if you remembered that I read you this very stanza when you told me you were jealous that I also translated other friends’ names in Hebrew. I remember thinking there was so much in the lives we would not live together, but that you and I could be “beautiful like prophecies/ that never come true,” as Amichai writes in A Majestic Love Song.
That’s how it started
and I don’t know how it will end.
But still, from beyond the valley,
from beyond pain and distance
we shall forever go on calling out
to each other “we’ll change.”
—”These words, Like Heaps of Feather”
You and I have a day, or rather less than that, a handful of hours to not talk about the deaths still fresh within us. We open Amichai’s book of poems. We sit in the living room of your friend’s apartment, and each hold one end of the book. I read a poem in Hebrew on the left pages. You read the English translation on the right. We flip randomly through the book until we get to the very short poem “People Use Each Other.” You frown at the title and try to turn the page, but I have already begun reading it in Hebrew. I wait for you to read it in English. When you do not, I read it instead:
People use each other
as a healing for their pain. They put each other
on their existential wounds,
on eye, on cunt, on mouth and open hand.
They hold each other hard and won’t let go.
You stare at the page, your brow still furrowed. The poem does not mean what you think it does; it does not mean squandering what you hold precious. For some, bodies simply coming together can ease the greatest of suffering. I say it does not cheapen one’s pain. I listen to you breathe. Suddenly, you drop your end of the book, roll up a sleeve and show me a new tattoo on your arm. Changing the subject, you ask me if I have changed my mind about never getting one. I shake my head. I say I’d made a promise and it still stands. You ask me what promise.
When I was a child, my maternal grandmother asked that I never mark my body, since during the Shoah, the Nazi regime branded the Jewish body with a number, simultaneously cataloguing and erasing each name that belonged to each body. Then my childhood rabbi told me I could not be buried in a Jewish cemetery if I tattooed my body, and even if I tried later in life to cut off the flesh of the marking, the supervising rabbi would know what I had done. He would know I marked my body, my already questionable Jewish body, a question that would never go away due my parents’ mixed-marriage. I was told that it would be a great sin to ever consider cremation, burning my body, given what happened to the Jewish people during the Shoah. But all this has been slipping away since I got married. I can keep my promise to my grandmother not to tattoo my body, but my husband’s family cremates their bodies. And besides, how can he, a non-Jew, be buried in a Jewish cemetery?
Suddenly you whisper: It is your body.
I say: I made a promise.
You sit there next to me, each of us still holding the end of Amichai’s love poems. I do not ask you what kind of reality you believe this is, or what kind of future we have now. It is cruel to think of this moment— or you— as a temporary passing. It is equally cruel to deny this is not a healing. I hear you weep. I feel you shaking next to me. I can only hold your hand as you press your head into my shoulder and let out great, bellowing sobs. I sit very still and stare at the bottom of the book’s cover, a solid, rich, blood-red color: Poems of Jerusalem and Love Poems. Then I stare at its top half, which bears a photo of The Old City, the Dome of the Rock and the Kotel at night under a full moon, its craters hyper-visible, the sky a deep navy blue and starless as if sealed. I think again of the stars that hide until they are meant to be seen, the stars that wait for our eyes to focus.
Your eyes are burning brightly in the now dark room. Your face is shadows among shadows, but in your eyes is another world of pain. I stare at you in the darkness as I hand you a tissue, wanting to say that you will be okay, but abstract comforts like this are not what you need. What you want, and what you need, I cannot give you. This is why we stopped speaking in the first place. I already made certain choices in my life, and I made them long before we met, long before we arrived in a future where the orchid is dead.
We go on sitting there with the book traversing each other’s laps and legs, its spine bent and the pages coming loose from the binding, open to the poem “If with a Bitter Mouth.” It is too dark to read the last lines of the poem, which I know by heart, the lines I hold in the silence, the words I do not say “And in these dreams/we will be strangers/we did not know together.”
Perhaps that is the best I can hope for us. Peace, if it ever arrives for you and me, would mean the end of what we are now. But you have also given me immeasurable hope for the world, for the way people communicate despite the numerous mistakes we make and will make along the way.
I think of Amichai, all his pain and desire for peace, and his dreams that went unfulfilled, and now how you’ve given me such great belief that Jerusalem might awaken on her own one day, shake off the dust from her stones, emerge from the tombs in which we planted her as hope. I pray that she might take a long, deep breath, and that we would not pluck her shoots and replant them in our homes to watch them die. I think of our lives and the lives of so many others, lives where stories bind them to the past inhibiting the present that was once the future.
Once you asked me if I read you Amichai’s Poems of Jerusalem to keep you at a distance, to keep us from ever becoming, because for all my longing you knew I’d failed to make a life in Jerusalem. I’d failed to become a poet who wrote in Hebrew, who wrote herself into such a canon. But from such failure, or because of such failure, I found a life, a beautiful life, elsewhere and made new promises build upon old ones. The keeping of those promises is ongoing; it is a poem I will never stop writing, just as I will keep speaking of my dearly departed aunt as if she is still alive, in the tradition of my mother’s family, just as I will never tattoo my body in honor of my grandmother’s strength and sacrifice in surviving a war that destroyed millions of others.
And while I do not live in her streets and listen to her songs with my head on her heaving chest of stone, I will go on longing for Jerusalem. That longing is real, and it has made me strange to both myself and her. I cannot live in Jerusalem. I cannot be with her. I cannot be with you. I cannot let that kind of grief consume me. Jerusalem is in my life, and yet I must remain a step away from her— as I must you. To live otherwise would mean to admit there’s no road for us at all, no future.
Roads die like people, quietly or suddenly breaking.
Stay with me. I want to be you.
In this burning country
words have to be shade.
This poem, simply called “Love Poem,” has always read as a promise to me. My sweetest friend, I have made such promises to others, to my mother’s family, to my father’s mother, and most of all, to the wonderful man I married. I must keep them, all of them. That does not mean goodbye forever. It means only that I wish you will one day find your shelter in strange, desolate lands, even when nothing else can take root in barren space but you and your love. May you rest your head in her hands when roads break quietly, suddenly.
May you both go beyond this world by being very much a part of it, together.
Rosebud Ben-oni is a Latinx-Jewish American poet and writer. She is a recipient of the 2014 NYFA Fellowship in Poetry and a 2013 CantoMundo Fellow. Her most recent collection of poems, turn around, BRXGHT XYXS, was selected as Agape Editions’ EDITORS’ CHOICE, and will be published in 2019. She writes weekly for The Kenyon Review blog and is an Editorial Advisor for VIDA: Women in Literary Arts.