part 5 of The Language of Love and Tea on Roast Almonds,
by Yehuda Amichai (1924-2000) - translation by arieh
I know a man who made himself the ideal woman from his thoughts.
The hair he took from a woman passing in the window of a bus;
The forehead from a cousin who died in her youth; The hands
from a teacher from his childhood, the smile from the his first love;
The mouth from a woman he saw talking in a phone booth;
The thighs from a teenager bathing in the sand at the beach;
The nose from here, the eyes from there,
and the hands from a model in a magazine. From all of these
he made a woman that he truly loved. And when he died, they came,
All of them, feet severed, faces ripped, eyes missing,
hairless, broken hands and a gash where there should be a mouth,
And they took what was theirs, and took what was theirs,
And tore at his body, and split him and ripped off his flesh,
leaving only his lonely soul.
This poem - or more properly fragment of a poem - appears in Amichai's last book, Open Closed Open. The Language of Love and Tea on Roast Almonds is one of the less easy-to-categorise poems in that book, and part 5, above, stands out from the rest of the poem.
I should probably explain that Amichai's longer poems are divided into numbered sections, and it's not always obvious how each section relates to the whole. While you may spot some kind of a narrative - or at least a broad theme - connecting the parts, occasionally a piece seems almost incongruous. While the rest of the poem talks in gentle tones, this part cries out against... What?
I read this a stinging condemnation of idealising as a destructive force, destructive both to the idealised person ("...faces ripped, eyes missing...") and the idealiser ("...split him and ripped off his flesh...").
The wonderful thing about this piece is that it lulls the reader into a false sense of security, only to throw in a twist at the end. The playful, adolescent idea of assembling this ideal woman, combined with the slow, gentle language (more pronounced in the original Hebrew) gives hints of a happy ending. The tone changes dramatically when the man dies. Short, sinister phrases help force home the horror. The real contrast, though, is between the ending you thought would happen - that he meets his ideal woman in Heaven - with his total destruction. The impression is one of justice, the wounded women taking his body-parts to compensate for theirs.
Amichai doesn't dismiss this form of imagination as juvenile or meaningless. The man "truly loved" this ideal woman, and though she doesn't directly appear in the piece, it seems she has become 'real'. Or perhaps there is nothing; the man has taken from the women, without gaining anything at all.
The major theme of Open Closed Open is remembering and forgetting, and this theme is present here; perhaps it's about the danger of remembering only selectively.
This piece was one of the major influences behind my I tried to memorise her, from beginning to end, I now realise on rereading it. Funny how you can fail to realise what influences you.