Weekend Poem: The Amen Stone by Yehuda Amichai

The Amen Stone by Yehuda Amichai

It is the one-year anniversary of the Newtown school massacre. Thinking of all the parents who lost their children that day brought to mind several of Yehuda Amichai’s poems.

He was a Israeli philosopher-poet and considered, still, to be their finest. Shortlisted many times for the Nobel Literature Prize, he never actually won, though he did recite a poem at a Nobel Prize ceremony when his friend, Yitzhak Rabin, won the Nobel Peace Prize and requested him to do so. That poem was ‘God Has Pity on Kindergarten Children‘.

Amichai, having been through several wars himself, wrote often of the human condition and, while not religious, of the nature and purpose of the Divine in our world. Such was his broad-ranging oeuvre, though, that he inspired many musicians, composers and other poets and writers in their works. A prolific writer, his archives at Yale University contain thousands of letters, diaries of some-40 years and countless notes and unpublished works of poetry and fiction.

Today’s poem is about how en masse, senseless and destructive killing tears things apart irreparably and creates deep turmoil and unrest. Yet, with kindness, patience and acceptance, we can, somehow, manage to bring about some peace and cope with the longing and yearning.

As was Amichai’s wont, the poem takes an angled perspective – that of a destroyed graveyard rather than the destruction of actual lives. Yet, he shines a new light on the latter by using and extending the graveyard destruction as a metaphor. It is also interesting that he uses the destruction of a graveyard, as opposed to some other place, as his example. It is, after all, a senseless and thoughtless act of desecration. Yet, given its significance as the final resting place of our beloved family and friends, it carries a deep level of meaning and importance for us. It symbolizes that final peace after death and, in Amichai’s telling here, even that peace is not protected.

He starts by describing a stone that lies on his desk. This stone, with the one word of “Amen” inscribed on it (as you see on the book’s cover too), has appeared in several of his poems. So, we know that it means a lot to him. It is a triangular fragment, he tells us, from a destroyed Jewish graveyard. And, while he doesn’t tell us exactly where this destruction happened, knowing his background and that the third line says “many generations ago”, it is very likely in one of two places – either in Jerusalem, where he spent much of his life, or in Germany, just before World War II, where he lived till the age of 11 before his family emigrated to what was, at the time, British-managed Palestine.

The poem then goes on to tell us that there were many other, hundreds, even, fragments, that were scattered as a result of that destruction. And, here’s where he takes a slight turn from the ordinary. He now describes these fragments as living things for, he says, they are filled with a “great yearning, a longing without end” from having been broken up and separated – very like human beings who, when separated violently, yearn and long for the ones they’ve lost.

In the next few lines, where he could have turned somewhat maudlin or pandering for pity from the readers, instead, he extends that metaphor of stone fragments as people by describing their grief in simple, yet vivid, terms. So, he tells us how the gravestone epitaphs have been split apart and are in search of each other: “first name in search of family name” and “date of death seeks dead man’s birthplace”. And, how, the souls of those resting under those gravestones are no longer in peace because of the massacre.

He calls our minds back to the “Amen Stone” and how it is the only fragment that lies calmly. I’ve never quite decided why this fragment is at rest even though it is separated like the others. It could be because it has found a home and a kindness, like Amichai goes on to describe in the last section of the poem. Or, it could just be the power of that word, “Amen”, which is an acceptance and a supplication to things as they are – the literal Hebrew meaning being “so be it”.

In the final section, Amichai describes how a good, kind and sad man is gathering all the fragments up and trying to put them back together. We don’t know who this man is, but there are certain allusions that have led many to interpret him as God: “cleanses them of every blemish”, “arranges them… in the great hall”, “whole again, one again”, “the resurrection of the dead”, etc. That Amichai ends the poem by suggesting that this work is “child’s play” for this person reinforces the implication of a greater strength or force. Yet, having read many other Amichai poems, while he does present God in many forms (e.g. as a mechanic fixing the engine of the world), he has, almost always, referred to God directly and not called him, specifically, a “man”, as he does here. So, I do wonder about a second interpretation of this person as, really, just a good human being who takes on this task out of a kindness and a sadness. And, yes, this person may well require a God-like strength and force to be able to put everything back as it once was, but it is possible.

Also, going deeper into that last section, if we accept that the person putting all the broken destroyed pieces back together again is indeed God or a God-like being, then we have to accept that Amichai is also suggesting that the en masse destruction, the terrible wounds and aftermath it creates and the grief and unrest it leaves behind can only be addressed by a superior being. This does rather clash with his well-known world views and philosophies on war, destruction, political struggles, etc. It is hard to say whether he meant one or the other because he often wrote in colloquial or ancient Hebrew and translations have not always managed to convey the full and appropriate meanings of his imagery and metaphors. Personally, I prefer the second interpretation. Don’t you?

In the end, though, I think that what is important is how he describes that things can be put right again even if they seem to have been irreparably broken or torn or destroyed. They may never be the same again, but there is hope for some sense of peace and rest again. And, his repetition of the word “Amen” (he uses it 3 times, including in the title) is a gentle reminder of the need for acceptance and supplication. [Easy for me to say, I realize, but, this is from a poet who had fought in difficult wars, lived through the assassinations of close friends and believed that peace was possible yet in his lifetime.]

The Amen Stone

On my desk there is a stone with the word “Amen” on it,
a triangular fragment of stone from a Jewish graveyard destroyed
many generations ago. The other fragments, hundreds upon hundreds,
were scattered helter-skelter, and a great yearning,
a longing without end, fills them all:
first name in search of family name, date of death seeks
dead man’s birthplace, son’s name wishes to locate
name of father, date of birth seeks reunion with soul
that wishes to rest in peace. And until they have found
one another, they will not find a perfect rest.
Only this stone lies calmly on my desk and says “Amen.”
But now the fragments are gathered up in loving kindness
by a sad good man. He cleanses them of every blemish,
photographs them one by one, arranges them on the floor
in the great hall, makes each gravestone whole again,
one again: fragment to fragment,
like the resurrection of the dead, a mosaic,
a jigsaw puzzle. Child’s play.

– Yehuda Amichai, “The Amen Stone” from ‘Open Closed Open‘, trans. by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld