Poem of the Week

A Woman Like a Camel

Yehuda Amichai makes a startling comparison in a previously unpublished sketch.

Portrait of a woman

Yehuda Amichai

Like a camel now she has the skill
to walk the desert and not sink in.
And with water and sky to fill
herself for a year or two.
A walking hump of memories rising high,
stress of the journey saddening her eyes.
A path strewn with bones of others’ tries.
The storm arrives: Surrender. Bended knee.

Translated from Hebrew by Vivian Eden, by permission of Hana Amichai.

This previously unpublished poem, or sketch for a poem, is among the drafts written in notebooks and on random scraps of paper by Yehuda Amichai, which his daughter, the dancer and choreographer Emanuella Amichai, released to Haaretz earlier this month.

Yehuda Amichai. Portrait by Eran Wolkowski

“I don’t know whether to call them completed poems It’s a number of thoughts, ideas, parts of poems,” Emanuella told Haaretz reporter Ofer Aderet of the selection from the poet’s estate, which is preserved at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University.

According to her, her father would write and then set the texts aside “to rest, a kind of brooding,” after which he would go back for “an additional editing process.”

We cannot know what changes Amichai (1924-2000) might have made had he lived; it feels like a careful botanist’s real-time rendering of a new species found in his fieldwork. In it, there is no “I” or “you,” but rather a non-judgmental character sketch, a swift drawing of an individual and a complex but mysterious story in eight lines. The extended simile comparing a woman to a camel is a highly unusual trope, if not one of a kind.

We do not know who “she” is or why she chooses to “walk the desert.” Any number of possibilities suggest themselves: Perhaps she is committing herself to a demanding art or political cause, perhaps she is devoting herself to a child or someone else she loves who has a terrible affliction or perhaps she hopes to reform an alcoholic, addicted or otherwise poorly chosen lover.

She prepares by filling herself, specifically her hump, with water and sky – sustenance and dreams – and forges ahead carrying her memories with her. A hump, though necessary and beautiful on a camel, is not usually considered beautiful on a woman, yet the poem makes it so. The journey proves difficult. She does not succeed where others died trying. In the end, some sort of cataclysm – the storm – appears, and she is forced to concede.

Emanuella Amichai will speak about the poet and his work process this evening (Tuesday, January 13) at the “Lashon Rishon” conference in Rishon Letzion.

* Musings: Is the back-story about a specific woman or did Amichai hit upon the comparison and then imagine a story? Does it matter?

* Bonus: Another poem by Yehuda Amichai with animal and desert imagery read by former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky: