Poem of the Week / I, Who Am Still Living, May I Rest in Peace

Yehuda Amichai didn't have a death wish, he had a life wish, and didn't accept that 'life is war'

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Yehuda Amichai.
Yehuda Amichai. Credit: courtesy of Hana Amichai

I, May I Rest in Peace

Yehuda Amichai

I, may I rest in peace – I, who am still living, say,
May I have peace in the rest of my life.
I want peace right now while I'm still alive.
I don't want to wait like that pious man who wished for one leg
of the golden chair of Paradise, I want a four-legged chair
right here, a plain wooden chair. I want the rest of my peace now.
I have lived out my life in wars of every kind: battles without
and within, close combat, face-to-face, the faces always
my own, my lover-face, my enemy-face.
Wars with the old weapons—sticks and stones, blunt axe, words,
dull ripping knife, love and hate,
and wars with newfangled weapons—machine gun, missile,
words, land mines exploding, love and hate.
I don't want to fulfill my parents' prophecy that life is war.
I want peace with all my body and all my soul.
Rest me in peace.

From Patuah, Sagur Patuah, (Schocken, 1998). English translation from “In My Life, On My Life, in Open Closed Open," translated by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld (New York and London: Harcourt, 2000). Reprinted by permission of the translators.

Yehuda Amichai was born Ludwig Pfoeffer in Wurzburg, Germany on May 3, 1924. He and died in Jerusalem one week before Rosh Hashanah on September 22, 2000.

Introduced to an international audience by Ted Hughes and Daniel Weissbort in Modern Poetry in Translation in 1965, his work became so popular worldwide that this month a British newspaper, The Telegraph, nominated his “Selected Poetry” as one of the best poetry books of all time.

This poem, from the last of the 16 collections published in Amichai’s lifetime, revives “shalom” in Alav hashalom – literally “may peace be upon him,” the “dead” phrase piously and automatically uttered after mention of a deceased person – which transforms it into a statement about life rather than death.

The equivalent “rest in peace” is a bonanza for the translators: In the Hebrew there is no “rest” in the sense of “repose”– but the word takes on added value in English in the sense of “remainder” in “the rest of my life,” in both the preceding senses in “the rest of my peace” and as a transitive verb in “rest me in peace.”

The “pious man” in the first stanza is from a Jewish folktale. He believed that in the world to come, he would sit on a golden chair. A prayer for just one leg of it to make ends meet in this world was granted, but then his wife worried that he would wobble uncomfortably on a three-legged chair for all eternity.

Amichai’s “plain wooden chair,” incidentally, might be oblique homage to 17th century English poet George Herbert’s “true” as opposed to “painted chair” in his ars poetica Jordan 1.

Personal battles and war in Europe

“I have lived out my life in wars of every kind” is autobiographical: Personal battles aside, Amichai fought in the Palmach, the British Army in Europe in World War II, the 1948 War of Independence, the 1956 Sinai Campaign and the 1973 Yom Kippur War. In between, he qualified as a teacher –- the profession at which he earned his living -- and studied Hebrew literature and Bible at Hebrew University.

The Orthodox immigrant boy who came to Palestine in 1935 with his family lived a secular life as an adult. The obituary in The New York Times observed that Amichai was “distilled his experience -- and his nation's -- into highly metaphorical verse written in Hebrew", and translated into more than 25 languages - though that should be more than 40 languages.

* Musing: How does Amichai’s identification with the state differ from the (purported) statement by French King Louis XIV, L’état c’est moi – “I am the state?”

* Bonus: Amichai also contemplated his own death in a 1955 anti-war poem, “I want to die in my own bed,” which was later set to music- see the video below.