Home > poets > Letter (by Yehuda Amichai)

Letter (by Yehuda Amichai)

Letter is a riveting love poem.  But that it is a love poem dawns only gradually. It takes to the third verse before a ‘we’ is introduced:

We were not careful when we said “next year”
or ” a month ago.”

 And it lasts until the fourth verse before the unknown part of that ‘we’ undeniably turns into a woman:

But you were beautiful, like the interpretation
of ancient books.

The first two verses are mainly a reflection on time passing:

To sit on the veranda of a hotel in Jerusalem
and to write: Sweetly pass the days
from desert to sea.

And in the second verse:

Time passes -like somebody who, on a telephone,
is laughing or weeping far away from me

The themes of love and time are interwoven here. Just as time passes, so did the love (or rather, the relationship). In retrospect, the relation between time and love is already apparent from the first verse:

… And to write: Tears, here,
dry quickly. This little blot
is a tear that has melted ink …

The third verse broods on the relation between time and love ‘from the inside’:

We were not careful when we said “next year”
or “a month ago”. These words are like
glass splinters, which you can hurt yourself with,
or cut veins. Those who do things like that.

There is an inherent tendency in romantic love to consider it everlasting and hence to ‘plan ahead’, a propensity that is belied by reality time and again; in fact it is a hopeless endeavour to control time, let alone love.

A third theme, closely related to love and time, is life itself; life that is permeated by love but derives its creative strengths from love long passed away:

To live is to build a ship and a harbor
at the same time. And to complete the harbor
long after the ship was drowned.

(Needless to say, the ship is love. The harbor is life).

Reflections on love, time, and life are common in poetry. Poets love to work with those terms. Why? Because they are at once highly significant and devilishly hard to analyse, hence extremely fascinating. Instead of assaying to analyse them, poets frequently turn them into substantives (as if they were precious objects) and place them in unexpected contexts -to which they lithely lend themselves- such as to elucidate their mysterious character and rub our nose into it.

The most ‘direct’ reflection on time we find in the second verse:

Time passes –like somebody who, on a telephone,
is laughing or weeping far away from me:
whatever I’m hearing I can’t see
And whatever I see I don’t hear.

Unsurprisingly it is the distancing character of time passing that calls for his attention here.

The following sentence in the fourth verse unveils most clearly the ineluctable – or at least prevalent – passing of romantic love:

… Surplus of women in your far country
brought you to me, but
other statistics have taken you
away from me …

The concentration on statistics in a situation where we are definitely more interested in specifics is itself a clever distancing procedure.

Finally, the only thing left of the romantic love is ‘mist’, a very painful and unsatisfying remnant to be sure:

And to finish: I remember only
that there was mist. And whoever
remembers only mist —
what does he remember?

What a hauntingly beautiful poem!

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