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Seven Laments for the War-Dead

by Yehuda Amichai

    Mr. Beringer, whose son
    fell at the Canal that strangers dug
    so ships could cross the desert,
    crosses my path at Jaffa Gate.

    He has grown very thin, has lost
    the weight of his son.
    That's why he floats so lightly in the alleys
    and gets caught in my heart like little twigs
    that drift away.

    As a child he would mash his potatoes
    to a golden mush.
    And then you die.

    A living child must be cleaned
    when he comes home from playing.
    But for a dead man
    earth and sand are clear water, in which
    his body goes on being bathed and purified

    The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
    across there. On the enemy's side. A good landmark
    for gunners of the future.

    Or the war monument in London
    at Hyde Park Corner, decorated
    like a magnificent cake: yet another soldier
    lifting head and rifle,
    another cannon, another eagle, another
    stone angel.

    And the whipped cream of a huge marble flag
    poured over it all
    with an expert hand.

    But the candied, much-too-red cherries
    were already gobbled up
    by the glutton of hearts. Amen.

    I came upon an old zoology textbook,
    Brehm, Volume II, Birds:
    in sweet phrases, an account of the life of the starling,
    swallow, and thrush. Full of mistakes in antiquated
    Gothic typeface, but full of love, too. "Our feathered
    friends." "Migrate from us to warmer climes."
    Nest, speckled egg, soft plumage, nightingale,
    stork. "The harbirngers of spring." The robin,

    Year of publication: 1913, Germany,
    on the eve of the war that was to be
    the eve of all my wars.
    My good friend who died in my arms, in
    his blood,
    on the sands of Ashdod. 1948, June.

    Oh my-friend,

    Dicky was hit.
    Like the water tower at Yad Mordekhai.
    Hit. A hole in the belly. Everything
    came flooding out.

    But he has remained standing like that
    in the landscape of my memory
    like the water tower at Yad Mordekhai.

    He fell not far from there,
    a little to the north, near Houlayqat.

    Is all of this
    sorrow? I don't know.
    I stood in the cemetery dressed in
    the camouflage clothes of a living man: brown pants
    and a shirt yellow as the sun.

    Cemeteries are cheap; they don't ask for much.
    Even the wastebaskets are small, made for holding
    tissue paper
    that wrapped flowers from the store.
    Cemeteries are a polite and disciplined thing.
    "I Shall never forget you," in French
    on a little ceramic plaque.
    I don't know who it is that won't ever forget:
    he's more anonymous than the one who died.

    Is all of this sorrow? I guess so.
    "May ye find consolation in the building
    of the homeland." But how long
    can you go on building the homeland
    and not fall behind in the terrible
    three-sided race
    between consolation and building and death?

    Yes, all of this is sorrow. But leave
    a little love burining always
    like the small bulb in the room of a sleeping baby
    that gives him a bit of security and quiet love
    though he doesn't know what the light is
    or where it comes from.

    Memorial Day for the war-dead: go tack on
    the grief of all your losses —
    including a woman who left you —
    to the grief of losing them; go mix
    one sorrow with another, like history,
    that in its economical way
    heaps pain and feast and sacrifice
    onto a single day for easy reference.

    Oh sweet world, soaked like bread
    in sweet milk for the terrible
    toothless God. "Behind all this,
    some great happiness is hiding." No use
    crying inside and screaming outside.
    Behind all this, some great happiness may
    be hiding.

    Memorial day. Bitter salt, dressed up as
    a little girl with flowers.
    Ropes are strung out the whole length of the route
    for a joing parade: the living and the dead together.
    Children move with the footsteps of someone else's grief
    as if picking their way through broken glass.

    The flautist's mouth will stay pursed for many days.
    A dead soldier swims among the small heads
    with the swimming motions of the dead,
    with the ancient error the dead have
    about the place of the living water.

    A flag loses contact with reality and flies away
    A store window decked out with beautiful dresses for women
    in blue and white. And everything
    in three languages: Hebrew, Arabic and Death.

    A great royal beast has been dying all night long
    under the jasmine,
    with a fixed stare at the world.
    A man whose son died in the war
    walks up the street
    like a woman with a dead fetus inside her womb.
    "Behind all this, some great happiness is hiding."