North of San Francisco
Translated from the Hebrew by Avshalom Guissin
Here the soft hills touch the sea,
like eternity touching on eternity.
And the cows that graze on them
ignore us, like angels.
Even the scent of ripe cantaloupe in the cellar
is a prophecy of calm.
The darkness does not fight the light
but passes it forward
to another light and the only pain
is the pain of not staying.
In my land called holy
eternity isn’t allowed to be eternity:
they divided it into small religions
and demarcated it in deified departments
and shattered it into shards of history
sharp and mortally wounding.
And they turned its calm reaches
into a closeness that twitches with present pain.
On Bolinas beach at the bottom of the wooden stairs
I saw bare buttocked girls
bowing down in the sand
intoxicated with the kingdom of everlasting kingdoms,
and their souls within like doors
closing and opening,
closing and opening,
to the rhythm of the breaking waves.
From: Yehuda Amichai, Me-Adam Bata, Ve-El Adam Tashuv (Schocken Publishing, Tel Aviv, 1985), pp. 99–100.
Yehuda Amichai (1924–2000) is considered by many, both in Israel and internationally, as Israel’s greatest modern poet. One of the first poets to write in colloquial Hebrew, he won numerous Israeli and international poetry prizes, including the Israel Prize in 1982.
Avshalom Guissin is a PhD student in Tel Aviv University who is currently writing his dissertation about contemporary Irish poetry written in the US. In 2006 he won the Fred’s Gift prize for translation of poetry to English. He is a proud veteran member of the Tel Aviv-based writing group The Wondering Workshop, and has published poems in local anthologies and in poetry magazines abroad.
Translator’s Note: The last stanza here was the trickiest, but also the most rewarding. I particularly enjoyed my choice as a translator to use the words “bottom” and “stairs” (which sounds like “stares”)—rather than, for instance, “end” and “steps”—in the first line, so as to parallel and emphasize what’s happening in the second line. I chose “buttock” rather than any other synonym for that part of the anatomy in order to reflect Amichai’s choice of a high-registered, nearly archaic or indeed, biblical word.
The challenge of translating biblical references from Hebrew is always a tough one. At first I felt that the King James translation to the line taken from Psalms 145:13 in the fourth line was a bit too long and awkward-sounding in the general flow of the poem. However, upon further reflection I realized that this reference to a song of universal reverence, uttered in view of an unchaste vista on a foreign shore, needs to be just that—awkward and protruding in a grand, almost melodramatic manner that cannot be ignored.