Close Read: Yehuda Amichai's
“Huleikat—The Third Poem about Dicky”

In these hills even the oil rigs
are already a memory. Here Dicky fell
who was four years older than I and like a father to me
in times of anguish. Now that I’m older than him
by forty years, I remember him like a young son,
and I an old grieving father.

And you who remember only a face,
don’t forget the outstretched hands and the legs
that run so easily and the words.

Remember that even the road to terrible battles
always passes by gardens and windows and children
playing and a barking dog.

Remember the fruit that fell and remind it of the leaves and the branch,
remind the hard thorns that they were soft and green in springtime,
and don’t forget that the fist, too,
was once the palm of an open hand, and fingers.

 

On the surface, this poem is an elegy. It’s a remembrance for a friend of the speaker. The friend died decades ago in the place where the speaker now stands, possibly an extant or abandoned oil field. It’s not explicitly stated, but the reader may assume that Dicky died in military conflict. The brief mention of the oil field, and in a Middle Eastern location called Huleikat, is indicative of the ongoing, bloody conflict in that region. A soldier’s death may also be extrapolated from both the word “fell,” a militaristic euphemism for dying, and from the language that dominates the third stanza: “even the road to terrible battles always passes by gardens and windows and children playing and a barking dog.” These lines paint a very specific scene, contrasting violence with relative innocence. It’s easy to believe the speaker has experienced each of those extremes in his life, and not alone, but with this particular friend, Dicky.

These images transition beautifully into the fourth and final stanza. Instead of continuing on the road to the battle, the speaker stays in the garden and focuses on its plants. But even in this relatively innocent environment of the garden, the speaker still finds violence and conflict, aging and death. Fruit falls, after it has ripened, mirroring Dicky’s fall—despite the mere four year difference, the speaker considered Dicky to be a mature and father-like figure. The thorns, agents of defense that are painful and harmful to human touch, have matured from their “soft and green” origins. And the speaker notes that before a hand can be a fist, a symbol of violence, it is first an open palm and fingers, a more innocuous, helpful, and even inviting image.

This image of the open palm and fingers recalls the second stanza’s “outstretched hands and the legs that run so easily and the words.” In this stanza, the poem takes a significant turn. What started out as an elegy transforms into an anaphoric directive to the reader. He turns out from the page and says, “And you who remember only a face.” It’s arguable that the speaker is addressing himself in this moment, imploring himself to remember, especially since he states specifically that he’s engaging in the remembrance of his friend as though he were his son. But the use of the second person is undeniable, and the reader is unquestionably implicated, as the speaker implores the reader to remember and “don’t forget.” In this way, each reader is asked to remember a number of things. Chief among the things to be remembered would be the reader’s own “Dicky,” a person whom he or she has lost, perhaps too early. Yet the speaker doesn’t want the reader to remember only a face, but the complete person. The speaker also wants the reader to remember the road that connects the peace of the garden and the innocence of childhood to the violence of battle.

In addition to remembering, the speaker wants the reader to take on the responsibility of reminding. The speaker implores the reader to remember the fruit that fell, and then to remind that same fallen fruit of the leaves and branches from its immature origins. The reader is also tasked with the responsibility of reminding the thorns of their more innocent origins as “soft and green.”

The speaker seems to practice acceptance of the early, violent death of his friend and acknowledges violence as an inevitability down the road from childhood. His directives to the reader to remember are an attempt to get him or her to cultivate an attitude of peace by remembering their own loved ones.

But what’s more interesting is the speaker’s vain attempt to prompt the reader to change the violence of this world that he himself has already accepted in his old age. He passes responsibility to the reader to remind the thorns that they were once green and soft. But, as the speaker knows, they’re thorns, a defensive feature common to many plants; their sole purpose is to cause pain to potentially harmful intruders and predators. The thorns will not remember their tender origins, and even if they did, they will not change. While this poem is still an elegy, it’s also a quiet plea for a mercy the speaker knows will never be answered. Thorns will always be thorns, and humans will always be humans.

 


Warning: Parameter 1 to W3_Plugin_TotalCache::ob_callback() expected to be a reference, value given in /home3/javitsre/public_html/californiapoetics/wp-includes/functions.php on line 3509