Yehuda Amichai, “Near the Wall of a House”

Near the Wall of a House (from poetry 180)
Yehuda Amichai (trans. by Chana Bloch and Stephen Mitchell)

Near the wall of a house painted
to look like stone,
I saw visions of God.

A sleepless night that gives others a headache
gave me flowers
opening beautifully inside my brain.

And he who was lost like a dog
will be found like a human being
and brought back home again.

Love is not the last room: there are others
after it, the whole length of the corridor
that has no end.

Comment:

A burning bush, a ladder-like ascent into the firmament of the sky, a prophet honored with a chariot of fire: “visions of God” do not always feature the everyday. The particular vision of this poem revels in it.

Someone exhausted speaks. The second stanza tells of a sleepless night which would give anyone a headache, but the speaker says this same night gave him “flowers opening beautifully” inside his brain. Maybe it’s true that he had incredible dreams, dreams preparing him for where he stands, “near the wall of a house painted to look like stone.” I am sure he sees lovely, varied, lively flowers next to that wall. But I’m just as tempted to think he’s tired and trying to keep himself steady.

He’s pushing himself to be positive, to make himself feel differently. He’s trying, in a way, to become more like someone else. This sounds a bit removed from the poem, but bear with me – he has declared that he has had a vision of God, after all. The vision’s content can be understood by tracing an insight indirectly revealed. To change is to become like something else, but can you ever truly be the object you idealize? Of course not: in chasing what you think something is, you become yet another object entirely. In like fashion, he notices the wall of a house painted to look like stone. The house and the wall are, I assume, meant to match each other, but the discrepancy is obvious to him. He may see flowers near that wall; they remind him of beautiful blossomings in his brain the night before, but the distance between them remains.

We traffic in a world of images, where original being cannot be recovered. “Likeness” constitutes the closest one can get, and where it takes someone isn’t always clear. In which case, repeating “Man is made in the image and likeness of God” does not necessarily make one moral. Man plays god in the worst way all the time, killing, exerting arbitrary control, casting judgment heedlessly.

Yet our speaker claims that he had a vision, and his tone indicates a will to believe and love. He does not know what it means to be like God, but he understands redemption well enough:

And he who was lost like a dog
will be found like a human being
and brought back home again.

“Like a dog,” “like a human being:” I don’t know what exactly being a dog is like, I don’t even understand what being fully human is. But the overwhelming joy of redemption, to be reunited with a loved animal, courses through life, not requiring precise knowledge. I don’t need to know home, for I am there for those that matter. Love is acceptance.

The vision of God is the homecoming that the whole poem has been. Going out into the world results in becoming wiser and more confused. It’s not just hard, but impossible, to be exactly what one sees others being. Our speaker is home, as the last stanza has him step beyond the wall, into the house, into the corridor:

Love is not the last room: there are others
after it, the whole length of the corridor
that has no end.

“Love is not the last room:” it is rather a beginning. Because the speaker sees love as possibility, he not only sees others, but he cannot help seeing others even if he is left alone. His home is the worldly world, he has come back wiser. His home extends indefinitely. The infinitude of God, always on display.

5 Comments

  1. @ David: That’s really well-said. This poem is pretty complicated, but there’s definitely the implication that people are pained by the day (painted to look like stone – is anything lasting?) just as they are by darkness. They might be lost dogs in spirit, wondering about loyalty and therefore wandering.

    I’m not exactly sure how to track the healing effect of the poem, but it has something to do with a house not being stone, and resembling a heart in terms of chambers and ways to enter and exit.

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