Forgetting Someone (from The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai)
Yehuda Amichai (tr. Chana Bloch & Stephen Mitchell)
Forgetting someone is like
forgetting to turn off the light in the back yard
so it stays lit all the next day.
But then it’s the light
that makes you remember.
I don’t know how many situations this poem covers, but given that I’m trying to forget someone right now, I want to experiment with it and see what happens. The person I’m trying to forget wasn’t a lover and was someone I didn’t intend to be a lover. I still want to forget them. If there’s anything that insults me nowadays, it’s someone thinking that my time and attention can be taken for granted. I myself can’t afford to think my time or focus is worthless, not at this point in my life.
Forgetting to turn off the light in the back yard seems an innocent act. The motivation for turning the light on is probably positive: one wants to make the most of one’s property at night. We can imagine friends on the back porch drinking and talking; both forget to turn out the light. How on earth can this be reconciled with the want to forget lovers or former friends?
We might say Amichai is talking about something far gentler – we have good times with people, we lose track of them, what was neglected in our time with them reminds us. That’s a perfectly legitimate read with a depth of its own. It is strange how the inconsequential leads us back to what was and is most worthwhile. Tenderness of shared, accidental light.
Still. I do think we can sneak disgust and anger in here. It is true that when you want to throw someone out of your mind, small things irk you and you want them deleted promptly. But you also forget some of those small things. Moreover, you “forget” in the sense of being purposefully neglectful. One doesn’t want to be bothered with the situation. It’s like a light staying on in daytime – there’s a redundancy, a waste.
And yet Amichai’s poem is relentlessly tender. No matter what, you’re not allowed to just tear that picture into pieces like it never existed. When we want to forget people, we do so not because of the bad, but because of the good. It’s precisely that things could have been better which betrays.