Open closed open: the poem

The Babylonian Talmud states:

Unto what may the fetus in its mother’s womb be likened?  Unto a notebook that is folded up.  Its hands rest on its temples, elbows on thighs, heels against buttocks, its head lies between its knees.  Its mouth is closed and its navel open….  When it comes forth into the air of the world, what is closed opens, and what is open closes.

In his poem, “I Wasn’t One of the Six Million: And What Is My Life Span?  Open Closed Open,” the Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai, reformulates this Talmudic insight.

Open closed open.  Before we are born, everything is open
in the universe without us.  For as long as we live, everything is closed
within us.  And when we die, everything is open again.
Open closed open.  That’s all we are.

Amichai is writing adjectives.  I’m talking about verbs: open, close, open.

I first read Amichai’s book, Open Closed Open, in October 2001, and have been studying “open closed open” in one form or another ever since.  When Laura died, I looked again to the line, “And when we die, everything is open again.”  Nowadays, we usually think of death as an ending, a closure.  As James Kugel writes in his philosophical reflection on his own experience with cancer, In the Valley of the Shadow, a person today is haunted “by the new, overwhelming realization that this particular individual was to disappear forever … by the utter blackness of his own, individual cessation.”  Actually, it’s the other way around.  When I die, “I” open up. Contrary to our usual perspective, it is life, not death, that closes.  We live by constantly closing, fixing.  To begin with, we live as, by, and in cells.  And cells only survive with boundaries, borders, membranes.


  1. All the things that we who knew Laura, even slightly, saw, and all that we remember of her — her physical form, her voice, her shocking intelligence, her piercing humor — those things are now contained in each of us. They are burned into our circuitry and available to us at any time they are wanted or needed. This is true for family, friends, oncologists, and even nurses. Is that what becoming open again to the universe brings? What used to be one is now many, not none? As legacies go, that’s pretty fantastic, I’d say.

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