The first thing I noticed about this poem was the rhyme scheme. Each stanza has only A and B lines, but they do not follow a uniform pattern. In the first stanza (each has 5 lines) the scheme is ABABA, in the second it is ABBAB. I think the change in the second stanza is noteworthy. The second line speaks of boats embracing (סירות חבוקות) and the next line, which one would expect to be an A line, rhymes instead, with the words העלו אבוקות (children on the hilltop raising up torches). It is almost as if these lines are embracing, mirroring the activity of these two boats on the cold sea.
This poem did not have to rhyme. Goldberg is talented enough with her words not to need rhyme as a constant in her toolkit, and I sometimes think that a rhyme scheme can cheapen a poem or lighten the tone unnecessarily. However, it seems to work here. With two word ending sounds per stanza, the reader is constantly going back and forth between those two sounds, anticipating which of those sounds will come next, and almost hearing both of them at once. The last three lines of the first stanza read:
והנה הם עומדים זה עם זה כשכנים
לילי של עכשיו, יומי של אז
מה אמרו: משתנים, מזדקנים?
The speaker of this poem feels a pull, a conversation between these two “neighbors” of hers, the nights of today, and the days of the past. And as we, the reader, get pulled into the sound of the rhyme scheme, we too are going back and forth between these two voices, that of today and that of the past. The journey does seem short, the distance between the past and the present tiny, when both are engaged in conversation at once.
Another striking aspect of this poem are the repeated phrases. Both stanzas begin with the phrase “the shortest journey is…” with a slightly different ending.
המסע הקצר ביותר הוא על פני השנים
המסע הקצר ביותר הוא לתוך העבר
These opening phrases give the poem a framing, a reminder that this journey through time is truly the shortest journey. Just five lines after beginning with this idea, the reader encounters it again, as if having just returned from one such very short trip. Interestingly, the first stanza, which begins with the idea that the shortest journey is through the years, includes imagery of being in a familiar place after much time has passed. The reader can wonder alongside the speaker- has this truly been a quick journey? Looking at a dulled house, with a wall that has been moved, we are at once transported back to that place as if no time has passed at all, and also wonder at how much has changed over the years. The second verse, in which the shortest journey is one into the past, contains a childhood memory of looking out at the cold sea, of children lighting torches. Rather than considering the passage of time by looking at mementos, here the reader is transported back in time into a memory. While both of these matching phrases evoke similar ideas, the content of the stanzas do reflect that subtle difference between על פני השנים and לתוך העבר.
An additional repeated phrase are the two questions משתנים, מזדקנים? (Do we change, do we age? Or perhaps, we change, we age?) These words are reversed in the second stanza. The fact that these words are posed as a question further serves the notion that the passage of time can feel so short- sometimes we are not even sure if we have aged or changed, and must ask ourselves the question to truly determine how we have been affected by time.