Jacob and Joseph begat Freud who begat Jung, who begat the poet Rodger Kamenetz and the visual artist Michael Hafftka. Their collaborative wizardry, published in the book To Die Next To You, is stunning. The poems and drawings (always paired) create vivid, waking dreams on psychological and spiritual subjects—dreams that are as resistant and open to interpretation as Pharaoh’s.
That these two major Jewish artists would hook up seems inevitable. A prolific writer, Kamenetz has published four other poetry books and five nonfiction books. His groundbreaking most well-known book The Jew in the Lotus (1994), recounts a pilgrimage made by a group of rabbis to meet the Dalai Lama. He has explored other unlikely correspondences, too; for example, between Kafka and Rabbi Nachman in Burnt Books; and between dream psychology and Jewish mysticism in The History of Last Night’s Dream. The personal journey described in the latter is clearly one source for the poems in To Die Next To You.
Hafftka also explores Jewish mysticism and ritual in his work with the purpose of making devotional art. The son of Holocaust survivors, Hafftka does not glorify Jewish traditions so much as test whether they can serve as a means to seek communion with God. In an essay on Hafftka’s series about The Book of Concealment, Lori Cole characterizes that project’s paintings and drawings with words that could also describe Hafftka’s work in To Die Next To You:
For Hafftka, painting combines ritual and emotion, and through his synthesis of figuration and abstraction he hopes to create a visual language for religious devotion…. [These works] confront human agony through the figure … they are depictions of tortured figures, sinewy, inky bodies stretched to the breaking point, drained of color, but these bleak abstractions are also splashed with deep oranges, soft watercolors, and peopled with the Hebrew Alphabet.
Hafftka’s illustrations for Kamenetz’s poems are less dark than the ones Cole describes here, but the basic style and forms are the same. Hafftka’s paintings and drawings are part of the permanent collections of major museums, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the National Gallery of Art.
Kamenetz and Hafftka’s collaboration feels markedly different to me than other poetry-visual art projects, perhaps, in part, because Hafftka’s work is a direct response to Kamenetz’s poems, a way of working that is anathema to many poets and painters who team up but only want their art to relate obliquely. Kamenetz’s poems and Hafftka’s drawings, on the other hand, play off one another, not as sequential, competing riffs in jazz do, but as cello chords, reverberating and diminishing into settled or unsettling silence.
To Die Next To You is a loosely structured spiritual and artistic journey. The work in the first section responds to human misery and brutality (the bombing of a bus in Jerusalem, Katrina’s devastation, a dying man); the second lays bare masculine sexuality and identity; and the third invents and investigates symbols as a means of self-discovery.
The poem and painting titled “Pennies on a Hill” are a good example of how Kamenetz and Hafftka use dream imagery to tell stories that are fluid and that never quite end—much in the same way as when predicaments recur in life, and then again in a dream, as if we were seeking its resolution there:
How can you live like that,
Going up and down the levee
Looking for pennies, the lake black like that
Or the river out there that fed the gulf
The pennies in the grass like faces
Of people you wanted to know
Lying face up or face down?
Someone is walking up and down a levee in New Orleans looking for pennies (to know his thoughts?), carrying on a lighthearted pastime, no longer seeing what he has grown used to—a desecrated lake “black like that.” In the same matter-of-fact tone, the poet observes how “the river out there” that once fed the gulf is now a ruin of itself. The person looking for pennies is displaced, too, filling up time. Then something fanciful happens: the poet wonders whether the man might see in the pennies the faces of people he “wanted to know.”
As in dreams, an invisible narrator replays an ordinary event with glints of meaning. A man searching for what is tangible encounters loss—the “faces of people you wanted to know”—and the role of chance in our lives. By a flip of a coin, the people he might have wanted to know might be living or dead (“lying face up or face down”). The scene captivates and warns: time is passing; the planet is marred; questions need answering; pay attention.
The companion painting expresses a similar childlike naivety and a perplexity with circumstances. In it a man looks through what appears to be a glass blackboard, in front of which float small orange spheres with yellow halos—the pennies. The vibrant colors and floating coins create a sense of joy and wonder annulled by the stunned and bewildered look on the man’s face.
I do not want to imply that the poems and drawings create detached dream states devoid of emotion. Quite the opposite is true. They most often express what we feel most vulnerable about—our opinions of ourselves, our personal ambitions, our sex lives, our losses. For example, “Stink Horn” is a very beautiful, very sad poem in which Kamenetz remembers how a young friend who has died grew a mushroom on a window ledge:
On his window ledge, a soft white-caramel egg
Nested in dirt and moss. Two days later, a shaft
Popped out through the shred hymen
With a glistening white net of yarn
Knit around its head. The filament sweat
A perfume that stank of death, attracting
Flies that ate it to shreds, then flew back to the woods,
Unknowingly carrying spores on their feet.
In this poem Kamenetz seems to be his own illustrator; his image of the mushroom is as detailed as a botanist might draw it, a realism that is vital to expressing the poem’s primary subject—the unity of procreation and death. Hafftka’s accompanying drawing is a colorful larger-than-life, red and white mushroom that one can imagine finding in a children’s book. On second look, however, it is wonderfully, sensually phallic—a thick, white stem capped by a red hood on which flies have settled to feast. A madly sketched circle frames the mushroom, further animating it, until on closer examination the background resolves into a disturbed, gloomy-looking man.
Some of my favorite poems in the book are those that plunge me immediately into a liminal state, disorienting me. “Half Accident” opens with a rapid-fire gruesome description of a dead man chopped into pieces:
It was Tuesday it was Saturday it was five-o’clock there was a ditch.
He lay with his arms out, teeth in a tin dish his blood in a blow.
The limbs were arranged side by side, fingers in the sockets five and five.
But hang on, the man isn’t dead; he’s going to glue himself back together:
I’m not dead at all, the patient shouted back, I’m undecided in everything like dying.
I may be back on Tuesday though he said hooking his hat with two wires and a sharp bit of bone,
Soon as I get this contraption to work, the eye sticks now and my tongue was put in backwards.
Now you can’t believe a word I say, it sounds just like the truth.
I love this poem about the craziness of making—the manic, awful hilarity we feel when we recognize the impossibility of bestowing meaning on what we make. In “Half Accident,” Kamenetz creates a dead man who then assumes a life of his own. He remakes himself as a contraption—a golem. How can we “believe a word” from the mouth of a human being that we invented? Yet that’s exactly what we do in art and in dreams: affix imaginary meanings to imaginary things.
Elsewhere Kamenetz sums up the power of dreams, and by inference the power of art:
When I began to study my dreams closely, I noticed how exquisitely made many are, how difficult to communicate that exquisite beauty to another because in most dreams the exquisite is idiosyncratic. Each dream invents its own beautiful language, and something always gets lost in translation.
Luckily for us, Kamenetz found a way to write, and Hafftka a way to draw these idiosyncratic, exquisite, dream-like artistic works. Unlike dreams, they do not get lost in translation (except when you’re reviewing them). They are ours now. We can turn to them when we like. But be forewarned: on your return trip, they’ll have assumed a different pose.
(To see more art by Michael Hafftka, visit the Tikkun Daily Art Gallery!)