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.
Rodger Kamenetz Will Explain Your Dreams
The writer and dream therapist’s new collaboration with artist Michael Hafftka
I never liked dream talk. Whenever anyone rushed over and said they just had to tell me about a crazy dream they had, I shut down. There was nothing more self-indulgent, I thought, than to expect others to immerse themselves in a world that by definition is impervious to logic, the dreamer’s or anyone else’s. Dreams, I thought, like meals or orgasms, oughtn’t to be described; if you weren’t there, you wouldn’t understand.
Even a stiff-necked dream refusenik like me, however, was powerless before To Die Next to You, a collaboration between poet Rodger Kamenetz and artist Michael Hafftka. The poems have a dream’s ethereal beauty; like the visions we see when we sleep, they are at once intimately familiar and profoundly strange. Yet instead of leaving us to err in this sleepy wilderness by ourselves, Kamenetz is sharp, analytical, and funny. A sentence like “you have to go in with your eyes closed,” for example, spoken by “the deep voice of the ruin,” evokes giggles: it’s upside-down, but it’s recognizable and, strangely, logical. Hafftka’s striking art drives the point home by giving each poem a literal, haunting illustration, itself a meditation on that quintessential Jewish theme of the relations between the image and the word.
Those who, like me, admire Kamenetz’s earlier work—particularly Burnt Books, his meditation on Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav and Franz Kafka—will find here an ever purer dose of his metaphysical mastery. Those new to the cult may see both artists in persontomorrow evening at Columbia University.
Related: Close Encounter
To Die Next to You is a hybrid creature—but a strange and miraculous one, a sphinx, or a flock of cherubim. A project of ten years’ production, the volume combines the poetry of Rodger Kamenetz and the visual art of Michael Hafftka, “brothers in art.” There is indeed a deep kinship between word and image in the book, the art offering a close reading of each poem that enfleshes and expands it. Or: are the poems written in reflective response to the art (those “fabulous anti-illustrations,” in the words of critic David Shapiro)? It’s impossible to tell—such is the balance of the collaboration between poet and painter. Kamenetz, whose poems were inspired in part by his dream life, crafts spare and lucid vessels traversing love, death, birth, joy, and despair. (Read The History of Last Night’s Dream, Kamenetz’s 2008 spiritual memoir, for more on how Kamenetz connects his Jewish faith and his work as a dream therapist.) Hafftka’s paintings, which curator John Caldwell has described as “taking on the character of myth,” are solemn and evocative, almost runic, next to Kamenetz’s verse. You’d be tempted to remove them from the book and frame them if they weren’t so perfectly suited to the poems they accompany. We have to concur with the reaction of poet Laura Mullen: “There’s a powerful sense, in this book, of someone starting again. What did we want to do with language? What did we think it was for? To trade with or in? ‘How can you you live like that,’ the author asks—it’s…an urgent question, posed here with an openness to the largest, strangest answers, and with an extraordinary dignity. In To Die Next to You poetry works to find its way back to prayer.”
Rachel Dangermond on To Die Next To you
Rodger read After the Flood, one of the more hauntingly beautiful poems in this collection. And oddly, it was not written after the 2005 Federal Flood, but years before. And when he was done, I had him sign my copy on a page that has a poem that I felt secretly spoke to me – much like the flood he hadn’t met yet. It is Miniature Elegy:
Her hair now is a memory of what her hair was.
As her smile now treasures all her smiles.
There is nothing like her, but what she has lost.
There is nothing like her, but her lost her.
And therein lies the poem that will be nailed to the door, not the final nail in my coffin nor the final nail in my brand new frame, but the nail to mark when a poet’s words were able to sum me up in a moment in time.
Read the whole post here:
Hear Rodger Kamenetz and Michael Hafftka discuss To Die Next To You with Susan Larson on WWNO’s The Reading Life
To Die Next to You: poems and drawings by Kamenetz and Hafftka
Poetry and drawing are brothers that emerge from the dark of sleep holding hands — bringing fresh images out of the vividness of dreams, giving birth to strange monsters who may be saviors, and charging words and paint with electricity which streams from the place in the soul where love and pain are one word.
That’s the descriptive paragraph on the back of To Die Next to You, a collection of poems by Rodger Kamenetz accompanied by drawings byMichael Hafftka. These are startling, exquisite works — in both genres.
But now the foundation must be ripped out
And a new one dug. The earth has teeth.
It’s no place to go barefoot, it’s raw.
Blood clay. If you find an old bone,
Be sure it’s not canine before you call 911.
That’s from “After the storm: a brick as fragile as a dream.” The accompanying illustration is all rusty earth (bloodied earth?) at the bottom of the frame, a light wash of pale rust giving way to a light wash of darkened sky, a set of small bricks seeming insignificant against the vastness of the frame, and at the top of the frame a malevolent eye: the eye of Sauron, the hurricane, void, destruction. (You can see a detail from that painting later in this post.)
The poems which arise out of that destruction — which I read as Katrina, though they are intentionally unattributed to any particular disaster — are unsettling. Fine reading before Sukkot, this. As we prepare for a week of pretend-impermanence, these poems remind me about real impermanence. “A crawlspace without a roof, dug out / like an old pocked cheek,” we read in “The Forgotten.” Or “Behind the city’s ruptured facades / where no one gardens… Many houses were built on mud.” (From “After the Flood.”) I have the same visceral reaction reading about the floods this week in Boulder, Colorado.
Sometimes the sorrows are more individual:
My friend the medievalist lies on his back in the hospital,
building his strength for the arsenic […]
I have promised to add ambrosia to his tea, and pile
magnificent snowballs with plum blood at his toes.
I have promised to sing for him, I have promised to teach him
the secret of walking up walls,
I have promised to have always authoritative in the matter
of visiting the sick and dying.
I have promised to look up the numbers of the psalms that heal,
he has refused me.
The vividness of “magnificent snowballs with plum blood” — what a description of bandages! — is in counterpoint to the stark flatness of “He has refused me.” In the accompanying illustration, a pale figure lies still on a dark bed. The bed is solid, a slash against the page; the person seems watery, almost of a piece with the floor and the background. A bloodied wash of red fills the chest cavity. A golden ring surrounds the face: breathing apparatus? A halo? It is unsettling and sad.
But these are not all poems of trauma. Some offer surprising insights without the added zetz of sorrow. Like this one, which bears worlds of meaning packed into its short lines: “A woman,” writes Kamenetz, “gets plural. When she feels / that first stir… she knows a man / has only his name / but she — has names / in her name.” On the facing page, figures are superimposed: the man, the woman, the new being springing forth from her womb.
Reading “The Door,” I am reminded that Kamenetz is a dream-worker, not only a poet. Surely this is a dream poem, and a dreamwork poem. “And if I go through the door / will I be forgiven?” asks the speaker. “Will I be forgiven the imprint / I made on my child / when she was soft as butter / and I was blacker than iron?” There’s particular poignancy, reading this right after the journey of Yom Kippur. If I go through the door, will I be forgiven?
“Should I go through the door then?” the speaker asks, and his unnamed interlocutor replies, “It is not a matter of should. / You must decide and no one can decide for you / which part has the lead.” Who among us doesn’t know that feeling? On the accompanying pages: dim figures seen through the door, one bearded and wearing a fedora, grey and peach washes of watercolor, and some darkness, and a spattering of ink bringing the darkness from the door to the rest of the frame.
These poems are wry in the best self-judging Jewish tradition. (Remember that our word for prayer, l’hitpallel, can also mean to judge oneself.) “Not to be moved by the music of the violin / Is like being a Jew and changing your last name / To Jones.” (From “After Hearing Bloch on the Upper Upper West Side.”) On the facing page, a figure lies in repose on an uncomfortably-curved four-poster bed, its pillars extending into the air like the legs of Kafka’s beetle.
In “The History of Today,” one of the collection’s prose poems, we read:
I was born only to have this past. My mother taught me to worship it and my father was indifferent to radiance, like lead. So I was left alone in the temple, with the candles blown out and the incense of old spoiled prayers.
The accompanying illustration is a man, hands and feet and face smudged as though tears had fallen on his stark ink outlines. Is it too corny to say that he is each of us, smudged by tears as we struggle to reconcile everything we’ve inherited? Transcendent past — a parent with religious leanings and a parent with leaden indifference to spiritual life — all of that endless weight each of us must learn how to carry?
The title poem, “To Die Next to You,” speaks in the voice of a person on an airplane who wonders what it would be like to meet death in the company of anonymous others whom we do not know. This isn’t the malevolent anonymity of the cattlecar, but the simple reality of the modern world: when we travel, each of us is a stranger among strangers. The facing image is a wash of waxy darkness with pale scribbles — falling angels? — barely visible behind the page’s dark grain. For me the most moving lines of that poem are these:
Possibly you are a secret saint,
Perhaps your death was even ordained
And I am just a packing accident, a baggage slip…
I will never have looked openly into your face,
For we each flew in secret, each in separate fear.
There’s so much we never know about each other because we are too afraid to make ourselves vulnerable and ask. Is this all we are, in the end — strangers beside one another on an airplane, each flying in secret, each in separate fear? Though surely we are also (in Kamenetz’s imagery) the neighbor who brings “a welcome drink of water in the pool of her hands,” we are gold “the color of pollen, and of children’s stars,” we are “everything joined together, my hand in your hand.”