The Velveteen Rabbi reviews To Die Next To You

To Die Next to You: poems and drawings by Kamenetz and Hafftka

Covertdnty3Poetry 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.

DetailBut 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.”

 

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