The Word as Wound

You have seen how difficult it is to decipher the script with one’s eyes, but our man deciphers it with his wounds. —Franz Kafka, “In the Penal Colony”

 

Maggie Jaffe’s 7th Circle is a record of a journey through the seventh circle of  Dante’s Inferno, the domain of the suicides. For Jaffe, though, the suicides are more than they appear to be, and these poems show us that the Inferno is more extensive than we would like to believe it to be.

 

All of these poems are about suicide. Spanning the twentieth century (Van Gogh [1898] to Lewis Puller [1994]), Jaffe’s poems are also an indictment of the politics of suicide (fascism, Stalinism) and the history that drives people to suicide (capitalism, the Vietnam War, anti-Semitism). Look at the subjects of Jaffe’s poems: Van Gogh, painter; Vladimir Mayakovski, poet; Marina Tsvetayeva, poet; Walter Benjamin, philosopher; George Trakl, poet; Paul Celan, poet; Jean Seberg, actor; Steve Bilko, anti-apartheid activist; Otto Dix, painter; Diane Arbus, photographer; Lewis Puller, soldier. An impressive list. But the poems of The 7th Circle cannot be reduced to a list; nor are they only a collection, poems linked together by subject. The 7th Circle is a Book. The poems gather their strength as they interact with other poems, all of these poems connecting with the others in a way that makes for an integrated, unified reading experience. This book, then, is a protest against fragmentation and isolation, and the despair leading to suicide.

 

Look closely at the poems while considering how the poems are woven together: the root of  “weave” is “to fabricate by interlacing yarns.” The stories connect with each other and connect us with each other. First is Mayakovski, the poet of the revolution who lost himself and his poetry in the service of the State: “in his nightmare he’s / naked at the podium/ while students mock / his dada.” His dada? Yes, dadaism but also his daddy: Joseph Stalin said of Mayakovski, “Indifference to his memory and for his work is a crime.” Jaffe’s poem alludes to Whitman’s Bridge (Brooklyn) but also Hart Crane, another suicide, with Mayakovski’s “rivet” to the Bridge turning into a bullet, used against himself. And another allusion develops, to Crane and Whitman’s “Brooklyn Ferry,” with the rivet reminding us that Mayakovski’s last poem read: “Love’s boat has smashed against the daily grind.” The clues are there, and the joy of reading these poems come from following the images that seek their own fullness, leading to more understanding and appreciation. In the Mayakovski poem, the line about the rivet has it “metamorphosed / into a gun” not “changed.” And hence the poem connects us to Kafka, as does the next one, “Maria Tsvetayeva” with its “hunger artists.” And the Tsvetayeva poem leads us back, to re-trace the steps of our reading with its “Mayakovski’s art” and reference to Stalin, and forward again with its “crude black hook,” which is nothing other than the question mark (Why suicide?) that inheres in every one of these poems. We are being offered a dance of language, and we shouldn’t refuse to take up the steps.

 

“The Last Days of George Trakl” introduces the theme of the soldier suicide, developed more in “Saint Jean,” carried forward with the Puller poem, and brought to culmination in the Otto Dix sequence. But here, too, are allusions worth noticing: the army enlistment (Dix and Puller) and the “broken mouths” of Franz Kafka and the subject of the next poem: “Saint Jean.”

 

The poem about Jean Seberg is set out as an interrogation, mimicking and mocking the Inquisition’s questioning of Joan of Arc: “When I was 17, I was chosen/ over 18 thousand other girls/ to star as the androgynous French/ soldier in Otto Preminger’s Saint Joan.” And, of course, it is the Inquisition continued with those other sadistic “fathers”: Preminger, J. Edgar Hoover, and husband Romain Gary. The form itself (and Jaffe demonstrates mastery of poetic form tied to historical process in the manner of Eduardo Galena, John Sanford, and Paul Metcalf) recalls the later interrogation / interview poem about Diane Arbus, the interview as torture (Hollywood &  El Salvador).

 

The “Paul Celan” poem ends with two compelling images. One the impotent poet: “Here is a stranger without papers / a rucksack filled with poems.” The irony here, with the effacement of the poet’s identity because of the non-possession of political papers, in contrast to the surplus of poetry he carries, the only thing that provides for the poet’s true identity, the only thing that might save the poet (and the reader), is the irony that infuses this whole book. Everything conspires to keep us from the very papers that lead to something we can call redemption. The final image is allusive but as important. “Black sun, stone earth, / River Seine is home” recall the words of Marina Tsvetayeva: “So long as you are a poet, you shall not perish in the elemental, for everything brings you back into the element of elements: the word” (“Art in the Light of Conscience”). This faith is Jaffe’s. It is the Word that is our only way out of this world of pain and betrayal, the word our true home.

 

Remember that reactionary slogan of a few years back, “The personal is political”? Jaffe turns these paralyzing words back onto themselves, making them radical, by showing the political as personal: “my grandfather hanged / from an Ailanthus / [tree of heaven] in Canarsie—”. Jaffe’s “Mostly I am sick of fathers” becomes a sickness of all those sadistic fathers: grandfather, political leader, generals, the old men sending the young off to die.

 

Steve Biko a suicide? The official history of the U.S. supported apartheid government in South Africa wanted us to believe it. “Suicide” read the report when the protestors died in police custody. The last line, though, is no lie; it is the affirmation of a writer who accepts the responsibility of her privilege and her art: “There is witness.”

 

The Otto Dix sequence is one of the most compelling anti-war poems I’ve ever read. Dix demonstrated the essential lie of the fascist aesthetic, that war is glorious. He was persecuted for the truth: war cripples the body and the spirit. His lesson is never fully learned. The number of Vietnam vets’ suicides, remember, is greater than those who fell in combat. The militaries will always cover up the truth of War, its “Syndrome,” be it the Gulf War, the Vietnam War, Korea, or the dirty little clandestine wars of El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua. Dix’s paintings and Jaffe’s poems expose the lie of warfare, which is always a lie told by fathers to sons, which is always a surrender to Mussolini’s “highest tension,” which is always a denial of love. Dix’s paintings (reproduced here) and Jaffe’s poems expose the real attraction of the fascist to the crippled and maimed. Wasted by violence, redemption is only possible through more violence. It’s a cripple’s logic, but it’s pervasive. Only the truth of art stands against it. These poems attempt the impossible; in their own example as Writing, they provide an alternative to suicide.

 

The fascist makes war an aesthetic. This is Mussolini’s definition, but it could as easily be Oliver North’s: “War alone brings up to its highest tension all human energy and puts the stamp of nobility upon the peoples who have the courage to meet it.” Jaffe is substituting poetry as if to say that it is not “war alone” that bring forth this highest tension, and it is not war at all. It is something else. It is writing. And this is where the poem about Kafka comes in.

 

The Poet as Hunger Artist

 There were perhaps only two Jews in my class possessed of courage and both shot themselves while still at school or shortly after.—Franz Kafka (Diaries, 1914-1923. NY: Schoken, 1985)

 

Kafka’s writing is always personal and, hence, political. As he lay dying, not only was he making the final preparation for the publication of “The Hunger Artist” but during his last days he was unable to eat. He had reached the end of the struggle of his multiple selves that lead finally to annihilation. A suicide? Perhaps not legally, technically, but in fact, yes, by his own logic, as a writer he was a suicide. The writer, for Kafka (and the age) is a self-exterminator. K: “I have no literary interests, but am made of literature. I am nothing else, and cannot be anything else” (Letter to Felice, NY: Schoken Books, 1973). No wonder he wanted his friend Max Broad to burn all of his writings when he died. Literature and life: as Jaffe writes it, “Years later, his 3 sisters, along with Milena, / are incinerated in Auschwitz—”. With modernism, and Kafka more than any other writer embodies modernism, the plural self is an essential distraction, even a distraction unto death. Novalis at the beginning of modernism said that “pluralism is our innermost essence.” Modernism highlights the self because of its negative awareness. But this is true of all writing. When writing began, the self diminished until finally it died; modernism is the recognition of this death as suicide. The Greek admonition, that begins with Writing and is made possible only through Writing, turns lethal: “Know Thyself” becomes “Destroy Thy Self.” And then, finally, “Destroy Thyself.”

 

Kafka, as is any genuine writer, is aware of this self-destruction: in a letter to Felice he writes, “As you know, there are two combatants at war within me.” And writing, without the physical presence of speaker to audience, is always suspect. Kafka on lying: “I am a mendacious creature; for me it is the only way to maintain an even keel, my boat is fragile.” This fragile boat is Mayakovski’s, Crane’s, all the suicides’, all the writers’. And it is always fragile, or the writing is false. What, then, keeps it afloat? One is politics, as outrageous as it might seem to hear that in this age of political denial and irresponsibility. Kafka knew this: “The poets ... are politically dangerous elements, because they want to make a change. For the State, and all its devoted servants, want only one thing, to persist.” (Conversations with Kafka, NY: New Directions, 1971.) And the other is also political but arrives out of the responsibility that inheres in writing itself, to fight against the de-materialism that writing fosters, the diminishment unto annihilation of the writer and the world.

 

Jaffe understands this when she brings history back into Kafka’s work: Kafka as Jew and anarchist, as writer. This is essential service to a writer who critics have attempted to remove from history. But Jaffe also understands something more crucial to all writers: Kafka never found his way out of the dilemma of Writing through writing. He was aware of what writing cost him. No writer has been as aware! But he also admitted that he could find no way to redemption through the only way possible for a writer. Unlike so many moderns (the list of modernist masters seeking refuge in the certainties of religion, fascism, and nationalism is well known and unfortunately too long to list), Kafka never turned away from the paradox of writing. Writing is denial, torture, self-torture. And genuine writing is the only political act left to the hunger artist within the penal colony. Writing is where our Truth is revealed. This is where Jaffe’s poems come at us from, the place where truth is revealed. This collection of poems, this book, is like an anti-Whitman “Song of the Self.” It doesn’t pump up the Self until it includes the whole world; this is the method of Bill Gates. There is no Manifest Destiny in this poet’s writing. Her poetry is an integrated song of the anti-Self. And it is true, an eyes-open, record of our time. Important. Invaluable. Indispensable.