Selected Poems of Maggie Jaffe [Red Dragonfly Press / PO Box 406 / Red Wing, MN 55066 $17.00] .
Aesthetics is always reactionary. Simplistically, ideas about art first derive from the experience of art. Critics react. In the USAmerica, Guardian of World Capital, aesthetic criticism reacts politically to ensure that artists whose images and words threaten state power—embodied as it is in the publishers, universities, granting agencies—these artists are silenced or forced onto the margins of what is professionally and personally acceptable. The genuine artist then must work outside the reach of that power, accepting the fact that an art that aspires to universal connection is left to an audience of a small circle of friends. And this particular art, poetry, is, and has been for centuries, the most marginalized, the most self-restricted. Few poets have protested against their insignificance. Poetry is for losers.
Some have seen that poetry is for the Beautiful Losers of Leonard Cohen’s first novel. It’s for the women, abused and defiant, Jean Seaberg, the movie characters Thelma and Louise. It’s for the otherwise lost and forgotten. Because you don’t know, this poetry asks, “Who was Sebastian Acevedo?” It asks what did Pinochet learn at “the American School for Coups.” And the answers are not just from this one poem, “Tapestry: Mothers of the Disappeared.” The answers come from all of these poems. These poems are also for poets, Emily Dickinson seen in historical context, for the poet Paul Celan, this “despised man, / a pariah with a human tongue.”
That line is from a poem by Maggie Jaffe, from her selected poems. Maggie died in 2011, and this collection was put together by friends, friends through poetry. Robert Edwards who wrote the Introduction never met her. Neither did I. This is not some “buddy club.” These poems were produced (and written) out of love. And love, as Blake knew, is the only weapon against Power, a weapon than doesn’t turn against those who dare use it.
Continuous Performance, then, is a collection of love poems, a poetry of solidarity with those unable or unwilling to speak for themselves, and yet at the same time deeply personal. The title of one poem: “Thelma, Louise, and Me”; her “grandfather found hanged / from an Ailanthus [tree of heaven].” Her poems expose those who hate and despise and divide: Joseph McCarthy, “205 Cocksuckers.” They take public personas who have been stripped of their humanity and gather them into a loving embrace: Maria Callas, “Dark eyed, bird-like” who “died in Paris alone.” Jaffe speaks for them. She makes these public fractured figures artistically whole. This is art working against the dominant aesthetics. It’s art that sings like the Roy Orbison song: “only the lonely / know I cry and cry for you.” We recognize our forced alienation and we gather our mutual strength.
Maggie Jaffe’s poems present and re-present the familiar to make it strange in the manner of Victor Schlovsky’s ostranenie or defamiliarization, "estrangement." Jaffe “deconstructs” the film industry propaganda, America’s greatest export, so that to read these poems you see the person and the plan behind the distorted images: Janet Leigh in Psycho “Her D-cup tits are like twin / atomic silos.” She says, “After Psycho nothing was the same. … Within three years America / will eat its young: the skull beneath her smirk / metastasizing into a diminutive / southeast Asia.”
Maggie Jaffe’s poetry is different from that of most poets, who ape the consequences of their privilege within their society of advanced capitalism and advanced literacy. Take, for instance, Walter Ong’s basic principle of his studies in the difference between orality and literacy (Ong, Eric Havelock, Jack Goody et al): “sight isolates, sound unifies.” The consequences for literature: “the inward turn of narrative.”
This inward turn, most noticeable in the novel, distinguishes most USAmerican poetry, what once was called Academic poetry. Consider Jaffe’s “Art is Shit!”, the kind of poem critics use their academic aesthetics against; it starts this way: “So are the bourgeoisie / who crave the Shock of the New!” Remember Ezra Pound, that loveable fascist, whose basic dictum, the guiding principle since the Romantics, was Make it New! Make it new. Also the guiding principle of Capitalism, best illustrated by American commercial culture.
Maggie presents a devastating critique of the German painter George Grosz whose art, though intensely critical of State power (Grosz’s art is a weapon / against the Ruling Class), fails his art and himself: “Grosz will never again / work for the Party. While partying, he falls / down drunk and dies. Kaput.” The poem is not only an indictment of the painter. It, through its artistry, indicts the whole culture that fears fundamental change, those who “hate Revolution.”
It’s clear that Jaffe is a “public poet,” often used as a term of derision, but as Howard Zinn writes in a blurb on the back cover,
[s]he writes about Mayakovsky, Van Gogh, Kafka, Jean Seaberg, and other extraordinary figures of our time… but never in a predictably political way, always in a way that astonishes us and says something profound about the world we live in.
And because of that, every poem in this collection is worth reading, heeding.
This is the last stanza from “The Searchers,” the last poem in the book:
“In 1973 Nixon awarded Ford / the prestigious Medal of Freedom. / That same year the Feds ‘neutralized’ / AIM at Wounded Knee.” Jaffe’s writes of desperation but not out of despair. These are the last lines from “Thelma, Louise & Me”: “When the car soars over the Canyon / we’re awake, without fear, that unwanted guest / who’s taken up residence in our guts. / Without fear for the first time in our lives.”
By making us re-look, experience her re-vision, there is hope for a change in our poetry, perhaps even making it relevant, and hope for political change even when the political, as it must be, is directly personal. Her poetry takes sides. In a time when poets hide from history and politics, Jaffe’s poetry is extreme. It’s necessarily so, and so very necessary.
But the question relevant to her poetry and publishing her poetry is this: Why necessary? “Language of Poetry,” a poem from The Body Politic not included in this Selected, ends this way: “And yet since Dalton, Jara: cruelty / institutionalized. What then can / poetry do?”
It cannot stop state terror. It can name names. It cannot stop torture. It can help heal the wounded. And for Maggie, it cannot tell lies. It can do what some of the greatest poets have done, poets as diverse as Dante and Dickenson, Roque Dalton and Nazim Hikmet, face the real and record the truth.
Another of her poems not in these selection ends: …North American poets / police their poems / deleting pointed references / to what is done in their names.
And yours.” This last line is declarative. It also, though, is a question to the reader. And only a poet with a lifetime of suffering and resistance dares to honestly ask it.
This book answers it. Not just with her poetry but with a publication. There has to be both. Red Dragon Press has produced a book that places her in the company that would have made her proud. The press has published W. S. Merwin, Barry Lopez, the Sufi mystic Ibn El Arab, Marilyn Zuckerman, to mention just a few whose work I know well. Without a press such as this, a poet such as Maggie, who gives voice to the voiceless, who gives joy to those who resist the powerful, who deconstructs cultural propaganda, that voice is minimalized, mute. The press, too, becomes a part of a collective voice, and the message is as simple as it is profound: Maggie, we love your poetry, and through it, we loved you.