Thursday, October 15, 2015

Continuous Performance: The Selected Poems of Maggie Jaffe

This is a collection of work by poet Maggie Jaffe who died in 2011. This collection put together by our familiy of working class poets keeps her vital poetry alive. It is edited by Christopher Butters, Marilyn Zuckerman, and Robert Edwards and published by Red Dragonfly Press. Below is a review by Julia Stein.

Maggie Jaffe’s poetry is reminiscent of Bertolt Brecht’s, but with a distinctive, tough-edged American voice. After getting a B.A. from the New School for Social Research in New York, Jaffe lived in Guatemala, where she was inspired by Latin American poets such as Claribel Alegría, Otto René Castillo, Ernesto Cardenal, Pablo Neruda, and Roque Dalton—poets who were spokespeople for the wretched of the earth. When she died in 2011, she had published six books of poetry, received an NEA fellowship, and had won the San Diego Book Award for Poetry twice.

This new volume of selected poems is an excellent introduction to her work. One of the poems from the opening section celebrates Cardenal’s lines “the earth belongs to everyone, / not just the rich!” by voicing them at an anti-immigrant rally on the border. Another poem looks at Salvadoran misery, but also celebrates Alegría’s hope for change in El Salvador “in pueblo-owned milpas after / sweet green corn ripens.” Jaffe wasn’t a poet for the squeamish: in one piece, a minor Salvadoran union official finds the death squad has “decapitate[d] / her five children” and placed their bodies “around the kitchen table.” The poem ends with the phrase “Shit happens.” In “Emily Dickinson,” Jaffe criticizes the nineteenth-century poet, calling her “one of the few women / you can trust to keep / her mouth shut.”

In selections from How the West Was Won, Jaffe begins with “Can’t Happen Here”—referring to the “Gen·o·cide” that did happen here, to Native Americans. The theme of resistance runs through these poems—for example, she lauds the Zapatistas as people who will “die fighting rather than from dysentery.” The poet also finds a heroine in Emma Goldman, saying that after the U.S. deported Goldman for “‘hysterically’ agitating for peace,” only “in death will they allow / her back in the Imperium.” These voices contrast with that of Jaffe’s student in “Poverty Sucks,” who feels that he has “the right / not to know about the poor.”

:Jaffe’s third book, The Prisons, compassionately describes prisoners and their visitors such as “Marianne” with her “3 advanced degrees”: “She’s also doing time: / one-room Portland / flat, post office by day, / clichéd lonely nights.” The poet creates another fine portrait in “Daniel in the House of Cards” who wants to make it up to his parents who visit him every weekend, but the con next to him says that when Daniel gets out his parents will “be holding hands six- / feet under.” The Prisons has the finest poems written in the U.S. about our penal system; in this book, Jaffe also identifies with “degenerate” artists such as George Grosz, calling him “a small no in the big / YES! of Nazi Germany.”

As her career progressed, Jaffe continued to create haunting portraits such as “Kafka at Work,” capturing the author’s short, sad life in six poignant stanzas, and “Otto Dix: Artist Against War,” describing his powerful antiwar drawings created while he was a soldier in the German trenches. Jaffe wrote many poems about those artists called “degenerate” by the Nazis, such as Dix, Grosz, and Kandinsky—“‘degenerate’ because they won’t paint / golden bodies for the Reich.” Jaffe also both loved and hated the movies, as evidenced by her many poems about Hollywood; these include “Sign of the Times,” about failed starlet Peg Entwistle, who jumped from the thirteenth letter in the HOLLYWOODLAND sign, and who “still haunts the scene of her demise . . . when there’s a strong scent of gardenia in the air.” In another film-themed poem, “Letter to the Actor Charles Laughton Concerning the Life of Galileo,” German refugee Brecht writes admiringly to Laughton “as if words would save us.”

The hard-assed honesty, courage, and hope in these poems make Jaffe equal to Brecht and her other “degenerate” heroes. Like them, she refused to make safe art during troubled times; her uncompromisingly tough style bores unflinchingly into our piercing reality.

The following is an excerpt from the introduction written by Robert Edwards and whether you buy this book or not -- and you should -- the introduction alone is well worth the purchase price. It speaks not only to the powerful writing of Maggie Jaffe but to progressive working class poetry as a whole. Edwards writes:

The great American poet, Thomas McGrath, spoke of “the lost poets of America.” He was referring to poets such as Don Gordon, Meridel LeSueur and Bert Meyers (and many others) whose work set a high standard of accomplishment but was ignored or shunned either because their style was at right angles to the conventions of the day or because they wrote political poems, or both. I would suggest there is another generation of lost poets in America, of whom Maggie Jaffe is one. Maybe there is always a generation of lost poets in America.

Every age of poetry begets a particular stylistic type which becomes the dominant meme of its time and eventually comes to be seen as indicative of that time. There also exists in every time poets who do not write like anyone else, as if their influences came from an alternate world. Sometimes these poets are loved for that, but mostly they are not. Just being different is enough to get doors slammed in your face and the reasons for this are many, as writers of anything resembling political poetry know all too well. Some editors are just not very imaginative people. They also can be the cops, courts and wardens of an official culture that will tolerate no dissent on their turf. Different always carries with it the implications of subversion. “Have you ever felt like an alien?” Maggie once asked me. “After all these years, I still do.”

Nevertheless, despite the usual obstacles, during her life she published eight books (The Prisons, 7th Circle, Continuous Performance, How The West Was One, The Body Politic, Roque Dalton Redux (co-edited with Esther Rodriguez), 1492: What Is It Like To Be Discovered? (with Deborah Small), and Flic(k)s), of which 7th Circle (1998) and The Prisons (2001), received the San Diego Book Award for poetry. At various times she was the editor and driving force behind Cedar Hill Books and the small press magazine, The Cedar Hill Review. Without her the press would have gone out with the tide, as so many small presses do. She fiercely kept it going, against the odds. She was generous and encouraging to many poets, publishing books that otherwise would have never seen the light of day. Unfortunately, due to a malicious and frivolous lawsuit filed by a contributor to Cedar Hill Books—a person Maggie had once helped and published—Cedar Hill Books was severely crippled and never recovered.

Maggie was never entirely comfortable with the term political poet. She viewed herself as a poet who wrote about, amongst other things, political matters as they affected her. This is actually how a great deal of the poetry writing (and reading) world views the role of a poet in a modern society. A poet might write a love poem or a poem about their Grandmother or the way autumn leaves fall into a river. And write a poem about the latest war. Giving expression to the entire range of human experience is what a whole person and a responsible artist does.

Still, it seems not a year passes without well heeled and appointed poets within the mainstream literary community in America throwing up the question, “Can political poetry be poetry?” Well heeled and appointed poets have been asking this question since the McCarthy era. No surprise what the answer is.

Of course, what is really being objected to is speaking truth to power. As one well heeled and appointed poet once smugly told me, “Poetry is about revelation not revolution.” But of course it’s about both. It is impossible to truly arrive at one without the other. Indeed, separating Art into acceptable and non-acceptable categories based on content will inevitably lead one into hypocrisy and contradiction. To imagine that poets are somehow above or outside the political structure of the society in which they exist is itself a political notion that soon collapses under the weight of its own assumptions. As the cinematographer, Haskell Wexler, said, "All films are political." Knowing of Maggie's interest in film, I mentioned this quote to her. Over the phone you could hear the ice in her drink tinkle as she swirled it. "Yes," she said, "all poems, too."

We never met. At various times she was going to fly to Seattle and visit with poet friends here. Sadly, that never happened. In the 1990s, perhaps the last decade when people still wrote letters, we exchanged letters. Later, we exchanged emails. Hers were always brief, laconic, almost aphoristic, like telegrams sent by someone who needed to cut to the core of the matter and only had minutes on the schedule before the train arrives. What we did, however, was talk on the phone for hours at a time. Maggie was a charming conversationalist and we were like teenagers sharing long distance secrets.

I’ve only seen one picture of her. It’s the one on most of her books: a hipster in sunglasses. She carries a brave and twisted smile—amused, not only at the world but at herself, her face caught at just that instant when the stand up comedian has brought down the house with a joke at everyone’s expense.

In her early poems, a major theme was language and how it is used to obfuscate and conceal the real agenda of the U.S. empire builders. My co-editor, the poet, Christopher Butters, and I had the opportunity to read an early, unpublished manuscript of Maggie’s called Job’s Wife. The work is a harbinger of things to come though it is uneven, as early work often is. But what is clear is that over the course of the manuscript you can see the poems become tougher and leaner. What is lyrical becomes increasingly pared away, the only music that of the forge, hammer and sparks as an edge is applied. Once Maggie found her voice, she created a kind of poetry that was relentlessly stripped to the essentials, everything superfluous burned away in the underlying fury that inhabits these poems.

Once, after publishing some of her poems in Pemmican, I got an email from a reader who complained that her work was nihilistic and that it lacked hope and promise. It’s true, Maggie’s poems don’t have Disney endings. These are not poems that cheerlead for social change. And yes, very rarely do they offer hope. When I read them, I think this is someone who has gone beyond all hope and yet who keeps putting one foot in front of the other. These are brutal, unflinching looks at brutal situations, and Maggie refuses to sugarcoat them. We are like that captive viewer of horrific documentaries, strapped to a chair with eyelids taped open, unable to turn away from an endless reel of atrocities wrapped in patriotic packages, forced to witness one shattered life and holocaust after another. We are immersed in History and its consequences, and we are not allowed to make excuses for anyone, not even ourselves.

Can't Happen Here
     for Ward Churchill

    The poster announced a Conference on Genocide
    at a southern California university.
    Represented were Jews, Armenians, Cambodians,
    even Gypsies, but no American Indians.
    I phoned the professor in charge,
    who had "thought of including Indians,
    but the students decided against it."
    He explained: "Indians don't fall
    within the dictionary
    definition of Gen•o•cide,
    namely 'the systematic,
    planned extermination of a people.'"
    "You don't think invasion, land theft,
    chronic murder of civilians & the slaughter
    of 50 million bison with the intention of starving
    Indian people, wasn't planned?"
    "No," he said, "we just went too far."

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