When Michael Hafftka doesn’t paint from his imagination, he paints people he knows. For the past few years, Hafftka’s portraits focused on poets. Phillip Levine, US Poet Laureate 2011, Gerald Stern Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets 2006, are two of the better known. But for Hafftka each one is special and Irena Klepfisz’s poetry is particularly close to his heart because she shares his parents past as a survivor of the holocaust. In his own words:
“Before I became a painter, I was a failed poet. I love poetry with its mysterious use of words, bending, creating, smearing words to reveal emotions hidden or apparent. I was too uptight with words and I found my freedom in painting. Over the past 35 years and as part of my fascination with poetry, I have painted poets, some who are close friends, as a tribute to the immense magic they ring out of words and rhythm. I am grateful to each one who has collaborated with me in allowing me to try and capture them in my images. Thank you!”
“Philip Levine’s Music of Time from his most recent book News of the World is much like the experience I had painting him. He weaves stories in with the utmost precision all at once you’re engaged in his life and his travel and in the end you find yourself faced with a profound realization you are waking from a dream to the real.”
The Music of Time
The young woman sewing
by the window hums a song
I don’t know; I hear only
a few bars, and when the trucks
barrel down the broken street
the music is lost. Before the darkness
leaks from the shadows of
the great cathedral, I see her
once more at work and later
hear in the sudden silence
of nightfall wordless music rising
from her room. I put aside
my papers, wash, and dress
to eat at one of the seafood
places along the great avenues
near the port where later
the homeless will sleep. Then I
walk for hours in the Barrio
Chino passing the open
doors of tiny bars and caves
from which the voices of old men
bark out the stale anthems
of love’s defeat. “This is the world,”
I think, “this is what I came
in search of years ago.” Now I
can go back to my single room ,
I can lie awake in the dark
rehearsing all the trivial events
of the day ahead, a day that begins
when the sun clears the dark spires
of someone’s God, and I waken
in a flood of dust rising from
nowhere and from nowhere comes
the actual voice of someone else.
[published in RATTLE, 2003. From NEWS OF THE WORLD, Random House, 2009]
“Gerald Stern’s poem Possum reminds me of his generous nature playfully involved with nature and myth, Lazarus appears and we play his game and at once feel lucky because the threat of Rabies or some such complication is always there for us to be saved from by his wit. When I painted Gerry he was full of poems full of images that remind me of this poem. Gerry does not end with this poem, there is much more to his universe, sex, beauty and turbulence and delicious excursions into nostalgia. I hope some of that is obvious in the way I painted him.”
I’d rather believe it was only chance that put the opossum
into my garbage can and he lay dead inside
from too many peelings and drowned from too many smells,
and he was more like a cat in size which shocked me
and he came back from the dead, if I can say that
and crawled out as soon as it got dark
and a weird sense told him Rebecca wasn’t looking
and we named him Lazarus to show that we loved him
and when he wanted to play we all lay down dead
just to show that humans are good at that too
or maybe he wasn’t playing and he had the same
longings we did or maybe he was studying
how we died, some of us just slumped over,
some of us lying with grave and cradled heads,
and some of us turned into stone like standing ghosts,
though he may have had rabies and we were just lucky.
(Possum is first published here and in the Spring issue of APR)
“Painting Ed came at a difficult time for him and he was very nice to indulge me. I felt his serious soul and with his ode To Poetry I can relate to the love and need I have as an artist to the essence of our medium. I think all artists can relate to his beautiful urgency when he says “please help me to find you”.”
Don’t desert me
just because I stayed up last night
watching The Lost Weekend.
I know I’ve spent too much time
praising your naked body to strangers
and gossiping about lovers you betrayed.
I’ve stalked you in foreign cities
and followed your far-flung movements,
pretending I could describe you.
Forgive me for getting jacked on coffee
and obsessing over your features
year after jittery year.
I’m sorry for handing you a line
and typing you on a screen,
but don’t let me suffer in silence.
Does anyone still invoke the Muse,
string a wooden lyre for Apollo,
or try to saddle up Pegasus?
Winged horse, heavenly god or goddess,
indifferent entity, secret code, stored magic,
pleasance and half wonder, hell,
I have loved you my entire life
without even knowing what you are
or how—please help me—to find you.
“Rodger Kamenetz and I immersed in each other’s works. I painted him and, in his words, channeled his father. Later we collaborated on a book where I created a painting for each poem in the book. The book will be coming out this year with blessings (blurb) from David Shapiro, the poet and art historian.”
If sadness is a river where does it lead?
Down below the rocks to the source of sadness?
My geology is broken. Is there a source of sadness,
A still lake that moonlight scrapes above,
Tucking the tides like blankets? In salt,
We find the cure for grains of night.
But sadness washes everything along with it
Down below the earth. It doesn’t matter about
The geology. It never did. The earth goes on
Singing its old songs; it drags the sky
Through a dark vacuum. You see all
Of it, you have blue eyes like ancient seas:
You have eyes with sky in them. Your tears are the dew.
Slowly in the giant lake of sadness, impurities
Settle to the bottom, our life in minerals.
We have been filtered by a vast amount of time
But don’t know it, only your hand knows it
In the history of paws and tendrils.
Poppies rise from the earth in green hoods.
Snapdragon faces. Calla hermaphrodites.
Time inherits them all.
And the river will never run dry.
[from TO DIE NEXT TO YOU, Six Gallery Press, 2013]
“I feel close to Irena Klepfisz in the deepest way possible and so much so to her poem “Etlekhe verter oyf mame-loshn/ A few words in the mother tongue”. She comes from the mysterious and tragic, mostly unknown, untold, unutterable past of my family who perished in the holocaust. She survived as did my parents and she has voiced emotions I longed all my life to hear expressed.”
Etlekhe verter oyf mame-loshn/
A few words in the mother tongue
lemoshl: for example
di kurve the whore
a woman who acknowledges her passions
di yidene the Jewess the Jewish woman
let’s face it: every woman is one
di yente the gossip the busybody
who knows what’s what
and is never caught off guard
di lezbianke the one with
a roommate though we never used
dos vaybl the wife
or the little woman
in der heym at home
where she does everything to keep
yidishkayt a way of being
Jewish always arguable
in mark where she buys
di kartofl un khalah
(yes, potatoes and challah)
di kartofl the material counter-
part of yidishkayt
mit tsibeles with onions
that bring trern tsu di oygn
tears to the eyes when she sees
how little it all is
veyniker un veyniker
less and less
di khalah braided
vi ir hor far der khasene
like her hair before the wedding
when she was aza sheyn meydl
such a pretty girl
di lange shvartse hor
the long black hair
di lange shvartse hor
a froy kholmt a woman
dreams ir ort oyf der velt
her place in this world
un zi hot moyre and she is afraid
so afraid of the words
zi kholmt she dreams
un zi hot moyre and she is afraid
a meydl kholmt
a kurve kholmt
a yidene kholmt
a yente kholmt
a lezbianke kholmt
a vaybl kholmt
di lange shvartse hor
“Ira Sadoff enjoyed my painting him, and his poem Self Portrait is like a sibling to my portrait of him, each compliments the other.”
I sniff after the sparrow and the spaniel, flitting around,
barking, digging up the dirt: how could I not be
at one with them? But I’m a spendthrift too, rummaging about
old sport coats, selecting a style, a clash of styles –
in a private moment trying to decide who I am today by trying on
something discarded, something nobody treasured –
I think I want everyone and everything to be loved so much
I get dour, chastising, dark, and sometimes hate
so much I can’t go for a stroll without recycling the moment
they dropped acid on my palm, the thousand ways I could ease
their demise – dipping them into a river of invective
that seems futile and enticing – whether it’s the Secretary of State
or a species of white shirts and thin black ties who exude smugness,
who quote from the bible as if it were the Bible. It’s like having an affair –
they all end badly, don’t they? – thereby the passion flies out of me
like an open window in February: take the heat, world,
disperse it before I undress another thought. Too late: I’m spurred on
by an indefinite article, an invasion, the scarf she wore
that Christmas, the spiteful brother who stole my best fear.
[from TRUE FAITH, BOA Editions, 2012]
“What can I say about the love of my life, Yonat Hafftka, she has spoken poetry to me in the dark of night and in the most intimate ways. Her words have become my blood.”
After my Mother Died
It took a month and a half and
Only at the end did I know it was over.
She fooled me. Despite the smell of death
At her door that first night.
As my friend said, who also lost her mother a week later,
It’s the finality that is so disturbing.
I would like to think I myself experimented in dying
When I watched her, but I learned nothing
Save how final it was.
I have witnessed yet another unique death
That prepared me for what?
This time I was older.
I knew my own death would be a variation on the same.
But this was just a minor concern
Next to the grand desire to help.
Help each other. We helped her move on,
We carried the weights and gave her the drugs
That would let her think as she wished.
Now we are the living
And the legacy
And we carry on.
Her dust is fresh and is still in the air.
Her wishes are null but remembered.
She didn’t want to tell with words,
She didn’t want to tell at all,
But she recorded.
She recorded with both hands in the clay
And she fired, one-by-one
Until she was ready.
Let your body rest,
Exit and observe —
The body is at peace.
You are free from the constraints of nature.
You make a promise to return
But it is understood at the door that
Goings and comings are unpredictable.
(Your tribe doesn’t take for granted
The return of the soul with the morning.)
Let’s go meet the other departed,
The one you loved as your own child
Before you knew what one’s own child meant,
Before you grasped the dependency implied,
Loosed by the breaking of the bonds of safety.
He almost made it.
Together you can look back and laugh and
Resume the love.
[published in SUM, Six Gallery Press, 2008]
 Mother (Hebrew)
Michael Hafftka is an internationally acclaimed visual artist. His art works are represented in the permanent collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Carnegie Museum of Art and The National Gallery of Art. He has had one person shows in New York at the Aberbach Fine Art, Mary Ryan, DiLaurentini, H. F. Manes and Rosa Essman galleries as well as in Belgium, Holland, Germany and Japan. Housatonic Museum of Art mounted a major retrospective of his large paintings and in 2009 Yeshiva University Museum presented a comprehensive show of old and new works. Other recent exhibits include the Mizel Center for the Arts in Denver and Chapman University. Hafftka is an accomplished improvisational guitarist who recorded and performed with avant-garde musicians internationally in Feeding Goats. Hafftka lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Philip Levine (b. January 10, 1928, Detroit, Michigan) is a Pulitzer Prize-winning American poet best known for his poems about working-class Detroit. He taught for over thirty years in the English Department of California State University, Fresno and held teaching positions at other universities as well. He was appointed Poet Laureate of the United States for 2011–2012.
Gerald Stern was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1925 and was educated at the University of Pittsburgh and Columbia University. He is the author of 16 books of poetry, including, most recently, In Beauty Bright (Norton, 2012) and Save the Last Dance (Norton, 2008), as well as This Time: New and Selected Poems, which won the 1998 National Book Award. A kind-of memoir of a year in 85 sections titled Stealing History, was published by Trinity University Press in the spring of 2012. He was awarded the 2005 Wallace Stevens Award by the Academy of American Poets and has just finished a 6-year term as Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. Additionally, Stern was the 2010 recipient of the Medal of Honor in Poetry by the Academy of Arts and Letters, he was inducted into the 2012 class of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and was the 2012 recipient of the Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry from the Library of Congress.
Edward Hirsch (1950) is the author of eight poetry books, including The Living Fire: New and Selected Poems (2010), and four prose books, among them How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry (1999), a national bestseller, and Poet’s Choice (2006).
Rodger Kamenetz lives in New Orleans and works with people’s dreams. His five books of poetry are The Missing Jew (1979), Nympholepsy (1985), The Missing Jew: New and Selected (1991), Stuck (1995), and The Lowercase Jew (2003). Kamenetz is also the author of The Jew in the Lotus (1994) which the New York Times called “a revered text”, Stalking Elijah which won the National Jewish Book Award, and The History of Last Night’s Dream (2007) which was featured on Oprah Winfrey’s “Soul Series.” His most recent prose is Burnt Books (2010).
Klepfisz was born in the Warsaw Ghetto and was 2 years old during the Warsaw ghetto uprising. Her father was killed on the second day of uprising. Klepfisz escaped with her mother to the Polish countryside where they survived the Second World War by hiding and concealing their Jewish identities. Irena and her mother moved to the United States in 1949.
Irena Klepfisz received a Ph.D. in English in 1970. She has taught English, Yiddish, and Women’s Studies and currently teaches at Barnard College.Today Klepfisz is known as a Yiddishist. She is well-known for her translations of Yiddish poets Kadya Molodowsky, and Fradl Shtok. Irena Klepfisz was a member of Di Vilde Chayes (English: The Wild Beasts), A Jewish feminist group that examined and responded to political issues in the Middle East, as well as to antisemitism.
Klepfisz began publishing her poems in 1971. She was a founding editor of Conditions, a feminist magazine emphasizing the writing of lesbians, and also was the co-editor of The Tribe of Dina: A Jewish Women’s Anthology. She has also been a contributor to the Jewish feminist magazine Bridges.
Ira Sadoff is the author of eight collections of poems, most recently TRUE FAITH (BOA EDITIONS) 2012, a critical book on aesthetics and politics, HISTORY MATTERS (Iowa) and short stories AN IRA SADOFF READER. Awarded Fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment.
Yonat Hafftka (1953) was born in Israel and immigrated to the US. Her book SUM was published by Six Gallery Press in 2008 and reviewed in the Jewish Book World (“Perception combined with a sensitive longing”) and Montserrat Review (“It calls to mind Yeats’ filthy rag and bone shop of the heart”).