I never liked dream talk. Whenever anyone rushed over and said they just had to tell me about a crazy dream they had, I shut down. There was nothing more self-indulgent, I thought, than to expect others to immerse themselves in a world that by definition is impervious to logic, the dreamer’s or anyone else’s. Dreams, I thought, like meals or orgasms, oughtn’t to be described; if you weren’t there, you wouldn’t understand.
Even a stiff-necked dream refusenik like me, however, was powerless before To Die Next to You, a collaboration between poet Rodger Kamenetz and artist Michael Hafftka. The poems have a dream’s ethereal beauty; like the visions we see when we sleep, they are at once intimately familiar and profoundly strange. Yet instead of leaving us to err in this sleepy wilderness by ourselves, Kamenetz is sharp, analytical, and funny. A sentence like “you have to go in with your eyes closed,” for example, spoken by “the deep voice of the ruin,” evokes giggles: it’s upside-down, but it’s recognizable and, strangely, logical. Hafftka’s striking art drives the point home by giving each poem a literal, haunting illustration, itself a meditation on that quintessential Jewish theme of the relations between the image and the word.
Those who, like me, admire Kamenetz’s earlier work—particularly Burnt Books, his meditation on Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav and Franz Kafka—will find here an ever purer dose of his metaphysical mastery. Those new to the cult may see both artists in person tomorrow evening at Columbia University.