The Messiah Cut-Up

Each Thursday, The Arty Semite features excerpts and reviews of the best contemporary Jewish poetry. This week Jake Marmer writes about the surrealist dialogues of Adam Shechter and Daniel Y. Harris.

The family of Jewish Surrealists and Dadaists is extensive, ranging from Dada’s founding poet Tristan Tzara, to French filmmaker Nelly Kaplan, to American media artist Man Ray. This family has now experienced a seismic shift with the inclusion of two new members — Adam Shechter and Daniel Y. Harris, whose chapbook “Paul Celan and the Messiah’s Broken Levered Tongue: An Exponential Dyad” was published by Cervena Barva Press earlier this year. The previous collaborative work of these two authors, “Seven Dead Kafkas and a Fork,” has been featured in Exquisite Corpse, the prestigious online journal of Surrealism, but this is their debut appearance in print.

The chapbook is a dialogue that exiles itself from easily identifiable goals and whose subject escapes specific plot lines. Perhaps, this work is an attempt to re-map the history of Jewish esoteric mythology, focusing on Messianic obsessions as well as a kaleidoscope of traumas — national, universal, metaphysical, and the authors’ own.

Here’s a segment, where Harris takes the voice of Paul Celan, the great Jewish poet and Holocaust survivor who committed suicide by jumping into the Seine river, while Shechter responds as the Messiah:

In this vein, the poets take turns addressing each other as various characters: Paul Celan and the Messiah, Shabbetai Tzvi and Nathan of Gaza, the Lubavitcher Rebbe and a Baal Teshuva. No matter what masks they don, however, or which settings they’re in, their two voices are distinct. Harris takes the tone of an overeducated madman, whose range of reference and highfalutin’ vocabulary is forbidding, yet, in its disorientation and piling-on, there’s a visceral music and, at times, irony. Shechter is basically a trickster, a shaman: one minute he erects edifices to Freud, Hassidic philosophy and poetic melancholy, and the next moment he emerges from behind them and laughingly shatters them into dust. Here’s a particularly memorable sampling of Shechter channeling:

Aside from the Surrealist mode, the dialogue occasionally veers into straightforward bits of autobiographical narrative. It is as if the dybbuks possessing the two authors take off for an impromptu vacation, and the two temporarily relieved writers converse in almost-human language.

Here’s Harris, speaking as himself:

Similarly, here are two pieces from Shechter:

The thrust of trauma, drama, and disorientation is so harsh that catharsis does not exactly arrive, and yet somehow follows behind the imagistic onslaught at all times. Not surprisingly, the book ends with a melt-down, which, however is not devoid of hope, or at least irony: the ghost of Paul Celan appears, addressing Paul Celan himself, as well as Daniel and Adam, and advises all:

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