Max Jacob (1876-1944) has always seemed an oddly irresistible and contradictory figure. I'm drawn to the genuine wit and zany artistry of this dyed-in-the-wool modernist who palled around with Picasso and Apollinaire and played a key role in the development of cubism and currealism. Born in Quimper, Brittany, Jacob once said that he joined the artistic community in Montparnasse "to sin disgracefully." He was a verbal cut-up and comedian, a serious occultist and student of Kabbalah, a dandy, a self-lacerating homosexual and a Jew who had a vision of Christ and subsequently converted to Catholicism. His clowning around tended to cover up his genuine mysticism and spiritual torment.
Jacob was a renegade from the middle class who lived in extreme poverty in Paris and worked at all manner of jobs. His groundbreaking work, Le cornet a des (The Dice Cup) established him as the re-inventor of the prose poem and a worthy successor to Rimbaud.
Jacob treated art as a game ("Too bad for him who makes a duty of it," he declared) and enjoyed toying with reality, undermining sentimentality and playfully mistaking one thing for another, as in his characteristic poem "The Beggar Woman of Naples," which consists of a single paragraph:
"When I lived in Naples there was always a beggar woman at the gate of my palace, to whom I would toss some coins before climbing into my carriage. One day, surprised at never being thanked, I looked at the beggar woman. Now, as I looked at her, I saw that what I had taken for a beggar woman was a wooden case painted green which contained some red earth and a few half- rotten bananas . . ."
In life as in work, Jacob's ironic wit continually vied with his devotional spirit. Until 1921, he ricocheted between a wild bohemianism and an extravagant, self-mocking, theatrical penitence. "If I had sinned terribly the night before, next morning, well before dawn, you could see me crawling on my knees through the Stations of the Cross," he confessed. "I choke, I weep, I strike my face, my breast, my arms and legs, my hands. I bleed, I make the Sign of the Cross with my tears. At the end, God is taken in."
Jacob eventually moved to the small village of Saint-Benoit-sur-Loire, close to a Benedictine church. One of the ironies of his situation was that he was forced to wear the yellow star. The cutting dialogue tells all in this tiny prose poem from Derniers poemes:
The Yellow Star Again
"Are those beets your dog's eating?"
"No, it's a Jew who fell down in the snow."
"They could find some other place to faint instead of my sidewalk."
Jacob was arrested by the Nazis in February 1944, and died of bronchial pneumonia in a concentration camp at Drancy, near Paris. "The path of my fate is, I'm afraid, unwavering./ I'll soon be at death's door," he foresaw in one of his last poems. "I'll leave gladly what others have envied me for,/ an adolescent's heart treasured like a precious urn." The poem concludes with the commanding whisper of God.
Swift is the race hard the rocky place
and the flower of love died beneath our knees
while the lips cried silently in the depths of the heart.
An angel of the Lord came to me:
"Use your voice to sing to heaven!"
It was a wise spirit and beautiful too.
And since then! How often has God whispered:
"Silence is everywhere but in my eyes.
Become intoxicated with me. Look for me more and more.
Contemplate me: I promise nothing.
And think carefully: my image is in you.
Your secret happiness in the midst of sorrow.
Understand my law of suffering
transform your grief into holy ecstasy
through my eyes you must see your nature
through my heart you must weep with love."
(John Ashbery's translation of "The Beggar Woman of Naples" appears in Max Jacob, "The Dice Cup: Selected Prose Poems," ed. Michael Brownstein. SUN. Copyright © 1979 by SUN. William Kulik's translations of "The Yellow Star Again" and "Artless Lines" appear in "The Selected Poems of Max Jacob," edited and translated by William Kulik. Oberlin College Press. Copyright © 1999 by Oberlin College.)