Restless Messengers: Poetry In Review

Jake Marmer, Cosmic Diaspora
Station Hill Press, 2020, $13.99

According to Gershom Scholem, “the historical exile of the Jewish people also has its spiritual causation in various disturbances and faults in the cosmic harmony for which it serves as a concrete and concentrated symbol. The situation of the spiritual worlds at the time of the exile was completely different from that ideal state in which they were supposed to exist according to the divine plan and in which they will find themselves at the time of redemption.” Elsewhere, Scholem writes that “The Galut [exile or diaspora] of Israel is only the expression—compelling, concrete, and extremely cruel—of this phase of the world before reparation and redemption. The predicament of Israel, then, is not a historical accident but inherent in the world‘s being, and it is in Israel‘s power to repair the universal flaw. By amending themselves, the Jewish people can also amend the world, in its visible and invisible aspects alike. How can this be done? Through the Torah and the commandments.”

Jake Marmer‘s Cosmic Diaspora resonates with this kabbalistic knowledge of the Galut, both as a concrete, historical experience, and as a spiritual condition. Marmer sees his poetic task as analogous to that of the traditional kabbalist. But rather than religious observance, obedience to the Law, and devoted study of the esoteric dimension of Torah, Marmer seeks reparation and restoration, if not redemption, through a wildly heterogenous performative discourse, an ecstatic blend of klezmer and spoken word rhythms, free jazz improvisation, science fiction imagery, and just a pinch of Borscht Belt standup. Indeed, if Marmer‘s work is redemptive, it is redemptive through (artistic) transgression, which, as Scholem also frequently tells us, is another tendency in the mad history of Jewish mystical messianism. “I am the voice who translates the invisible / I am the voice whose hunger is a language” Marmer declares (“Second Invisibility,” 29). It takes a good deal of chutzpah to make such a declaration. At his best, Marmer is able to convince us that he is indeed such a voice.

Marmer comes by his diasporism honestly, and not only because he is Jewish. “Born in the provincial steppes of Ukraine, in a city which was renamed four times in the past hundred years [it was Kirovograd while Marmer was growing up; it is now Kropyvnytskyi]” (119), Marmer came to the United States at the age of fifteen. “Growing up on the outskirts of the universe,” he tells us, “I sought out the language of the cosmos, its imagery and terminology” (15). A devoted reader of Eastern European science fiction and “coveted translations of American sci-fi classics,” Marmer put this youthful love aside when he became an immigrant—an “alien,” a term to which he became rightfully sensitive. His passion was “just too bound up with my old-country self, which I was trying to erase.” His rediscovery of the genre via “Samuel Delaney, Ursula Le Guin, Octavia Butler, and Sun Ra,” led to a renewed vision of “the deep future of the myth, spirit, language, otherness, desire, and the epic.”

I think it‘s important to note that of the four artists just mentioned, three are Black. It could be that in Cosmic Diaspora and in Marmer‘s work generally, we are seeing the development of a “Judeo-futurism” analogous to “Afro-futurism.” Another term which comes to mind, often invoked by Jewish avant-gardists in poetry and music, is Ginsberg‘s “bop kabbalah” from Howl—though in the case of Marmer and his associates, we might call it “kabbalistic bop.” Improvisation in poetry and music is fundamental to Marmer‘s project. He has performed poems from Cosmic Diaspora and his earlier books with jazz and klezmer musicians, including his current ensemble, the Cosmic Diaspora Trio (a sizable collection of video recordings can be found here). Indeed, the performative dimension of Marmer‘s poetry is so significant that a number of the poems in the new book are followed by a QR code, which may be scanned to connect the reader to a video or audio recording of the text—not exactly science fiction at this point, but an innovation which I, for one, have never seen before, and which makes perfect sense given the nature of the work.

How does kabbalah (and Jewish textual traditions in general) work with improvisatory poetics and science fiction imagery in Cosmic Diaspora? As I mentioned above, the ingredients of a Marmer poem, combined in various proportions, often result in a decidedly heterogeneous discourse, with a good deal of code switching, swinging from the personal to the vatic, from elevated pronouncements to vernacular conversation. As the poet tells us in “Turbine,” “my mind stayed in the corner / of the crew‘s collective dream at lift-off” (20). In effect, he inhabits and expresses the sensibility of the collective, the voyagers and wandering exiles travelling through the cosmic void—which is itself both the outer space of science fiction and the divine emptiness of the kabbalists. Possessed by “naked thought I could no longer control,” Marmer realizes that “when hacking becomes mysticism / mutation is imagination‘s only genre.” If kabbalism is a sort of mystical hacking, a quest to decipher the divine code and achieve tikkun through the theurgy of the Hebrew text, then the result will be “mutation,” as the poem constantly transforms itself under the various pressures exerted upon it by the visionary imagination.

Possession is a crucial notion for Marmer. It is, or course, one way to think about imaginative inspiration, and it also plays a big part in what scholars sometimes refer to as “practical kabbalah,” which is to say, not merely the interpretive prising of Jewish texts to unveil their esoteric dimension, but the rituals and practices which magically lead to cosmic restoration. But such possession comes with a price. Here are the last lines of “Dead Souls”:

...I talked
in the voice of my host
about propositional nature
heavy language, numinous heartburn
talked and talked

but can you
talk your way out of invisibility, possession
and the language crystal
that imploded
on signing? (52)

“Numinous heartburn” is probably a condition from which many mystically inclined poets suffer, made worse when one signs a contract with the powers claiming to take you to the supernal realms. When the language crystal implodes (I am reminded of the Lurianic concept of shevirath ha-kelim, the breaking of the vessels, when the sefirot were unable to hold the divine light), where does that leave the poet? Perhaps, ironically, with a greater sense of self, as in the realization which ends “Taxi for a Dybbuk”:

...It suddenly dawned on me:
your own ride, within your body must be a lot
like what I‘ve just felt—thickening darkness,
vertigo of language—this is home?—stranger yet
   that very thought
got things moving, the transport, no longer pedestrian
I arrived on the next breath, never moved faster in my entire life (32)

A dybbuk, in Jewish folklore, is the soul of a deceased individual which possesses one of the living. The most famous literary version of the legend is S. Ansky‘s play The Dybbuk (1916), later made into a classic of Yiddish cinema (1937), in which the soul of a young kabbalist possesses the woman he loves but was unable to marry. Marmer‘s poem puts a different spin on possession (a word which, earlier in the poem, the dybbuk says, “casts a shadow vastly pedestrian / and esoteric both”). What we and the dybbuk learn is that we possess ourselves: the soul, or consciousness, within the body (our “ride”) produces that same feeling of otherness we would feel if we had a dybbuk within us. We feel estranged or exiled from ourselves. And because we know ourselves by addressing ourselves, we experience a “vertigo of language,” and lose our feeling of the pedestrian (in a lovely pun, both walking and ordinary). Our awareness of ourselves is heightened, and our feeling of “the next breath” accelerates.

All this leads to Marmer‘s equally important emphasis on creativity as improvisation, since it could be said that an inspired improvisor is possessed. In the introduction to a section of the book called “Transcriptions,” Marmer recounts an epiphany he had while listening to Shanir Blumenkranz‘s quartet at the Stone in the East Village. As he tells us, “I knew then that no music will move me as much as this kind. Creation may be a mystery, but when it comes to improvisation, you can touch it, taste the rawest thought” (60). The transcribed texts, “written while listening to live improvised music,” are intended to be “not merely transcriptions of past events—but living scores that could be used as a departure point by improvising musicians, readers or anyone willing to improvise” (61). As may be expected, these poems are looser and more disjointed than those in other sections of Cosmic Diaspora, and with some exceptions, I find them less compelling. Then again, in another section called “Improvisations & Remixes,” there is a transcription of a performance of a poem called “Not Here / Not Now” which I think is more hypnotic than the original:

in the room of rolled up carpets
in the room bulging
with academic precision
in the swaying pelvis room

in the room of spilled wine
in the room of spilled endowment

in the room where Kafka forgot to vacuum
where Borges dropped his aleph... (108)

Here we are in shamanic territory, and Marmer approaches the status of a technician of the sacred. His free associative, repetitive incantation (keeping in mind that the shaman is close kin to the holy fool) is intended, as he declares in another poem, “to disrobe / the world & dis- / cover that we & all the world are God” (“The Robe: Variation on the Theme,” 95).

Since I am a much less performative poet than Marmer, and regard commentary as fundamental to a Jewish poetics, I gravitate to the more text-based poems in Cosmic Diaspora. But Marmer handles every dimension of contemporary Jewish-American poetry, from Beat shamanism to ironic Talmudism, with equal panache. One of the most moving poems in the book, “No Eyes,” riffs on two passages from the Zohar, one a phantasmagoric midrash on the first verses of Genesis (Zohar 1:15a), the other a set of anecdotes which depict the students of the Torah as lovers of the beautiful maiden with no eyes (or perhaps on whom no one has set eyes) (Zohar 2:94b-95a), who is also understood to be the Shekhinah. Marmer‘s poem gives us

not a telescope but a phantom limb
stretching toward the invisible—

is how the experiment‘s outcome
was described to me; my consciousness, a small
price for this new form of travel

I was told I‘d have to become
a mythic being with no eyes
concealed and revealed
in the garments that are not

calligraphy of life‘s post-script (26)

Challenging the patriarchal stance of much of the Kabbalah, Marmer gives voice to the maiden herself, as if she, the Torah, is the result of some strange scientific experiment, transforming her into “a mythic being with no eyes” wrapped in the esoteric text, the “calligraphy of life‘s post-script.” The hands of the rabbis studying her “went into my corpus / my memory bled unto their fingertips / I could speak no words but laced / their echoes, in patience and sorrow.” Here in the cosmic diaspora, Torah study has a tragic dimension, as both text and reader can only wait for the redemption. In the poem‘s coda, we realize that this is “the dream of the missing alef, / which became the breath / of Elohim, the edge / of your song‘s void.” Thus the poet, at the edge of the void, sings the song of the Lord.

Post by Norman Finkelstein on 12/5/2020 at 12:00 PM