OVER SEVERAL BOOKS of poetry, Jake Marmer has delved into the themes of Judaism, jazz, and the journey of the transplanted poetic self in the mixed welcome of America (Marmer emigrated from the “provincial steppes of Ukraine” at age 15). In his visionary and deadpan third poetry collection, Cosmic Diaspora, he adopts a guise of sci-fi to chart his experiments at the outer reaches of selfhood, identity, and form. The result is a rich particle collider of intergalactic longings, Jewish mystical questions, and downtown avant-garde improvisation.
Marmer’s gift is to sing from the insides of our fraught intimacy with language. What unites the seemingly disparate sections of the collection is a dizzying array of variations on the notion of “alien”: from the radical estrangements of time and distance, to the brutal bureaucratic alchemy of becoming a “legal alien,” to the way language itself colonizes us like an uncanny life-form:
remember your own birth —
you’ll witness a moment equally
impossible, gory, painful, gorgeous
but it is language that is being born:
clumps of living words hurtling
words that have nothing
to do with you and are, nevertheless, the most
intimate of all clumps
(“Cost of Admission”)
In the title section of the book, a ragbag of exiled interstellar voices fuse the loneliness of the hard-boiled space hustler with the searing isolation of a mystic haunted by incommunicable encounters with a transcendence that “may not be an illusion / any more than radiation is, or radiance.” Marmer is also an adept improvisatory performer frequently backed by jazz, and the influence of experimental music is felt in the book’s most radical section, “Transcriptions,” in which the poet offers freestyle linguistic scores for musical performances meant to conjure what he calls “the song of the under-painting,” the murmuring underneath.
In the end, we are swept up generously into the poet’s yearning for integration with parts of himself that time, language, and distance have deported, transported, and transformed. It is a mystical longing for a universe in which the word “infinite” is not diminished by our humanness, and our personhood is not diminished by our possession of words like “infinite.”
I interviewed Marmer via Zoom in late October 2020. He wore his “Alien” baseball cap and rocked back and forth while speaking, echoing the Jewish ritual swaying called shuckling, which some believe expresses the soul’s desire to return to its source.
ALEXANDER NEMSER: In your last book, The Neighbor Out of Sound, you begin with a poem that describes putting your head down a well. In the new book, you begin with a prose invocation in which you seek the black hole at the center of a poem. What is the importance of this void for you as a ground for new language?
JAKE MARMER: What I consider to be the sacred moment in poetry, and mostly as a reader, not even so much as a writer of poems, is the sense that there’s always this spot in a poem, a doorway, which, if you go down that way, will cause the whole poem to fall apart. And as you’re experiencing that, the breakdown that occurs, there’s a sense that everything around is also fragile in that same way, and that’s a profound and lovely moment, and also a scary and generative and beautiful moment.
On the theme of following the poem to this breakdown point — apparently in psychology, a moment of crisis can be recognized by the occurrence of what they call a “meaning vacuum,” where the familiar systems for making sense of life fall apart, and in the midst of this, we experience this terrifying and maybe fruitful blankness. I was thinking that for the Jewish poet, the vacuum is the meaning.
You’re experiencing this sense of fear, of things no longer making sense: “I’m bending too far into the well, the glasses are gonna slide off my nose, in fact, I am the glasses falling down there.” But it’s thrilling to plummet and restart, and there’s a thrill of finding language for that and the intense imagery that occurs. Like tzimtzum, yeah? [Tzimtzum refers to the Kabbalistic idea of God withdrawing himself from creation to leave a vacancy for new creative light to unfold.] It’s a flattering thing to think about — that we can engender tzimtzum, too. So withdrawing from a poem is an act of tzimtzum. You’re in it, and you have all this meaning that is circulating within you as you’re composing, and then you let it go. I don’t know, I’m reading some of these poems here in the book, and a lot of stuff is becoming increasingly less clear to me. Like, I don’t know what I was thinking, it’s becoming more and more foreign. Not in a bad way — I’m glad it’s happening.
When you have that moment of “Not sure what I meant there,” does it feel like that was another Jake, or it was a stranger? How do you relate to the author if it’s no longer quite you?
I guess if you think of a self, or a poetic self, as a space over which languages or types of speech wash over, there’s some degree of predictability: “These are the rivers that flow through me.” There’s a little bit of ancestral saltwater, bitter Eastern European water, and some strangely fresh water (“what’s it doing here?”), that’s the confluence you can recollect, but also a bird flew by and dropped on that very spot. I think I’ve learned to accept the fact that in the space of writing or revising, other languages may also wash over and appear in a productive way from inside the poem. So it was a language space that I was in, and it was me, I guess as much me as anything else that I am.
What you just described with the rivers and the time, that strange displacement of a poem, not quite the moment you wrote it but not quite now — how does that relate to the complex meaning of “sci-fi” for you?
The metaphor of space travel that you get in sci-fi? Maybe it’s about this desire to experiment with existence across multiple planes. A book is a kind of human existence: we exist through books we write. But then, is there a way to an existence across multiple planes that is almost more concrete? I think that was the urge, a sci-fi urge, or a mystical urge, to try and reach outward in this kind of a way. It’s such a great genre for dreaming, the kind of dreaming that people often get a little self-conscious over, like, “Grow up and get practical and stop imagining all this stuff.” But these are mystical feelings and inquiries that people have always had — that, and the desire to access other forms of consciousness, to imagine a future that’s radically different, or a now that’s radically different from the confluence of rivers I’m starting to get tired of.
Now that you say it, I felt so much when reading the book that part of what you have discovered is that there are wonderful meeting points between the tropes of sci-fi and the tropes of Jewish mysticism.
Absolutely. Those two things came together as a wish, and a kind of near-certainty that other worlds exist, and the fact that a text is the entry point to them. That you don’t need to burn fossil fuels, that there must be another way to transport ourselves there. Not as a pipe dream, but as a “who knows”? There must be a better way than sitting in a metal bucket and burning shit to get up there, and the tradition seems to point in the direction of Text, as some kind of a blueprint of the world. I know it sounds esoteric, but that dream resonates with me profoundly, and I know I felt profound feelings inside texts that became sacred to me. You meet others in those textual dimensions, whether it’s people you’re communing with through discussion, or even just forms of consciousness that inhabit your head, other voices that pop up, and text is where you go for it. If you start to think of it in those terms, then neither sci-fi nor mysticism sound so far-fetched.
I want to explore the layers of the word “alien” that you evoke in the book. Alien in the immigrant sense has been very richly explored. You are a being who is possessed by multiple languages, English, Russian, and Hebrew, and there was one moment in the book where all three rivers flowed in one confluence in a beautiful way. In the poem “Mnemonics,” when you get to the Hebrew letter “het,” it’s a Hebrew letter which is a homophone for the English word “hat,” pronounced with a Russian accent!
Yes! Thank you for catching that. I think it took me a while to get over the language of being inducted into Americanness. Officially, bureaucratically, that is. I don’t necessarily need a passport to validate my existence, but it does have serious repercussions. When I finally got my green card, I was informed that I became a “legal alien” — and I should be celebrating, because it was finally like a great moment — becoming a freaking “legal alien”?
We’re in the 21st century, but the language of belonging is still incredibly harsh. What does that do to a person? Like, “I kind of knew all along I was an alien, but thanks for confirming it and calling me that, on official-looking documents.” It was something to work through for sure, and I think this book is a way of working through it. At the same time, it all also goes back to my childhood, to discovering that I was Jewish when I was nine. Growing up in the former Soviet Union, we didn’t practice, almost not at all, but there were many undercurrents of alienness that manifested themselves in other ways. I didn’t know until then, and then suddenly I was like, “Okay, now I have the word for it.” Maybe not surprising that a lot of people belonging to various minorities have gravitated toward sci-fi. In a way, the whole of Afro-Futurism is this amazing, revelatory celebration of alienation and otherness and its transformation.
I notice that Sun Ra presides over the book.
He’s an incredible example of somebody who brought sci-fi and mythology together as one, to transcend time, to deprogram oneself. Like, “I’m not alien to who I am, I’m not inherently an alien, I’m just tangled with all these layers of alienation.” And that impulse to deprogram oneself is a noble and beautiful and revolutionary impulse.
The book is called Cosmic Diaspora, and there’s an interesting history for Jews of the word “cosmopolitan.” In the Soviet Union, “bezrodny kosmopolit” [rootless cosmopolitan] was a terrible antisemitic epithet used to cause great harm, and in American politics, we hear the phrase “cosmopolitan elites” and it means Jews. But of course, “cosmopolite” is ancient Greek for the citizen of the cosmos. With this book, you’ve reappropriated being cosmopolitan in the sense of being one who is a member of all worlds.
I think it’s a great honor to be a rootless cosmic cosmopolitan. Except, in my case, all the planets of my cosmos are still the shtetl, or provincial Ukraine, so like, “This is my fucking cosmos? This is all I get?” You’re talking about confluence of languages, and it’s like, “Yeah, but it’s Russian and Ukrainian.” Not Sanskrit or French, or any of these other sexy languages. But at the same time, it’s the source of everything that’s amusing and moving and deeply emotional for me, that imaginary baggage compartment of the (space)craft of all of my travels across the big ocean. And cosmic travels are metaphorically linked to my immigrant journeys and to my past, and to the past of all my peeps from long before.