To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Jake Marmer: Nigun Poems & Poetics

[Originally published in Current Musicology's recent issue on “experimental writing about music.”]


This set of poems grew out of my experiences of listening and finding myself inside nigunim (pl; singular nigun or nign), Chassidic chants — mystical, usually wordless songs used as accompaniment for rituals — weddings, prayers, candle-lightings — collective beckoning of transcendence. The nigun experience is fraught with what Amiri Baraka called, referring to blues, the “re/feeling” — proximity and shape of personal history of encounters with
            Because most of the nigunim did not have lyrics they were comprised of scat — but a somber sort of a scat: “oi-oi”, “di-dai”, “bah-bom,” etc. Musical instruments were not used to accompany them either, since most of the singing happened on the Sabbath when instruments were put away.  Rid of accompaniment, rid of lyrics, these stripped down chants were visceral and prayer-like but washed out of content and filled, instead, with implication — with attempts. At the climax of one of his talks, balancing at the edge of the cognitive void, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov reportedly said: “And even to this, too, there’s an answer. But that answer is necessarily a song.”
            These poems attempt to reimagine the sensation of locating oneself inside a nigun.

Induction into Nigun 

people turn into rocks
song like water
beats between them

Blanket Nigun 

what this blanket weighs
for days, yr muscles will remember
feet land on the floor
so cold you begin to feel
a tonic sled, under another
you, under another
blanket, heavier, bigger, what
it weighs you may never
the cold—
is inside the vision
as blankness, your voice
nesting, missing feathers
lifting off
to feel 

Painters’ Nigun
On hearing Frank London’s H.W.N. 

this is a song of people painting walls
walls of a shul that doesn’t exist
paint rolls upwards
pulled by other gravities
you could celebrate a bris a yontef
air thickening with paint—
inanimate painted
with breath
as it is said:
“living words”
painting walls on the scaffolding of a drum solo
of fists banging a table which is a real table it’s really here
but the scaffolding is full of paint the scaffolding is a face
of the shul that doesn’t exist
the sound rises like an animal and walks
moving its burden
to the pit
in the shul a pit built for the chazzan
as it is said “from the depth . . .”
this yontef commemorates what
has never happened
but the paint the paint
rolls like walls stands like sea
walls standing

Nigun Au Rebours 

this song is not an act but erasure
the way other songs reach into you
this one retreats,
taking with it stuff that seemed nailed to the floor
this song is cinematic in its reel
you may find yourself humming its residue
you may wonder who you’re feeding—
through the song’s straw that ascends
to the pouting mouth
of the vanishing point 

Root–Note Nigun 

this nigun is about a stick figure
and the wind over canvas
that bared it—
it’s about a two–bone
abstraction, a solitary root
note, resounding its stripped chorus
no aesthetics beyond instinct—
this nigun is about a scratch,
a typo, doodle of person—dropped
into an impressionist painting
amidst the ball of flesh and color
and it knows there must be a mistake
and mumbles all it ever knows to mumble
—“I exist”—“I exist”—“I exist”—
a note bent in and out of the question
this nigun is about a stick figure
imagining it could change its fate
by lifting its stick–figure hands

Cecil’s Scarecrow Nigun
for Anthony Coleman 

this nigun is a scarecrow
in your old clothes
it looks a little bit like you—
a no–thanks–prophecy—
the fence: scarecrow’s
stage and metalepsis
melody lint,
limp sleeves and run–on paint
everybody here forgets
what they came for—
newly unknotted,
into congregants
dissipating in their coats
the nigun shuckles, rocks
creaking guardian
in the field of pure color 

Amphibian Nigun 

needle threads nothingness
hunks of it
transparent slices of ice
a dress
good for running up and down
the stairs
of the ancestral dream
ice quickly goes
New York
ice always does
melting ripples around your face
it’s the puddlewaltz
for a minute you remember
there’s a world at the bottom
of your stomach
peopled with memories
sad eyes, winking
and when you raise your head and ask for a drink
someone shows you to the ocean
and says welcome to your new life
under the water

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Ed Baker: Three excerpts from “Stone Girl E-Pic” with comment




i say what
can be said
in a line 



see is






                              g i v e n


                                                            short black hair
                                                            flick in frames 










                              into verbs





hold s
in a

















[NOTE.  Ed Baker’s Stone Girl  E-Pic, a massive gathering of drawings & writings, was published by Leafe Press (Nottingham, England, and Claremont, California) in 2011.  It is as such the celebration of a poet/artist/calligrapher whose work attests to its almost outsider status, in the quasi-rawness of the print & pages in the paper version, not visible as posted here, & in the play between visual images & minimal, often scroll-like versings.   The opening citation in Conrad DiDiodato’s foreword has something to say of this: “It is important to collect these writers because, as has been the case over and over in the history of literature, the best and most innovative writing, the writing that advances the art and that in the future becomes the classic and defining work of a period, is almost always the work of outsiders.”  (John M. Bennett, Curator of the Avant Writing Collection at Ohio State University).  Or Baker himself: “... the facts that provoke (or precipitate) a poem or a piece of art that is inside or outside or simultaneously inside/outside ... the poem/piece.”  The line between inside & outside is accordingly called into question, even into doubt. (J.R.)]

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Nakahara Chuya: Four Poems Newly Englished

Translations from Japanese by Jerome Rothenberg & Yasuhiro Yotsumoto 

[The project to translate Nakahara Chuya into English continued recently (July 2014) with a meeting in Yamaguchi, Japan, of a number of interested poets & translators – plans to be announced.  My own collaborative work with Yasuhiro Yotsumoto will hopefully continue from this point onward, for which the following poems & comments are only a beginning.  (J.R.)]


Look at this, it’s my bone,
a tip of bone torn from its flesh,
filthy, filled up with woes,
it’s the days of our lives
sticking out, a blunt bone
bleached by the rain.

There’s no shine to it,
innocent, stupidly white,
absorbing the rain,
blown back by the wind,
just barely
reflecting the sky.

Funny imagining, seeing
this bone on a chair
in a restaurant
packed to the gills, & eating
mitsuba leafy & boiled,
a bone but alive.

Look at this, it’s my bone,
& is that me staring
& wondering: Strange,
was my soul left behind
& has it come back
where its bone is,
daring to look?

On the half dead grass
on the bank of a brook
in my home town, standing
& looking – who’s there?
Is it me? A bone
sticking out
a bone stupidly white
& high as a billboard.

sound of a brook
comes down
the mountain:
spring light
like a stone:
the water running
from a spout
split open:
more a grey-haired
crone, her story
pouring out. 

mica mouth
I sing through:
falling backward
drying up
my heart
lies wrinkled:
tightrope walker
in between
old stones. 

o unknown fire
bursting in air! 

o rain of echoes
wet & crowned!


clap my hands clapping
this way & that



The field until yesterday
was burning now
it stretches under clouds
& sky unmindful.
And they say the rain
each time it comes
brings autumn that much
closer even more so
autumn borne cicadas
sing out everywhere,
nesting sometimes in a tree
awash in grass.

I smoke a cigarette,
smoke spiraling
through stale air,
I try & try
to stare
at the horizon.
Can’t be done,
The ghosts of heat
& haze
stand up or flop down.
And I find myself alone there,

A cloudy sky
dark golden light
plays off now
as it always was,
so high I can’t help
looking down.
I tell you that I live
resigned to ennui,
drawing from my cigarette
three different tastes.
Death may no longer be
so far away.


“He did, he said so long & then
he walked away, he walked out from that door,
the weird smile that he wore, shiney like brass,
his smile that didn’t look like someone living.

His eyes like water in a pond the color when it clears,
or something. He talked like someone somewhere else.
Would cut his speech up into little pieces.
He used to think of little things that didn’t matter.”

“Yes, just like that. I wonder if he knew that he was dying.
He would laugh and tell you that the stars became him
when he stared at them. And that was just a while ago.


A while ago. Swore that the clogs that he was wearing weren’t his.”


The grass was absolutely still,
and over it a butterfly was flying.
He took it all in from the veranda,
stood there dressed in his yukata.
And I, you know, would watch him
from this angle. Staring after it,
that yellow butterfly. I can remember now
the whistles of the tofu vendors
back and forth, the telephone pole
clear against the evening sky.
Then he turned back to me and said “I ...
yesterday, I flipped a stone over that weighed
maybe a hundred pounds.” And so I asked
“how come? and where was that?”
Then you know what? He kept on staring at me,
straight into my eyes, like he was getting mad,
or something … That’s when I got scared.

How strange we are before we die …



World’s end, the sunlight that fell down to earth was warm, a warm wind blowing through the flowers.

On a wooden bridge, the dust that morning silent, a mailbox red & shining all day long, a solitary baby carriage on the street, a lonely pinwheel.

No one around who lived there, not a soul, no children playing there, & I with no one near or dear to me, no obligation but to watch the color of the sky above a weathervane.

Not that I was bored. The taste of honey in the air, nothing substantial but enough to eat & live from.

I was smoking cigarettes, but only to enjoy their fragrance. And weirdly I could only smoke them out of doors.

For now my worldly goods consisted of a single towel. I didn’t own a pillow, much less a futon mattress. True I still had a tooth brush, but the only book I owned had nothing but blank pages. Still I enjoyed the heft of it when I would hold it in my hands from time to time.

Women were lovely objects but not once did I try to go with one. It was enough to dream about them.

Something unspeakable would urge me on, & then my heart, although my life was purposeless, started pounding with a kind of hope.


In the woods was a very strange park, where women, children & men would stroll by smiling wildly. They spoke a language I didn’t understand & showed emotions I couldn’t unravel.

Looking up at the sky, I saw a spider web, silver & shining.

[note. Over a short lifetime, Nakahara Chuya (1907-1937) was a major innovator along lines originally shaped by Dada and other, earlier forms of European, largely French, experimental poetry. In 1997, as part of an annual poetry festival in his home prefecture of Yamaguchi, I came to his grave along with a group of Japanese poet-companions, to celebrate the 60th year of his death and the 90th of his birth. The poem marking that time, “At the Grave of Nakahara Chuya,” appeared a few years later in A Paradise of Poets and included a fake “translation” in what I took to be his style, or one of them, that brought some of his work into the domain of popular Japanese music. The four poems presented above are from a more recent attempt at actual translation, but a part of my earlier poem-song can also appear here as a further homage:

As sportscoats are to toothpaste
as the boa is to scales
as black teeth are to playful ghosts
as seasons are to smiles

As telephones are to toasters
as angels are to air
as wagon wheels are to ups & downs
as horses are to fire

As Buddha is to Buddha
as a toenail is to glass
as the way we make love is tight like that
as ascensions are to cash

As harbors are to hairpins
as napoleons are to joy
as bicycles are to icicles
bones are to a dada boy

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Harris Lenowitz: from Jacob Frank’s The Words of the Lord

At the death bed of Jacob Frank 1791
Translation from the Polish Manuscripts by Harris Lenowitz 

note. As a time of growing dislocations & deconstructions, the eighteenth-century saw changes of mind that reached into isolated corners of Europe, far removed from the strongholds of both the Enlightenment & the “natural supernaturalism” & radical mysticisms that were among  the marks of an emerging Romanticism.  The messianic Frankist movement as it affected eastern European Jews involved, like its literary & western counterparts, a shift in language & its attendant symbols that resembled the shifts emerging as well in the dominant cultures.
            Of the work presented below, Harris Lenowitz writes as translator: “These are some of the sayings of Yankiev Leivich, Yakov ben Lev, who called himself Yakov Frank and whom some called Wise Jacob.  Jacob Frank [1726-1791] was a creature of Podolia, Turkey, Poland-in-its-disintegration.  He traveled.  His father was a traveling preacher.  Frank was a peddler too and spoke everybody’s language: Balkan, Turkish, Yiddish, Polish, Ladino, with quotations, citations, and language play from Hebrew and Aramaic.  He joined up with Sabbateans, followers of the messianic movement begun by Shabtai Zvi and Nathan of Gaza [in the seventeenth century], continued through Barukhya Russo [d. 1721], and temporarily short one messiah.  With them he turned against the Talmud, into the Zohar, and out through the Sabbatean pore.  He added some things to the movement: a new emphasis on the Virgin, a passage through Christianity, after the passage through Islam which Shabtai/Nathan originated, on the way to Esau.  Perhaps more sex.  He became a messiah to thousands of Jews.”
            In the “words” written down by his followers, the mini-narratives show a range of transformative experiences that came to him, like vatic prose poems, in the form of dreams & visions or by observations, simple or not, of the people & events to which his way of life had brought him. (J.R./H.L.) 

[Several of the nearly 3000 sayings and visions follow – from Lenowitz’s complete translation, waiting to be published, but available in its entirety at]

1. I had a vision in Salonika, as though the following words were said to somebody, Go lead Jacob the wise into the rooms and when you and he come to the first room, I admonish you that all the doors and gates be opened to him. When I entered the first room, a rose was given to me as a sign by which I could go on to the next and so on consequenter from one room to the next. And so I flew in the air accompanied by two maidens [the like of] whose beauty the world has never seen. In these rooms I saw for the most part women and young ladies. In some, however, there were assembled only groups of students and teachers, and wherever just the first word was spoken to me, I immediately grasped the whole matter from it and the full meaning. There was an innumerable number of these rooms and in the last one of them I saw the First [= Shabtai Zvi] who also sat as a teacher with his students, dressed in frenk [= Turkish] clothing. This one immediately asked me, Are you Jacob the wise? I have heard that you are strong and brave-hearted. To this point have I come, but I have not the strength of proceeding from here further; if you want [to], strengthen yourself and may God help you, for very many ancestors took that burden upon themselves, went on this road, but fell. With that, he showed me through the window of this chamber an abyss which was like a black sea, hidden in extraordinary darkness, and on the other side of this abyss I saw a mountain whose height seemed to touch the clouds. At that I shouted, Be what may, I will go with God's help, and so I began to fly on a slant through the air into the depth until I reached its very bottom, where, having felt the ground, I stopped. Walking in the dark, I came upon the edge of the mountain and seeing that because of the steep smoothness of the mountain I had difficulty getting up on it, I was forced to clamber up with my hands and nails and using all my strength until I reached the top. As soon as I stopped there, an extraordinary scent reached me; and there were many True-Believers there. Seized by great joy, I did not [yet] want to go up onto the mountain with my whole body, saying to myself, I will rest awhile here, for sweat poured from my head like a river in flood on account of the tortures which I had borne to climb this mountain; but when I am well rested then I will come up on the mountain towards all the good which is found there. And that is what I did, I let my feet hang and sat with my body and hands at rest on the mountain. Then I went up on the mountain. 

2. Being sick once in Dziurdziów, I had a dream like this. I saw an extraordinarily beautiful woman, who had a well of the water of life and another well of clear water, and this [woman] said to me, Put your legs in the water and you will become healthy right away. I did so and became well. At the place where this woman was found, there was a broad beautiful field, in which she, taking me by the hand, said, Come, I will show you my daughter who is still a maiden, and I went with her into the depth of that field which gave off an extraordinary scent, from [many] different flowers. The Maiden, whose beauty nothing in this world could describe, came to meet us there, and she was dressed in a Polish rubran [a tight-fitting, twisted blouse of heavy, usually red, silk] and her uncovered breasts were visible. Having noticed this I suddenly saw from one end of the world to the other. Her mother informed me that if I was desirous to take her for a wife, she would permit it, but I answered that I had a wife and children. 

44. My grandmother, my mother's mother was a very learned astrologer. When I was born, all the witches assembled around our home and surrounded it, even their queen was there at their head. There was a dog in our house— a cross between a wolf and a [canine] bitch. This one did not sleep at all, but barked all the time, for if he had fallen asleep even for a moment, then they would have seen to it that he would have never awakened, but he kept watch vigilantly. Then on the 8th day at the circumcision, they surrounded our home as before and wanted to do something evil, but were unable to because that dog kept guard again, and the old grandmother with her craft fought against the evil also, saying, Watch him carefully, bring him up properly, for a new thing will come to the world through him. 

451. On the 21st of October, 1784 the Lord saw a dream, I had a golden ring on my hand, and I dropped that ring onto a mirror, which broke into small pieces, Having turned that mirror onto the other side, I found shining glass there also, and likewise a bracelet fell from my hands and broke the other side. He himself gave the interpretation of that, My help hastens to come. 

504. In a dream I saw Jesus, having priests around him, sitting at a spring of living and clear water. I noticed that this spring went away from them and came to me. 

748. I saw a dream as if I were in a church, totally naked except for a gray cloak such as the Jesuits wear, but the chest was bare like the breasts of a woman. The priests were all prepared for the Resurrection service, but only one priest wore a cloak like mine. All present thought that they would raise something as was the custom at the Resurrection service, but nothing was raised except that priest came to me and sprinkled me with pure water. All the people present laughed, that I was dressed in such a cloak. I wanted to cover my chest, but in spite of all my endeavors, it remained bare. 

791. In a dream I saw a very old woman, 1500 years old. Her hair was white as snow; she brought me 2 silver belts and a Walachian sausage. I bought one from her and stole the other. 

793. In a dream I saw that I went to a great church having a great window, having neither an altar nor any paintings. The walls were covered with silver. Many Polish lords sat there, they ate and they drank. They asked me to eat with them, but I said I was weak and could not eat. Moreover, I had not heard Mass yet. I went to the sacristy, and the sacristy too was beautiful. I saw that a priest threw off his chasuble and put on another. He went to pray with his hands raised, but without the chalice, after having entered a certain room, before which hung a curtain of silver material. I followed and saw a man lying on the ground. He was about 10 cubits long and rolled in the dirt, but the priest prayed to him. I went to those lords and said to them, Come, I will show you a tasty comedy, how a man is rolling in the dirt and a priest praying to him. But I was dressed in a long Polish zupania [the undergarment of the Polish folk costume] and girdled with a precious Persian belt whose ends were very precious; and I wrapped myself around several times with that belt, but still its end trailed on the ground. The Lord himself interpreted: Some new road is prepared for me. 

804. The Lord saw a dream the 14th of June 1784: Two women came to me, and one man 6 cubits tall. They were very beautiful, and they said to me, We have heard in the place where we live that your people have abandoned you and that you do not want to send them on any mission. We have been dead several thousand years and we have worked a lot, and still we have no peace. We ask you, Send us. We will go on your mission wholeheartedly.  I answered them, I have already said that I will make revelation to no man, nor bring any near, nor will I send any on a mission. They asked me, But the signal has already gone out that a great deal of blood will flow in the world, and we want to go and rescue many; only you bless us for the way. I am a prostak, I replied, and cannot make a blessing. They asked me, But you bless your people? I replied, I can say no more than this word: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and this verse: The angel who delivered me1062 & & ... They said to me, We have a book here in which stand blessings. Bless us with that book; we only ask you that you bless us out loud. They gave me the book which was written in large Hebrew letters without dots. They bent their heads and I, after raising my hands above their heads, blessed them. There were beautiful words there, but I do not remember more than two words that were at the end: Du Jankiew, That is Jacob. 

852. Her Highness [his daughter Eva] saw a dream on the 5th of July 1784: I saw a little child in my room; one black man came in with horns on his head. I asked him, What do you want here? He answered, I have come to take that child from your house. I will not give you that child, I said. He said, If you will not give him to me willingly, then I will take him by violence. I asked him who he might be? He replied, First I will take the child, then I will tell you who I am. He took the child by violence under one arm and under the other he caught up that French girl who was with me. I asked him again, Who are you? He answered, I am the worst devil of all the devils. The French girl started to scream loudly and to ask that I rescue her from him, but he did not listen to her and left with her. Immediately a great fire began to burn in my room, which I tried to put out, but I couldn't. The Lord came along to put it out, at which a great outcry arose that in the Lord's room it was burning terribly. 

868. It would be better for you if you had been taught the wisdom of sorcery; you would have known a great deal. 

[Originally written for inclusion but never published in Rothenberg & Robinson, Poems for the Millennium, volume 3, with biographical passages adapted from H.L. in A Big Jewish Book (a.k.a. Exiled in the Word).  Jacob Frank, the eighteenth-century Jewish messiah, was one of a long chain of Messiahs from the time of Jesus and before.  See also H. Lenowitz, The Jewish Messiahs: From the Galilee to Crown Heights, Oxford University Press, 1998.  The entire posting will be included as is in Rothenberg & Bloomberg-Rissman, Barbaric Vast & Wild: An Assemblage of Outside & Subterranean Poetry from Origins to Present.]