The Neigh­bor Out of Sound

  • Review
By – October 8, 2018

Jake Marmer’s excel­lent new vol­ume of poet­ry is a rang­ing med­i­ta­tion on big themes like par­ent­hood, work, immi­gra­tion, spir­i­tu­al­i­ty, and Judaism — exam­ined through the lens of dai­ly life. In poems like Ser­mon Over the Emp­ty Dish­wash­er,” Marmer explores, with both play­ful­ness and seri­ous­ness, clash­es and con­cor­dances between con­tem­po­rary life and tradition.

Marmer’s poems tend to take the form of unpunc­tu­at­ed obser­va­tions, but there are sev­er­al inno­v­a­tive exper­i­men­ta­tions with form in this vol­ume as well. The poem Gold­berg Agi­ta­tions” is a poet­ic revi­sion of a rejec­tion note to a musi­cian. The short­est poem in the book, titled Por­trait,” is rem­i­nis­cent of a spon­ta­neous yet sophis­ti­cat­ed line draw­ing. It reads, in full:

she starts crying

& drains my glass

her own glass untouched


In brief prose pas­sages that pre­cede each sec­tion, Marmer places the ensu­ing poems in auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal and intel­lec­tu­al contexts.

The poems in the book’s first sec­tion play can­ni­ly on the notion of the nigun, a tra­di­tion­al Hasidic chant, usu­al­ly word­less,” Marmer explains, that is a way of echo-locat­ing your­self in the void.” In these poems, Marmer cre­ates a sense of a vocal, word­less prayer through poet­ic lan­guage, using rep­e­ti­tion, image, and mys­tery. Marmer’s short, son­i­cal­ly rich lines in these poems sug­gest attempt, rather than cer­tain­ty. In Painters’ Nigun,” for exam­ple, Marmer writes,

this song com­mem­o­rates what

has nev­er happened

but the paint the paint

rolls like walls rolls like sea

A poem in the book’s sec­ond sec­tion, Ingress,” evokes two authors of the book’s epigraphs, Jacques Der­ri­da and Emi­ly Dick­in­son, while also riff­ing off a line from the Baby­lon­ian Tal­mud. What can’t be imag­ined / bypass­es real­i­ty, / then swal­lows it, from with­in,” writes Marmer, chan­nel­ing Dickinson’s poet­ics and Der­ridean phi­los­o­phy with­out los­ing his sense of humor.

One of Marmer’s most time­ly themes is his expe­ri­ence immi­grat­ing to the Unit­ed States from the Ukraine. This theme winds through each of the book’s sec­tions, but is most explic­it­ly dis­cussed in a prose sec­tion late in the book, intro­duc­ing a series of poems in which Marmer draws on the Russ­ian lan­guage he grew up speak­ing. Such poet­ic inter­min­gling, Marmer writes in the intro­duc­to­ry note, cuts against the grain of deep habit: When it comes to writ­ing, my reflex, by now entire­ly nat­u­ral­ized, is to edit out every trace of the moth­er-tongue. I am not proud of this reflex.” Con­sid­er­ing the psy­chic and psy­cho­log­i­cal effects of liv­ing in a new lan­guage, Marmer won­ders, Is self-loathing the required toll, exact­ed from each and every immi­grant by assimilation’s demands?”

Marmer’s learned, vivid book con­cludes with a sec­tion that exam­ines work­place bore­dom and alien­ation with humor and human­i­ty. As Marmer points out, the work­place was a favorite sub­ject of Kafka’s — and yet it remains woe­ful­ly under­ex­plored in lit­er­a­ture, par­tic­u­lar­ly poet­ry, giv­en how much of our lives many of us spend in the work­place. This final sec­tion, which departs in top­ic and tone from the rest of the book, and the beau­ty of the prose sec­tions through­out, hints at Marmer’s facil­i­ty with a broad range of top­ics and gen­res. It will be inter­est­ing to see where that facil­i­ty leads him in future books.

Lucy Bie­der­man is an assis­tant pro­fes­sor of cre­ative writ­ing at Hei­del­berg Uni­ver­si­ty in Tif­fin, Ohio. Her first book, The Wal­mart Book of the Dead, won the 2017 Vine Leaves Press Vignette Award.

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