Orig­i­nal­i­ty and … splen­did insin­cer­i­ty” is how, acer­bical­ly, Vladimir Nabokov described what it takes to design chess puz­zles — unre­al­is­tic and weird sce­nar­ios that may involve a sud­den half-dozen of rooks, shut­tered queens, or utter­ly unachiev­able clus­tered posi­tion­ings. All seri­ous chess learn­ers get to sweat try­ing to solve those — there’re books and books of them.

What are these puz­zles for? These are not sce­nar­ios that will ever come up in a real match. Their pur­pose is to make you tem­porar­i­ly for­get the chess­board dynam­ics you’re used to, to stum­ble you into hid­den dimen­sions of the pieces’ pow­ers, into the mys­tery of their rela­tion­ship to oth­er pieces. The urge to write spec­u­la­tive fic­tion, or sci­ence fic­tion, is not dis­sim­i­lar, except those half-dozen rooks are reality’s com­po­nents. If I rearrange real­i­ty slight­ly, would human­i­ty be bet­ter off — and would that make us some­how less human? Would there still be hier­ar­chies? And if eros isn’t at the cen­ter of it all – what is? Could some­one still be me with­out a body — and would he have as hard of a time get­ting poems pub­lished and mak­ing a living?

Space trav­el is a spec­u­la­tive ques­tion I’m obsessed with. I read with great excite­ment about each new probe, seek out pho­tos tak­en by manned and unmanned crafts. But there’s a lin­ger­ing sense: we’re doing it all wrong. Have you noticed how many sci-fi nar­ra­tives depict seam­less space trav­el? None of that awk­ward­ness of float­ing round my tin can faaaar above the world” —and the mor­tal dan­ger involved. Some­where deep down we know there must be a way to solve the puz­zle of get­ting to stars (the stars!) with­out hav­ing to burn an unthink­able amount of fos­sil fuels and spend so much mon­ey that is need­ed else­where. It isn’t a pure­ly sci­en­tif­ic prob­lem, but a more sin­is­ter, soci­etal one, as poet-prophet-gri­ot Gil Scott-Heron sang it: A rat done bit my sis­ter Nell /​with Whitey on the moon.” The dis­tance between society’s class­es feels as vast and unsur­mount­able as the cos­mos. And recent pri­va­ti­za­tion of tin cans” is anoth­er awk­ward step into the same abyss.

What if, instead, a self could be decon­struct­ed into a text that can be trans­ferred or read, into elsewhere-ness?

And if that were true, what would it do to human self-per­cep­tion — to know that a self can be read as a mul­ti-dimen­sion­al, sprawl­ing text? And that there are oth­er texts writ­ten in exact­ly the same genre, and also texts you have absolute­ly no over­lap with? And that if you lay­er your text with texts of many, many oth­ers, you may end up with some­thing we can loose­ly term Sacred Text”, the read­ing of which can add a dimen­sion to your own and move you much faster, into yet anoth­er kind of space? The dream of this Text and its pos­si­bil­i­ty is more of a puz­zle than a poem, although it is fueled by poet­ic untenability.

What if, instead, a self could be decon­struct­ed into a text that can be trans­ferred or read, into elsewhere-ness?

All art is inutile, and divine­ly so,” is what Nabokov wrote about chess puz­zles — or prob­lems” as he called them — and he had not only invent­ed a con­sid­er­able num­ber of such puz­zles but actu­al­ly includ­ed them in his col­lec­tion of poems called Poems and Prob­lems, refus­ing to apol­o­gize for the jux­ta­po­si­tion. Prob­lems are the poet­ry of chess,” he wrote. The spec­u­la­tive set­up itself — a raw and mys­ti­cal act of imag­i­na­tion — is the poet­ry— while the con­ven­tion­al, real­is­tic chess match is always the novel.

Nabokov’s poems — and I say this as a devo­tee — are awful. Par­tic­u­lar­ly those ear­ly Russ­ian ones, which he chose to cou­ple with chess prob­lems. Sen­ti­men­tal and rhyth­mi­cal­ly uni­form, and, as he joked in regard to anoth­er ver­si­fi­er in his book Pnin, every into­na­tion, every image, every sim­i­le had been used before by oth­er rhyming rab­bits.” Some­where in the intro­duc­tion Nabokov casu­al­ly points out that he start­ed com­pos­ing his chess puz­zles in 1917, a date easy to remem­ber,” as he put it. And that is no sim­ple quip, no dusty chrono­log­i­cal fact, but a hint about the roots of his obses­sion with these prob­lems. It’s a con­fes­sion­al self-obser­va­tion that makes all of those bad Russ­ian poems of his worthwhile.

One day I found myself com­pos­ing a spec­u­la­tive puz­zle: what if you had an exclu­sive erot­ic rela­tion­ship with an invis­i­ble being, pos­si­bly, divine one, for years, and then, sud­den­ly, anoth­er invis­i­ble being showed up there too, right in the mid­dle of it all? Would the two invis­i­bil­i­ties rec­og­nize each oth­er, and glad­ly com­bine efforts — or would they each get real­ly annoyed? And if they didn’t notice each oth­er, would you fess up to the first about the sec­ond? What sorts of rules would apply, and how would you know the rules if the three of you have nev­er spo­ken? The whole set­up, as it appeared in my mind, was not real­ly a prob­lem, but rather, per­haps because it remained insolv­able and inutile”, it became a poem, one that end­ed up in my new col­lec­tion, Cos­mic Dias­po­ra. And it was also record­ed as a part of the Pur­ple Ten­ta­cles of Thought and Desire jazz-klezmer-poet­ry album. When I shared the poem at one of our band’s rehearsals, Josh Horowitz played what he described as a vari­a­tion on the Del­ph­ic Hymn”, one of the ear­li­est musi­cal com­po­si­tions we have a score of. It was found scrib­bled on a rock in Greece. It occurred to me then: isn’t this how music works — the counter-point of invis­i­bil­i­ties, a puz­zle we under­stand instant­ly, with­out hav­ing to solve it? And poet­ry, what is it but a scrib­bling on a rock, a score wait­ing for invis­i­ble voic­es to set in motion?

Here’s the poem:

Sec­ond Invisibility

I look between my fin­gers where your fin­gers are— I know they’re—

I am the body who trans­lates the invis­i­ble there’re oth­ers like me

but you — how many of you are out there?

all I know are the brush­strokes across my body

your lan­guage

last night

there was a touch

of anoth­er—

a third hand paint­ing across me

I accept­ed it as yours

but from deep inside, watched counter-points

whol­ly random

the two of you—

unaware of each other

can I hide my thoughts from either one? who am I in con­sent and concealment?

last night

I learned I am

as invis­i­ble to you

as you are to me—

as both of us to this, third hand—

I am the voice who trans­lates the invis­i­ble I am the voice whose hunger is a language

Jake Marmer is a poet, per­former, and edu­ca­tor. He is the author of three poet­ry col­lec­tions: Cos­mic Dias­po­ra (Sta­tion Hill Press, 2020), as well as The Neigh­bor Out of Sound (2018) and Jazz Tal­mud (2012), both from The Sheep Mead­ow Press. He also released two klez-jazz-poet­ry records: Pur­ple Ten­ta­cles of Thought and Desire (2020, with Cos­mic Dias­po­ra Trio), and Hermeneu­tic Stomp (Blue Fringe Music, 2013). Jake is the poet­ry crit­ic for Tablet Mag­a­zine. Born in the provin­cial steppes of Ukraine, in a city that was renamed four times in the past 100 years, Jake lives in the Bay Area.