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

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