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

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Jake Marmer: A New Poem, “The Law of Returning Lost Objects”

After Talmud Bava Metzia, 21A

On seeing Roman Vishniac’s ‘Vanished World’ exhibit

when is an object considered lost?
when it has been disassembled, crumbled, or scattered
so that it can no longer be described
as a sum total of itself
when it can no longer be touched or held
when consciousness can’t wrap around it as does around experience
when no action can be directed towards it
other than falling
upon it
as in falling upon the scattering
fruit that rolls down the hill
money flying across the field

if you fall upon scattered money it is yours
if you fall upon a scattered thought it is now your thought
scattered memory and the lost image become your possession                                                 

you’re now in possession
in possession of a memory 
possessed in the image 
possessed with words that aren’t yours
with names no one has given you

when is an object considered lost?
when it has been purposefully abandoned
when the loser has abandoned hope of finding it

only reasonable hope can be considered hope
like the hope of finding an escaped dog
your car keys

the hope of finding a lost wad of unclipped money in the field or an upturned basket of  
     apples at the top of the hill
is not considered a hope
it is not a hope directed towards a tangible object
that can be touched
or perceived as whole
that can be described as sum total of itself
in this case there’s no such thing as hope
the items’ identity is that of scattering 

if you’re the finder you’re owner, the one in possession –
of the image, of lost letters

these letters may have spelled     
            ze shaar tzadikim yavou bo
“this is the gate righteous come through”
letters may have spelled
our rebbe our teacher”
you may have found these letters on a photograph of lost posters
lost grime lost passersby

the gate was collapsing even before it was lost
and you wonder about the lost righteousness
and the “welcome”
as you now welcome the loss
at your own gate
along with letters and grime and torn posters
and you can also welcome righteousness
all day long
unsure of the sound the word “righteousness” makes
repeat it till it loses all meaning
comes loose in your mouth
till your teeth start rotting with sound you’re coming into
possession of righteousness you’re trying to welcome
it is ravishing your mouth
the rebbe the teacher has no presence
the presence was scattered
but the words are yours and what’s there to do
with words “the rebbe the teacher”
they’re possessing you
they’re impossible words
in the world you know as world they’re impossible
you’d like to return these words
but the hope has been relinquished
and the lost hope is now yours
you are now in possession of the lost hope

when is an object considered lost?
items considered worthless do not need to be returned

when is an object considered lost?
when there’re no identifying marks              
money, for instance, has no identifying marks
and neither does language
the owner relinquishes hope
the object becomes ownerless
does the moment when language when image turn
ownerless happen at the point of scattering
or at the point of relinquishing hope
or at the point of someone’s falling upon it?

you’re falling at the gate of righteousness
on somebody’s lost words
or else the gate falls on you as you’re trying to pass
for a word yourself
trying to pass for the word “rabbi” or “teacher”
the whole gate collapses on you
the law of possession applies

when is an object considered lost?
when it cannot be identified through its location
things found at the bank of a river cannot be identified
as fish and seaweed cannot be identified –
as belonging
to anything other than the river and themselves

things found in a museum cannot be identified
can be labeled but not identified
the identity of these objects is that of scattering
you can come into possession become possessed
with the story of scattering the story of loss
you can become the Great Rav of the lost history of objects
and the lost gate where every object is a scattering
where every teaching is a relinquished hope

who’d want to pass through that gate or be welcomed by it
you’re in possession of falling
obsession with falling upon the lost objects you’re in possession
of names you were not given

it is a positive commandment to return a lost object
even if it has been scattered
even if the hope has been relinquished
even if dialogues split into half-thoughts and the half-thoughts
do not add up to the sum total of themselves
it is simply the matter of finding
who these thoughts can be returned to
who is the owner of these losses

isn’t the finder of the scattered objects
also the sole owner also the magnet the lining and the sleeve of loss
the gate of righteousness welcomes those who return
welcomes those returning
as lost objects
in exchange for fulfillment
of the positive commandment
of curating an exhibition or observing one or simply nailing
the pictures
when you’re on your way
to the gate of such fulfillment
according to the tradition
no harm will fall upon you
this fulfillment isn’t yours
but belongs to the voice
welcoming you to the gate
welcoming you to the dream loosened on a tripod
the face behind the image
the face that approximates the loss
you can be thankful and relieved to find it isn’t your own face
this discovery might make you a rabbi or a teacher or curator
you may be welcomed at an altogether separate gate
and subsequently scattered as a commandment
and the law of returning objects
will continue to apply 

* * * * * * * 

Author’s Note.  There's a section of the Talmud that deals with laws of returning lost objects. Particularly poignant are discussions of items which, due to various circumstances, could never be returned. I was struck with the thought that the genre of found art, at its greatest moments, is, too, a failing attempt at restitution, expression of one's inability to either give back or properly own that which comes into our possession, and immediately begins to possess us.  

I was invited to respond, through poetry, to the exhibit of Roman Vishniac's photography, held at the Contemporary Jewish Museum this winter. As is well known, Vishniac's photography of the impoverished Eastern European shtetls is considered to be the last glimpse of these communities. Thus, "A Vanished World".  

What does it mean to encounter - find - this vanished, lost, world? What can be returned - and how? What, or who, is being possessed? What about one's own family history - and possession of those losses?  

There's a tradition of celebrating the memory of the departed through study, and interpretation of Talmudic texts. Engaging in a "write-through" as a form of study/hermeutics/ritual is a resonating attempt - one that, too, resonates with the poetic practice of writing from within the "vacuum in which the dead... were free to speak" - that is, J.R.'s own Khurbn poems.    

In addition to the text above, you can listen to the audio recording of this poem (or the whole set), performed live and in collaboration with John Schott (guitar) at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, surrounded by Vishniac's images. 

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