by Jake Marmer
Press: The Sheep Meadow Press
Companion CD: Hermeneutic Stomp by Jake Marmer with Frank London, Eyal Maoz, Uri Sharlin, and Greg Wall (The Blue Thread Music, 2013)
Reviewed by: Shlomo Liberman
Jazz Talmud was first published in 2011 as a poetry book. Since 2013 it has a companion 16-track CD called Hermeneutic Stomp, in which Marmer reads some of the poems from the book accompanied by his jazz band. True to the art of improvisation in jazz, the text he reads on the CD does not follow the printed text in the book exactly. The book and the CD are sold as two separate items on Amazon.
Marmer’s first book of poetry is a surprising and provocative experiment with new forms and mixed contents. I am not a typical fan of poetry but, as a practicing Jew and an admirer of jazz music, I was intrigued by the title. The book explores Marmer’s journey from his childhood in the provincial city of Kirovograd in the Ukraine to Jewish learning at Yeshiva University, where he gradually became involved in New York’s artistic world, especially in performance poetry and free jazz. Several of the poems were written while he, newly married, was on a Dorot Foundation Fellowship in Jerusalem. His migration between different countries and cultures is echoed throughout the book such as in the poem VISA about his visa extension application at the American Consulate in Jerusalem: “the only place in the universe/ I’ve seen Jews and Arabs/praying in the same room.” All this may or may not be relevant as Marmer himself points out in the Post-Face: “…facts in one’s biography have little, if anything, to do with one’s biography.”
The symbiosis between poetry and music is evident in many of the pieces, for example in the short poem “Rachmonos Blues”:
I know a little women,
she got a truck full of rach-
monos, yeah a truck full of parsnips and rach-
monos wonder if she’ll park it on my street tonight.
When you listen to the poems on the companion CD, the klezmer instruments together with Marmer’s rendering of the poems suddenly reveal the inner soul of the poem as in this excerpt from the Klezmer Bulldog:
Klezmer bulldog: imagine him on the cover of Tikkun Magazine
He gone sledding in Caucuses
saved babies in the Urals
hoisted his klezmer flag atop of the Carpathian mountains
all of his friends have sad, drooping clarinet noses
but he’s got a pug, a button, cause his gramma mighta
been raped by a Mongolian Cossack Frenchman Henchman and
he won’t let you forget that, no! he won’t let you forget!
The clarinet singsong, the deep sound of Greg Wall’s saxophone and Frank London’s trumpet convey the klezmer atmosphere while Marmer’s distinct Russian accent transports us up in the clouds over the East Russian landscape. Greg Wall is not only a great saxophonist but also acting Rabbi of the Sixth Street Community Synagogue and founder of the Ayn Sof Arkestra and Bigger Band.
My favorite poems are those in the first part, grouped under the heading Mishna Cycle, which are inspired by Jewish tradition but are totally fresh with alluring titles like Mishna of Silence and Mishna of Loneliness.
There are three types of loneliness in the world: green, red and
purple. So says the house of Hillel. In the house of Shammai, they
say: loneliness is either black or white; all other types don’t exist
and require a sacrifice of a young goat: your internal goat.
In The Laws of Dream-Cooking Marmer tries to replicate the style of a Babylonian Talmud tractate when alluding to Zionism and music:
“There’s no cooking after cooking.” Once a dream
has been in the oven for two thousand years, it’s
done and nothing that happens to it is considered
cooking. That’s if a dream is a solid. If a liquid, it
may have long evaporated and you’re deluding
yourself over an empty burning pot. But, if the
dream is a sound, an invisible musical cloud, then
you are the one being cooked: on the endless
spinning vinyl, zapped into music by needles of
The playful jazz spirit lends to great improvising and mixing – as in the two Haiku style poems, the short Japanese form of juxtaposition of images or seasons, which deal with domestic chores in a hilarious way.
“To be a good writer is to be a wild reader,” proclaims Marmer at one of the KlezKanada Poetry Retreats he organizes together with Canadian poet and Professor Adeena Karasick. There he declares himself to be Chief of the Discordant Talmudic Crisis, poet and performer, expressing a healthy dose of self-irony blended with clever witticisms, both so vivid in the book.
If you are new to poetry like me, read and listen to the poems and enjoy them immensely. Don’t expect to learn Talmud from the Jazz Talmud, but if you know a little about the Talmud and want to get a fresh Jewish angle into the world of free jazz and performance poetry, this book/CD Combo is for you. A special bonus – the CD has a few tracks with poems that are not in the book.
Shlomo (Salomon) Liberman is a graduate student of the Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Program in Creative Writing at Bar-Ilan University in Israel. He holds a Masters of Science degree from the Lund Institute of Technology, Sweden and a Top Executives MBA from Tel Aviv University. He is a proofreader and editor and a freelance translator of English, Hebrew, and Swedish on ProZ.com. He is the co-author of an English-Swedish Electro-technical dictionary and received the 1980 IEEE Power Engineering Society Award for Most Noteworthy Paper. (http://www.ieee-pes.org/membership/awards/pes-past-award-recipients)