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"Distant Water:
Permutations" &
"A Moment with Kasha
While the American
Medal Shines"

Jake Marmer

My Grandmother Crossing the Ocean by Judith Joseph

Distant Water: Permutations

machloket l’shem shamaim

an argument for the sake of heaven


argument for truths' sake


its own sake


drink sake 


partition the name 

by naming the world above 

          “distant water”

and naming yourself “pet puddle”


the contradiction’s distance itself is all that there is


and for god’s sake, an argument, over there


an argument inside the liquid name of god


it rains so hard it feels the sky collapsed

                                      on your head


you’re unified you’re a name without

an umbrella  an embryo without origin, in the rain


you drink it –


what else is there to do but drink 

your sake like it was god itself

                               that poured it 

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

A Moment with Kasha While the American Medal Shines

In America, when people try to get to know each other, they ask: what do you do? You know who’s who by the how: they make a living. So, instead, some very thoughtful people here ask: can you please share your story with us? And so the two questions shine like two sides of the same fucking medal: mazeltov! Welcome to the USA!


I know, I know: I’m being a curmudgeon. Polite people being polite, your story – why all the fuss? Please, reader, what can any of us expect of each other – an ecstatic soul-union? in place of small talk? with everyone? 


What facts and circumstances of our lives can we tell each other to really know each other? 


The Biblical story of Abraham starts with the call to get the move on. 


…But Abraham, can you please share your story with us? What do you do for living, Abraham? I am my story the most in leaving it, he might have answered, in not wanting to piece the past together. 


The voice, he might have answered, is the real center of the story. It is alive and thus inconsistent, and as you begin to learn to follow it, to love and fear it, to diagnose it and speak back to it, it tells you to get going, to leave, to get some blur back on. That voice is the real center around which the circumference of the spirit can finally unspin itself. The voice is the only story that’s worth telling. 


“Where you from?” is a heinous question, undertones tolling like bells: “If you’re not from here, why are you?”


There is an iconic scene in Isaac Babel’s Odessa Tales. The rising star of the gangster world, Benya Krik, approaches an old boss Froym Grach about joining the business, and Froym asks: “Who are you, where are you coming from, and what is this air you’re breathing?” 


Froym’s questions are fresh with movement. Where you are coming from, which is to say, not only are you on the move, but so is the place you came from, it also keeps walking as you’re, keeps changing its airs, its name, its own direction, and you’re walking not further and further away from it, but inside of it or within it. 


Krik answers Grach laconically: “Let’s not shmear kasha on the table. Just try me out.” It is a ritualistic response, a bugged out blessing formula. Where I am coming from is the place where kasha stays in the pot. Where table is a map. “Try me out,” is what god says to Abraham, without specifying the circumstances, exact location, or the date. 


The year I was born, they discovered a crater on Mercury, and named it after Dostoyevsky. I am certain it is filled with billowing, noxious gas. 


Benya Krik was no regular gangster but the King of Gangsters. 


My grandfather told me that our great-great-uncle, whose name we don’t remember, was a close associate of Mishka Yaponchik, a real-life figure Benya’s character is based on. We don’t have rabbis in our family, no geniuses – but we have this one nameless gangster, a legend’s sidekick, a drunken and unruly Jewish tough guy from our tiny shtetl. But if you could only see the way my grandfather’s eyes lit up, chest barreled out, fingers spread when he’d tell me about this uncle. The stories poured themselves out, without prior contact: even I can see the man sitting in his buggy, facing backwards, towards the shtetl he was riding out of, towards Isaac Babel’s gaze, towards the edge of the book that is the backroad of my history. 


Describing his encounters with Isaac Babel, Viktor Shklovsky remembered: Babel was “soft-spoken, quietly-regal, fierce in art… hunched, small, tall-chested, and looked like an egg”. 


I come from poachers of history, scramblers of language, who, on borrowed or stolen time, survived history’s reign for a joke, who got going because inside the sound of their own voice they heard sobs of those who’ve come before them. 


Who is watching over us all, reader? 


The first day I showed up at my new American school, it was for the pre-season soccer scrimmage. My new teammate greeted me: “What’s up?” I looked up. 


Try me, Benya Krik said to Froym Grach, staring all the while upward, at the reader, not unlike yourself. Try me, taste the language. Let’s stop shmearing the kasha.   

Jake Marmer

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 Los Angeles.

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