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 [Holocaust] 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.