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 unfathomable.

            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.




people turn into rocks

song like water

beats between them




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

know —

the cold —

is inside the vision

as blankness, your voice

nesting, missing feathers

lifting off



to feel



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





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




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




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




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 puddle — waltz —

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