The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2022

All Issues
OCT 2022 Issue


Wartime Morning

every day resembles
nothing I’ve seen before
the war
I say to myself instead
of the morning blessing every day
I say
there’s war
where my parents live
every day resembles nothing

Wartime Dream

it’s not the end of the war and its beginning
is already buried far back under so much
language, photographed bodies and the actual
frantic phone calls home –
I keep repeating to myself
my parents are ok
my parents are ok nobody is bombing the nowhere
where they live bless nobody nobody nobody
but the mind does not agree, something inside doesn’t
but begs for oblivion for alcohol begs to be turned off
last night I dreamed I shot Putin
asked people not to make a big deal out of it
they whispered anyway weren't afraid of me
as if what I did was casual like digging a ditch
or putting up a flag or getting up on a table
and reading a poem
I was too busy to ask myself in the dream
has this changed me?
but now I ask –
and, nothing
is left untouched by this war
nothing, not dreams, not waking up in the mornings
not the way the body moves, not what we talk about when I call
my parents, not the way it feels when people ask me
where are you from

4 Cities and Heads

A traveler with a parched tongue and a naked parchment, after hours of riding through cornfields
and empty steppes, will be relieved entering the town of Kropyvnytskyi. Before long, the
outskirts of the city, with its tethered goats and deposed statues give way to broad streets, and
some of them are even cobblestoned, opening towards theaters – and there’re a few – and
municipal buildings which, although low in stature, are tasteful and colorful and exude a quiet
provincial dignity that is distinctly pre-Soviet. There’re post-Soviet outdoor coffee shops, where
the younger and middle-aged cheerfully sit, smiling with their still fashionable golden teeth, and
tilt their heads, perhaps still recalling long lines for kvas and milk, which stretched around the
corners where the cafes are now located.

Between the windows of Kropyvnytskyi there are thick, invisible webs, that will remind one of
the laundry lines. But on these strands, there’re no parachute-like bedsheets, no big-thigh
sack-like pants, no underwear flapping like flags of domestication. Instead, these lines are filled
with dreams of leaving Kropyvnytskyi - which everyone in this town thinks and talks about, war
or peace, sooner or later. Leaving for a bigger city in Ukraine, or small town in Czech Republic
or Poland – where the language is similar and menial jobs could be gotten. The few remaining
Jews remain because they’re addicted to graves of their family members, for everyone else
Jewish, or near-Jewish, or pseudo-crypto-Jewish, had left decades ago.

As you begin to converse with the town, it fills its chest with images and rises towards you as a
four-headed creature. Everyone who’s changed their name has extra heads, distinctly separate
minds and personalities, and this town is no exception: one of its names given by the tsars,
another by mensheviks, another by establishment Communists, and finally, the last one came
from Ukrainian cultural nationalists. The necks these heads sit on stretch to the same body of
people, who are growing more and more squat, weighed down by the stories of the four separate
minds and histories.

Every street in Kropyvnytskyi has been renamed at least once, and sometimes people speak of
the same streets using different names, and then, as they walk down these streets, they do not see
each other, for they walk through separate dimensions and eras. Because the town was originally
named after a woman before being renamed by the succession of three men, there’s something
about the arc of Kropyvnytskyi’s evolution that mirrors the sad history of humanity at large.

It is a town that is built on Ukraine’s narrowest, shallowest river. And though the river has been
in a near-death state for centuries, it is still moving and so is rewarded with an impressive bridge
that stretches far past the river’s banks, and the boardwalk, filled with benches and well-fed

Enormously heavy, round lids which should normally sit atop of sewer openings are often
missing: they’ve been scavenged by jobless citizens and sold for much needed income.

But those aren’t the only open manholes. A traveler who, in the dark, falls into one of the
memory-pits, plummets straight into another world which does not resemble Kropyvnytskyi one
sees during the day. The other Kropyvnytskyi is slower and cleaner, if not more beautiful. People
take their time and laugh swaying at the table. Its shish-kebobs are crisp on the outside and full
of marinade on the inside, its plums are both sweet and tart, and glasses of moonshine are
frosted, and tall. And even the alley with the biggest memory manhole of them all, though still
named “Communist Prospect”, is full of chestnut trees in bloom, which light up like fat candles
in the starlight.

Because the city was originally built to fortify the empire’s borders, the urge towards fortification
permeates everything. Some inhabitants even grow an additional row of teeth, like sharks,
fortifying their mouths. The city borders kept away the vagabond riffraff but today, the town is in
the country’s very center and is literally and emotionally equidistant from Kyiv, Lviv and
Odessa, and precisely for that reason, all of its citizens feel like intruders even in their own beds.
In that lies the meaning of any center with a badly drawn circumference, the mystery of the
alienated provincial heart, and its bottomless manhole of unmet needs, which is nothing but a
mere curiosity, a blurred dot, briefly seen from a passing train, which is to say the machinery,
known the world over as “real literature.”


Jake Marmer

Jake Marmer is a poet, performer, and educator. He is the author of 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). Born in the provincial steppes of Ukraine, in a city that was renamed four times in the past 100 years, Jake now lives in Los Angeles.


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2022

All Issues