January 23, 2022

I Never Exhale & Other Skazz Pieces

By Jake Marmer

Zahar Vaks, Shelling Linguist, 2018

Skaz(z): A Brief Introduction

The word “skaz” means a story, but not just any story. It’s a word that faded out of the casual Russian a long time ago, and so it’s got the aura of an old story, and the way you tell it is also in that old-world kind of a way, which is to say, as you talk, you must gesticulate, as if trying to hold on to the shreds of history floating around you. You could maybe use skaz to talk about your real or imaginary ancestors, but not to dish any old gossip you heard standing in line for kvas. (But hold on tight to your kvas, and your gossip, reader, for you will need them in just a moment.)  

“Skaz” is second cousins with the word “skazitsya” (to go crazy, to spaz out) and “skazheniy” (madman), two more old-world words, with a flavor of fear and even reverence around them, a reverence that probably has to do with the mad and naked origins of any story that’s worth its salt—afflicted with some impossible, irreconcilable past that lives right inside your mouth. And such are the stories, more touched than touching, that I want to tell you. 

Now, Boris Eikhenbaum, a great critic of Russian literature, with roots not unlike my own, gave the word skaz a whole new life, linking it to that peculiar kind of writing, where the story is carried by the larger-than-life persona of an oral storyteller: alive on the page, staring you right in the eyes, and talking to you, reader, as if to an old friend. Like, the conversation about the mythic ancestors is happening while standing in line for kvas, except that in the end, instead of kvas, you get a pungent, fermented, poetic distillation that is written down but feels as if dramatically whispered or shouted in your ear. Like they say in grad school: it’s a hybrid genre. 

Although Eikhenbaum was exploring skaz in the works of Gogol and Leskov, I’d like to think that he may also have been thinking about the lineage of Yiddish writers, like Sholem Aleichem, whose Tevye the Dairyman is, too, undiluted skaz. Take a look right at the start of the book, where, getting ready to tell a story, instead of setting a scene, Tevye dethrones the scene, in time, and in his own memory:

It was around Shevuos, or maybe, and I don’t want you to think I’m lying, even a week or two before Shevuos and . . . wait a minute, perhaps a few weeks after Shevuos . . . Hold on a bit, it was, let me think a minute . . . It was exactly nine or ten years ago and maybe a little more. 

Do we care about the exact dating of the story? We do not. Instead, we begin to recognize our Tevye as a living, breathing being: nothing makes a storyteller more alive than losing their train of thought and obsessing about it right in the beginning of a story, as a kind of fumbling prelude. Such a prelude is also a secret incantation that turns a disembodied voice into an actual person, and we begin to care, to care a lot—about the date, about the dacha Tevye was driving from near the village of Boiberik, about where he was going and why: we are now suddenly attuned to Tevye, the being of skaz.    

Let’s say I were to stand up and say it outright: reader, I came here to tell you the skaz of my people, of the Russian-speaking Jews. A big question mark swells in my mouth. What do I know of Russian Jews aside from my own proverbial bowl of fish soup? The madness of my own skaz, the madness of being a Russian Jew, to paraphrase Edmond Jabès, coincides with the madness of storytelling itself. It has to do with the way the very word “Jew” (in its Russian form, evrey, cognate of “Hebrew”) entered my world, when I was nine or so, and my parents chose to finally tell me about it, and how confusing everything became, as I accepted this word as my own, as it extended and unfurled to mean, in my world, primarily the hidden Jews, and the so-called half-Jews or quarter-Jews (as if the self could be quartered like a dollar), the uncertain Jews, who like me, knew nearly nothing of their history aside from the frail label that was passed on to them. So the question is also this: How and when do you tell stories that explain your own life, and do it in a way that makes you want to keep living and talking, rather than folding yourself up into the archive of dust? How do such stories come to be and why do they come in this peculiar shape, in this strange manner of retelling?

Viktor Shklovsky, a friend of Eikhenbaum’s who held onto that same frail label in question, said: “Literature is made through knots of meaning that exist in relationship with each other, deepening the tangibility of the work.” The knots, you see—impossible, mad tangles—is where the very desire to tell a story comes from. Are you, reader, here because you, too, find yourself wrung into such knots? Or are you a cool, indifferent connoisseur, shopping for the fabric of “tangibility”? Who do you want to be, inside this shared skaz?

Oh and yes: I added an extra “z” to turn “skaz” into “skazz”: it’s an homage to that other great storytelling lineage, the music of improvisation, grit, and transcendence, which taught me how to listen even while talking and writing. It’s the music I fell in love with and found a doorway to myself inside of, not too long after I immigrated to the US as a teenager. But that’s a whole other story, reader, a whole different cup of kvas.  

Pressing the Button but Don’t Know What It Does

When does the immigration actually occur? The i-word itself is so big, so heavy that it can’t just mean the physical trip alone, the airplanes and suitcases and visas and border control—although each of these objects and encounters becomes its own mythic being, each with its own gravity, its own archetypal family of meanings, like a god or a planet around which the immigrant psyche continues to obsessively rotate. It’s like any creation: the explosion is invisible, inaudible, hidden: and all you get is your old suitcase on a carousel—go and piece your personal genesis together with that!  

I did not come to the States as an immigrant in a family of immigrants, but as a lone student. I moved through the bowels of the visa-world—student, work, tourist, spousal—nearly fifteen years of visas; but actual citizenship always seemed like a kind of unreachable infinity that converses only with itself and is utterly unaware of any presence other than its own internal circuitry. See, I was an immigrant all along and thought of myself as such, way before I received the coveted “legal alien” stamp, way before this sanctioned alienation was translated into the actual passport. 

Truth be told, sometime around two years after living here it became inconceivable for me to return to Ukraine, where I grew up, where I knew all my neighbors, and all of their jokes, and their streets, and music, where the word “loss” was something that belonged in a poem I had to memorize for school. I remember standing in line for still another visa, thinking that if I was refused, my life would undoubtedly be over. As if the border I crossed was not dotted across the ocean but somewhere between my kitchen and bedroom, or near the subway turnstile, or in someone’s arms, and right there, some stray thought morphed me into another, the sort of a self that would no longer be able to exist in my previous incarnation. Like I’d grown lungs and could no longer live in the water—that kind of a thing. 

It’s not impolite to ask an immigrant why they immigrated. It’s just that when the person is coming from a third world country, it’s a little indelicate. Like the old saying goes: if you’re asking someone for a dance, don’t bring all your squash with you. What do you want to hear, a redemption story? One in which you, the squash-schlepper, is the implicit hero, a certified representative of the land of the free, entitled to feel magnanimous by association? It doesn’t work like that. And when people ask, and they do all the time, I have this shtick I involuntarily go into: I explain that I was fifteen, a boy with hormonal impulses and jerky motions (which I demonstrate as I speak) so powerful, I was not thinking but was thrown, hormonally, across the map of unreadable circumstances. Like the question, like the answer, as my people say. I don’t need to tell them, but I will tell you: these weren’t my hormonal impulses, but History’s hormones, and I rode them, reader. 

Another well-meaning and unbearable thing people say to me is: “You almost don’t have an accent! You don’t sound Russian at all!” Such kindness, such insight! And you’re right, it is a testament to my hard work on the muscles of my tongue and the complicated lip course I’ve completed. It’s like a PhD, really, but you don’t have to write a dissertation, you just talk about 150 pages worth, putting the tongue between your teeth when it’s time to say “th” and kinda letting the tongue fall back a little with an “r.” Anyway, when they say it to me, about my accent, I always respond: “I can turn it up for ya if ya’d like.” I once heard my friend from Texas say that about his Texan accent, and I adopted it, “ya” and all. 

So, to get it over with now and for all times, in front of you, reader, as a newly minted indelicate American, I’m going to ask my greenhorn self: Why did you come, and why did you stay? Life wasn’t all that much worse over there. You had parents and all four grandparents: you were all so close. You had what you needed. Real friends. Even had a dacha, with cherry trees and currant bushes. And Russian literature, which offered a spiritual refuge, the size of a religion or an identity? So then what was it? It can’t be the pull of American materialism alone—the profusion of cereal brands in the supermarket? 

I’ll tell you reader, it felt like I was in love: with the English language itself, drunk on New York City. Drunk and in love with the living language of Judaism, with New York’s Jews that surrounded me. I told myself, as all people in love do, that this is forever. I told myself that this is who I was always meant to be, who I was anyway to begin with. The Hebrew expression baal teshuva, a master of return, can connote a return to a past that isn’t one’s own, but is a mysterious and inexplicable feeling of returning not to physical circumstances, or even simply the ancestral ritual practices, but to some other alignment altogether, which has to do with something like history, but older. A kind of spiritual corrective for a misunderstanding of cosmic proportions. That’s why it feels so good. 

This here the real answer—or is it another variation on the performative thrashings of the hormonal, impulsive self? 

For so many years, all I could think about were the practicalities of the movement ahead, which is why my immigration memories are not accessible, not aligned, not discernible as anecdotes and stories. I am trying to tell you something, and it’s as if I keep pressing some button and don’t know what it does. It’s possible that before too long I’ll turn into a button-being, obsessed with the fact that, once upon a time, I became another person. And when that happens, will it mean that my immigration is finally over—or will I continue immigrating, all through that final shudder? 

I’ve come to think of my unmade images and botched explanations of how and why I got here as a kind of perpetually sinking ship that has prayed itself into a memory vortex: so large it could swallow everything, including the frail reader-boat we’re both on, right now. I’ve come to see every immigrant as shipwrecked, desperately rowing and swimming, racing to get out of the pull of the vortex that is our own origin story. I’ve come to see myself as part of the migrations of all peoples, and in particular, the Jewish migration, which is so old, so large and mythic, it can feel like an abstraction—a metaphor you keep revising but still can’t decipher, even as you’re its very embodiment.

But did you know that the whole thing about vortexes that suck in ships—is a bubbe-mayseh? That when a ship sinks, it doesn’t actually create a suction that swallows everything near it? Meaning, that metaphor was a fake-out. And that’s good, right? It means, if I go down, in this very narrative, or anti-narrative, you’ll still be safe, and will row off in your little readerly raft, back to the shore ya came from. 

I Never Exhale 

One time, someone tapped me on the shoulder: “Oh, sorry, I thought you were someone else.” “I am someone else.” “We all are.”  

And maybe it’s good: to be reminded, once in a while, that you’re someone else, with an aura of elsewhereness all over you, and if it makes you a little melancholy, that’s not so bad either. But then sometimes on top of being someone else and being melancholy, you’re also sick. And for that, back in the old days, instead of medicine, Jewish shamans would give you a piece of paper with secret Names of God on it—maybe stuffed inside an amulet, or floating in your water. Such shamans were called baalei shem, Masters of the Name. Now, I’m not saying this because I think that we’re all texts and the only way to heal our ailments is by altering our internal alphabets, as in, “When I get that feeling, I want textual healing,” in a revisionary sense. I’m not here to awaken a textual golem, a personal soul-doctor to save you, and myself, and the world. Then why am I telling you this? Because I’ve got a story here, a story about pipes—the pipes of elsewhere, with Names in them. 

One of the baalei shem I mentioned was known as the Baal Shem Tov, or the Besht, founder of Hasidism, the original shaman-rebbe. By now, his character is shrouded in myth sewn from stories, folky and mystical and puzzling and pious and gritty and sometimes funny stories, but there’s one story I am obsessed with, because I do not understand it and therefore need to tell you about it. Goes something like this. 

The Besht was riding inside a carriage, on his way from one town to another to preach. He was smoking a pipe, and it was such a large pipe that it stuck far out of the carriage. Now somewhere in the middle of Ukrainian nowhereness—I know this nowhereness intimately, reader, it’s the backdrop to my own subconscious—and now you’re there with me—he crossed paths with a small troupe of Russian soldiers. What they were doing in the middle of this Jewish story’s Ukrainian subconscious is not obvious. What is obvious is that they were riding in the opposite direction. And as they passed the Baal Shem, their commander snatched away the rebbe’s pipe. The Besht remained silent for exactly one hour. And right then he told his servant to stop the carriage, take the horse, and ride after the soldiers to retrieve his pipe. Before long, the servant found the band of soldiers on their horses, all of them, sound asleep. He took the very big pipe and brought it back to the rebbe. 

That’s where the scribe ends the story, and you can’t help wondering what was inside that pipe. (Is it the same thing I’m putting inside your pipe right now?) And why did the Besht have to wait an hour to retrieve it? And anyway, why was he smoking a pipe so large that it stuck out of the window? 

Now, dear reader, as we find ourselves in this storied Ukrainian nowhere with the Besht and the soldiers, I see two diverging paths ahead of us, and we can call one path the way of Bakhtin and the other, the way of Eikhenbaum. 

Mikhail Bakhtin was a major Russian literary scholar who really, really liked to smoke. In fact, he liked smoking so much, the story goes, that he smoked his own manuscript. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but it is a well-known story, told by graduate students all over the world, with the same reverence, the same whispery heartbreak, as many a Hasidic tale I’ve heard recounted. Contrary to the way it was first told to me by my fellow literature students, however, Bakhtin did not exhale his book into the cold Siberian air, interned at a prison camp. He smoked it during his time in Moscow, during World War II. And almost certainly, the smoked book was his study of the bildungsroman, the German coming-of-age novel. 

If the timing of this smoke break, its historical backdrop, doesn’t give you goosebumps, this might: Bakhtin smoked the manuscript backwards, starting from the last page. You may say to yourself, well, that is a pragmatic thing to do: the more recent stuff is easier to remember, and restore later. But I’m sure that’s not the reason—just not in the nature of the Slavic soul, to smoke itself down pragmatically like that. It was an act of unreading, a slow undoing, a reversal of the hypothesis, a critical response to the context of his reading. In other words: if you start from the last page, you know exactly how many times you’re going to smoke: for nothing else will be added to the manuscript.  

And, so, with that precision in mind, do you see why the Besht knew exactly when to send his servant to retrieve the pipe? Maybe? 

Now, Boris Eikhenbaum, who, as you remember, gave a new light to the word skaz, and understood storytelling the way no one else ever did, during that same war, was in a legendary, miserable blockade in Leningrad, working on a very different book. According to his close friend Viktor Shklovsky, one day, he asked for a megaphone to speak to the German army outside of the city gates. Here’s what Eikhenbaum said:

I am an old professor, my son Dmitriy is in the army, my son-in-law died, I live with my wife, daughter, and granddaughter in a single room. I’m writing a book about Tolstoy. You know of him—he wrote War and Peace. I know you’re afraid of Tolstoy, that you read his book about the defeat that comes after victory. 

I came here from my desk of frozen ink to tell you that I despise you. You can only overthrow a culture with a culture. We’ve got cannons too—you can’t use cannons as a proof. You will not destroy our culture, you will not enter our city. 

You see, Bakhtin and Eikhenbaum had a fundamental disagreement about life, and more specifically, about the nature of skaz, the peculiar written form of an oral story and the texture of the voices within it. Bakhtin took issue with Eikhenbaum’s vision of skaz, and saw it as far less dreamy and fundamental. For Bakhtin, skaz wasn’t even storytelling, really, was just about the way folks spoke—the funky, smoky, kvas-flavored language of Russian peasants who occasionally piped up in the works of Dostoyevsky. Their skaz was the manifestation of their reality, and provinciality, and the countdown of their lives’ cigarettes. I mean, does the paragraph-long Besht encounter in question even constitute a story? Is this here a story?  

At best, for Bakhtin, skaz was a parody of provinciality by someone who rose above his provincial self, or smugly thought he did. (To write skaz, pretending to be provincial, but knowing full well, all along, that you’re making fun of this provinciality? Is this what we do when we tell stories? Makes my blood boil, reader.) 

Now Eikhenbaum saw skaz as magical. A spell cast over textual limitations. The only channel back to the ancient storyteller, to the wisdom stitched into the real old-time stories, away from all of this alienated compostable pileup of modern bullshit (Bakhtin’s name for the pileup: “heteroglossia”). A text spoken into a megaphonic pipe-dream. 

Now that I’m talking to you, it occurs to me that the two scholars’ positions were not terribly different: more like, two handles pulling on the same door. Or as my people used to say: same ass, view sideways. You see, one day, Eikhenbaum was forced to publicly denounce poet Anna Akhmatova, whom he worshipped. He was the first person ever to write a book about her! Had her photograph along with his father’s, atop his desk. But, he had to vote for her expulsion from the academy so he himself would be allowed to stay, to work, to not get sent to the camps. And he did it—although, the way he put it in his speech, it was he who was at fault, for adoring and encouraging her work, for being blind to the fact that her lyrical decadence was not what the state needed right in that fragile moment, etc. He was a decent human being: but he did not roll up his life and smoke it, either. 

So then: why was the Besht smoking a pipe so large that it stuck out of the window? I think you understand, no? And wasn’t it always like that? And isn’t that why you came here, why you stayed, breathing with me this thick old-world air, which happens to have a few secret names of real and mythic people floating around like smoke rings? 

This new world of ours, reader, is so unlike the old one, yet the pipes are just as large, and even, you could say, super-sized. But what’s inside of them, huh? Meaning, the desire is still there, but what of it? For instance, some years ago, when I lived in Washington Heights in New York, I’d sometimes hear bagpipes out of my window. The sound was pure evil. It made me furious, turned me into an animal. I wanted to shove the pipes deep up the ass of the guy who played them. And then one day I saw him, in my own building’s backyard. He had a big pot belly, a black yarmulke, shy smile, and a walkie-talkie from the local Jewish volunteer EMT, called Hatzalah

Now, an EMT walkie-talkie is the one thing that can be kept buzzing on shabbes, when everybody else’s devices are turned off. It’s a beautiful, kind thing to do—volunteering and compromising one’s own shabbes experience like that. It’s admirable, no doubt. But if you’re sitting next to this guy at a dinner, or in shul, with all of his buzzing and clicking, it’s straight up irritating. Why do I bring this up? Because, like we said back in Ukraine: two boots make a pair. The pipes and the shabbes walkie-talkie, they belong together, maybe as distant cousins, maybe each as the other’s antidote—or, like we said, two handles smoking the same door.  

There’s an old joke about this, and I don’t mind if I tell it to you. As they say: for dessert. In Odessa, one neighbor complained to the other: “I hate John Lennon—the guy can’t carry a tune! Gets distracted in the middle, plus all of that nasal stuff.” “Misha, when were you listening to John Lennon?” “Oh, I wasn’t—just that Izzy, upstairs, been singing his songs.” 

Reader, do you see what I mean? Or, do you need a light?

Jake Marmer is a poet, performer, and educator. Born in the provincial steppes of Ukraine, in a city that was renamed four times in the past 100 years, he now lives in Los Angeles. Jake 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). More here: https://linktr.ee/jakemarmer.