Review of Far from Algiers
(Note: The respected journal CELAAN, a review of North African literature and art published at Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, NY, and edited by Hedi Abdel Jaouad, has published this review of my book of poems, Far From Algiers by the prize-winning poet and scholar Barbara Louise Ungar. Ms. Ungar’s review is republished here with CELAAN’s permission. Although I was born in Algiers, I have lived all my life in the United States, but, like most Americans, I am curious about my roots).
Far From Algiers considers the unusual situation of Marbrook’s birth, and his consequent feelings of otherness, which becomes one of the book’s main themes: seeing through the notion of belonging to any group as the basis for exclusion and violence; as he writes in “The Price of Admission,” “Give me members, I’ll give you war.” In astonishingly unsentimental terms, Marbrook’s poems narrate his conception, “a spurt in thoughtless dark,” (from the poem “Djelloul”): his father was a Bedouin, an Ouled Nail from Bou Saada in M’Sila Wilaya (Province), his mother a Bohemian painter of German ancestry from New York City. Spurned, Marbrook’s mother returned to the US, where the infant was shockingly neglected (because he was both illegitimate and of mixed race, a “person of color,” as we now say, at a time when neither was acceptable), shipped off to an English private school, where he was molested. He employs psychological splitting that leads to surrealism in some of the poems, such as “Autobiography,” in which he, too, rejects his young self:
I left the little bastard and never looked back. What became of him had nothing to do with me nor with anyone else involved in the project.
He views himself from the outside, as an other (Je est un autre, in Rimbaud’s famous formulation). Like Berryman’s alter ego Henry, it is hard to see how he (Djelloul) survived.
William Matthews said that in every real poem, someone’s heart is breaking. Some of the most heartbreaking poems in this volume have to do with his rejection by his own mother, as in the poem “Under the Grates,” in which he keeps faith with “the desolate . . . in subway cars,” counting among those who disliked him “lovers and my mother./ I think of them with a sob and permanent dismay.” Other heartbreakers, such as “What Good Did My Own Good Do Me,” deal with the subject of molestation, although more obliquely, ending, “I knew I had a fatal crack/ I squirmed away from touch.” The poem “The Angel Departs” opens:
Now every creak and whimper of light molests me in an ancient bed
I read this metaphorically, until I listened to the excellent CD of Marbrook reading the volume: Here Marbrook provides explanatory headnotes, as at a reading, that clarify some of the more difficult poems, such as this one. He also writes (and, again, speaks utterly unabashedly) about nervous breakdown, which is not unusual among survivors of abuse and neglect, in poems such as “The Men’s Room.” But he also seems to have come to terms completely with all the difficulties of his youth; at the terrifically moving end of “Autobiography,” he admits that he put himself “in harm’s way” as “the safest place” for an unwanted child, in a magical bid for rescue:
There my father, coming to his senses, could come to find me. He never did, but late in life I found his child cowering in a corner and picked him up and calmed him.
He seems to have healed himself so profoundly that he becomes able to write about his mother, Juanita Guccione, with love and respect, in poems such as “Exile” and “A Sixty-Bag Departure”; one of her paintings provides the book’s cover art, and Marbrook continues to strive to find her work the audience it deserves.
Marbrook looks at the U.S., specifically post 9/11 (when he began writing poetry again after a hiatus of many decades), with its xenophobia enflamed, and, indeed, looks at all of Western culture, from his unique position, his “advanced degree in bastardy,” as he calls it in “Sinistral.” In this lovely poem he states:
I am to the left of belonging, forlorn, bereft and looking in. Some are conceived under stars, I was conceived under stairs.
And also, “There is only my djinni to lead me/ through the loud exhibitionism of the world.” He has spent much of his lifetime researching Arab history, and critiques our hegemonic view that writes out Arab influence, such as the zero, born out of India by Arabs, in Marbrook’s view, as a necessary corrective to the Greeks’ fixation on form, as he writes in “Profanity.” Some of the most beautiful poems spring from this deeply imagined sense of his fatherland; in “Escape Route,” for example, he imagines, to save his sanity, “a Moorish garden in al-Andalus/ where an old man is watching/ aspens write on walls.”
But the poems are neither strictly political nor confessional; all of this personal and historic background gives the poems weight and gravitas, but it is not exactly what they are “about.” What makes these poems so marvelous is their light touch, their frequent “escape into the beautiful,” an elusive quality that makes you feel, just when you think you understand a poem, such as “The Memory of Sand,” that it is about something else entirely. Again like Dickinson’s, these short poems can be read over and over, making you feel on the verge of an understanding that finally eludes you. It is hard to analyze this magic, how Marbrook does exactly what he does. It is the sleight-of-hand of a seasoned magus. Although Far From Algiers won the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize, which is for a first book, Marbrook is now 75, a retired newspaperman, who has clearly been thinking and writing hard throughout his long lifetime, to have acquired the wisdom to remind himself, as he does at the end of “The Flutes of the Djinn,” another favorite poem:
Make this gnosis your heart: Everything is a facet of the same jewel.
You will want to read this book over and over again, and, you may also want, as I did, to listen to the accompanying CD over and over, marveling each time at new facets of the jewel revealed as you turn the poems this way and that. Marbrook has written many other volumes of both poetry and prose over the past decade, and I look forward to seeing what comes next.