Lying Like Presidents, New & Selected Poems 2001-2019. Djelloul Marbrook

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By Michael T. Young
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What I look for in a new and selected collection is a sense of both the best the poet has to offer and the breadth of his vision. It isn’t merely a sampling of the work but a direct line to the essence of it, at least as best as a poet can understand his own poetry well enough to distill it. In this sense, the new work should seem like something that is an inevitable consequence of the journey the poet started. And that is what we get with Djelloul Marbrook’s Lying Like PresidentsNew & Selected Poems 2001-2019.
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The first section consisting of the new poems is enough to be a full-length collection on its own. It is a series of interlocking cantos that recall John Donne’s “Anatomy of the World,” in that they use the microcosm of an individual soul to explore the macrocosm of the world soul. And we are led into this from the opening poem that begins:
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Yesterday eighty years ago I toddled on the brink
of catastrophe, and the world tottered with me.
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This sets the stage for a series of poems seeking reconciliation on multiple levels: present with past, self with other, identity with history. And it is finally achieved. The concluding poem ends:
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More than a little tired but eager
to start out again as friends.
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But the journey here starts long before, rooted in Marbrook’s first collection, Far from Algiers, which opens the section of selected work. This first collection locates us in Marbrook’s original concerns with questions of alienation and otherness, identity and belonging. These themes persist throughout Marbrook’s poetry both symbolically and ideationally. So, one reads in Far from Algiers:
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Nothing can shake me
from my resolve to leave
or my distrust of doors
–“Sinistral”
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which recalls from the new section, in which he writes:
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I slip through keyholes
fondling tumblers as I pass
–“20”
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The new ease of departure marks the progress one finds throughout his career. Which is to say that more than a mere persistence of themes, there is development and growth from the anchors of social constructs and their restrictions to a plumbing of spiritual truth beyond those restrictions or, in other words, transcendence. Marbrook was born in Algeria but raised in Brooklyn. So, alienation and belonging are rooted in his life and articulate the initial conflict in his first book. But it serves as the groundwork from which he seeks transcendence throughout his career. The primary difficulty is one we all face to a greater or lesser degree, because the self that embraces an identity from the history and culture within which it finds itself immediately puts that self in chains. This is the case every time because no culture permits validation of what it implicitly defines as alien. So transcendence becomes the immediate necessity for self-assurance or validation. In Marbrook’s first collection we find again:
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                        I went
about the work of finding
the idea of belonging strange
–“Sinistral”
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Alienation propels the search for transcendence. And this foreshadows the progress toward his later collection entitled, Nothing True Has a Name. Or these lines from that collection:
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      and when they ask for your name
              say you’ve forgotten it
             and eventually you will.
         Who will go along with this?
          No one, but you will be one
with the crime you were meant to commit.
              –“Temenos Nakedly”
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This articulates a growth toward a genuine self, not ethically but spiritually, in a realm beyond norms and naming. Hence that collection’s title and an argument central to Marbrook’s entire oeuvre. Indeed, I don’t think there is a more thorough poetic exploration of identity and belonging, self and transcendence than the poetry of Djelloul Marbrook, at least from the point of view of the conflict between belonging to a culture and not being enchained by it. As someone who was not only born in another country but who suffered childhood abuse, his poetry doesn’t merely represent a struggle with otherness and identity but embodies the progress of that struggle from collection to collection. So there is not only witness but growth, and it is this growth and struggle that clothes his language with elegance and wisdom. In this light we also encounter friends who have committed suicide, and confront the problems of aging, each found in Brash Ice and Riding Thermals to Winter Grounds, respectively. Each of these are lenses by which we view his central themes. Some of my favorite poems or quotable passages from the collection focus on the persistent longing for transcendence:
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I’ve never wanted to disturb the world
or even move the air around me much.
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It didn’t seem appropriate for a visitor
who didn’t plan to stay very long.
–“Skirt disappearing behind a door”
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More is up to us than we are up to.
Dolphins and roaches will outlive us
because we wrap each moment in dogma
to throttle it rather than be artists.
–“Rather than be artists”
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Why of all the lives we’ve lived
should this be the memorable one?
–“Even now the embers”
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In this last quote we have that link between transcendence and a fixed identity, between multiple lives or meanings and the singular memory or “memorable one.” It lingers between the push and pull of accepting a place in history and transcending it. Suspended between these two points, Djelloul Marbrook’s poetry sings.
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While the collection certainly captures the beauty of Marbrook’s language and the range of his themes, I can’t avoid pointing out what is perhaps the collection’s biggest shortcoming: its title. While Marbrook’s themes intersect social and even political concerns, they are not central to his poetry. One views them in light of his major themes. But a title such as Lying Like Presidents makes politics seem central and I fear that may dissuade some from purchasing the collection. If my review can do any bit of justice to this poet’s work, it is to correct that possible misperception and encourage people to purchase a collection that represents a gifted poet’s journey.
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Michael T. Young’s third full-length collection, The Infinite Doctrine of War, was longlisted for the Julie Suk Award. His previous collections are The Beautiful Moment of Being Lost and Transcriptions of Daylight. He received a Fellowship from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. His chapbook, Living in the Counterpoint, received the Jean Pedrick Chapbook Award from the New England Poetry Club. Young’s poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous journals including Gargoyle, One, Quiddity, Rattle, and Valparaiso Poetry Review. His poetry has also been featured on Verse Daily and The Writer’s Almanac. Michael T. Young

 

 

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