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

By Michael T. Young
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.
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:
Yesterday eighty years ago I toddled on the brink
of catastrophe, and the world tottered with me.
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:
More than a little tired but eager
to start out again as friends.
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:
Nothing can shake me
from my resolve to leave
or my distrust of doors
which recalls from the new section, in which he writes:
I slip through keyholes
fondling tumblers as I pass
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:
                        I went
about the work of finding
the idea of belonging strange
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:
      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”
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:
I’ve never wanted to disturb the world
or even move the air around me much.
It didn’t seem appropriate for a visitor
who didn’t plan to stay very long.
–“Skirt disappearing behind a door”
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”
Why of all the lives we’ve lived
should this be the memorable one?
–“Even now the embers”
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.
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.
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



The Seas Are Dolphins’ Tears By Djelloul Marbrook.

Book Cover_Seas Are Dolphins Tears_
Michael T. Young
The latest collection by poet Djelloul Marbrook, The Seas Are Dolphins’ Tears, follows the arc of a trajectory one can trace back to perhaps his fourth collection, Brash Ice, one following an ever-deepening engagement with the mysteries of spiritual awakening. It is signaled by the opening quote from Ibn al ‘Arabi, a Muslim mystic of the early 13th century. From there we enter a poetry that is spare and startling. No capitalization or punctuation delimits the explorations we set out on. We are instead invited to question everything from grammatical nuance to identity. It is a language that is simultaneously direct and absurd, a kind of magic that reveals truth beyond logic and where paradox jars the senses.
in the heart of such familiarity
i cannot find my way
one must be one’s own light
in cracks between ordinariness
and exquisite punishments
— “lost in the midst of finding
Marbrook’s poetry turns inward and walks the path between polarities as the language of ecstatic poetry does. External realities manifest themselves as turmoil in the internal spiritual terrain. Boundaries of self and other breakdown not into illusions but mutually affirming realities, the interdependence of all things. Following Marbrook’s poetry from his first to latest collection, one sees a poet who refuses to divorce physical necessity from spiritual subtlety. Unlike many who assert the dominance of one of these realms over the other, Marbrook remains devoted to the truth of their balance and a poetics that reveals the connection of spirit and body in all its diverse facets.
I notice that the best of us
counterclockwise bear
sea rains to refresh
the brittleness of drought
that ravages our innards
— “panic”
As so much of this book does, these lines recall mystical texts, as here, we confront the aridity of the soul or “innards” as St. John the Divine did in Dark Night of the Soul. That “brittleness of drought” is soothed by a return to primal sources, those “sea rains,” for the sea often, in poetic tradition, is an image of creative potential or, in other words, the unconscious. That counterclockwise motion is the return and it echoes in various other contraries of place and time, self and other throughout the collection, for instance, as “’there’ is the most elusive word,” or “he is a woman,” or “we are most of all/what we think we’ve lost.” While this journey leads us to elvish tables and faerie parties, such fantastic encounters do not abandon compassion for our very real fellow living beings. That would not be in keeping with the humanity that pervades Marbrook’s poetry.
            remember that
tortured beasts
      thrash beneath
            every sorrow
                  & imprisoned thing
— “leviathan”
Or again,
if methane did not leak
from political endeavor
if we could die assured
of so much loveliness after us
i could simply shut my mouth
—“words flee”
Much of Marbrooks’ earlier poetry overtly confronts social issues and artistic needs while allowing spiritual underpinnings to surface within that framework. He has, in this new collection, reversed that order and we now see the worldly problems from a spiritual perspective, a perspective that does not include silence before political folly or ecological disaster. In this sense, these poems partake of the surreal tradition by which given boundaries are tested or broken down and which inherently dissents with established politics and norms. However, the trajectory of Marbrook’s project reaches further back and forward than the present collection, a trajectory that reveals a marvelous balance and beauty in his poetry, a great breadth of poetic vision, something too large for a single collection. Marbrook is a poet of great scope who packs an epic power into poems of incredible lyrical compression. This may be one way of seeing the journey of a spiritual awakening itself, that is as a narrative traveled inside a lyrical moment.
parts no one has touched
since i was an astonished boy
parts god and women for all their wiles
have not found    they have gone ahead of me
to find you whom i was forced to leave behind.
— “questions the parts”
Astonishment is a variety of the sublime, that experience of the transcendent often too profound for our crude sensibilities to bear. So, this racing on ahead to find what was left behind is not merely past is prologue, but how that spiritual awakening is a remembrance, the recovery of a fundamental insight as if we all are born with our lips still glistening from the waters of Lethe.
One may, at times, be baffled by these poems, but that is in the way a Zen koan can be baffling, which is by a language meant to break us free of the torpor of routine logic, that prison nearly invisible to us because its bars are made of our daily thoughts. These poems, however, are written in that language which is a prelude to enlightenment. The Seas Are Dolphins’ Tears makes an incredible addition to the growing oeuvre of this versatile and gifted poet.
You can find the book here:


 Michael T. Young’s third full-length collection, The Infinite Doctrine of Water, was published by Terrapin Books. HIs other collections include The Beautiful Moment of Being Lost and Transcriptions of Daylight. His chapbook, Living in the Counterpoint, received the Jean Pedrick Award. Young also received a Fellowship from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts. His poetry, essays, and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in numerous journals including Cimarron Review, The Cortland Review, The Los Angeles Review, Shrew, The Smart Set, and Valparaiso Poetry Review. Young lives with his wife, children, and cats in Jersey City, New Jersey.