michael t young

The Language of Trees in Violent Times: Thoughts on the Aesthetics of Nikki Giovanni and Paul Celan By Michael T. Young

nikki-giovanni

Paul Celan, 1967

 
By Michael T. Young
I recently read the poetry of Nikki Giovanni and that of Paul Celan back to back. The transition from one to the other was jarring. There couldn’t be two aesthetics so different from each other. This contrast set me to thinking about what characterizes them, what vision they each embody and where they diverge and converge. 
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For Giovanni, there is a direct line from experience to expression. While she may use metaphors to open a subject, she does not allow metaphors or the music of language to follow its own course distinct from her moral perception. In many ways her aesthetics are determined by her moral or ethical values. This is necessary in a social context where injustice is pawned off as normal behavior. Indirection and even misdirection are what cloak the racism and violence of the American landscape. So, aesthetically, she needs a straight line to uncover it. One can see this compulsion for a direct moral aesthetic in her poem “For Saundra.” It addresses a problem often posed by poets in traumatic times, that is, the question of writing poems about trees. In a famous poem, Bertolt Brecht said it this way:
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Ah, what an age it is
When to speak of trees is almost a crime
For it is a kind of silence about injustice!
(translated by H. R. Hays)
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Since then, different poets have approached this problem, some in poems, others in prose. George Oppen, a poet well known for putting poetry aside for many years to engage in political activism said, “There is no crisis in which political poets and orators may not speak of trees.” Ignoring the obvious contradiction, it asserts a definite stance. Giovanni addresses this dilemma in her poem. After a neighbor asks her “do you ever write tree poems,” she makes the effort but comes to the opposite conclusion from Oppen:
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. . . it occurred to me
maybe i shouldn’t write
at all
but clean my gun
and check my kerosene supply
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perhaps these are not poetic
times
at all
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Also, with a bit of irony, Giovanni asserts this stance in a poem. At another point in the poem, when trying to describe a tree, Giovanni, “peeked from my window/to check the image.” Giovanni doesn’t isolate herself in her writing. She is always looking outward, “to check the image,” to correspond what she writes with what is going on in the world around her. Her poetry is one of witness and disclosure. And this is why, as the poem goes on, it becomes impossible for her to write about trees or any other natural beauty.
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Not seeing a tree outside in the New York landscape, Giovanni turns to writing about the sky, but can’t because “all the clouds have winged/low since no-Dick was elected.” For Giovanni, the moral ugliness in the world makes it impossible to take pleasure in natural beauty. The one colors the other and can’t be separated. This fusion requires an aesthetics grounded in a moral imperative, an aesthetics of explicit revelation.
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Giovanni’s aesthetic is diametrically opposed to the aesthetic one confronts in Celan. One sees this in a poem Celan wrote in direct response to the Brecht poem.
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A leaf, treeless
for Bertolt Brecht:
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What times are these
when a conversation
is almost a crime
because it includes
so much made explicit?
(trans. Michael Hamburger)
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This poem is a bit of an oddity. Rarely does Celan disclose his thoughts or feelings directly. But here we see a kind of ars poetica open in response to Brecht. And what is learned in that aversion to the explicit or direct language is that Celan’s aesthetic is one of indirection. Why is that?
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Celan lived through the Holocaust, surviving one of the labor camps, while his parents both died in them. Much of Celan’s poetry evolved out of this trauma. The wound of the Holocaust was forever too raw to directly touch. Metaphor and symbol served as an anesthetic to perform surgery on a deeply wounded psyche. So, whether we read his earlier more imagistic poems and engage his famous “black milk of daybreak” or his later more abstruse proclamations regarding the “Illegibility/ of this world,” we are dealing with forceps and scalpel. As Hamburger translates another of Celan’s lines, “clarity troubles.” Interestingly, just like Giovanni, Celan’s poetry is all about the speaker’s feelings and yet, it is a language meant to remake the very vocabulary of feeling, which is why it is so unusual.
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Both Brecht and Celan say, “almost a crime” or “nearly a crime.” Both allow a place for what they would deny because the denial is circumstantial, not absolute. For Brecht, writing about trees during the terror of the Holocaust may be necessary. For Celan, the need to speak or write in the aftermath of it is unavoidable. Giovanni too allows a way for writing to remain with her “perhaps” opening the last stanza. So while Celan’s poems are spare, words squeaking through that “almost,” Giovanni’s poems are bare, exposing the nerves in necessary confrontations in what are, let’s say, “unpoetic poems.” This is not to say her writing is not poetry but that it refuses artifice. Her drive is toward removing all artifice behind which the lie of racism can hide. In a later poem, Giovanni even declares, “This is not a poem.” While it might be said that Celan’s poetry is all artifice, he so drastically alters the typical German language, he wondered about the language he used in his own poems saying, “I am not sure the German I write in is spoken here, or anywhere.”
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Strangely, it seems, the very different aesthetics of these two poets here meet, as both would reject an aesthetic of purity, a language of enchantment. It doesn’t seem possible that either poet would agree with Joseph Brodsky when he said, “With a poet, one’s ethical posture, indeed one’s very temperament, is determined and shaped by one’s aesthetics.” Such a yielding to the easy music of the given language would carry these two poets into the very dangers they try to conquer. Just like well-worn tracks on a dirt road, the language we inherit may pull us in the same direction others have taken. For Giovanni, that would be the language of racism and violence. For Celan, it would be the language of the systematic murder of a race, of people he personally knew. But each one is compelled to make or remake their languages in opposing ways to confront the pain and violence of their world. Each one is driven to create a language of confrontation that results in drastically different aesthetics.
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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. Michael’s poetry has appeared in numerous journals including Gargoyle, One, Quiddity, Rattle, and Valparaiso Poetry Review. It has also been featured on Verse Daily and The Writer’s Almanac.  Michael T. Young

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

lying
 
 
 
 
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

 

 

The Mystery of Systems by Carl Rosentstock

mystery

By Michael T. Young

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The poems in Carl Rosenstock’s collection The Mystery of Systems are reflective and move with a subtle lyricism, sometimes enchanting, as in the opening of “The Passport”:
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In shadows, it seems I see things not quite seen —
The night breaking into scraps around
A sentry’s hands that hide a match flame
As I lean forward to accept the light.
(22)
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The internal rhymes and slant rhymes of these lines accentuate the beauty of a poetry that probes and pushes toward difficult perceptions. While it tries to “see things not quite seen,” at times, this poetry also brings us to attention with a pointed insight, as when Rosenstock says, “There is no cure for that/Which is accomplished” (36).
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The central metaphor of the collection is that of photography of which a prose passage in the collection declares,
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Yet, almost from its inception, the photograph could be, has been, manipulated, to reproduce a most realistic image of something that, in fact, did not exist outside itself.
(84)
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This idea of the photograph as a deception tells us much about the love poems that bookend the collection, as well as the title itself. All the artifice that goes into a photograph, a piece of music, a poem, and all the rules governing a system, lie outside those systems, are ulterior to the things those rules and artifices produce, like the frame around a painting. The proem to the collection, “For the Audience” ends:
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                            I rise
To my feet as the music
Must surely be servant
To the dancer. Your dance
Grace and symmetry: this is love.
I applaud you. I love you.
Love, not trust:
Trust is madness.
(16)
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The speaker here, though not yet known, is Paganini, who is the speaker of the final poem in the Afterword. In this opening poem, the split between love and trust, which one might call madness itself, is remade in the fractures of memory and manipulated perception inherent in the collection’s scrutiny. As “I Depend On You . . .” puts it,
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Not the accretion

 Of detail, but the selection —
Order and moment discerned
Among casual things.
(24)
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The “grace and symmetry” in the dance is choreography, another manipulation of art. The quandary is in the subtle equation of love and artifice. If our deepest affection is expressed in artistic form, which is artifice or manipulation, then love cannot be trusted. It recalls Orwell’s comment that “All art is propaganda.”

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But Orwell also said, “not all propaganda is art.” However, if we are to learn from art, we must keep in mind that it’s manipulating us to perceive things a certain way; we must step back to find out where it’s taking us and what it teaches. In other words, don’t assume it’s benevolence or innocuousness. Unfortunately, we tend to believe what we see and so are susceptible to deception, the same way the one in love is. Hence the madness of trust and how, within the collection, certain things remain hidden, figures slip into legend, deaths are recounted as justified in self-defense, and words themselves sometimes become walls. The third section of the book is a masterful creation of 2 imaginary Russian poets, presented with translations of their poems and a history explained in the context of a photograph from the archive of a third poet who slipped out of view just as the photo was snapped, “the blur of his right leg in the lower right hand corner.” Wonderfully, this is the very poet whose style of poetry, “Maximalism,” is the largest influence on the 2 poets “translated.” He is that outside influence, the mystery of systems, the unseen or unacknowledged pressure framing the image.

We’re told, “the light writes surfaces; the rest, the depths, remains dark.” However, a song or music seems to persist in the ears of many in the collection. Reality cannot be wholly suppressed by artifice or lost in falsehood and it surfaces as a kind of unidentifiable tune. So, in the middle section of “Confessions of a Christ Killer,” the speaker says,
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Even now I hear

 This song . . . I can’t
Remember the name.
(44)
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And in the poem “Anonymity” by the fictional poet Lazarev, we read
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In my head, I hear a tune
I heard once — a trick of memory.
I’ve forgotten whence this
Air has come, and search
For a few words to remind me
Where I heard it.
(63)
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It’s the echo too from Paganini, from the first and last poems. Playing off the love of Paganini for the singer Antonia Bianchi, the concluding poem in the Afterword confesses what is the final sacrifice.
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. . . once I made the wood sing, dark
Singing like a hummingbird’s wings, and for that
The tithe I’ll pay to Hell I fear is myself.
(91)
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The love is the art, the form. What’s sacrificed to it, as often is the case with love, is the self. The art, the love, remains. What we have in these poems, in this collection, is a marvelously written poetry that looks deeply into the nature of art itself. It is a long elegy, perhaps we might say a lament to the inevitable sacrifice the artist makes but also the inherent problems of perception everyone confronts in just trying, as Matthew Arnold put it, to “be true/To one another!” Perhaps what the poem “8 X 10” says of shadows can be said of trust,
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It is true, I suppose,
That, as you move closer
To your shadow, the ratio
Approaches one to one.
(27)
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Poetry helps us move closer to that one to one ratio, and particularly poetry like this. Closing The Mystery of Systems, one senses that by looking long and closely at the artifice in art and everyday relationships, by moving with it in poems both beautiful and thoughtful, one might be able to be a little more honest. The collection is one of the many arguments for how poetry can make the world a little better.

You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Mystery-Systems-Carl-Rosenstock/dp/1625492197

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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.

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The Seas Are Dolphins’ Tears By Djelloul Marbrook.

Book Cover_Seas Are Dolphins Tears_
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Michael T. Young
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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.
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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
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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.
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I notice that the best of us
counterclockwise bear
sea rains to refresh
the brittleness of drought
that ravages our innards
— “panic”
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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.
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            remember that
tortured beasts
      thrash beneath
            every sorrow
                  & imprisoned thing
— “leviathan”
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Or again,
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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”
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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.
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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”
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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.
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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.
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You can find the book here:

 https://www.amazon.com/Seas-Are-Dolphins-Tears/dp/190984960X

 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.