May 20th, 2009
Review by Michael Meyerhofer
FAR FROM ALGIERS
by Djelloul Marbrook
Kent State University Press
307 Lowry Hall
P.O. Box 5190
Kent, Ohio 44242
2008, 72 pp., $14.00
Djelloul Marbrook’s first book, Far From Algiers, is the kind of book you want to buy over and over—partly so you can support such a fine “emerging writer,” but mostly just so you can give copies of this humorous, heart-wrenching book as gifts for everyone you know. These are wry, insightful, accessible verses that shine with a lyrical wit often lacking in today’s poetry.
I had the great privilege of seeing Marbrook read at the AWP conference in Chicago. Honestly, I’d never heard of him before that, nor seen his work in journals. As I sat and listened, though, I was immediately floored by one thought: How on earth have I never heard of this guy before? Marbrook’s poems—grandfatherly, mortal, sometimes political but refreshingly free of proselytization—struck such a chord that I bought his book as fast as I could. Now, having just finished it, I’m writing this review at three in the morning because frankly, I don’t think I can sleep until I give just credit where credit is due.
Right away in the first poem, “Climate Control,” we realize we’re dealing with a natural: “I’m as sick of wanting to get in / as I am of wanting to be heard. / I was born with one of those faces that say / Trust me, you don’t want to hear it” (3). In a blurb on the back cover, Edward Hirsch writes that Marbrook “brings together the energy of a young poet with the wisdom of long experience.” This is seen, too, in Marbrook’s heartbreaking poem, “Commonest Word”: “A life is filled with just so many accidents / and it looks as if mine are running out” (46). Another haunting moment, this time flavored with a powerful sense of resignation, can be found in these final lines from “Sinistral”: “You asked what my background is. / I wish I had one, but if I did / I would probably know less than I do / and be more certain about it” (11).
Marbrook might not seem at first to be the most likely recipient of the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize, judged in 2007 by Toi Derricotte. Marbrook—73 years old at the time—was an apparent newcomer to the field, a retired newspaper editor with a funny-sounding last name. Marbrook himself pokes fun at this in “Djelloul”: “Jeh-lool, go on, try it. / Terrorists bear the name, scientists / and singers, and a few cashiers…” (5). I love the politically charged wit here! Marbrook uses subtle humor to greater affect than any other living poet I can think of, especially in poems like “Autobiography”:
I don’t know what the French did with him.
God knows how they peeled off his shadow.
I took mine with me, figuring it would come in handy
for darkening threatening doorsteps.
I could tell from the start it would be messy and dramatic—
my father and his two lovers looking down on me glumly.
Heartache was more welcome than I was. (9)
Here, Marbrook masterfully gets even the most cynical of readers to lower their guard for the stinging blow that follows later in the same poem:
…but there remained the question of where to put me,
so once again I beat them to the punch:
the safest place was clearly in harm’s way.
There my father, coming to his senses, could find me.
He never did, but late in life I found his child
cowering in a corner and picked him up and calmed him. (9)
There’s a wonderful sense of speed to this book, so much so that I often felt like I was reading a chapbook (in a good way). I read Far From Algiers all in one sitting, yet I would not call this an “easy” read—more like an immensely effective one, a haunting symphony of exotic locales and recognizable mortality, written by a poetic “newcomer” with an intuitive, humbly wise grasp of the worlds he’s writing about—an outer world of upheaval and immigration, of course, but also the world of self, with all its beautiful flaws. This sentiment is phrased far more eloquently in Marbrook’s “The Great Game”: “I’m always in two countries at once, / the one where you say I am / and the one where I know I am” (24).
Marbrook manages, somehow, to write poems that are both raw and polished, serious and funny, tender but intelligent. He reminds me at times of William Carlos Williams; other times, he reminds me more of Rodney Jones with his great capacity for wordplay and turned phrases. Marbrook’s style is all his own, though, and I cannot possibly overstate how glad I am to have this book on my shelf.
Michael Meyerhofer is the author of two books and three chapbooks. His work has appeared in Ploughshares, Arts and Letters, North American Review, River Styx, Mid-American Review, and other journals. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org