Far From Algiers




Far From Algiers is the 2007 winner of the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize, awarded by the Wick Poetry Center at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio.

“How honored I am—how lucky—to have been able to choose this superb first book by Djelloul Marbrook that honors a lifetime of hidden achievement. . . . Sometimes the poems seem utterly symbolic, surreal; they are philosophical, historical, psychological, political, and spiritual. The genius is in the many ways these poems can be read. I kept being rewarded by new awarenesses of the poet’s intentions, by the breadth and scope of the manuscript. As I read, I felt more and more that it was impossible that this was a first book. It seemed the writer knew exactly what to say, and, more importantly, exactly what to leave out.”—Toi Derricotte, judge

“In a dizzying and divisive time, it’s beautiful to see how Djelloul Marbrook’s wise and flinty poems outfox the Furies of exile, prejudice, and longing. Succinct, aphoristic, rich with the poet’s resilient clarity in the face of a knockabout world, Far from Algiers is a remarkable and distinctive debut.”
—Cyrus Cassells

“Djelloul Marbrook, ‘a highly skilled outsider,’ bursts into poetry with this splendid first book, which brings together the energy of a young poet with the wisdom of long experience.”—Edward Hirsch

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Far From Algiers, reviewed by Aiden O’Reilly, The Stoneybatter Files, Dublin, Ireland

These poems have something of the teenager’s self-absorption about them. This is not meant in any negative sense – maturity and knowing who you are is vastly over-rated. The keen concern with the watching self in these poems rests on top of a whole career – two careers in fact. The poet has served in the navy and was a journalist for many years. The resemblance to a teenager’s thought is disconcerting, testimony to the resilient bonds that connect us to our formative years. To be a self is a work-in-progress.

A boy who looks embarrassed to be young
skulks beneath the scaffolds avoiding light:
I hope I will not have to be his like again:

This stanza in the poem Sinistral depicting the poet as an outsider

I am to the left of belonging,
forlorn, bereft and looking in.
Some are conceived under stars,
I was conceived under stairs…

is followed immediately by this stanza, which takes a step sideways:

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.

It is disturbing to encounter the child within, to recognise how much has remained the same. Maybe it’s a source of comfort, too, to know that there is such a resilient continuity.

My wake is smaller
than a periscope’s.

Nothing ever happened
that couldn’t without me.

These are the hidden thoughts that form the driving engine of a personality. The poet feels an affinity with all who have an inner self—Van Gogh is the subject of another poem. There is an objective reason for Marbrook to be an outsider—he was born in Algiers, never knew his father, has a strange name (Djelloul, What kind of a name is that?) and shares the experience of the exile. But New York is a city of immigrants; one feels the poet’s sense of being an outsider is more metaphysical. He is aware of the selves he has deployed to make a way in the world. It’s not just the foreigner who has to adapt to the world we live in. It’s hard for everyone—many never succeed.

Sometimes for me it’s a couple of lines in isolation that echo back and forth in my head.

Whoever’s selling nothing is a truly frightening man./I hope you’ve met one lately.

The poems as a whole are testimony to the persistence of the self across decades—although that self is not static but constantly off-balance, it endures. The course of this century has seen ideologies clash, religious beliefs wax and wane. It’s all happening so quickly it seems a man’s life has more solidity than an empire.

I first came across Djelloul Marbrook by reading his online commentary on culture and the media. Since 2005 he has been turning his lucid mind to topics ranging from the panzer blondes of Manhattan to the war in Iraq. He has an insider’s knowledge of the changes in the newspaper industry.

The more I read his blog, the more curious I became as to what his poetry could be like. He seemed to be very capable of saying exactly what he wanted to say in his almost daily posts. What more could he convey in poetry? And more concretely, why would he invest so much time in a medium that is read by so few, when each post instantly gets hundreds of readers?

Marbrook is a late-comer to being a published poet, which says nothing about how long he has been writing poetry. His collection won the Stan and Tom Wick Prize in 2007 which got it out to the world at last.

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Far From Algiers reviewed in Rattle, May 20, 2009, by Michael R. Meyerhofer.

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. 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. 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.

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 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… 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.

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.

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.

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: mrmeyerhofer@bsu.edu

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Far From Algiers reviewed by Brent Robison in Gently Read, April 2, 2009.

An added benefit to be found in a collection of poems by one author, compounding the rewards gained from each individual poem, is the subtle, enriching thread of narrative that emerges. At least for me that’s true. I’m a fiction writer, I like narrative. I look for story. And I like it when —in the same way that Thelonious Monk played the silence between the notes —a writer suggests invisible layers of narrative hiding between the lines, in the white spaces, just out of sight beyond the edge of the page.

Born in French-ruled Algiers, raised in New York, Djelloul Marbrook is a lifelong professional writer who didn’t bring poetry and fiction to the public until he had reached senior citizen status—an elder of the tribe sharing the wisdom he’s gained. On the surface, his debut poetry collection, Far From Algiers, is a beguiling mix of wry confession, Arabian atmospherics, touching personal history, esoteric knowledge, and absolutely current socio-political commentary, all riding a vehicle of language driven by a master. Clearly, its chief currency is the universal yearning to belong.

But I’m fascinated by the story underneath. Marbrook is a master of economy, offering us carefully sculpted jewels beautiful alone, made more so by having been laid in a sumptuous bed of what is not said. The white spaces on the page, like the vastnesses between subatomic particles, become the fertile emptiness from which all has sprung. As Toi Dericotte (who selected Marbrook’s book for the Stan and Tom Wick Prize) praises in her introduction, he knows “exactly what to leave out.”

Near the slim volume’s center is a case in point—the shortest poem in the collection, surrounded by an expanse of emptiness that teems with the people and pain of a long life:

Familiarity

I know no one,
No one knows me.

There in that limbo
I live precariously.

When a story is told, there is always a storyteller. Story requires narrative point of view, and in this book we have some three out of four poems written in the first person singular. Who is this “I”?

In the foreword to an anthology called The Other Face: Experiencing the Mask, I explored the idea that the instant someone puts (figuratively) pen to paper she/he is automatically donning a mask: the persona of “writer” at least, if not something more elaborate. The mask of “I” suggests confessional “truth”; in poetry especially, it makes a strong argument that the narrator and the author are the same individual. In this collection, there’s no evidence to the contrary; Marbrook’s bio appears to be in synch with his poems, so we can reasonably conclude that the author’s “I” refers to himself.

Bear with me—all this is a path by which we can approach the hidden story. In each of us, “self” is a creation, a concept that can only be understood by differentiation from “other.” Inherent in the process of that separation, hierarchies and judgments develop. “Other” becomes inferior, even threatening.

This is especially true if we believe Stephen Wolinksy, founder of Quantum Psychology, who posits that every one of us feels the shock of discovering his separateness from his mother in his first year of life, and in response develops a false core of belief about his own nature: that he is bad, unlovable, permanently alone, yet vulnerable and needy. Compensating for that false core in idiosyncratic ways shapes the rest of one’s life, often taking the form of building oneself up by tearing down those who are most obviously different. Without awareness of those inner forces, fear-based reaction to the Other becomes a way of life.

The history of nations is this all-too-human fear played out on a giant stage. The otherness of a different culture means its inferiority, and at the same time, its looming menace. In his classic 1978 book Orientalism, Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said argued that a long tradition of false and romanticized images of Asia and the Middle East in Western culture had served as an implicit justification for Europe’s and the United States’ colonial and imperial ambitions. In 1980 he said, “So far as the United States seems to be concerned, it is only a slight overstatement to say that Moslems and Arabs are essentially seen as either oil suppliers or potential terrorists.” The truth of his argument has become crystal clear in the years since 9/11/01, the date that propelled Marbrook toward this publication and the prize it deserved.

The poems tell us that, soon after his cold welcome in Algiers, it was into the dark tangle of American orientalism that Djelloul fell, with a foreign name and the compounding factor of being fatherless, his sire a Bedouin whom he never met. The middle two stanzas of his poem Sinistral may be a snapshot of the collection:

There is only my djinni to lead me
through the loud exhibitionism of the world.
Only my djinni affirms
groups are to keep us out.

Being born somebody’s bastard
made me everyone’s. I went
about the work of finding
the idea of belonging strange.

A subversive streak tints a few pages with mischievous color. He knows the underside of our gated-community malady, and what it needs for healing. From the book’s title poem:

South of every guarded circle
is a Barbary where our rules
stand on their heads and dance
to tunes of turbans and scimitars.

Marbrook turns an explication of his name into the double-edged blade that he wields everywhere in these poems: the exquisitely beautiful image balanced against the ache of cultural and personal schism. The last stanza of Djelloul reads:

What kind of name is that?
The name of a Saracen lancer
ghosting in the dusk of Provence
and the name of a citizen deported
a thousand times a year.

In the poem Autobiography Marbrook chillingly describes the splitting of a young soul into the parts necessary to survive. He disowns himself: I left the little bastard and never looked back, I left because clearly it was being done by “them” anyway. On the question of where he should be put, …the safest place was clearly in harm’s way.

There my father, coming to his senses, would 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.

Carl Jung proposed that every person has a story, and when derangement occurs, it is because the personal story has been denied or rejected. Healing and integration comes when the person discovers or rediscovers his or her own personal story. He suggested that what passes for normality often was the very force which shattered the personality of the patient—that trying to be “normal,” when this violates our inner nature, is itself a form of pathology. “I use the term ‘individuation,’” Jung wrote, “to denote the process by which a person becomes a psychological ‘in-dividual,’ that is, a separate, indivisible unity or ‘whole.”

The narrative woven through the empty spaces of Djelloul Marbrook’s poems is the story of a man’s individuation. It is the story of a falling-apart and a re-assembly. It is the story of years of stumbling and years of self-study, years of learning to whom to be true. It is the story of a journey from a birth that was both foreign and unwanted to a maturity that understands what happened, and has made a truce with the past.

In a remarkable confluence of Saharan vistas and Manhattan streets, he raises the heartbreakingly personal to the rarified plane of the universal, even to an invocation of supreme unity. From The Flutes of the Djinn:

Abhor the misshapenness of words
and make this gnosis your heart:
everything is a facet of the same jewel.

Far from Algiers, indeed.

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Far from Algiers reviewed by James P. Polk in the December-January 2008-2009 edition of The Country and Abroad

The poetry of Djelloul Marbrook operates best when it inhabits the uncertain region between extremes: between life and death, between heaven and earth, between past, present and future, between the poet and the legion of “others” who think they understand him (but aren’t even close) and, most important, between resignation and acceptance. It is very risky work, this outsider poetry. In less accomplished hands it has come off as self-indulgent and self-pitying, as if the eternal victim has surrendered to the fates, resigned to staking a claim as the eternal whiner.

Marbrook runs no such risk. Instead, he is always in control, making the misfortunes he writes about always subservient to his artistic purpose, always his tool, never his master. This control is so noticeable, in fact, that it is surely among the qualities that won for Marbrook the 2007 Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize from Kent State University for a first published collection of poems. The domination over misfortune he shows in his work is especially impressive, since his life began in the shadows.

Born to a cold welcome in Algiers when that city was a French colonial outpost, his mother an expatriate American artist, his father a Bedouin he never met, the poet-to-be entered the world with an advanced degree in bastardy. Marbrook then takes this inauspicious opening act in his life and makes it his own, a device to further his art rather than a curse to haunt his days. Or, as he puts it in the title poem:

If there were no Barbary Coast,
to haunt our dreams and genes,
we’d eat potatoes, bed our cousins,
and be as stupid as we want to be.

From that beginning the poems take on a tone that is sometimes ironic, focused on some of life’s absurdities, both small and large, and sometimes thoughtful and provocative, examining truths that are somehow elusive, even as they seem, in the matter-of-fact voice of the poet, obvious. Truth is not an intrusion, he says at one point, on the ordinariness of our lives, or later, We must go out of our minds/or we’d kill ourselves in them.

Marbrook is most interesting, though, when he’s writing about himself, for here is where he skirts the edges of complaint about the unfair hand he has been dealt. A life is filled with just so many accidents, he writes in Common word, and it looks as if mine are running out. The fatalism of those opening lines is maintained through the final verse:

God in me that’s always saying yes
is picking up her radiances to go
and leave me here in the dark
where the commonest word is no.

The idea of a life fading into darkness and despair is pretty bleak, but Marbrook relieves it by often looking at it askance: “Religion’s/poor antacid,” he writes in another poem, “but what else is there in view/of our unfortunate habit of dying?”

Such sideways glances toward the absurdity of it all save the poems from drifting off toward the maudlin, to be sure, but more important than that, they give us insight into the mind and soul of the unique sensibility that produced them.
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James Polk, who has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Nation, among others, is co-owner of A New Leaf Used Books in Pine Plains, NY, and a professor of literature at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, NY.

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In the third poem of his first book of poetry, the poet invites us to pronounce his name: “Jeh-lool, go on, try it.” Djelloul Marbrook goes on to write of his name, “Terrorists bear the name, scientists and singers, and a few cashiers.” These lines widen the scope of the poet’s name and voice, extending it to others. At times Marbrook himself speaks, and at times others speak, but at all times a universal voice resounds. That voice endows characters, geography, and nautical scenes with spiritual significance, taking up matters of religion, war, patriarchy, and death. Marbrook’s poems look at the reader face-to-face, with numerous unsettling facial images that de-face the speaker in meditations on self-identity. Far From Algiers narrates speakers’ travels and deportations, literally and philosophically, as in these lines that refer to a sculpted face: “The sculptor not the sculpture needs/a diplomatic visa from your eyes” (“Respite”). Although this book may give you the sense that you are, that everyone is, a stranger, and that—like us strangers—violence knows no homeland, a wandering sense of peace predominates, as from the line, “Bless us, bless us where we choose to go” (“My Ship Comes In”). At least peace knows no homeland, either.—The University of Arizona Poetry Center

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Toi Derricotte was delighted to find that the debut poet to whom she awarded the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize was a retired journalist of 73. Germantown resident Marbrook’s lines are spare, fresh, and knowing, with a haunting afterlife. Riffing on wary responses to his Bedouin name—the sound of deportation—he writes: I’m from nowhere/but a spurt in thoughtless dark:/You’ve nowhere to send me.—Chronogram

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It’s always a pleasure to discover a new writer, and it’s a double pleasure to read the work of one who lives in the Hudson Valley, so we were doubly pleased to receive a new book of poems by Djelloul Marbrook. We read (and reviewed in these pages) his first novel, Saraceno, a few years ago. Now he is the author of Far From Algiers (Kent State Unversity Press). Marbrook, a retired newspaperman who lives in Germantown in Columbia County, was born in Algiers but has spent most of his life in this country. He wrote these poems after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. His poems show “what it’s like to be half-accepted, to be a problem merely because of one’s place of birth, to be desperate to be accepted in a new land.” Philosophical, political, spiritual, but above all poetic, his poems are wonderful. His book takes its lace on our bedside table along with Mr. Auden, Mr. Kipling and Ms. Millay.

We read this poem while waiting to see what direction Hanna would take. Here’s a first stanza:

Waiting for a hurricane is like growing up
or growing old. You don’t have a clue
what’s happening, but whatever it is,
you don’t have enough insurance to cover it.

—Ann La Farge, Constant Reader Hit List, The Independent, NY

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Marbrook has written an angry, beautiful collection; its topics often dwell on the fury of the outsider, the fatherless boy, the foreigner. By turns snide and pleading, Marbrook quickly transitions from “Djelloul/ what kind of a name is that? I invite you to notice that is the sound of deportation,” to “I am to the left of belonging/forlorn, bereft and looking in.”

Marbrook says he was prompted to return to poetry after the 9/11 attacks. The poems are steeped in the romance of an Arab culture utterly different than the clichés of terrorism. Marbrook’s exile from his heritage in Algiers shows in the poems longing for “Granadan windows, battlements, places of which strangers smell” and “A Moorish garden in al-Andalus /where an old man is watching/aspens write on walls.”

Ultimately, the collection attacks on behalf of the obscure and exiled, but also attacks the idea that any of us belong where we are. “I’ve nothing to complain about/ except the poignant delusion/ that some of us belong and/ must be vigilant for those/ who live among us in disguise“ —Catherine Nichols, Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene

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A first-time collection of poems written by a retired newspaper editor—you may remember him from The Sun years ago under a different name—whose astounding efforts earned him awards and national acclaim. It’s an astonishing work by a writer who never before published any of his poetry, and a testament to what older writers can produce… A good read, folks.—poetryinbaltimore.com

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This book contains so many good poems I almost couldn’t choose one.—Carol Peters.