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Brushstrokes and glances from Amazon
Brushstrokes and glances. Djelloul Marbrook.
Cumberland, ME: Deerbrook Editions, 2010. 88 pages,
By Michael T. Young
It would be easy to laud this collection for its lively engagement of art, its history and beauty. But to do only that, as the note from the publisher, the forward and the blurbs all do, would be to miss a large part of what it’s about. Brushstrokes and glances is not only about art, but about how through art we see ourselves, how it stands as an indictment of much of modern society and how it might redeem us, if we opened our eyes and paid attention.
Like good poetry, the poetry in Marbrook’s second collection, is dynamic, engaging us on multiple levels at once. It weaves his love for art with his love for his mother who was an artist, it threads the implicit ideas of permanence with the persistent reality of our individual and collective transience, and, to me, most importantly, it sounds the vacuity of modern society against the meaningfulness of paintings and other artworks. This seems the most important because our culture needs but does not often celebrate or produce poetry that simultaneously engages sociopolitical realities and maintains high aesthetic standards.
There are two sections in Brushstrokes and glances and the first could stand as one of the more elegant sociopolitical criticisms of recent years. That’s not all it does, of course, but it is undeniably there and strikingly good poetry. Such poems as “A Government like Caravaggio,” “Goya in iPodia,” “Basquiat,” and “Manhattan reef,” force use to look at the failures of our society while at the same time being pleasing poetic accomplishments.
Some of the poems seem to say that the failures of government and those governed rest on the inability to challenge norms. Governments plod along with the status quo and the governed shrug it off with the complicit assumption that it could always be worse. “A Government like Caravaggio” concludes,
if it had his irreverence
for dogma and popes
it would help somebody.
This same assertion is more positively put in the poem “Painted Out” in the second section where it says, “the kingdom of heaven/rests on heresies we dare.”
Our cultural failures reinforce this problem. “Our diseases serve the system” (“Basquiat”). We are encouraged to look at nothing deeply, but rather surf and skim so we are blind to anything that isn’t obvious. Yet, that means we are blind to reality for in our world, as “Manhattan reef” declares, “More always rises than meets the eye.” Or as the speaker of “Basquiat” exclaims, “one thing I always knew, always,/is that things aren’t what they seem.” In the context of art, this means deeper meaning and commentary on our humanity, in politics and society it means layers of lies and betrayal. The poem “The Color Black” asks, “what is it we don’t want to see/in a Ray-Ban world of anti-glare?” And “I saw Mona Lisa once,” concludes, “image runs a gauntlet of lies/until one or the other dies.”
Taking the time for a second look, slowing down to consider, observing closely is what both art and civilization require. The collection is suffused with images playing behind the eyes and the need for a second look. “Pierre Bonnard’s Late Interiors” asks,
May we come in?
Only on second thought
“I saw Mona Lisa once,” opens with “Everyone is worth a second glance.” It is most elegantly stated in “Goya in iPodia,”
Someday, Francisco, we’ll follow you
into the dicey realm of doubletake
where nothing is as it seems and we know less
than we think we do and in that less
find the simple elegance of a second look.
Following Francisco is what the second section of the book is all about. The collection’s title poem concludes
It isn’t much of a testament,
but it does suggest we never know
exactly who we’re looking at
or, just as important, what.
It is the wisdom of never presuming to fully know anyone or anything, which is different than living in the ignorance the collection decries. But if art in general asks us to step back and look at our humanity or lack of it, the second section of this book steps back from culture and society to see the larger context of time and nature. “Accordion of worlds,” which also titles the section, is a kind of Ozymandias poem that declares all civilizations come to an end, where a Roman statue of Athena is observed in an Arab garden
and you have some idea
how foolish we are
to exalt ourselves
in the nebulae
of light and dark.
Or, more simply, as “In a time of spin” puts it, “Civilizations come and go. For all we know/so do worlds.” So the apocalypse, usually in the form of flooded museums, and the danse macabre thread the collection with their threat, or perhaps, more accurately, with their imminence. This way, the collection tries to arrest us in the time we have, suggesting that we take the time to see as fully as we can both what is before us and ourselves for “Not even zero helps to count/the ways there are to see us.”
If, at times, the music falters or feels like an afterthought, it is redeemed by what seems the stated aesthetic of the poet in several places.
. . . I don’t sing well,
but things have a way of tipping me off
to their true identities.
The diction here shows that Marbrook was for years a journalist and his need for clarity and truth align him poetically more with an ontological poet like George Oppen than a musical poet like Richard Wilbur. What resonates is not the beauty of a phrase but its clarity, it’s aptness to tell us what we know but don’t have the ability or courage to articulate. So when he says, “the danger of UV/is not as great as seeing well,” we know the environmental dangers of ozone depletion are a consequence of our own failure to seize the day, and know it clearly from the abruptness of the comparison.
Comparison is a variety of contrast or perspective, one of the great elements of drawing which this collection employs to create emotional clarity and depth. Marbrook’s relationship with his mother, a painter, provides contrast to the larger context of culture and society. In that microcosm, the heart comes into play and gives rise to lines that are masterful for their poignant simplicity, such as “Art my mother never saw saddens me” and “No one can comfort a broken child,” and even at the edge where mind and heart meet, “intimacy’s more private than we think.” In fact, in one of the more intimate poems of the collection, “My Mother’s Paintings,” there lies that which unlocks the collection’s suggested cures to our societal illness. Speaking of his mother’s painting he says,
I am, God help me, the husband of this work
and must take better care of it
than I took of the hopes that haunt it;
now let them glisten in museums.
The poet claims his past with all its faults, for only through that act can the hopes be realized. This may speak, in the context of sociopolitical poems, of our culture doing the same. In the longer arc of the collection, it speaks to admitting even the animal side of our spiritual struggles. As the final poem, “The Fountains,” says,
Into the sun we go diminished,
having left behind a self
that chose four legs.
In every painting a twitching snout
parsing our most elusive scent
where we do not doubt.
I dream of beasts and otherlings
cavorting around bidets;
I envy them.
I’m reminded of Blake’s spectres, those entities that emerge from the repressed aspects of the psyche. Here, those things in our nature we don’t face when we enter the museum, remain behind to prowl its halls after we leave. The epigraph to the collection provides insight, a quote from Chapman’s magnificent “Shadow of Night.” In the quote, night is “blacke in face and glitterst in thy hearte.” These beasts are the glittering heart, what we must reclaim if we are to reclaim our humanity and perhaps stop our glide toward self-destruction. This collection is another such glittering heart, offering to us a mirror wherein we may reclaim, if we dwell long enough, part of that image that is the best version of ourselves.