Poetry and Politics: Two First Books by Djelloul Marbrook and Fady Joudah

Far From Algiers by Djelloul Marbrook.
Kent State University Press, 2008 (56 pages)
ISBN: 978-0873389877.

The Earth in the Attic by Fady Joudah
Yale Series of Younger Poets
Yale University Press, 2008 (96 pages)
ISBN: 978-0300134315.

American poetry—partially since the 1950s, and especially since the 1980s—has flowed along two basic currents: one runs through experimental language games, and another runs through confessional poetry. The language-poets seek an idiosyncratic language exploration, while confessional poets investigate the dilemmas of personal life. Both trends flow out of an isolated individuality—the abandonment of speaking about culture or society and many larger themes found in the earlier modernist period at the dawn of the 20th century. Nevertheless, the best poets of both trends have taken the broadest possible journey—such as confessional writer Stephen Dunn in his 2001 Pulitzer Prize-winning Different Hours, or language-experimentalist Fanny Howe in her 2007 spiritual mediation The Lyrics. As a result, their pregnant work overruns my narrow categories. Both of these poets tackle politics in their work because their fully considered lives (like most people) are shaped by the society in which they live.

Politics—understood through the Ancient Greek word polis, a city—means the organization of human life. For American poetry, out of all world poetries, to exclude this topic might seem laughable. America is not based on inherited ethnicity and geography, but choices; America is rooted in the Declaration of Independence and a Constitutional Congress, speech and assembly, the Civil War and civil rights. Yet maybe from disgust of professional politicians, or maybe because active citizenship in the age of technology has yielded to the lazy comforts of passive consumerism, the mainstream of American literary-magazine verse seems to have bypassed critical-thinking about society and political choice. The best political poetry awakens readers to this field—widens the field in which we think about the world and how one might live and act.

Two first books by Algerian-born writer and former newspaper reporter Djelloul Marbrook and by Doctor Without Borders medical professional Fady Joudah aspire to tackle their times through a political lens. Marbrook says he was driven to write in the wake of the Sept. 11, terrorist attacks, which “awakened in me an overwhelming desire to affirm everything I hold dear.” Far From Algiers fulfills that promise. Marbrook’s work here is lightening quick and certainly inspired with the insight and unevenness that comes from inspiration not funneled fully through craft. Far From Algiers won the 2007 Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize from Kent State University Press. The book generously draws from seventy years of this Algerian-born American’s experience from which he confronts society’s choices, though mostly his own. Marbrook knows that he lives far away from the powers that dominate the larger society. Yet he includes these powers within the scope of his purview.

Fady Joudah—2008 winner of the prestigious Yale Series of Younger Poets with The Earth in the Attic—is an emotional lyric poet who possesses felicity of phrase. Unfortunately, most of these poems fail to harness their creativity to create stories or any recognizable narrative. For the most part, Joudah’s lyric showers are urgent with why. Yet they often fail to communicate the other basics of composition: who, what, when, and where. Yale series editor and poet Louise Gluck—an insightful critic in her book Proof and Theories—calls Joudah a “political poet.” This is a misunderstanding of the term. While Joudah’s poetry offers plenty of emotions indicating that life is difficult—a platitude leading to possible politics—these poems conspicuously lack identifiable descriptions. They fail to describe specific places, real-life choices weighed, rules and laws opposed, actions explored, rejected, taken. As the titles of both books indicate, The Earth in the Attic tells blurry what Far From Algiers bravely tackles.

Djelloul Marbrook was born in 1934 in then French-ruled Algiers and forged a career in the United States as a newspaper writer. His approach to poetry combines the crispness of the storyteller with the modernism’s concise phrasing. The first poem “Climate Control” assumes the querulous, defensive position of an immigrant who also wants to be welcomed. Marbrook writes:

Stuff the mailboxes and night repositories
Against my attempts to insert
Flat evidence of my belonging here.

I’m 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.
Bad enough listening to myself,
who needs you to confirm the news?
Marbrook’s clear strong voice has a touch of wildness. The poem moves from broad social comment in stanza 1 to cantankerous self-reflection in stanza 3. This poem’s voice has a compelling sense of place on its own, stating, somehow, ‘I am here.’ The reader ends up simply where Marbrook is speaking. It would be interesting to compare this poem to Adrienne Rich’s well-anthologized “Immigrants Please Note.” Marbrook also is concisely insightful in poems like the five-lined “Troubled Boy,” quoted in full:

A boy who looks embarrassed to be young,
skulks beneath the scaffold avoiding light:
I hope I will not have to be his like again:
he glances up at me and remembers being old.
No other bond is as strong as this.
Marbrook knows how to write a concise, evocative poem. In the work, here, this remains true though line three and especially line five are awkward. The construction “to be his like” is convoluted. The closing line vague and clunky in “is as strong as this.” Both these spots could have been clarified into more realized art. Yet Marbrook’s passion is worth brooking some unevenness.

Marbrook’s encounter with Van Gogh is one of the book’s many powerful poems. I quote in full:

Van Gogh’s Drawings
(Metropolitan Museum of Art, December 2005)

A fit of sun broke off,
somehow got in his blood,
banged inside his skull.

You can see it: in 1889
he drew it like a gong
working wheat to climax.

Black chalk, brown ink,
pink paper, no one
could survive this sun,

but for a year he did:
seventy-five paintings,
fifty drawings, and then

too bright, too loud, too close,
the world demanded
to be brought to an end.

I move right or left
countering wont of words,
their murmurous readers,
studying his reed strokes.

So it’s been, upstream
to spawn unlikely ideas,
but why him to show me
my contrarian spite?

The sane envy the blind:
if you see that, the ozone
vanishes and the sun
beats your brains out.
Fady Joudah is a gifted writer and a Palestinian-American doctor who has traveled the world serving in war-torn places with Doctor Without Borders, according to the back of his first book. As a result, Joudah would be a perfect person to offer stirring social and political commentary about the world and moral choices. However The Earth in the Attic (kind of like the title, evocative yet unanchored) seems random. It offers a strong and confident presence, interesting images, and urgency of emotion. However the artful images and details do not add up to sustained, developed significance. I quote from the book’s opening poem “Atlas”:

The end of the road is a beautiful mirage:

White jeeps with mottos, white
And blue tarps where the dust gnaws
At your nostrils like a locust cloud
Or a helicopter thrashing the earth
Wheat grains peppering the sky.

For now
Let me tell you a fable:
The opening line is very provocative; it seizes the reader’s attention as should any good writing. However this poem does not follow up to explore what the opening phrase provokes. Therefore the poem also avoids being disagreed with because the viewpoint is not articulated. By line six, an intelligent reader begins to wonder, why is “the end of the road” always a “beautiful mirage”? If a “mirage,” why “beautiful”? What is beyond the “mirage”? Is not the poet’s job to look beyond mirages?

Of course any writer’s job is to seek beyond mirages: tell us what we don’t quite know, cannot quite articulate, knew yet recently or long ago forgot. This poem, rather than anchoring its opening gambit in some sort of insight, presents line after line of evocative but undeveloped details. Personally, I am skeptical that “end of the road is a beautiful mirage.” At the same time, I am open to be persuaded. There is not much here to persuade, however, or even to strongly dispute.

The helicopter that follows, using a verb with farming echoes (“thrashing”), indicates the destructiveness of the modern mechanical world. “Wheat grains” (signifying life’s harvest) fly up into the sky. Life’s harvest is not used for food—wasted. Now I am making sense of the “mirage” of this modern scene. Yet I also am using clichés to access these lyrical images. Before the poem can develop its images, it leaps to a fable:

Why the road is lunar
Goes back to the days when strangers
Sealed a bid from the despot to build
The only path that courses through
The desert of the people.
The road moves from being a “mirage” to “lunar,” and seems arbitrary, unanchored in thought. If this road had been made more specific—not left at the cliché level of the road of life—maybe it could provide a way to thread these images together. That is the hard work of writing.

Poetry should dazzle with phrases like the “darkness visible” of Milton’s hell in Paradise Lost, yet poetry also needs to weave these metaphors into meaning. The Irish poet W.B. Yeats in “The Second Coming” does this well when he writes observations in imagistic and provocative verse. The images still possess political reverberations during the “war on terrorism” in the first decade of the 21st century. Yeats describes the political paralysis of his day with the phrase: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” At least from my point of view, this phrase represents the opposing weakness of common sense, overwhelmed by the insanity and self-interest of passionate political actors. It unfortunately, even horrifically, captures what I have witnessed in America in the first eight years of the 21st century.

Yeats was writing about politically dispirited and corrupt times in Europe in 1919, after World War I. The entire opening stanza is a profound combination of soaring lyricism, tied to deep reasoning:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Of the two books reviewed here, Djelloul Marbrook’s Far From Algiers best tackles the world. His book primarily tackles the world through tackling his own experience. The difference between his approach and confessionalism is that his viewpoint distances itself from championing his own cause, his feelings as the primary feelings, views himself sometimes closely, sometimes as just a character. Marbrook resists having his identity molded by social stereotypes, stereotypes that he understands are tools of more invisible social controls. Nevertheless, while Marbrook is concerned about his own precariousness in a shifting social landscape, he is even more alarmed by his own crabby spitfire. Marbrook’s book places itself at a crossroads because Marbrook also argues that his personality is part of the reason he has not felt assimilated into America despite living in America for around 50 years. He is far from Algiers, but in 21st century America, also not at home.

Marbrook’s “Port of Entry” contemplates, as an older man, his last emigration to come. I leave you with it, quoted in full:

I imagine death an empty place
where we get used to what we got
and put on what we knew all along.

My guess is we can’t get our names
past immigration, much less
all we’ve pretended to be.

I sleep these days smiling to think
how we’ll fly in that lightened state
needing no papers, being beyond words.

Gregg Mosson is the author of a book of nature poetry, Season of Flowers and Dust from Goose River Press, and editor of Poems Against War (Wasteland Press), a journal with national contributors. His commentary and poetry have appeared in The Cincinnati Review, The Baltimore Review, The Baltimore Sun, Loch Raven Review, and The Little Patuxent Review. He has an MA from the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars, and lives in Maryland. A new book, Questions of Fire, is forthcoming from Plain View Press. For more, seek

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