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Far from Algiers, and: My Life as a Doll (review)

From: Prairie Schooner
Volume 83, Number 3, Fall 2009
pp. 205-208 | 10.1353/psg.0.0284

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Two new poetry collections, Djelloul Marbrook’s Far from Algiers and Elizabeth Kirschner’s My Life as a Doll, are basically about origins—geographic, psychological—and, therefore, also identities. Such themes, in their turn, easily lead to another, that of alienation, whether from one’s country of origin or one’s own true self. In the case of Marbrook, both senses are usually present, rather as in Albert Camus’s L’Etranger. The poetry books, especially My Life as a Doll, also exemplify what is known as domestic realism but with an important difference compared to the normal kind. Parents, especially mothers, prove frustrating and frightening. The person speaking in one of Marbrook’s poems says that he remembers his mother “with a sob and permanent dismay.” The poet himself never knew his father, a Bedouin. In Kirschner’s work, the mother, a constant presence also in her absence, is a physically brutal alcoholic. One feels enormously sorry for her little girl, eventually beaten into despair and mental as well as psychosomatic illness.

But, supposing the stories to be autobiographical, various kinds of frustrations and traumas, public or private, eventually triggered literary inspiration, in both cases. The tragedy of 9/11 caused a tsunami of creativity to rise in Marbrook’s life, and he claims that he has written a large body of poetry and fiction since then. The great pain recorded in My Life as a Doll became raw material for an intriguing story about depression and the possibility to transcend it.

Far from Algiers is the seventy-three-year-old Marbrook’s first poetry collection and, it seems, his first book. To me, it’s always stimulating to come across somebody who defies expectations and conventional wisdom, for instance by doing something unusually early or late in life. His middle-class background is in some ways fairly unexceptional; he studied at Columbia and then worked in journalism. But he was born in Algiers, and his American mother was a painter.

Marbrook’s voice as a poet is direct and personal. I feel quite at ease in his company, even when the subject matter couldn’t be called idyllic. Yes, there is much in Far from Algiers about being alienated, about exile. But Marbrook never takes himself too seriously. Quite the contrary: much of his work is shot through with disarming self-irony, as in a poem that bears his given name, Djelloul, and begins:

What kind of name is that?
I invite you to notice that
is the sound of deportation.

Sometimes he greets his reader with the verbal equivalent of a shrug: “You asked what my background is. / I wish I had one.” Another example is “If you’re born to meet the wrong people, Algiers / is as good as any place to start.”

Nostalgia (literally “ache for home”) is the predominant mood in this book about displacement, homelessness, exile. Marbrook, or his persona, asserts that he was “born nostalgic.” By contrast he imagines death as a state of freedom in which migrants need “no papers.”

Like many other writers preoccupied with existential questions, Marbrook is keenly aware of the ironic and the absurd. “Can you imagine the lives / we’re living in people’s heads?” looks at first like a rhetorical question. But there is some sudden irony when Marbrook himself immediately replies, “Oh yes, you’re afraid you can.” The absurdist slant may approach surrealism: “Some days toothbrushes turn strange, / nothing can be trusted.”

But moments of lyrical beauty also occur, especially when the issues are timeless rather than contemporary. Arabia, personified as a woman, becomes “the memory of sand.” God, also feminine, “is picking up her radiances to go.” The good place, including a masculine divine presence, is imagined as

a Moorish garden in al-Andalus
where an old man is watching
aspens write on walls.

A poem with the pleasant title “Old Charts, Warm Rain” includes the charming lines “I keep the old charts in my head, I know / where there be dragons to feed.” Some early charts actually carried the legend “Here be dragons,” but I never thought of that as an invitation before! And how tempting to rhyme “head” with “fed...