Story in the Spaces: Brent Robison reviews Far From Algiers by Djelloul Marbrook


Far From Algiers, Djelloul Marbrook, Kent State University Press 2008

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, it’s 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 moreso 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 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:


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 s/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 “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,” 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.

Of Real & Symbolic Parenthood: Diane Greco on Samuel Shem’s novel The Spirit of the Place



The Spirit of the Place, Samuel Shem, Kent State University Press


Orville Rose, a recently divorced doctor without borders and perpetual adolescent, is living impecuniously in Italy with a passionate Italian yoga teacher when he learns that his mother has died. The terms of her will stipulate that he will inherit a large sum of money, so long as he returns to his childhood home for a year and thirteen days. Broke, he reluctantly ends his Italian idyll to return to Columbia, New York, a town “plagued by breakage,” where anything that can go wrong, usually does—spectacularly. So begins The Spirit of the Place, the fourth novel by Samuel Shem, also known as Stephen Bergman, MD, the Boston psychiatrist perhaps best known for The House of God (1978), his bestselling novel about one man’s coming of age as a physician in a hospital that was by turns an erotic funhouse and a chamber of corporeal horrors.


Shem’s latest effort is not as raunchy as The House of God, but his preoccupation with the powers and limitations of healers persists in The Spirit of the Place. Having returned to Columbia and now living in a turret room in his mother’s house, Orville Rose also comes back to small-town doctoring encouraged by his old mentor, the quirky local physician Bill Starbuck, who encourages smoking in his office and whose cabinets are full of vials of “Starbusol,” a homemade nostrum that Starbuck hands out when a placebo is indicated (and sometimes when it’s not). When Orville is not ministering to Columbia’s sick and broken, he is fending off intrusions from his dead mother, who appears at intervals from beyond the grave in order to continue to make Orville feel guilty for not making her happiness his first priority just as she did in life.  


Superficially, Orville’s task is to vanquish his mother’s lingering ghost and choose between two lovely women—the tantric Italian of the book’s opening scenes and Miranda Braak, an amateur historian whose long view of Columbia and its history give Orville a new and much needed perspective on his own biography. Despite the pleasures of such a choice—we should all be so lucky—the task is harder than it sounds for the simple reason that Orville cannot get far enough away from his mother’s influence to know his own mind in affairs of the heart. However, Shem is too canny about the dynamics of families to blame bad mothering for his character’s problems and let fathers entirely off the hook.


In fact, the crux of the book—and its most moving scene—concerns the relationship Orville enjoys with Bill Starbuck, his accidental father. In this scene, Starbuck has had a stroke and his condition is deteriorating. Orville stands by, doing the small things that need to be done at such a juncture—in this case, he gives Bill a shave. This apparently small and simple job requires Orville to split himself, imaginatively and empathically—to feel both the razor in his hands and Bill’s face underneath it:

As Orville got into it, it was as if he were feeling his own stubble and the razor cutting through his own lather. And then, under his attention, it transformed again, so it wasn’t even that he was shaving Bill or shaving himself but that shaving was happening. […] The shaving became a suturing up, across a mirror, across a fleshy gap.


Empathy in ordinary life is at once so pervasive, so fleeting, and so unsettling that it is difficult to do much more than note it when it happens. Yet, Shem takes the moment and spreads it out for us anatomizing it as a good teacher might. Then, to make sure we understand what is at stake in such a charged moment, when subjects and objects dissolve into some third thing beyond selfishness and self-consciousness, Shem seizes the metaphor again and elaborates on it:

It isn’t his heart or my heart, it’s the human heart, the human journey, common and ordinary and a big deal and a small deal both and the only deal really and available to us all at no extra cost if we can face it, bear it, share it.

Shem’s point is a good one: nurturing attention can be a balm to a young person plagued by hunger for an absent parent, or by an intrusive one like Orville’s mother (or, worst of all, by both). Shem’s novel is a tender exploration of real and symbolic parenthood, of the power of benign authority to combine with simple empathic concern to heal old wounds and to support young adults (and the young-at-heart) finish the tasks of adolescence.