Sunday, January 25, 2009

Review of poetry collections by Mnookin, Marbrook, and Stern


Far from Algiers: Djelloul Marbrook
Winner of the 2007 Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize
Published by: The Kent State University Press, 2008

Marbrook has written an angry, beautiful collection; it’s 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“

The Moon Makes its Own Plea: Wendy Mnookin
Published by: BOA Editions, ltd.

Mnookin’s style is deceptively direct—her words never obfuscate simple beauties “I love tomatoes/ on the vine, their smell of dirt and heat” and “a house finch darts from hollyhock to hollyhock/ bending each tall stem.” Taken whole, the poems grow into a look at the kaleidoscope of love and domesticity, the routines that seem to last forever till they’re abruptly over:

You said a pond of peaches
And I took them
From your hands, I floated

if I did, and what else
I might have done—
Some slight, some lack
That gave you the tumor

While I stood around
Like the desert, refusing you water,
Even a mirage of water.

These poems are a moving record of transient pleasures and sorrows—and by the end of the book, the title poem “The Moon Makes its Own Plea” –- “Nothing gets done/except existence” it’s not the fate of the few to spend their days entirely on impermanent things: It’s the fate of everyone, from the white lilacs to the moon itself.

Mnookin’s poems have been published in a number of journals, but the effect of the collection as a whole is powerful. If a single poem is about the loss of a friend, husband or pet, the book as a whole is about the growth from an immature to mature self—and the losses and gains of every kind the process involves. The Moon Makes its Own Plea is not, finally, a book of loss, but shifting, reorganization, and pleasure.

Armature: Sharon Stern

The most moving line in Sharon Stern’s Armature—“I know how to bite the bullet/but I have no taste for it” sets the tone for this collection. The poet alludes frequently to the childhood polio that left her paralyzed and in pain, occasionally in sorrowful poems like “One”:

I don’t even know
how tightly
I can be held
brittle bones
and metal rods
and all

but it’s not a problem
there has been
no one
to do it.

More often, the context of suffering gives Stern a kind of extra sensitivity to the pain of others, and to the meaning and beauty of acts of compassion, as precise as taking care of frightened sparrows trapped indoors (daunted to confusion), or moments of pleasure as small and yet momentous as winning a game of computer solitaire (a ghoulish game!) on the first day of the new millennium.

Each poem is dated, from September of 1988 to August 2002. As I read I found myself in a strange historical countdown to the moment I knew the poetry would register the shock of September, 2001. Stern’s heart, in its softness and strength, seemed peculiarly tuned to this exact sort of wound, both general and personal, public and private.

I once carried the world on my shoulders
Now I carry the World Trade Center.
It weighs heavy on my stricken back.

Despite the hardship and sadness—a combination that creates its own rage and fine observation, Stern finishes the collection with a light, almost humorous summation
“If I had no cat/I would have left it at that.”

--CATHERINE NICHOLS is a writer residing in Somerville, Mass. You might catch her writing, or playing with her young son at the Sherman Cafe in Somerville's Union Square.

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