KEVIN SWANWICK Reviews
Brash Ice by Djelloul Marbrook
(Leaky Book Press, 2014)
An Odyssey for Truth: Reading Djelloul Marbrook’s Brash Ice
Part of Homer’s cleverness may have been an ability to imbue his characters with key aspects of their adult personalities while retaining their childhood through time and travel in the form of stark memories. This allows us to see certain heroic figures from different perspectives. These can range from innocence to treachery. Was Odysseus’s return to Ithaca the reunion of a self-same man and boy; a boy who knew the simple virtues and innocence of pastoral life, and a man who remembered it, while carrying the graphic memory of horrific experiences?
In his latest poetry collection, Brash Ice, Djelloul Marbrook takes us on a modern Homeric journey through boreal climes as the weathered and wise protagonist carries the weight of sorrows and silence of a young boy, aboard his ship. This is a long and forthright conversation which finds a way for the young boy to confront his rapist while the wise old man navigates perilous and icy waters, struggling to bring them home together, at peace. At times, it is not clear whether they will make it or not. In the opening chapter titled Proem, the poet is frank about the dire responsibility carried by persons of conscience and the risks we all face when being direct and honest with ourselves and others.
With startling clarity a herald starts us on our journey with a stark warning about the seriousness of the matter at hand. From handling plutonium:
so this business of being you
is about handling plutonium
and is much more dangerous
than your parents said….
The poet has inverted the struggle of the dispossessed boy and the heroically surviving man. The elder is coming back to rescue the boy, before the world, in the hope that together they can navigate their arctic ship to its final destination. It is as if the boy has been hidden away in the cargo hold and the elder must tell their story because he has the voice, while the imprisoned boy retains the unspeakable memory. The journey is approaching its end and the protagonist informs us that this is not his first attempt at deliverance. Telling the story honestly and plainly has proven to be a great burden. Perhaps artistic devices had been used to divert our eyes while telling only half of a story? Now the artist, finding himself in a frozen landscape, means to get down to business. We are given a clear statement of intention and a foreshadowing of the storytelling devices, which have been sharpened by years of practice in both artistic creation and evasion: a confessional in stunning imagery.
if i had a painterly eye
here’s what i would do to celebrate,
i’d show me atoms of something else
in the manner of seurat or tanguy,
a congress of memories,
a sufferance like frankenstein’s beast
becoming more than its parts
hankering to fulfill their longings,
i’d witness the sidelong world,
i’d lay my own ashes,
i’d make athena blink.
i’d study brash ice.
failing that i’d call failure life
& unmask myself as a firefly
nobody caught in a jar.
Each of these assertions are really conditional and dependent on the “if” and each is explored, in turn, in later chapters. At the end of this preface we have the poem escapade where the poet reminds the reader that we can easily fool ourselves but that our self-correction is both possible and self-evident if we are honest. But our corrections will not bury our errors, no matter what we do.
i take the task seriously,
i’m able to correct my work
and i know its pentimento
will be explored. snapshots
never interested me, nor beauty
agreed upon by voyeurs…
And attempts at beating around the bush, to circle the problem, to avoid facing an horrific truth, are all too human and seen in the light of pathology and error.
…a peripheral glance that jars
our nerve ends loose,
diseases that best define
our escapades at being well.
There is a startling freshness here as our hero’s voice is heard wrestling with the demon who might have killed the boy, but instead wounded him in the most intimate and harmful way and left him for spiritually dead. There are the bystanders too, those who could not or would not reach the stranded boy on his unwanted, forbidden ground. There is something awful afoot. When the boy faces manhood, the only choice is for the man to come into being and leave the boy, locking him away in the hold, while trying to navigate the world with whatever skills he has kept.
Sexual abuse of children is now spoken about in the open. Its uncovering has been scandalous as the indescribable pain of victims and the sociopathic indifference and survival instincts of predators are suddenly uncovered like sheets ripped from one in repose on a cold night. Few have been able to describe the journey of the victim. In Brash Ice we find the protagonist in possession of long life experience, wisdom and the unique perspective of an abused child presented through the lens of an adult master’s “painterly eye.” But that eye is now directed with more than a glance, as if to say “no more bullshit.” Our pathologies can be foist upon us and somehow we must carry on.
These poems identify the universal in our human struggle while staying remarkably personal, intensely tragic but also triumphant.
The author seems to carry on a subtle conversation with the protagonist, making himself known in this long and beautiful confessional as the artist who has come to terms with his past and wishes to be done with falsity so that he can get on with life on life’s terms. We are taken beyond the local story of a boyhood trauma and into nature and the heart of things as we might see them if we are present and in full possession of our attentive senses. In the later chapters there are also strong impressions of nature and our connection to it through sensation and esthetics.
Throughout this collection, the poet eschews the limits of punctuation, embracing minimalism and relying utterly on superb prosody and meter to keep the reader in the wake of his vessel. The first-person subject pronoun is cast into the picture frame in lower case with all of the related parts of the poem so that the artist can honestly assess the complete landscape. In the chapter i’d witness the sidelong world, we encounter the poem frisking the periphery, where the artist sets down his paint brush and picks up his camera, reflecting on how we can see everything around a thing before we see the thing itself. A useful talent and perhaps a form of unconscious evasion. Marbrook’s years of photography experience are evident.
being a ninety-degree camera,
all i miss is straight ahead.
i adjust for light and flash,
i zoom to sync my paranoia.
you look as if you’re being shot,
but i’m frisking the periphery.
everything behind my subject
is in focus, but the foreground
…i am the green wink of chagrin
simply because i have no trash bin.
Later musings include lamentations of the artist condemned to create, unable to simply observe. But as Wallace Stevens seemed to wonder about the survival of his poems in the Planet on the Table, our author wonders how his words can both represent and be a part of his final spiritual journey if the whole truth is not there.
i don’t want to become like this again
after so much heartfelt unbecoming,
all this tedium and plot. i haven’t even got
a scent to contribute to the flowering
whose warmth i feel through the tunnel ahead.
i should have lost my soul in books.
i tried but it proved a handy figment:
what’s death but what i have to work with now?
We see that this imperative defines the journey.
The early reference to the title poem, which we don’t encounter until near the end of the journey, foreshadows much of the winter and arctic imagery ahead. Both Frankenstein and brash ice share the outward feature of fragmentation, parts formed together; one in an unnatural way and the other the result of natural thermal activity. The scars remain and it is the truth of their formation that this journey seeks to reveal so that a complete story may be told. In its frankness, this collection offers the reader the kinds of startling moments found in Homer or Beowulf. It also opens us to the beating heart of its creator, who from experience eerily places us in the arctic seas of the Cold War, the natural landscape of the Hudson Valley and the quirkiness of places like Woodstock, NY.
Brash Ice reckons with the past and leaves us with ample evidence that this poet is as fresh and vital as ever, having sought reunion with an injured but aspiring youth while offering the wisdom that only a long and examined life can bring.
i’ve said too much and said it flatly
because i thought the song pretentious
that splinters the wardrobe of the years
and shovels me out the door a naked stranger.
Surely, there will be more to come.
Kevin Swanwick resides in the Hudson Valley of New York with his wife, two children, mother in-law and three dogs. He finds the world a terribly complex place and likes to write about it from the perspective of a grateful citizen of Carthage who got to watch the Romans invade but was spared because of his accidental usefulness.
His essays and some fiction can be found in Elephant Journal, LA Progressive and on his blog, in no particular order. http://swanwickmuse.blogspot.com/