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Published:August 29th, 2010 20:33 EST
Does our gaze have powers we are only dimly aware of?

Does our gaze have powers we are only dimly aware of?

By Djelloul (Del) Marbrook (Editor/Mentor)

There is a theory that we change what we look at. The idea is put to hard use in movies where someone`s eyes become supernatural, turning green or red or perhaps sending out beams that penetrate steel and concrete.

At a more mundane level we have all observed that the way others see us is not exactly how we see ourselves, sometimes for better, sometimes for worse.

I have observed that the poetry or fiction that I write in the midst of others differs markedly from what I write in solitude. When I write alone my poems, for example, tend to be deliberate and contemplative, the line longer, the meter somewhat stately, often elegiac.

This does not surprise me. When I am alone I am more or less in charge of my environs. But in a populous place I am obliged to respond to what is happening around me. What I overhear affects me differently from a glance or even a stare directed at me. And so, if I am writing, what I write is changed, transformed by the situation. Hubbub affects me differently from white noise, but both change not only the way I write but what I write, particularly in lyric poetry where I often take my cues from the neighborhood.

I think the phenomenon is subtler than that. In the 1960s at the height of New Age fervor we found a commonplace way of saying that certain places and certain individuals and groups impinged on us "we began to speak of the vibes of a place or a person or a crowd. As Eastern ideas took hold among us, we began to think of the feng shui of a place, the way the arrangement of things directs energy flow. It became possible to talk of instances where we walk into a crowded room, direct our gaze at the back of someone`s head and experience that person turning around and looking directly at us. Such phenomena began to intrigue us and prepared us for ideas like remote viewing.

I like to sit in the magnificent Greco-Roman Gallery of The Metropolitan Museum in New York City. I have written many poems on its marble benches. But there have been days when I couldn`t write a thing. Perhaps on those days I simply didn`t have it in me to write. But perhaps I was responding to the people gathered in the gallery at that moment.

For example, exhibitionists are poison ivy to me. I have little tolerance for them, even when they are beautiful and interesting. So the pretty mommy who makes too much of her motherhood in public is not conducive to a poem. And the stentorian gentleman who knows a great deal about art and wishes everyone to know it presents himself to me as a mugger. I like restraint, which is why I like that gallery, but its ambiance can be unbalanced by people who need a lot of attention. I associate exhibitionism with emotional wounds. The wounded behave woundingly. I wince, my poems wince. I wince especially at operatic displays of parenting, just as children wince for their parents. There is an underlying sadness there that gets in my marrow. Any poem I try to write in such an environment is embittered by it. The pretty mommy calling attention to herself by using her child as a stage prop is not conducive to poetry. Yet I must confess to lepidopterizing her in my forthcoming collection of poems, Brushstrokes and Glances, imploring her not to plop down next to me.

When my wife and I moved from Virginia to the Catskills of New York to care for my aging mother we settled in a lovely hamlet called Oliverea at the center of the mountains. But I soon found I could hardly sign my name in the place, much less write a poem or story. So I began making a 25-minute daily drive to a café in Woodstock where eventually I wrote a novel and many poems. The café not surprisingly was called Heaven. It was heavenly to be somewhere, anywhere I could write.

My mother, an artist, had the same experience. She had a number of studios at various times in Manhattan simply because she found it so hard to find one in which to work contentedly. Her experience in Woodstock was similar. She made wonderful paintings in an unheated garage in a dank glade but could not paint a lick in a rather grand old building with north light. She could paint on Morton Street and 19th Street but not on Christie Street where the light was better.

Is it because buildings retain memories of past occupants? Ghosts? Is it because what happens in them changes them, transforms the energies that flow through them? Or is it because we ourselves bring certain responses to certain places? Perhaps they remind us unconsciously of places where we were happy or sad, where we experienced joy or injury.

Once someone told me that Panther Mountain, which we could view from our home in Oliverea, had an extraordinary concentration of magnetite. I began to fancy that perhaps all that magnetite stultified my writer`s energies. I slept very well there, but I found both reading and writing difficult.

It`s the same with certain streets or cafés. In some I write, in others I squirm or seize up.

There are people in whose gaze I could bask all day. There are others whose gaze I find disquieting. I am sure that is true of all of us. To what extent those looks actually change us I have no idea, but I find the possibility provocative. I think literature and art suggest that it is an idea that has moved mankind for a long time.

When I was a boy a teacher who later behaved inappropriately towards me cautioned me to keep my eyes to myself. I recognize now that I had a way of losing myself in my study of people. I was as distressed by this woman`s remark as I was by her later behavior. How to keep my eyes to myself? And especially while honoring the enjoinder to look people straight in the eye? I began to fear that people could look into my eyes and read my thoughts. I didn`t want them to read my thoughts. Today, as an old man, I am dismayed by the boy`s fear of being read because he had in fact rather innocent and likable thoughts. He thought some girls beautiful and some men handsome, but he did not wish to harm them. He wished merely to bask in their beauty. So why did he get the idea that this was somehow forbidden?

Later, going to school in Manhattan, I noticed that certain girls and women acted offended if I looked at them. Unfortunately for me I ran into this sort of egomaniac before I ran into the much lovelier sort of woman who enjoys being admired and does not act as if her bottom had been pinched. This phenomenon is re-enacted charmingly in the Daniel Day-Lewis movie The Last of the Mohicans. Madeleine Stowe, the major`s daughter, asks Hawkeye (Day-Lewis), What are you looking at, sir? And he replies, You, Miss.

So what is all the fuss? Perhaps it is because we instinctively know that our eyes do change what they observe. In this case, Hawkeye`s look would have made Cora Munro even more beautiful than she already was. And I probably would have burned up in the sun of some of the girls I admired.

Djelloul (jeh-lool) Marbrook was born in 1934 in Algiers to a Bedouin father and an American painter. He grew up in Brooklyn, West Islip and Manhattan, New York, where he attended Dwight Preparatory School and Columbia. He then served in the U.S. Navy.

Djelloul Marbrook

His book of poems, Far From Algiers, won the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize from Kent State University in 2007 and was published in 2008. His story, Artists Hill, adapted from the second novel of an unpublished trilogy, won the Literal Latte first prize in fiction in 2008. His poems have been published in The American Poetry Review, Barrow Street, poemeleon, The Same, and other journals. The pioneering e-book publisher, Online Originals (UK), published his novella, Alice MIller`s Room, in 1999.

He worked as a reporter for The Providence Journal and as an editor for The Elmira (NY) Star-Gazette, The Baltimore Sun, The Winston-Salem Journal & Sentinel and The Washington Star. Later he worked as executive editor of four small dailies in northeast Ohio and two medium-size dailies in northern New Jersey.

Del`s book, Far From Algiers   New review of Far from Algiers
Artists Hill, Literal Latte fiction first prize
Djelloul Marbrook Blog
His mother`s art:   His aunt`s art: