July 5th, 2010 16:30 EST
America: Truly Rich in Poetry and Other Literary Forms
You could write a book about some poems and paintings, and it would likely be a worthier endeavor than most of the books that end up on bestseller lists.
Such a poem is Bob Hicok`s A True Story " in the summer 2010 issue of Indiana Review. This 59-line poem, appearing on page 120, is a stunningly surreal venture into dislocatory imagery and ideation:
I had just pulled my lips back from pucker,
when suddenly a man walked past with a rat
on his shoulder.
I can`t think of anything quite like this exuberant, manic rearrangement of the furniture of the mind except perhaps in the work of the young French poet ValÃ©rie Rouzeau, about whom I intend to write soon. The poem has a gasping quality not unlike that of a child who has been through an ordeal and is trying to recount it while gasping for air:
I fixed the leak and went on to become governor, he says, leaping across the chasm between what is truly important and what is not, and leaving it up to the reader to decide which is more important, fixing the leak or becoming governor. Suddenly, / a rat appeared to be doing the work of an angel. This is a child`s fancy, the kind that makes us laugh when a child reminds us that our own way of seeing things is hopelessly jaded by the received notion. All fine poets learn how to re-inhabit their childhoods. They must, because they know that growing up is loss.
This gasping for air in children is cadenced; it has meter, like poetry. Hicok remembers this meter as he tells this fantastical story of a walk to a hardware store, which becomes an odyssey into the dilemma of poets: they`re rarely heard even when they`re not full of shit, as he says they are in the poem.
The truth is we`re all full of it and we neither hear nor listen, but Hicok and the other writers who regularly appear in these journals, and the editors who strive in relative dark to bring these works of art to fruition, have much more to say than the nightly news or the politicians or the pundits. They are our defense establishment against the real enemy, ignorance and brutishness "and we are not lavishing our national fortunes on them.
Hicok is far from unknown. His sixth collection of poems, Words for Empty and Words for Full, will be published this year by the University of Pittsburgh Press. I mention him here not only because this one startling poem "the rat looked clean, / hardworking, and intelligent "deserves to be singled out, but because our entire small press nation presents us every day with neglected heroes.
We look to the news for heroes. We should be looking elsewhere. It takes enormous courage and energy to publish these reviews and the many books of poetry and fiction produced by our small presses. The men and women involved do it for love and idealism, not money. Is ego involved? Yes, of course. A yearning for recognition? To be sure. But none of that diminishes their sheer heroism against the fierce odds of neglect.
Every week I receive more literary journals than I can possibly read. It`s the inevitable byproduct of being a working poet and submitting one`s work to these little known and uncelebrated gatekeepers who are often working writers themselves. My strategy for mining these journals is to place them in spots where I am likely to land in the course of a day and to leaf through them much like using a dowsing rod. I noticed Hicok`s poem while waiting for some medication to dry on an arm I had scratched pulling thorny vines off a large juniper. In the poem the poet himself is engaged in something equally mundane: he is buying a three-quarter-inch threaded nipple. Such are the things of which poetry may be made.
Many of these reviews, like the one in which Hicok`s marvelous poem appears, are objects of art themselves. They are often more beautiful than they have any right to be considering how difficult it is to publish them and what sacrifices are involved, even when they enjoy university sponsorship. They are always in the crosshairs of budget-cutters.
They constitute a national treasure, and the periodical racks of most bookstores give only the faintest idea of how deep and rich this treasure is. It is likely there has never been a culture so endowed with as much periodical literature, and in the aggregate these journals are a better measure of our society than the news. They are the real harbingers of our future because they reflect our most intuitive and eclectic minds.
Just as A True Story " will not make cable news, so this casting of priceless jewels by these journals is neglected, supported only by writers and a cadre of people who understand that this, not the next inanity from our politicians, is where our future thrives.
I have seen fine art sold for a song on lawns on a Saturday afternoon, and there is hardly a library sale that doesn`t include a box of literary periodicals or two. But some day in the future there will be scholars who point to a great poem, like Hicok`s, or a great story in one of these periodicals. What they will likely not celebrate is the aesthetic excellence of the journal itself and all the heart and art that went into making it.
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.
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 LattÃ© 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: http://upress.kent.edu/books/Marbrook_D.htm
New review of Far from Algiers: http://www.rattle.com/blog/2009/05/far-from-algiers-by-djelloul-marbrook/
Artists Hill, Literal LattÃ©`s fiction first prize: http://www.literal-latte.com/author/djelloulmarbrook/
His blog: http://www.djelloulmarbrook.com
His mother`s art: http://www.juanitaguccione.com
His aunt`s art: http://www.irenericepereira.com