Brushstrokes and Glances, Djelloul Marbrook’s second book, will change your view of art and leave you reeling. These poems begin with a leisurely walk through the white halls of a local museum, jump inside the frames to roll around in stray paint blots, and suddenly leap to the stars, ruminating on the very nature of art, poetry, and humankind. At first intimate, then universal, Marbrook captures the fundamental questions of art and life like fireflies in a jar, letting us see their glow but giving us the freedom to seek the answers for ourselves.
The first section, “A jar of marsala,” reads like a trip to your favorite museum. Many poems are labeled with the paintings that inspired them, some of which you can look up, but none of which you have to. This is the beauty of Brushstrokes and Glances: each poem embraces the shadow of its painting while crafting a narrative that stands on its own. Marbrook seeks to show the reader the links he has always known—between words and paint, between color and its absence, between each person at the museum, looking at the same work but thinking something entirely unique. “We need a museum,” he writes, “to show us / we can unbind our captive lives,” (33).
Strolling through the gallery-esque dreamscape of the poet’s mind, one begins to feel that Marbrook understands something many forget—all art is a conversation. He collaborates with these artists, casting off the typical mute appreciation of the museum onlooker. However, “great” art is not all that inspires these poems. His mother’s work and influence is strewn about this section. Despite the knowledge that his mother’s art is not technically perfect, Marbrook cannot deny the connection this gives him to his mother, confessing “I’d seen all she’d made of anything / in her paintings,” (29). Forcing himself to answer the question, is her “ill-made and quaint” art still worth preserving, Marbrook writes:
I am, God help me, the husband of this work
and must take better care of it
than I took of the hopes that haunt it;
now let them glisten in museums (27).
The book shifts its focus within the second section, “Accordion of worlds,” as the reader is catapulted out into the universe, far away from the peaceful museum we inhabited before. The tone deepens into philosophy, hinting at the larger meaning of art within our world, and wondering, sometimes, at its contradictions. If “absence and presence is all one thing— / the dense macabre of canvas and paint, / of silence and its carnival interruptions,” (45) then art cannot be what we have always believed. Perhaps white space, or the memory of a painting marred in our minds, says more than color on canvas. As the pages turn, “art” as a concept is picked apart, complicated by every turn of phrase.
Criticizing himself and all we have read thus far, Marbrook writes of his “dishonesty / to lave the paints of memory / on other artists’ work / so to shirk and shine away,” (57). Despite the conversation taking place throughout the book, the poet acknowledges his altering of what the artist may have originally intended and the brash lie of it all. Spinning us further into the cosmos, Marbrook questions the fabric of the universe. What does art matter if, as Marbrook suggests below, it is all in the mind of an unknown being?
Civilizations come and go. For all we know
so do worlds, and everything vibrates
with our craze to make things smaller
and the virulent thought that a single mind
contains the whole shebang and daunts
our every story, faith and theorem (60).
So much more than a love letter to all the artists he has known, Brushstrokes and Glances picks apart every fiber of art, what it is, what it isn’t, what it means or can’t possibly mean. Marbrook paints us a picture, but leaves us with more questions than we begin. It is in this place of confusion that we find ourselves, allowing the questions to alter brain waves and populate our minds, forming a new appreciation for the museum. “It isn’t much of a testament,” he writes, “but it does suggest we never know / exactly who we’re looking at / or, just as important, what.” (69).
Photograph of Artists Palette taken by Mark Burnett – from a working palette of artist Richard Forage.