The Steel Veil by Jack Marshall; Coffee House Press, Minneapolis, MN

A Review and an Appreciation by Sam Hamod

 

“The poems have grown out of and were provoked by my experience of aging and memory—from my response to the death of family members and friends,

from my sense of outrage at the war on Iraq as well as our consumer culture’s greedy pillaging of the earth’s resources at the expense of the planet’s future.”

                                        Jack Marshall, from Author Statement

 

Jack Marshall’s newest book, The Steel Veil, is full of the poetry of blood, of duende and of the power of one of the outstanding poets in the world, not just in America.  He is in a league with Lorca and Neruda both of whom knew well of the “duende,” that which comes from inside the blood, from the ground of our lives, from history, from that valley of shadows that inseminate our poems when they are the level of greatness.  In this recent collection of poems, Jack has once again moved into realms that few other contemporary American poets dare trod.  There are no poems here of walking day after day in one’s garden, or poems of just looking out the window at life, nor are they poems of novelty to please the multitudes with valentines of some other such nonsense—the types of poems that populate most of our “literary magazines.”  These poems are what William Carlos Williams called, “the news.”  As Williams put it in Asphodel, That Greeny Flower:

                It is difficult

           To get the news from poems

              Yet men die miserably every day

                        For lack

               Of what is found there

 

Jack’s poems about his life, the losses through death in his family and in our people through the wars in Iraq (his father’s homeland) and Afghanistan, and in our daily lives brought about by the passage of time, the debilitating aspects of aging, of the destruction of our planet, are poems that hit you in the gut, in the heart. Through it all you can sense Jack’s sense of courage to face these matters head on and to write of them in a clear, strong, tenacious and unwaveringly wise voice.  The clarity and power of Jack’s poems are evinced in “The Steel Veil,” the title poem of the book:

                 Spreading along with the wind

                 out of the president’s mouth,

                  desolation, even when there’s no dying

 

                  going on.  Road rage, fraud, price wars, polluted

                  spin: that is peace!

                  . . . .

                  And those dropping rations

                  on children they have not

                  bombed yet—have they

 

                  mothers, wives, children, home?

 

Jack calls into the question our methods of warfare in Iraq and in the world, where we bomb so many, carelessly, as if their lives are of less worth than ours.

He then speaks out, with:

                   So let the eyes of orphans swell,

                   and the widows hiss at us

                   as they eat our bread

 

                  behind veils heavy

                  as the steel

                  veil of empire

 

His line breaks and the enjambment, choices of images create the reality of the suffering and reaction of those in the Middle East who are the victims of our new colonial empire.  The poems in this book have that kind of anger whether it has to do with Baghdad burning, the churning and destruction of the earth or our economy by rapacious and greedy wolves in our financial markets.

 

In other moments, Jack settles into a pensive mood, one of memory, where memory is both real and possibly skewed by time, because as he says in one poem,

 

After seventy

  everything is back-lit

With twilight…

 

And Jack, now in his early 70s, twilight of his life, he is aware that our memories come at us by association, or when we have those moments of regret, or when we eat certain foods, or hear certain phrases from the past, when we wish we’d loved our parents and loved ones more, but we realize, even then:

 

what makes you think you could better

do over, or could love them more

than when they were

with you together—

father, mother, sister,

(stroke, cancer, cancer)—

you older, they as they were?

 

The words, the lines run together, running as fast as the passage of time; yet, with the unusual grammatical structure of the lines, that are not straight ahead and written as declarative sentences, especially in the last line, the reader must pause, and realize that he is “you older,  they as they were?” That time in our lives when we wish, but know that wish can never be fulfilled, but even if we had the chance, we might well squander it, by being too busy or not knowing how more to love those loved ones who have now passed.

 

But even then, for him to try to recall and to love them more, is an insistent urge in this and other poems, seen especially when he speaks poignantly of the recent death of his sister:

 

I am going

to choose recalling her laughter and delight,

her mouth wide open

with appetite, like an eye with second sight,

which this moment

now is again

catching sight of

 

By inverting the structure of his line, he stops you from reading too fast, to make you linger, in order to make you experience that pain mixed with his memory of her joy and his, in “this moment,”   and he tears at your heart with  “this moment/ now is again/catching sight of.”   How often haven’t we too felt that same way about someone we loved who has passed, but even though they’ve passed, they are still with us in moments, and perhaps even more so, always there in our hearts, making us catch our breath…

 

Jack has always known how to make the language work in unusual ways in his poems, so that he is able to get his thoughts and feelings both into his lines, along with his wisdom—s wisdom I have always counted on when wanting to find someone to talk to about our Middle Eastern heritage; both of us of immigrant parents from the Middle East, who are of this country, and yet in our souls, of the world and of the Middle East. 

 

These poems gain some of their power from that dual vision Jack has of who we are, Americans certainly, yet upset, angry and outraged on behalf of people who live in the Middle East who are bombed daily and who are thought by our leaders, and by our media, to be less human than we.  This comes out so strongly when he says, in “Weather Report: Baghdad Burning,” in section 5:

 

While Baghdad burned,

I rote my me-moi; memorie’s fiction.

I see my father, who, alive said little, or not

Exactly see, but spy his look through grinding

Teeth as in life, in mute lament, his birthplace burning.

He stands in a pressed suit against a night

Lit red by rockets.  For al lthe little sound he makes,

He might as well be alive!

 

Then in sections 6 and 7 he goes on to discuss the disgusting world situation, and then even his own dimming eyesight, but his wisdom in all this allows him to see that which is beyond mere physical eyesight.

 

6.

Now that words come slower, harder, plainer,

Than when I was a wooer, woollier, windier,

Listen up: “Even nightingales run out of luck

After building their nest and, singing,

Give their best, only to have crows

Take over, caw and clatter, and leave

Behind their fecal matter;

Only to have (with all due contempt),

Instead of a savior risen,

A president who belongs in p;rison.”

 

7.

I’m riding unsteadily on the rails

Of rhyme toward what even failing

Eyes can’t fail to see, time

And again, when the luxury of

Later has no future.

 

I could go on for pages, but let me close by saying that this is a book you should buy, keep, and buy another one or two for friends who appreciate deep and

high quality writing, writing that comes from the deep in the heart, that will communicate with your heart and the hearts of others who care about our existence, those who are not in denial or not asleep in this crucial time of our lives and for the lives of our earth and its natural parts, the birds, the trees, the oceans, our lakes and the delicate butterflies that know when and how to go from north to south and back again.  Jack’s book has those qualities, the hard edge of steel, and yet the delicacy of a butterflies wings, and the wisdom of our fathers, their fathers and all those who started civilization thousands of years ago in the Middle East.

 

The Steel Veil

From the Publisher

“Marshall’s canvases, expansive as Jackson Pollock paintings, comprehend every thing from string beans to string theory.”—Poetry

Soulfully introspective and viscerally engaged, Jack Marshall’s poetry weds timely depictions of Middle Eastern widows “behind veils heavy / as the steel / veil of empire” with timeless expressions of personal grief and political outrage. Invoking visionary possibilities of being while “riding unsteadily on the rails / of rhyme,” Marshall’s distinctive voice and elegant lyrics unite this muscled, multilayered collection.

Born in 1936 to Jewish parents who emigrated from Iraq and Syria, Jack Marshall grew up in New York and now lives in California. He is the author of the memoir From Baghdad to Brooklyn and several award-winning poetry collections.