Start where, then?
With no beginning or end? It’s all middle.
All middle, then; so be it: The center is everywhere.
Poet Jack Marshall of El Cerrito, long a familiar figure in the Bay Area writing scene, will read from his new memoir, From Baghdad to Brooklyn; Growing Up in a Jewish-Arabic Family in Midcentury America (Coffee House Press), Tuesday at Black Oak Books at 7:30 p.m.
Born in Brooklyn to an Arabic-speaking Sephardic family, his father from Baghdad, his mother from Aleppo in Syria, Marshall has long written of childhood and adolescence in both his poetry and prose.
“It’s on the tip of my tongue: ‘childhood,’ magical word, conjuring up an endless sky’s pale blue hood pulled back to the horizon,” he writes in the book. “Drawn there not for nostalgia’s sake, but what I am now able to see of what our life was then.”
Marshall writes about his family by creating a fascinating fusion with his reflections and how he saw it growing up, awakening both to the realities of his family and culture and to the world outside. He examines the every day “clash of cultures” and the revelations of adulthood about the background of family conflicts and incongruities. The urge to remember (and “dis-member”) the past and his roots, starts a process, which he writes, begins “to run them together, mix and match the mongrel strains, mingle and merge apparent partitions and genealogical division ... to feed the twin streams into one twined flowing river; not in order to have it both ways, but because of the fact of being both ways.”
Marshall said a number of events spurred him to write the book. Shortly after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, his sister died of cancer and letters from their father were found among her papers. Then the war in Iraq came.
“Baghdad may be wiped off the map; my sister gone ... the sense I had of my own age, I had no notion of publishing, at first, just to get down what I could remember,” Marshall said. “And it took on the qualities of an extended dream. Each memory, each short section is, in fact, the center, all to itself ... a panel to slide and recombine with the other vignettes. I’d dig in deep, pull out and start somewhere new—or the memories would come with one suggesting another, moving radically back and forth. Each links together now in more-or-less chronological order, as a total piece combining early memories with what I know now in the bigger scheme of things.”
He writes about his discovery that his retiring father with an English politeness from his years in Britain and his acerbic, even taunting mother, had an arranged marriage after their separate immigration to the States.
If there is a center to this book with a center everywhere, it’s just past the middle, when Marshall, as “a pious yeshiva student” awarded a scholarship to Talmudic Academy (the first Sephardic to be enrolled), begins to question not only the faith of his community, but, as he puts it, “how most people grew up with religion, went along with their family—and nobody ever talked about it that way [questioningly].”
A young friend named Isaac, on a walk home after Hebrew school, laughs “in a loud cackle, with a hiccupping action at the end, like the pop of a cap pistol” after saying to Marshall, “You know, Moses wasn’t a Jew.”
Marshall writes that “His scornful, wild laughter is what I now most remember ... [as] if he had a hand he didn’t need to show.”
Given Freud’s Moses and Monotheism on top of his reading Darwin and “asking obvious disquieting questions I couldn’t answer with inherited models,” Marshall remembers asking himself if “customs were habits, and the repetitions of habit were seductions; [if] tradition and authority were mere holding patterns against the unknown and unpredictable; that, in present fact, nothing from the past could help anymore, and as these moments went on, there was no appeal outside of the present, that each moment of the present was an ongoing beginning as well as an end?”
He remembers “being disturbed .. not so much that what Isaac was saying was true, but that it was conceivable, that it could be true.” He concludes that “each moment—like a flare going out, not some sacred past we owed allegiance to, nor a promised future without immediate substance to its claim—each present moment was the very heart of time.”
Writing in a flexible style that can quickly shift from lyricism to analysis to conversation, Marshall describes the milieu around him as he grows up.
Reading Dylan Thomas and Rimbaud, becoming a poet, and taking, almost on impulse, a berth as a messboy on a freighter heading for West Africa, Marshall ends the memoir with one of the memories which began it. It is a memory that also led to his first book of poems. It was a sense of taking flight, like Darwin’s first land creatures that metamorphose into birds: “I began to have a sense of being closer to the sky, a feeling—which would grow over time in the open sea—that sailing would not be so much floating as flying.”