Not a Pretty Picture: Writing in Museums

When Djelloul Marbrook told me that he did some of his best writing in museums, I pictured him on a padded bench in the Met, one of his favorite places, engrossed with his notebook or his laptop, as I’ve sometimes caught him at Barnes & Noble or Starbucks in Kingston, enjoying a writer’s reflective solitude amid a cheerful public ambiance. (Oddly enough, Del found that the one place where he didn’t write well was at a previous home in the Big Indian valley deep in the Catskills. Not every writer likes 80 proof solitude the way I do.) From his new book, however, I’ve learned that Del wasn’t just sitting in museums, he was writing in fierce response to paintings, not as objects of aesthetic pleasure but as in-your-face challenges. What hangs on the walls are not pretty pictures, but the hard won revelations of artists’ engagements with life. Which is another way of saying that Del’s mother was a painter. Brushstrokes and glances, his terrific new book, has a coolly captivating, blue-dominated abstract painting on the cover by I. Rice Pereira, Del’s aunt, but the poems inside bristle with smarts, wit, defiance, laments, angers, anything but the hushed reverence of museums. In “Distraction” Del writes: “Museum entrances should say/ Licensed lockpicks only,/ because every painting winks,/ but we’re churlish and run away/ from their fatal beckoning.”

Del’s mother, Juanita Rice Guccione, was a surrealist painter, who divided her time between a Manhattan studio and the Woodstock arts colony in summers. In person Del tells marvelous stories about Woodstock, few of them finally complimentary but all of them filled with larger than life characters and dramas. It’s the Woodstock I wish I lived in, even though I already do. (Del now watches our escapades from across the river in Germantown.) His memories date back to his childhood before World War Two. But his latest tale to strike my fancy involves the Colony, a Moorish style hotel building that dominates Rock City Road with its white stucco exterior. Inside, there’s what should be a Medieval banquet hall, a two story space rung with a wooden balcony, served by a long wooden bar, and fortified with a stone fireplace surely large enough for roasting a suckling pig. These days, alas, the Colony is a white elephant, a low budget music venue that could be much more, if someone had the financial wherewithal for the heating bill and everything else. For a time, Del’s mother owned the building, after inheriting it from a deceased husband; after she passed, Del owned it himself, a burden he’s glad to be rid of, though he cherishes the place’s history and wishes for it to flourish again. One day amidst his endless chores as the owner he brushed off a younger man who’d wandered in wearing sunglasses and curious to look around. “Do you know who that was?” whispered the handyman assisting Del, incredulous at Del’s brusque dismissal. “That was Bono.” Del rushed over to make amends and greet the rock star, who, it turned out, was musing over the notion of buying the Colony as a showcase for up-and-coming musicians whose careers he wanted to boost. In the end, the idea came to naught , but isn’t it fun to wonder what Bono might have made of the Colony? At last Woodstock would have made it out of the Sixties. Into the Eighties at least.

Now, back to Del in museums. Here’s a poem about a famous painter whose work we all find ravishing. Del searches for something else.

We are are all Van Gogh

I am the hair shirt you refuse to wear;
where did you put my left ear?

I don’t really need to know. Truth is
we all have an asymmetrical face.

You’re all those visits from icy mummies
I vainly waited for on Sunday afternoons.

Has it turned to amber in a jewel box?
Which of your lovers will throw it out

or will the maid who ripped you off
and lived it up back in Puerto Rico?

Here all the one-eared mutants pretend
some important person heard them,

so why do they slosh in bloody shoes
to party with wary strangers, and why

inquire endlessly about that sinister ear
knowing how little we want to hear?

This is the world of bandaged Van Goghs
running out of sunflowers and starry nights.

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