“No warning/for when all knowledge fails”—Marie-Elizabeth Mali’s Steady, My Gaze
Marie-Elizabeth Mali’s trailer for her debut collection, Steady, My Gaze (Tebot Press, 2011), features Mali reading “Origins” in a playful, upbeat voice. Months earlier, I’d attended her book launch and was surprised by Mali’s lighthearted voice. No, I was surprised by the lighthearted voice connected to the often blazing-hot, tense, unblinking language. Mali’s poems are deceitful: sizzling and quiet, brash and compassionate. Mali’s debut is a delight because it is more curious than afraid, more “twists and turns” and seeking than absolute and all-knowing.
The book begins with a series of meditations; we walk with the poet as she finds her footing in multiple landscapes, from a quinceañera to a subway, from St. Patrick’s Cathedral to a body whose parts belong to many countries (& to the poet herself). The marriage cycle poems, separated by musings of pairings, rise as high as the poems that query God. They are celebratory and playful, giving and detached from ego. In “Second Year of Marriage,” the husband determines that smell is a sense he “would have forgotten” had he “create[d] the senses”. The poet listens as she is taken away by memories of scents that have “quickened” her. The erudite poet ends: “Your scent, that wordless/telegram, still takes me apart, like it did/when it first arrived out of nowhere” (16-18). As with many of Mali’s poems, the senses are activated, “careen[ing] and “bruis[ing]”.
Mali is an acute observer, seeing what’s available to any eye (“Three Orthodox men are davening on the shoulder/next to their car”) and the interior questions that “open [and] find/the need to drink that dark, scant opiate” (“Nepenthe” 15 & 16). Donald Revell, in The Art of Attention, says that the “creative act is continuous, before, during, and after the poem. An attentive poet delights in this continuity. It is her actual Nature and natural habitat”. Mali’s poems are great examples of such attentiveness:
On the 6 train, a man sits near the tail—
Leather bomber jacket, baggy jeans,
big sneakers. He looks about 40,
right eye swollen shut, splashed purple.
In his hands, a book. He raises
his good eye to meet mine—
. . . and I think
of the old stories, when God would show up
on doorsteps in disguises. . . (1-9).
The gaze is curious, non-judgmental. The poet seems to often be on a quest to locate the God, to locate the self in the God, to locate the God in others. She continues: “If this guy rang my doorbell would I/let him in? God bless, he says, as I stand/to exit the train. On the platform, I turn/to stay until the train pulls away” (11-14). Mali is not afraid to “lock racks with God,” nor is she afraid to question religious tenets: “The desire to please turned river of red: still God?” (“Linea Alba” 3 & 4). Most importantly, in a world where faith is often challenged, Mali is not afraid to speak of her desire to understand God, to “seek God like the last pear on the tree in October” (“Origins” 14).