Review by Sheila Black
STEADY, MY GAZE
by Marie-Elizabeth Mali
P.O. Box 7887
Huntington Beach, CA 92615-7887
2011, 80 pp., $15.00
I have a friend, a poet, a brilliant formalist who writes learned and gorgeous villanelles, terza rimas, sestinas. Once, not long ago, she was bemoaning the current poetry scene. Wringing her blunt but elegant hands, she snarled. “It’s not so hard to be snarky and paratactic.” And then she sighed and added, “But, then again, it’s hard to find an intelligent humanist these days–too much faux humanism, human-lite.” And when I considered the current poetry scene I knew exactly what she meant: Snarky and paratactic versus human-lite. Like Bear versus Shark—or rather Shark versus Bear!—these two poetic modes seemed to revolve around me like Scylla and Charybdis as the common threats, the possible shoals on which any poet of today might all too easily be shipwrecked. Brilliant surface and heartless irony versus plodding and sincere.
Well, most of us (to be dead honest) would probably choose the snarky and paratactic route–the cool girl pose, knowing all the while that what used to be called “serious poetic purpose” might demand something a little quieter, a little steadier, a lot more vulnerable. Which brings me to Steady, My Gaze by Marie-Elizabeth Mali. Mali’s work in this debut collection seems both aware of and able to sail blithely between our present-day poetic rocks and whirlpools–to be just snarky enough to be cool, but also resoundingly sincere and, therefore, large. Her style is a rousing combination of the heartfelt and the chill, the lush and the austere, as evidenced in lines like:
I’m from the subway’s roar-squeal through a sidewalk grate
I’m from sheets rustles and shoes shaken to wake snakes
I’m from Sasson jeans and how’d a girl like you learn to dance like that
I’m from human cactii and emotional thermoclines
I’m from marginalia and what language is she speaking
Few poets writing seem as attuned to and driven by the gorgeous sensuality of the world, which Mali captures with both facticity and flair and a careening motion:
Hands leave behind more than prints—
The knitting and the ripping, empty
Grape stems in a red bowl, a bruise
(“Taken for Granted”)
Yet Mali is also acutely aware of the converse–the world of emptiness, loss, imminent decay. While Mali’s subjects–love, and most particularly married love, the domestic life–would seem to suggest a poet of the humanist bent–Sharon Olds, Jane Hirschfield, those great poets of the body–Ms. Mali, for all her gorgeous lyricism, has a startlingly austere streak. What builds the power of her work and makes it most genuine and enlarging, in fact, is its sneaky combination of gorgeous sensual life and a sense of the stern empty and eternal above, around, beneath. This is shown both by her choice of subject and the formal choices she makes.
Steady, My Gaze presents an alternating consideration of married life and various forms of spiritual practice from yoga to Zen meditation. Over the course of the book, the lessons or insights gained from each come to seem inextricably bound. The good marriage which is one of her primary subjects, for instance, contains within a history of a suicide of her partner’s first wife, as well as the usual trials, tribulations, and frustrations. Yet Mali also traces the small acts of almost heroic kindness, the moments of unexpected grace and forgiveness, that keep the marriage alive and vital. To her credit, Mali makes the story of her couple believable, funny, human, and also searing. In one poem, for example, titled “Newly Wed,” Mali writes: “He is not the man/who talks over me in public. Okay, sometimes/he talks over me in public.” In a later poem, “Fifth Year of Marriage,” she declares she married because she “wanted to grow, having gone/as far as I could along the wake-up path alone,” continuing that it is easy to feel enlightened “when no one’s leaving/clothes on the floor or dishes on the sink.” It is Mali’s strong sense of the physical world, the facticity of it, the daily-ness of it that gives power to her spiritual journey in the book; it is her sense of the austerity and vastness of the world of spirit, in turn, that gives fire and feeling to her depictions of the everyday world.
In Mali’s poems, these poles are further charged by her sense of what it is to be a woman in the world, and also complicated by her own multi-cultural–French, Swedish, German, Venezuelan–heritage that leaves her looking for words, a language she can live with or in. In the poem “Knife,” Mali writes of this:
When I think
Of the myriad ways there are to hurt a woman, I chop
The avocado so small it liquefies. No matter what
You have to pick up the knife and begin again.
Mali writes in another particularly effective poem, “The Questions Themselves,” of the notion of what the spirit is or wants and, through the accretion of large questions and specific detail, traces a vivid picture of the paradox of our love of specificity as set against our need for an instant of complete spiritual apprehension:
Theories are like wine glasses. Exposed
to pure pitch, right volume, they shatter.
What if, as we grip our glasses, drunk,
God’s the one lighting the votives—
our questions, our ecstasies—trembling
a little with laughter, knowing we won’t think
to look behind our eyes at the observer;
even as we witness the way morning
makes holy the surfaces it touches.
Her poems can be worldly, the language of the smart girlfriend who is generous, gossipy–and yes a little sequined and even snarky–but they contain within the still center in the flame; they surprise you every time with their improbable and hard-won largeness of heart. Most definitely not “human-lite.” In his book of essays Twentieth Century Pleasures, Robert Hass writes in the essay “Images” of the Japanese haiku masters and praises them–Issa and Basho in particular–for capturing the world “as it is,” “the fullness and emptiness of things.” That is perhaps the closest I can come to an accurate description of what draws me and holds me hardest in Marie-Elizabeth Mali’s work, the fullness and emptiness. And I am eager to know where she will go from here.
Sheila Black is the author of two collections House of Bone and Love/Iraq (both CW Press), and two chapbooks How to be a Maquiladora and Continental Drift with painter Michele Marcoux. Her poems have appeared in Diode, Superstition Review, Puerto del Sol and Blackbird among other journals. She edited with Jennifer Bartlett and Mike Northen Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability (Cinco Puntos Press, September 2011). A third collection Wen Kroy won the 2011 Orphic Prize in Poetry from Dream Horse Press and is forthcoming. Recently, she was selected by Philip Levine to receive a Witter Bynner Fellowship from the Library of Congress for 2012. She lives in Las Cruces, New Mexico.