It has been said that perception is directly linked to the psychic motivation of the observer. In this regard the numerous references to God, both literal and indirect, in Marie-Elizabeth Mali’s debut, Steady, My Gaze, demonstrate the book’s commitment to a journey undertaken in order to better explore the limitless relationships one can have with God and the Self, and how these relationships intersect and interact.
Broken into four sections, the full-circle narrative takes the reader through the speaker’s concrete and metaphysical origins; the speaker’s Self in relation to a marriage; and finally, through a dialogue with the mind during a seven-day meditation retreat. The poem Habrienta / Hungry
opens the book in Spanish and returns as the final poem, serving as a framing
device whose double-mindedness haunts the entire book.
In the first section, The Questions Themselves, we find the speaker defining herself through metaphors grounded in nature and religion: “I’m from seeking God like the last pear on the tree in October,” in the poem “Origins” and later in the poem “The Questions Themselves,” “Some days I’m my own private congregation.” This segment of poems demonstrates a longing to break, subvert, and reorganize the physical boundaries of identity:
Always the surprise when I step
on a dance floor, salsa playing,
side eyes thrown my way, tightened
hold on their men, the why that white girl
dance so good? My dance partner’s slow
nod, his come on girl, show me what you got.
“Ain’t Nobody’s Business”
This poem, like many others, demonstrates Mali’s assertion that identity is important, even when transmogrified. And it is with this reverence toward the scrambling of Self (as I like to imagine it), that the speaker is liberated. What Mali then encourages is a Self that includes nature, religion, politics—the collective unconscious as expressed in all humanity. It takes confidence to do what Mali does; acknowledge that a speaker’s identity off the page often informs what does and doesn’t make it onto the page; that race, gender, and identity are important—
Not surprisingly, most of the speaker’s formulations about the nature of God come in the form of inquiries. This strategy serves as a buffer, a way to take a critical stance against an entity without accepting direct ownership of it. The effect of this technique is to ask the reader or to lead the reader to ask, “Where is God, really?” and, later, in “What if God is the cat who bats prey about the room and grunts with pleasure” and then again in “The desire to please turned river of red: still God?” This technique, though apropos when dealing with multitudinous concepts, reflects little risk. At the same time, however, the title poem, Steady, My Gaze, moves against this trajectory, embodying a straightforward approach that topples Mali’s neutrality and introduces the reader to a braver, more assertive voice. This poem, ultimately, dissolves the aforementioned apprehension in that it serves as a material invitation to the Real, a time for absolution and truth:
This female body, bound
by want and hunt, rotting
flophouse, movable casket.
Bleeding, I run. A storm gathers.
Lightning antlers to the sea, trees
shudder leaves to the ground.
I will lock racks with God.
Find yourself another
woman to wound.
What man doesn’t wreck
fights for each breath
until God finishes the job.
The following section, I Celebrate the Husband, portrays a self more firmly identified and ready to explore new beliefs. It details the quandary of a woman faced with the question of how to separate past violent experiences with men from her current relationship, a dilemma both vital to understand yet unquantifiable. In spite of the inherent difficulties, Mali manages, “to open myself to my husband I have to / remember he is not the man who raped me / nor the men who have tried.” It is this type of redirection of the mind that stands out in this collection—again and again. It is the poet’s maneuvering through surface thoughts and immediate feelings that ultimately allow her to establish a higher and more authentic emotional self.
The final section of Mali’s collection, Silent Retreat, further reflects the speaker’s preoccupation with the mechanism of Self as seen through the mind. Mali uses minimally titled poems “Day One” through “Day “Seven” to illustrate a seven-day rendezvous of the Self—with the Self. This last section, though fluently connecting with and continuing previous motifs, slows the expansiveness of previous sections in an effort to meditate and meet the mind where it is at. Though gracefully accomplished, the exuberance and drive experienced prior is lost. Metaphorically, the last section is an unexpected docking of a ship. And because this ship once led you through beautiful and unexpected terrain—you want more. This, in all honesty, is probably not a bad thing. Instead, it is testament to the talent and strength of the speaker.
Steady, My Gaze is a book that challenges ideologies about the Self and God. It is a book about identity both on the page and off of the page. And when Mali says, “Give me your hand. Let’s shatter the idols between us,” you want to. You do it because you know the journey of the self, as she has portrayed it, is one of the most earnest journeys, one that heals and moves all of us toward compassion, acceptance, and truth.
Diana Marie Delgado, poet and playwright, grew up in the San Gabriel Valley. A graduate of the poetry programs at the University of California-Riverside and Columbia University, she served as Poet-in-Residence of Northern New Mexico College and was awarded the 2005 James D. Phelan Award in Poetry from the San Francisco Foundation. Her work has appeared in the Indiana Review, North American Review, the Journal of Chicana/Latino Studies and Ploughshares. The recipient of the 2010 Letras Latinas Residency Fellowship, she was awarded a month-long stay at the Anderson Center in Red Wing, Minnesota. Her poetry collection, Late-Night Talks with Men I Think I Trust, was a finalist for the 2012 Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize, and her short play, Desire Road, will be given a public reading in the Summer 2012. She is a member of the CantoMundo and Macondo writing communities. You can follow her at the blog, Pom-PomRituals / Tiny Umbrellas.