Like the glowing match on its cover, Marie-Elizabeth Mali’s book, Steady, My Gaze, is spiritual chiaroscuro, a quiet conversation between light and darkness. Reading Steady, My Gaze, makes me feel as if I’m on retreat. I’m uplifted one moment, carried away in gorgeous imagery and masterful writing, and then slammed by reality in the next. Although, in these poems, the slamming is beautiful too.
“Silent Retreat,” The final section, is among my favorite. The words of Adyashanti, the retreat leader, are threaded throughout each poem. “The image you have of yourself/ is unworthy because it’s an image,/ unreal. You interpret it to mean/ you are unworthy, but it’s the image/ that’s unworthy, not you.” The next stanza is in the speaker’s voice, “Resonant body strings, our sitting/ thrums the room./ At the back of the hall, a toilet/ flushes like thunderclap.” Such is life; the toilet flushes just at the moment we near enlightenment.
I was fortunate enough to sit next to Marie-Elizabeth on a yoga blanket at Omega in 2011 during a poetry retreat led by Marie Howe. She only shared her book after I asked her about it and it was one of the best investments I made for my library. Steady, My Gaze, landed inside the circle of poetry books I used for the workshop I led the following week to Omega staff. I read it again on the train ride home. It is a book I continue to read by lamp light in my living room. My wish is that you will read it too.
I will leave you with two excerpts from a lovely interview with Marie-Elizabeth and the poet Melissa Stein in Boxcar Poetry Review (click here to read the full interview):
“When I write, in addition to sound and imagery, both of which I’m always attuned to, I’m striving to reach an emotional core, to discover some deeper layer that will hopefully resonate with a similar place in the reader/listener. Basically, I think that the deeper one goes within oneself, into one’s own specificity, the more one begins to access a place that is universal. I want people to see themselves in what I write, so if that makes my writing more intimate and confiding, then so be it. I don’t feel much need to clarify what’s factual and what’s made up, figuring that if it touches on some kind of truth then I’ve done my job. I also have a feeling that my work will most likely become less autobiographical as I move forward, although my obsessions will always find their way into the work.”
“…I don’t want my work to be overly simplistic, so while I may occasionally write a purely celebratory poem or a purely “dark” poem, most of my poems end up attempting to engage with the contradictory, complex nature of life and the world. I often find myself in that kind of inquiry—as a person trying to be as awake and open to the everythingness of it all as I can manage—how to find beauty HERE… and HERE… and even HERE?… without shutting my eyes or ears to the often terrible underbelly of that same beauty. But some days I can’t manage much more than lying under a blanket with a lavender eye pillow on. Really.”
Marie-Elizabeth Mali is the author of Steady, My Gaze (Tebot Bach, 2011) and co-editor with Annie Finch of the anthology, Villanelles (Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets, 2012). Her work has appeared in Calyx, Drunken Boat, Poet Lore, and RATTLE, among others. She can be found online at www.memali.com.