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Steady, My Gaze
By Marie-Elizabeth Mali
57 poems/80 pages/$15.00
Tibet Bach Press

Reviewed by Ed Bennett

Part of the genius of Walt Whitman is that he created his poetry in such broad strokes that it became part of the American ethos. His voice was so strong yet so familiar that it defined his art as uniquely American. The sheer joy of “Leaves of Grass” is so powerful that it obscures one of the tenets of Whitman’s poetry: “Simplicity is the glory of expression”. The complex Latinate phrasing of European poetry was left by the wayside. The poet sang of himself in language that we all comprehended to the point that we sang with him. Few poets have created such rich imagery with the words spoken by every man and woman.

Marie-Elizabeth Mali’s book, “Steady, My Gaze”, captures this tradition brilliantly. Her poems are humorous, pensive, revealing and sometimes disturbing. She reveals her life, her marriage, her multi-ethnic background with a directness that is more conversational than confessional. She does this with a disarming directness that at once conveys her thought while encouraging a reader to look within themselves.

Her poem “History of My Body” describes her physical and psychological characteristics by describing her European and Latin American forebears. The simple description of hair and cheekbones segues into

“but my breasts come from a long line
of women made bitter by war.
my stomach speaks the language of tumors,

a language that knows no country, embedded
in helices impossible to create or destroy.”

In researching this review I came across a YouTube presentation of Ms. Mali reading this poem. I strongly suggest readers look it up because, like all good poetry, the spoken word enhances it even further. There are no verbal pyrotechnics or emoting yet at the end of the reading, one feels that a conversation has taken place. It is a rare poet that has this gift.

In the first section of poems Ms. Mali writes about New York City, especially her experiences volunteering at one of the aid stations in lower Manhattan after September 11th. As a native New Yorker I appreciated these poems for the images they presented but especially for her ability to do so without sinking into bathos. In “Volunteering with Rescue Workers at the Javits Center” she lists her patients, their confusion and pain, ending with

You’re welcome, we say
when they thank us, we
who can barely manage,
we who have seen nothing.

There are some who feel that the strength of New York City was in its firefighters and police responders on that day. One reads this poem and realized that the true strength lies with nine million people like Marie-Elizabeth Mali.

Reading “Steady, My Gaze” is like having a trifle for desert. Every page brings something new to savor. Her poems of her Venezuelan roots are intertwined with music and dance. She refers to Billie Holiday and Nina Simone as she heard them against a jungle backdrop. Her commentary on Hugo Chavez is a pantoum. More importantly, she shows us the soul of the Venezuelan people in “Maria Lionza Speaks”. Maria Lionza is a legendary tribal queen from the 1500s who has been elevated to a quasi-divine status as mother goddess to the creatures in the jungle. Her words to her people conclude with

“You forget all soil is soil, all blood,
blood. Put your weapons down.
I want you to feed each other.
You pray to me for miracles.
You are the miracle.”

From the jungles of Latin America to the “jungle” of New York, Ms. Mali captures the essence of people’s hearts. Her ability to parse the human soul is evident in every line of her poetry. Obviously, this is a poet who pays attention to people rather than place.

Concurrent with this ability to listen and understand is an underlying strength. In the title piece, “Steady, My Gaze”, she expresses her willingness to “lock racks with God” rather than become another wounded woman. The poem ends like the clang of a sword against armor. She is ready to challenge a patriarchal God with the weapons of a stag, not a doe.

There is so much more to praise in this collection of poems but space limitations prevent me from listing all of them. Her descriptions of each of the five years of marriage contains both the wisdom and the humor of a love that has caught the wind and burst into flame.

Walt Whitman sojourned through a nation awash in its own blood yet he still heard America singing. Marie-Elizabeth Mali’s world is no less dangerous yet she, like Whitman, hears the song as well. In “Steady, My Gaze” she joins her voice to this chorus and encourages us all to join her. Do so. Buy the book and wait for her next tour de force. This is the voice of America singing.


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