“She’s past words // now and I hear every thing / she means”: Jenny Sadre-Orafai’s Malak
review by Paige Sullivan
A slender, wholly transfixing collection, Jenny Sadre-Orafai’s Malak meditates on language and knowingness rooted in the body.
More specifically, the collection explores Sadre-Orafai’s connection to her paternal grandmother, Malak. In a recent interview with Tell Tell Poetry’s Tim Lynch, Sadre-Orafai described her relationship with Malak as “more based on this psychic connection, this spiritual connection,” noting her grandmother’s limited English as an obstacle in more commonplace conversations.
As Sadre-Orafai’s poems illustrate moments and intuitions that often elude but demand explanation, the notion of connections and communication that extend beyond normative English lexicons becomes all the more essential to appreciating her work.
In “Mouthing the Future,” when a young Sadre-Orafai is told by her father “not to tell my friends” about Malak’s abilities—“how your grandmother sees // patterns divide”—the poet’s impulse is to “believe so hard that I write / down her language of residue,” enacting Malak’s ephemeral language on the page, as does the collection as a whole.
Later, in “How They Arrive,” a poem about Malak interpreting people’s futures in coffee grounds, that paradox is extended:
A peasant woman who couldn’t read
taught Malak how when she was young,
when she didn’t know how much people
needed to be told what was coming.
This paradox—that one may not be able to read written language but can still read the future—operates on a universal level, where the future always seems to occupy a space in the present, where one can be completely certain of a truth, even when its edges are undefined.
As in “Last Reading,” when Malak sees a pregnant bird in the cup and crochets an endless array of baby linens in “Neapolitan ice cream colors,” truth exists not in realms of “logic” or “reasoning,” but intuitively, within the body—both that of the poet and that of Malak.
This idea of intuitive awareness is more deeply explored in the second section of the collection in a poem titled “Origin,” a series of ruminations over inexplicable, supernatural moments in the poet’s life: locking a door without turning a key, making something happen just by concentrating on it, knowing a tire will burst seconds before it happens.
Threaded through this poem, too, are the twin figures of Sadre-Orafai’s speaker and Malak, who the poet believes is the source of these abilities: “I like to think it came from Malak...My grandmother and I wore the same shoe size, wore the same small bird shoulders too.”
The universe of the collection’s third and final section expands in scope but still maintains its preoccupation with the slipperiness of language, knowing, and truth—how, like the grounds that gather in the seam of a cup that can speak a future we don’t yet know, there are markers to be interpreted in unexpected places, “how many other ways we could be / having this conversation.”
The certainties of such mysteries seem to crystallize, appropriately, in “Gospel”:
You’re still running from the chain
letter you didn’t write because you saw
your life would be safe, miraculous,
you lie down because the streamers in
the blow of the heat are telling you
something you don’t know yet,
and you call it truth.
That we can name the truth as such even in its unknowability, that we can comprehend languages we don’t speak, that there are languages that exist outside of utterance—these notions exist comfortably and beautifully beside one another in Malak, and they often glow, miraculous: “A blank sound / when your daughter sees / a chick hatch from an egg / for the first time, her open / mouth cried / nothing.”
Paige Sullivan completed her MFA at Georgia State University, where she served as the poetry editor of New South. Recently, she participated in the 2017 Tin House Winter Workshop and the Poetry Foundation’s 2017 Poetry Incubator. In addition to essays and reviews, her poetry has appeared in Arts & Letters, Ninth Letter, American Literary Review, and other journals. She lives and works in Atlanta.