Book Review
Malak
Jenny Sadre-Orafai
Platypus Press, 80 pp., available on Kindle

A Poetic Reminder of Our Agency Within Nature

Depending on perception, a number of worlds exist from one person’s mind to another’s. The translation of nature onto paper, one of the most cohesive and oldest traditions in Southern poetry, documents the transformations of writers or their subjects and movements from one perspective to another. This nature-focused tradition, however, often connects the subject or narrator to nature without actually putting the subject in nature. Readers see this with James Dickey’s “Below Ellijay,” where “the wind died in the tool sheds.” In “Aspen Leaf in Windless World,”Robert Penn Warren commands the reader to “Look how the sea foam, white, makes its Arabic scrawl.” Human subjects, while appreciative of nature, do not participate in it. They watch from the sidelines at best—just as many Southerners watch football games on fall Sundays.

The staunch approach of watching without participating likely stems from another Southern “tradition” in which humans are subject more to God than to nature. Many Southerners believe natural disasters of biblical proportions are the results of God’s will more than just nature’s reality; we are forever beholden to a greater entity who created us separately from nature’s savagery. Jenny Sadre-Orafai’s poetry collection Malak challenges this concept: Humans are not only an integral part of nature, but they are also more beholden to their own minds than to any entity living outside of their world. The Kennesaw professor uses startling imagery to bring the magic into a modernistic vein of Southern poetry.

‘Malak’ itself is a term that crosses translation, meaning ‘angel.’ Sadre-Orafai challenges readers to find or create their own angels as she creates hers. She uses malak in the text to directly reference her deceased grandmother, a woman whom she paints as a clairvoyant. A soothsayer. “Mouthing the Future” hints at Malak’s prophetic talents:

“They won’t believe how your grandmother sees
Patterns divide, gold fields in coffee, a foxtail
Twitching in the seam where the handle
Meets the cup…”

From her grandmother, Sadre-Orafai learns the art of listening to and understanding her surroundings in order to translate them into predictions. “Company” demonstrates that even man-made items can be likened to nature, as “Malak hears futures in cups the way we / hear oceans inside shells.” As exemplified by “Last Reading,” the cups from which Malak reads often bear messages through visions of nature: “There is a pregnant bird in the cup… After the last reading, she leaves the cup turned up, / daring the bird to forget I was pregnant.”

Humans are a direct product of nature, and they also create their own nature. Sadre-Orafai is the pregnant bird in the cup molded by nature, and she is also a goddess who can bewitch her surroundings to conjure events directly related to her thoughts. In “Origin,” she demonstrates her psychic abilities: “If I concentrate hard on something, I can make it happen / – car glass shattering, radios shutting down, computers / Going dark.” This exemplifies the text’s ongoing theme: Though we are beholden to nature (through the consequence of action), it is also beholden to us. “Origins” further proves this concept in later stanzas through the description of different types of rocks, which have their own personalities and powers:

“Raw quartz is rock candy disguised as broken caves,
Makes me sleep like I can’t stop. I take every amethyst
And trade it for rubies. They don’t bring sleep. Their red
Is loud and her favorite.”

In a world where different rocks can conjure varying atmospheres and powers, it only makes sense that humans with will power and autonomy can do similar, more powerful things on a broader scale.

While Sadre-Orafai explores the supernatural powers of the living being, she also probes the concept that the powers remain after death. In “When I’m Just Dead,” she paints a new life for herself after her body passes on: “I’ll send a fox to my daughter… she will shove it aside and look for me in a tin box / of necklaces…” Here, she uses the familiar tradition of material memorial alongside the deceased’s remaining existence beyond the material. Nature’s theme of rebirth through her daughter meets the concept of volition through continued existence. In “Origin,” she takes continued existence further by adding in psychic power: “I made a door lock without a key, once without a / Hand. I like to think it came from Malak…” Once Malak’s body deceases, Sadre-Orafai begins asserting her own witchcraft over her world, possibly guided by Malak’s continued spirit.

Malak creates a world left up to the reader’s translation. Part of its power lies inside of that concept. Sadre-Orafai places herself directly within nature, through imagery, symbolism, and experience. She isn’t just an appreciative observer watching from the sidelines. She is both an artist of nature and a part of nature’s art. She isn’t bound to any entity separate from the world, but to nature, and nature is bound to her. Her collection calls ancient practices of witchcraft and magic into its forefront—practical uses of the self in correlation to that which surrounds the self. Through such, Southern readers must ask themselves how much of their current situation is within their control. We are not merely observers of our existence. Sadre-Orafai challenges us to take an active role in governing our reality.