Open Your Mouth, Carry It to the Next Place: A Review of Jenny Sadre-Orafai’s “Malak”

Jenny Sadre-Orafai’s collection Malak (Platypus Press, 2017) creates a new language that helps us understand the metaphysical, the things we cannot see. Sometimes we don’t know who is alive and who isn’t and it sort of doesn’t matter. In the poem “Round Lake Yearbook,” Sadre-Orafai writes lines such as:

…The way we tell the cicadas to please hit more notes.
The way the new finch doesn’t know space.
The way we fall into place around Round Lake.
The way no one here is awake yet.
The way we raise the dead is real.
Our whole gold life is happening.

There is a feeling of dread between these poems but also power in communal females: the work of sorcery interplays between nature and everyday objects. But the word “Malak” itself is mysterious and multi-layered. If one looks up the definition of Malak, it means “angel” in the Semitic tradition, but it also can be defined as “angel of death.” So in both instances, the angel could be delivering a spiritually charged message or the end of life itself.

The speaker’s grandmother (called Malak) sees strange images and foretells events. The speaker’s daughter has a gift, too, as seen in the second poem “Mouthing the Future”:

My father tells me not to tell my friends.

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.

Here we get the first mention of the fox (it is mentioned many times and feels important). There is a beautiful divinity but not a clichéd prophecy. The reader has space to fill in their own questions. There is a comfort in the unknown, in the woods. Here is the world that Sadrai-Orafai creates in the poem “Path to the Split-Log Home”:

Our planting is dictated
by the zodiac.

Our trapdoors lead
to sweet potatoes.

Our earth is wild—
horseradish, boneset, peppermint.

Our baby girls and boys
wear dresses.

Our mothers step on infant hems,
keep them from harm.

Our trees can only be killed
after we cut rings around them.

Our first frost means
now we kill the hogs.

Our sheep distrust
wanderers in pants.

Our snakes won’t die
until sundown.

The sisters ask that you leave
the same door you entered.

There is a sense of living off the grid, yet a theme of family and the furthering of a bloodline. There are rules that can’t be broken. There is a fierceness under the blue sky.

The words create a thick quilt and the language warms us, weaving through the cold night like droplets of light pinpricking our skin. All of the nouns that readers have read before in poems or novels regarding magic or spirituality or darkness are forgotten as Sadre-Orafai depicts a brand new otherworldly alphabet. We know what a fox is but she creates a new one, a woodland animal that surpasses our brain muscle memory. This is the same for birds, cups, the moon, crickets. They are reborn in this collection, never the same again.

Sadre-Orafai’s poems, or spells, call upon these objects to come out into the open, challenge the sleeping people walking around on Earth. Another image of the fox appears in “Wearing it Out.” Here a dead fox lays across the back and shoulders of a grandmother. Children point at it. It’s eyes are “stuck open.” But the speaker does not see a dead animal as fashion accessory. The speaker sees no different between the fox and the living children in the grocery store, stating:

A sleeper bag hung, waiting for it to return. I thought
at least the fox has its own room, and its own eyes.

I’d knock and ask it to play.

As seen in the above lines, the question presents itself: What is life and what is death but different planes of existence? Many of the objects seem to indicate a dichotomy. Cracked eggs are yellow and wholesome but might also indicate a future baby. An overturned cup could mean bad fortune. And always the birds, messengers between worlds. What does it mean when the wings are splattered on the ground? (There are instances of literal arms suddenly referred to as wings. The arms might be broken or the wings flattened.)

Part II called “Origin” are poems that focus on the young girl, the daughter, and how she relates to her grandmother Malak. They have similar gifts, even a similar look:

I made the door lock without a key, once without a
hand. I like to think it came from Malak and not the
woman at the co-op. My grandmother and I wore the
same shoe size, wore the same small bird shoulders too.

And below the granddaughter explains her powers:

If I concentrate hard on something, I can make it happen
—car glass shattering, radios shutting down, computers
going dark.

In the third part, it feels like there is communing between the dead women and the daughter: “When I’m just dead I will send a fox to my daughter. It will nest in her hair.”

The repetition of the fox, like dreams, alludes to the fact that knowledge is cyclical: passed down like magic, like genes, like empathy and intuition. That maybe all of our great and terrible answers will rise to the surface from our memories, if we can just be quiet and comfortable in the dark for a few minutes.

Jennifer MacBain-Stephens lives in Midwest and is the author of three full length poetry collections: Your Best Asset is a White Lace Dress (Yellow Chair Press, 2016), The Messenger is Already Dead (Stalking Horse Press, March 2017), and We’re Going to Need a Higher Fence, tied for first place in the 2017 Lit Fest Book Competition. Her work has been nominated for Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize. She is also the author of nine chapbooks. Her chapbook She Came Out From Under the Bed (Poems Inspired by the Films of Guillermo del Toro) recently came out from Dancing Girl Press. Recent work can be seen at or is forthcoming from Prelude, Cleaver, Kestrel, Yalobusha Review, decomp, and Inter/rupture. Visit her website.

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