Marie-Elizabeth Mali

Ocean Folio Introduction

Marie-Elizabeth Mali Folio Introduction
Photo credit Marc Povey

“The cure for anything is salt water—sweat, tears, or the sea.”
                                                                  —Isak Dinesen

After my divorce last year, I spent a lot of time in Indonesia scuba diving and photographing underwater creatures in the area of greatest biodiversity in the world. The more I dove, the more I felt my emotions shift, as if the salt water were drawing out what needed to be cleared. Part of what I love about diving is the immersion in a complex world not my own, a world with its its own currents and relationships that I’m privileged to witness and commemorate through photography and poetry.

When I was invited by Ravi Shankar to curate an ocean folio for DB18, I jumped at the chance to gather work inspired by the sea. I wasn’t sure what to expect, since I come to the writing of ocean-related poems via direct experience and images in my memory, but most of the poets I know aren’t divers. It was a pleasure to see the many imaginative ways poets have of relating to the ocean and its inhabitants in their poems.

The poets included here use an abundance of strategies—persona, mythology, narrative, lyric, prose poetry, an article abstract—through which to engage the subject of the ocean and our relationship with it. Whether written from the point of view of a human being encountering the ocean—gazing at it from the beach, or being on a boat, or clutching an oar after a wreck—or written from the point of view of a sea creature itself, such as jellyfish or a mermaid. I was surprised that jellyfish were so popular, the most popular marine subject of the submissions I received. I was also surprised by how many more women responded to the call than men.

Throughout the poems we see boats, an oar, a beach, a bridge, some of the solid places that mediate our relationship to the vastness. Melissa Stein’s first poem is a meditation on the color blue in three sections and her second poem, a lyric, occurs at the beach. A shipwreck provides an effective metaphor in Keetje Kuipers’ “The Oar,” in which the speaker says, All adventurers have contingency plans. In Gala Mukomolov’s poem, the speaker remembers swimming with her father and the Russian card game, Durak (a word that means fool), they used to play. The speaker in Johanna Dominguez’s poem is also swimming, and her focus is on the spawning going on all around her.

From Jonah, questioned by the speaker of Joshua Bennett’s poem, to Victoria McCoy’s poem in the voice of Odysseus, mythology resonates through the work, including obliquely through a funny (and sad) prose poem by Cassandra de Alba in which whales have resorted to renting out their stomachs as hotel rooms.

The ocean also provides a way to tackle subjects like race and misogyny. In Roger Bonair-Agard’s “claim—for the ocean,” the speaker asks, But what about all the brown bodies at the bottom of the salt water, and Ocean don’t love us / It just love our mermaid style. Joshua Bennett examines the fraught relationship of the African diaspora with the sea in his second poem. In Fatimah Asghar’s poem, the brainless jellyfish responds to a man who prefers women who don’t think. A mermaid tells her story at the hands of a man in Rachel Wiley’s “Coersion.”

The folio wouldn’t be complete without a couple of love poems and a love song. Aimee Nezhukumatathil praises her lover who is as steadfast as a penguin male. Robin Beth Schaer imagines a poetic correspondence between a man at sea and his beloved waiting for him to return and meet his newborn son. Robby Baier’s song imagines his lover as an ocean in which he has finally found anchor.

Only a couple of poems deal directly with climate change: Hila Ratzabi writes a dispatch from a bridge, as she returns home the day before the end of the world. Laura McCullough laments the coral dying off and the lack of sanctuary in today’s world in one poem, and in the other celebrates the puka shell. I imagine the subject of climate change will figure more and more in our creative work as the oceans acidify and warm and species disappear. I feel a sense of urgency to document and help save what remains. I hope the work in this folio will inspire others to do the same.


[To view the photos as a gallery, click on a photo to open it full-size, and then again click on the photo to view the next one.]

Marie-Elizabeth Mali

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). Until recently she co-curated louderARTS: the Reading Series and the Page Meets Stage reading series in New York City. Before receiving her MFA in poetry from Sarah Lawrence College, she practiced Traditional Chinese Medicine. She has been awarded a residency at the Atlantic Center for the Arts in October 2013. Her work has appeared in Calyx, Poet Lore, and RATTLE, among others. 

(Photo credit: Peter Dressell)