In Their Own Words
Leslie Sainz on “Mal de Ojo”
Mal de Ojo
I study her hip bones, midday.
Something crackles through the trees—no, a withering.
I let the last malanga rot on the counter because it is easier
not to have to cut another thing open.
Bulls in my blood, pawing. The winter of it all.
Days later, I make another woman my enemy.
I follow her for three blocks before I trip over my envy,
forget to lessen myself. When I hit the sidewalk,
I feel my mother fall in Florida, and her mother, the same.
But I am smaller now than I was then.
Please, do not ask about my thens.
Reprinted from Have You Been Long Enough at Table (Tin House Books, 2023). Reprinted with permission of the publisher and poet.
On “Mal de Ojo”
Because I email each new poem draft to myself—a habit, I suspect, that originated from the undergraduate days of emailing oneself an assignment to print it from a campus computer—I’ve unwittingly produced an untidy yet locatable record of when I first attempted any of my poems. According to my Gmail, I first drafted “Mal de Ojo'' on the evening of January 22, 2019. This would have been during my time as a Stadler Fellow at Bucknell University—a dizzying year of creation, intimacy and deep friendship, and excruciating personal growth (there is no other kind, I think).
At the time, Lewisburg, PA (population ~5,000) was the smallest town I’d ever lived in. The only town I’d ever lived in. I had no car, (no license for that matter), and took to walking for both daily errands and recreation. Often, I’d walk through campus in the evenings, trudging up snowbanked hills before strolling leisurely by the Engineering and English departments and stopping to admire the main campus library and its austere clock tower. Sometimes, I’d loop back around towards 7th Street and the Lewisburg Cemetery, an awkward appendage of campus. I don’t enjoy the dead, though I respect them more than the living. They’ve already completed the longest task of all, the one you rarely get to prepare for and never get to check off yourself.
No doubt “Mal de Ojo”—like many poems from my book, Have You Been Long Enough at Table—sprung to mind after having ruminated on family, lack, femininity, and metaphysical cultural traditions on those very walks, in that very cemetery. Fundamentally, it’s a poem that approaches envy and eros as siblings, linking them inextricably to the aggravations of womanhood and matrilineal legacy. “Mal de Ojo” translates literally to “Evil Eye,” and the poem is dictated by what lies on either side of a handful of fraught metaphorical fissures: queer desire and its repression, nourishment and self-neglect, symbols of Cuban culture versus symbols of their Spanish colonizers, etc. There is at work, I hope, a perpetual sense of being at odds: a deflection for every thought, image, and attempt at procurement or certainty. To cast the evil eye, one must be desirous, paradoxically ready to reject its karmic overtones. And I cannot, or will not, undo the spell—the poem and its inhabitants trip and fall indefinitely.