Ange Mlinko’s poetry of play.
BY DAN CHIASSON
The American poet Ange Mlinko’s fifth book is “Distant Mandate” (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). Her title, borrowing a phrase from the writer László Krasznahorkai, refers to art’s primum mobile, its primordial first domino. The drive to create art is a “mandate” so ancient that it should probably by now have expired, and yet when it arrives, still, it is always in a hurry. Mlinko’s readers can easily spot the wit, the elegance, and the play in her poems, but they might miss the urgency, since it is so slyly channelled. “Distant Mandate” is partly about the binds of middle age, when one’s obligations compete, like a nest of hungry robins, for attention. Mlinko’s poems aren’t simple: they face the complexities of love and loss with a pragmatic erudition. She is a difficult, allusive, dense poet, haunted by myth and by language. But she is also, in almost every line, funny, poignant, and self-impugning, measuring her pinprick dramas against the cosmos.
“Distant Mandate” opens with “Cottonmouth,” a venomous poem about seduction that recalls both the snake that bit Eurydice and the unpleasant aftereffect of getting high. The poem is in terza rima, Dante’s pirouetting form, which suggests tentative progress checked by partial reversal. In the Inferno, as here, the form provides the necessary gut check when traversing a darkened region loud with disembodied voices. Here is the poem’s opening:
A levitating anvil. Omen of seagull
Blown inland. Ranch gate said RIVERSTYX,
but it was the woodland that looked lethal:
no place to put down your foot. Bucolics
demand boustrophedon. The by-the-book.
“Male cicadas thrummed their stomachs
while a dragonfly eyed us from a pole hook.
Ripening grapefruit. Us just under.
Shoulder to shoulder. Tree shook.”
It turns out that there is a River Styx south of Gainesville, Florida, where the cottonmouth is a native predator. (Mlinko teaches in Gainesville, at the University of Florida.) The anvil, an inescapable judgment precariously suspended, comes courtesy of Hesiod and the Road Runner; the “bucolics” are Virgil’s poem of that name, plus the day-tripping lovers who see themselves in it. Art imitates life imitating art: “boustrophedon” describes the path that a plow takes as it moves back and forth in a field, the same serpentine path followed by rivers and by classical manuscripts that alternate between left-right and right-left lines of text. Soon, our contemporary Eurydice in the wrong footwear makes the momentous decision to “shed her red wedge / with its Mary Jane band.” Orpheus, who knows how the story ends, steps in to mansplain her error.
“Cottonmouth” is this book’s primal scene, where matched wits skirmish in a “by the book” crisis of their own making. Mlinko’s volume aches with pain, but its tone sometimes suggests the screwball comedy or “merry war” of Shakespearean lovers. Beatrice and Benedick, the quintessential lovestruck smart-alecks, appear in “Knot Garden,” the play on “knot” implying that these two will, in the end, “try” but not tie one:
Like Beatrice and Benedick, I thought—
As we went around the garden
trying, with words, a precarious knot.
This is the equipoise of a will-they, won’t-they pair who believe that by Act V they will. As the poem unfolds, though, the phrase “like Beatrice and Benedick” starts to sound shakier and shakier, an analogy asserted nervously by Beatrice as her Benedick drifts into abstraction. With his head in the stars, he won’t, in the end, look his accomplice in the eye:
Millions or billions don’t mean bliss:
think cotillions when you speak of stars
like Benedick and Beatrice
and not the prestidigitatory not.
I love that “cotillions,” which suggests a young, vulnerable person’s idea of majesty and rebirth, as against the armored cosmic prattle of her noncompliant knight.
“Distant Mandate” is partly about the dangers lurking in language itself, which poets, as their signal form of courage, approach on bared foot. (Frost intended the pun when he defined poetry as “feats of association.”) Mlinko’s poems are set all over, from Galveston to Marrakech, Cyprus to Crown Heights, and many points in between. Her extraordinary wit, monitoring its own excesses, is her compass. A dark drive across South Carolina gives the imagination something to do: “a plank of reflective dashes” and “the stink of brine like diesel” mean that we’re reading a poem about driving on a bridge. (The phrase about “dashes” is surrounded by, you guessed it, dashes.) The layer of language and metaphor clings, as always in these poems, to the environment they describe. In a contemporary Cupid and Psyche poem, “Epic” (borrowing from James Merrill’s great work “From the Cupola,” which itself borrowed from Keats), Psyche, enthralled by a lover who comes and goes as he pleases, “wanders through Arcadia,” a darkened Prospect Park lush with vocabulary:
Pillowy undulations, earachy
echo chamber of bandstand and stadia,
craquelure of dry fountains, stark
contrast to “wellsprings of hope.”
Back on the city streets, the “combinatorics of sidewalk and subway” and the “forbidden geometry” of apartment buildings yield to reality: “from arabesque and pentacle and hexagon” we arrive, at last, at the “3-D” Airbnbs—actual, habitable versions of the places we imagined or glimpsed on a screen.
Anyone reading Mlinko needs a refresher course on the meanings of “craquelure” and “combinatorics” and many other words that would not be out of place in Wallace Stevens’s “Harmonium,” a strong forebear of Mlinko’s style. I read Mlinko with my phone at the ready: Googling wildly, I must look as if I were day-trading or refreshing Twitter. And yet this work has more in common with the gregarious poems of Frank O’Hara than with the rarefied art pieces of early Merrill or Anthony Hecht. A writer with a big vocabulary and lots of learning can be spontaneous, too. You don’t deposit “Mary Jane” into a poem called “Cottonmouth” by arthroscopic surgery. You find it in the moment, use it, and move on. In a poem set mostly at the Houston Opera, “In the Gods,” “play” refers both to an oil-rich field and to the performance of Wagner made possible by the wealth and patronage it generates. This isn’t so much erudition as a weird form of grace, the courtesy assist that reality offers to the artist looking for meaning in it. Often, as in “Captivity,” a passage of extraordinary linguistic polish comes with a kind of implied caption. Here the caption would be “Kid’s Haircut”:
Now the lines of his skull appear,
the hair fallen to the floor
(grown for the better part
—a thousand pardons—of a year
and as leonine as a roar;
Google has changed poetry as it has everything else, releasing cultural capital from the miserly grasp of institutions. But it is silent about relations: the world still needs a mind knitting it together one comparison at a time. The haircut passage ends with a mélange that only Mlinko’s sensibility could have concocted. The floor beside the barber’s chair, covered with shorn locks, brings to this particular mind “the aeolian origins of loess, / the ground a leonine mess.”
Mlinko’s book is a study of indecision, stalemate, truce: suspensions of cause and effect, like the levitating anvil in “Cottonmouth,” that work for only so long. Poems are brutally aware of their short span of action; they’re terminal cases, but they bring the news of beauty. In “What to Read This Summer,” the age-old problem inspires Mlinko to compare the long-lived names of roses to the short-lived blossoms they describe. Ars longa, vita brevis. But there’s no escapism to be had in the flower catalogues or the nursery aisles. “Terrible are the rose names,” Mlinko writes:
‘Mother’s Day’ and ‘Playboy,’
‘Senior Prom’ and ‘Let’s Enjoy’
vie with a lyrical ‘Lady of Shalott,’
while a flyweight ‘Pink Knockout’
comes ‘Outta the Blue’ to mock
‘Honey Perfume,’ ‘Pillow Talk’
—jock Cupid wielding clout.
It’s a flip book of roles, some better than others, that, Mlinko suggests, a person might have played in the course of a life. In the book’s final poem, “Cythera,” the roles have been assumed by other, younger actors. This is the “seashore at evening,” where lithesome mermaids on motorcycles whiz by, their “leather-clad calves” united with a “noir chassis.” Invisible onlookers, we gawk at the spectacle of the young, whose lives are still an open question. The gorgeous gesture that closes “Distant Mandate” implies that the nick of time has arrived, sadly, a little late. The new spectacle is our own face in the mirror as it ages and fades:
all the original instinct for display or chase
from which this performance rises
(or depends) carries on life-and-death
while our species looks at its own face,
experimenting with disguises,
putting time on hold by holding its breath. ♦
From The New Yorker