Ange Mlinko has long presented herself as an enthusiast, a collector, an exhibitor: of experiences and of lore, especially the histories of words. This sensibility, which also inclines towards eccentric forms of performance, has been on display in her work since the title poem of her first collection, Matinées (1999), in which a bit-part actress or dancer, tired of waiting for her curtain call, slips out to wander the city, eventually finding herself in ‘the back of a Portuguese market’, whose contents (and inhabitants) she feels compelled to ‘inventory’. Versions of this figure in Mlinko’s fifth and latest collection include the ‘puckish curator’ arranging roses in mildly unsettling patterns based on their strange varietal names, and the troubiritz or Occitan female troubador – here imagined as a gardener – for whom making is finding, trobar. The moment in ‘Matinées’ remains exemplary, however, not least in its ambivalence about applause. Declining outward approval in a marginal role, Mlinko’s alter ego seeks out a remoter margin, casting herself in a new drama of which she will be the star – yet one hedged by residual uncertainties. These are captured in what might be called the poem’s burlesque of ethnography: a self-imposed task which is also a game, in which an interest in culture both demands and serves as a pretext for continued detachment.
Starting out as a city poet of Boston and Brooklyn, Mlinko has since become a poet of seemingly perpetual itinerancy. She began by writing free verse – her early work tended to emulate Frank O’Hara and other New York poets – and now composes mostly in rhyme and off-rhyme. She completed her third collection, Shoulder Season (2010), in Beirut. But her ‘poet baptism in the Mediterranean’, which brought an ‘altered relation to time’, became pronounced only in Marvellous Things Overheard (2013), with its use of forms that allude to earlier poetic traditions. The new volume’s poems are almost exclusively rhymed, and present a dizzying array of settings, from Beirut, Rome, Marrakech, Greece and Miami to Rosenberg, Texas and Hershey, Pennsylvania.
Much of Mlinko’s travel is for work, her own and her husband’s teaching appointments, prompting her to compare them, a bit dicily, to ‘nomads’. But if her point is to distinguish her family’s lifestyle from that of others in ‘the jet-set south’, she also registers the continuing importance for her poetry of a certain kind of exoticising fantasy, however ironic. Such resonances are captured in her new collection’s title, Distant Mandate, and they are amplified by its allusion to a chapter in László Krasznahorkai’s Seiobo There Below, a prose fantasia in which visiting the Alhambra entails ‘the most horrifying burden’, ‘to be awake in another’s dream’. Mlinko’s recent poetry, both formally and thematically, could be said to have escaped from one daydream to wander in the dreams of historical cultures.
These interests have recently tended to coalesce into a distinctive kind of poem, typically several pages long and based on an overt formal scheme, marshalling together linguistic, historical and (presumably) autobiographical materials. Such assemblages are both impressive – with their part elegant, part improvisatory formal resourcefulness – and teasing, with their hints of symbolic or allegorical coherence. In the sonnet sequence ‘Captivity’, for instance, Mlinko weaves together a trip with her sons to a barbershop in Texas – fully decked out in crèches and ‘metallurgical fur of tinsel’ for ‘Yuletide in the New World’ – with extracts from colonial and 19th-century American ‘captivity narratives’: that is, accounts by white women of their abduction by Native American tribes. The extracts’ theme is the deaths of children and the gentleness of mothers, on which Mlinko comments: ‘Gentleness (I know)/is learned. And unlearned also.’ Not unlearned fast enough when the Quahadi captors, ‘hunters to the bone’, ‘snuffed out Rachel Plummer’s infant/(nursing was lost time)’. But for the poet it may not be too late. Her son’s hair has ‘grown for the better part/ – a thousand pardons – of a year’, his ‘leonine’ locks raised, we suppose, in one kind of captivity. Submitting them to the barber’s shears means surrendering him to another kind: most obviously, captivity to another order of time, the ‘Yuletide’ promise of the year’s rebirth, but perhaps also to what Mlinko portrays as the stilling and remaking power of art. The tip-off here is the iconographically resonant mirror:
Buzz Cut 10, Bald Fade 16.
Fluffs the nape, dabs with the shaver,
underplays it as a ‘trim’.
It’s as if – the works of time undone –
the mirror, held up to him,
shows his moonface smaller, graver.
At the close of a lengthy poem, few of whose connections are spelled out, this is remarkably eerie. Often enough, though, Mlinko’s closing ‘voilà!’ leaves us with a more uncertain sense of wonderment. Several poems here focus on tourism: the ‘weekend getaway/before the holiday’s official end’ captures especially well the life of harried, itinerant parents. The poet makes what she can of apparently second-rate experiences. ‘We could eat grapes half the morning like Goethe,’ Mlinko writes in ‘Revelations’, ‘hunkered against an obelisk,/waiting on the proper angle for the season/to see the Sistine sun-kissed’ – but she rejects the idea in favour of taking things as they are, or as they allow themselves to be taken: ‘or we could slip a coin in the device/that illumines another masterpiece/in a sordid chapel (soon again/dark shrinks it to a gleam of grease)’. Mlinko’s ‘or’, chiming with ‘sordid’, is deadpan; Goethe’s half-sybaritic pilgrimage probably isn’t an option for today’s vacationing academics. But the poem insists on the authenticity of its own way of seeing, authentic because Mlinko grasps culture as contingent, its agency lying as much with recipients, petitioners and chance as with named individuals: ‘So that sfumato wasn’t the artist’s,/and the Latin wasn’t Jesus’s,/but the suffering belongs to all of us,/and the technique is the breeze’s.’
As a thought about cultural syncretism this is salutary, if a little breezy in its sweep. (What kind of ‘suffering’ does Mlinko mean? Does it belong to all of us equally? And what difference does it make, imaginatively, for her?) In any case, the insight’s weight is borne not so much by the conceit as by the verbal gesture introducing it. ‘So that sfumato wasn’t the artist’s’ states a conclusion, but the tone suggests something closer to ‘So what if that.’ Something closer, that is, to the rhetorical dismissal at the end of another poem of apparently missed experience, when the poet and her husband find themselves locked out of the fortress they have come to visit, but are compensated with a vision of the spawning power of the sea: ‘And so/who cares that the fort’s built on a sandbar,/that we don’t make it in, and go/only so far around the perimeter.’ In this way, epiphanies in Mlinko’s poetry end up strangely resembling dismissals. Yet their casualness seems shadowed by an underlying vehemence that somehow keeps what has been rejected still in play.
In ‘Dentro de la Tormenta’, Mlinko wakes up bleary-eyed with her family in a room above a café in Miami. Looking out to see a young woman swimming confidently ashore, she reflects, impressed but diffident: ‘I wouldn’t particularly have wanted/to be that girl having to effect a rescue,/slight, thin-nosed, on lifeguard duty.’ The image finds its echo in the book’s final poem, ‘Cythera’, which makes the traditional symbolic associations of the erotic surf more explicit – ‘walking in the turgid surf is difficult/and, you’d think,/might disabuse us of the pleasantries/attributed to Aphrodite’s cult’ – but the thought is pointedly counterfactual; we continue to make our voyages to Cythera, though the obliqueness of the acknowledgment seems also to be part of its meaning.
In other contexts, it is tempting to connect Mlinko’s cultivatedly ‘distant’ interest with her historical sensibility, that of the fated and permanent exile. Born in Philadelphia, the child of refugees from Eastern Europe after the Second World War, Mlinko seems always to have felt – and ultimately to have welcomed – a certain degree of linguistic and cultural dislocation. (The poem ‘Gelsenkirchen’, first published in the LRB, finds her contemplating portraits of, presumably, her grandparents, taken during their flight. In a gesture that could be read as parody, but is meant as tribute, she displays the photographs like icons: side by side and draped with a linen cloth.)
For the most part, she retains that exilic consciousness according to which history has either already happened or, when incoming, must somehow be dodged – perhaps so as to return to her accustomed terrain of the aftermath, with its relics and curios:
The alcove in which we embrace
is cool with brilliant tile
and weirded by a dove’s note; chase
of ouzo with Uzi, junta-style.
History makes its noise; we duck
till it passes. Love we think is our due.
Not, we think, like the epoch,
the unchosen thing we’re wedded to.
This particular fantasy – perhaps recalling the ‘Chaplinesque’ of Hart Crane, another of Mlinko’s acknowledged early influences, which imagines being able to ‘sidestep’ death and social censure – tests the power of the blasé gesture to cut threats down to size. ‘History’ here is deliberately vague; that pun (‘ouzo with Uzi, junta-style’), deliberately tasteless yet also verging on a certain flavourlessness – since what, exactly, are we being asked to imagine? If the lovers have really been interrupted by gunfire, you want the poem to make you know it, so as to know what its blitheness is being summoned up to resist.
Mlinko is mainly resisting, it seems to me, writing a kind of poem she considers overly solemn or sanctimonious. Far from being a political poet, she is much closer to being an anti-political one, and the exceptions prove the rule. (One of her protagonists, faced with New York’s Freedom Tower: ‘I paid homage to the notion of Freedom by walking away/from it.’) The first of her collection’s two epigraphs, from Pound’s ‘Sestina: Altaforte’ – ‘Damn it all! all this our South stinks peace!’ – seems to have nothing whatsoever to do with the current state of the world, but Mlinko’s emphasis clearly falls on the next phrase she quotes: ‘Let’s to music!’ That is, presumably, as opposed not to ‘peace’ in a literal sense, but to the tedium of being answerable to events – perhaps even, in a garish reversal, of being answerable to war.
It is, however, the book’s second epigraph, invoking the ‘bitter ideal’ of Mallarmé (‘Mordant au citron d’or de l’idéal amer’), that points to its wittiest, most candid and knowingly grotesque conceit of aesthetic self-justification: in which bitterness becomes its own temptation to overcome. In ‘Hershey Suite’, the poet and her husband check into the Milton Inn in Hershey, Pennsylvania. The inn, like the town, is named after the founder of the American chocolate company headquartered there – not after ‘the other Milton, four centuries ago’, though the poet can’t help but think of him too. Despite there being ‘no obstacle to love,/ourselves uncrossed’, she feels blocked by the thought of overabundant sweetness: ‘the Cockaigne of limitless chocolate,/bricked and sauced’. In this, she asserts an affinity with that ‘other Milton’, who, we have been told, ‘hated rhymes/ – and thus the sweet –’. Yet just such sweetness is the poem’s medium, with its rhymes on both word-sounds and historical coincidences, as ‘Milton’ and ‘Milton’ or ‘sweet’ and ‘suite’ (in the latter of which we are surely meant to hear not only a musical ‘suite’ but a ‘suite of rooms’ – or of stanzas). The poem’s closing gesture is to reconcile itself to its own principle, by way of a light witticism fusing the ‘sublime’ with the erotic, a deliberately dying fall.
This, and Mlinko’s other poems that proceed through thickets of complexity to skin-of-the-teeth resolutions, belong to the genre of comedy, or more specifically to what Stanley Cavell has called the ‘comedy of remarriage’, a subgenre whose touchstones are the late romances of Shakespeare and the Hollywood screwball comedies of the 1930s. (Remarriage need not here be taken literally, though the poems hint at some ordinary turbulence: ‘Because our hiatus is on hiatus,’ like Shakespeare’s Beatrice and Benedick, ‘we went around the garden/trying, with words, a precarious knot.’) The poems about ‘Marriage as Baroque Music’, with its complex and unexpected counterpoint, tend to produce Mlinko’s most individually memorable lines (‘It rains to occult the roving sun when we love’; ‘And love as-is absorbed a gone oasis’), lines whose springy compactness might recall William Empson but also, more immediately, Lynette Roberts, the Argentinian Anglo-Welsh modernist with whom Mlinko identifies as a fellow quasi-exile, and to whom she devoted a lengthy poetic tribute in her last collection. Such lines respond to high comedy’s demand for virtuosity – a quality Mlinko cultivates, though she can still seem indifferent to whether her tumbled plates recompose themselves on the tray or fall with a clatter.