on Shoulder Season, poems by Ange Mlinko (Coffee House Press)

“Postmodernism has an allergy to depth,” sneezed Terry Eagleton in an otherwise thoughtful article in The Guardian a few years ago. Profundity for Eagleton requires language working at a “deep moral or metaphysical level,” but the “centreless, hedonistic, self-inventing, ceaselessly adaptive” creature who emerges from postmodernism cannot or refuses to go deep.

But as British Petroleum has demonstrated, we all go deep. The debate centers on the most effective ways of drilling down. Given the stakes, all innovative alternatives are most welcome.

MlinkoBWface.jpgAnge Mlinko’s Shoulder Season (her third collection) makes the poet’s traditional case that simply paying close attention satisfies a moral prerequisite. Both thematically and technically, her poetry shows language shaping the mind just as the mind enlivens the world. The acts are simultaneous, or rather, the feel of experience suggests they are coincidental. Her poems’ architectures are almost entirely devoted to making this point. In the opening poem, watching butterflies is “a little spa for the mind” -- and then, as thought wonders through language, she spins around to say, “But the mind – it’s a little spa” (“Treatment”).

In the next poem, also called "Treatment," the speaker disavows: "The Mind is not a little Spa. / You can't retreat to its imaginary / standard distance / when outside construction / can't be told from ruin." It's a world in which the human enterprise is suspect. But despite the concern about retreating from the actuality of ruination, in the end the spa's masseuse pleases by going deep where (or so) it hurts.

Mlinko’s persona is “centreless” since the mind speaking her poems wavers, wanders, dreams of exceeding itself, then pokes fun at the excesses. “I don’t share the American prejudice for modesty in poems,” she says in a recent interview with Jordan Davis. “But I do believe in a sense of proportion and elegance, things which give meaning to the idea of virtuosity.”

THE DISTANCE BETWEEN THE VIEW FROM NOWHERE AND PUT ME IN THE ZOO

. . . The pinetum and what have you.
I cannot always be anxiously keeping my accounts.
With a sky bitten around the edges
to show us we’re in Nature,
who’s to say the book a two-year-old holds out to me,
Put Me in the Zoo, is,
of intellectual instruments, the kazoo
whereas
The View from Nowhere is the cello,
low, low its voice, modest
as if buying stock in Lindt chocolates, for example,
were no worse a thing –
From that book on my nightstand
children march with their classmates in a double strand down
a main allee.
Tour groups curl thoughtfully around focal points.
The Japanese visitors have RSVP’d
the
genius loci
by means of their couture.
But we don’t have to reduce the mental to the physical.
We can have a dual-aspect theory
where I am not a private object,
and pseudocamellias are permitted their fractal of irony.
Next, ponderosas’ upper reaches are blackened
as if a smoke painter traced a torch there
(and we do imagine this to be
an area of highbrow graffiti).
Because those pinecones are more like us
than we are like the 500-million-year-old
outcrop of gneiss and schist
around which we manicure narcissus
the parade of children seen
about twenty minutes ago
are now louche high schoolers swarming the café.

Despite the disclaimer in the second line, this poem is very much about “keeping my accounts.” And this points to the great unresolved tension of her work – first, a desire to wander off, and then, a tap on one’s own shoulder, a reminder to make things cohere, even to imply prescriptively, a mode of excitable thinking camouflaged as eccentric oration. When she says, “We can have a dual-aspect theory / where I am not a private object,” we understand what she has intended this poem to be – the voice escaping its harness while remembering its lunch is back in the wagon.

MlinkoCover.jpgBut we don’t have to take ideas and turn them into poems (“reduce the mental to the physical”). No, we can deal directly with the words, and if we’re paying close attention to things, somehow as we say the words they shape an unlikely moral vision.

The phrase “we’re in Nature” in line three finds its strange gloss in the poem’s final lines where “those pinecones are more like us” than gneiss and schist. There’s child-like awareness (the zoo book) and there’s sophisticated blabbing on how humans enjoy detachment (Nagel’s The View from Nowhere) – and we go from childhood to the loucheness of adult knowingness.

When Mlinko throws in “pseudocamellias are permitted their fractal of irony” and ponderosas seen as “highbrow graffiti,” it’s to deflate our facile meaning-making. In turn, she isn’t above making a tired joke about Japanese toursists. (Yes, I looked up “fractal.” No, it’s not necessary to know Nagel’s thesis; his book’s title seems to suffice.)

In “Schilderachtug” she writes:

The precision required to paint
a seastorm seems duplicitous;

almost as duplicitous as a good actor
who substitutes for technique the effect
of being two people at once:

the mask ajar on the actor
cool beneath an agitated surface.

Mlinko pushes away from both linear descriptions of “actual” events while embracing the voice and gestures of an actor utterly surrendered to the surface of the script. Sometimes a poem takes a narrative shape, like “Tree in the Ear,” following a walk through Manhattan, a modest incident. Sometimes there’s a surrealistic swerve: “I could prize / piccolo jonquils out of April edemas” (“Shoulder Season”).

Ange_Mlinko.jpgIf you acquire “Shoulder Season” for your iPad, consider downloading the OED, too – to reacquaint yourself with the meanings of plewds, goliards, riprap, squill, huckaback, foofaraw, jackstraw, synovial, carrycot, anamorphic, peekytoe, boscage. In "Everyday Oblique," a recent and aptly titled article in The Nation, Mlinko says:

“We are a culture in flight from verbal color. The metaphoric and the riddling have been features of English-language literature from The Exeter Book to "I heard a fly buzz / when I died" to Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, but they tack against the prevailing winds of plain style. The journalistic credo of simple sentences and basic English has made it a crime against the language to use ‘fifty-cent words;’ even the semi-colon is semi-demonized as an abettor of complex sentence structure. We fetishize the notion of verbal richness in, say, Shakespeare, but our true idol is Strunk and White. Yet it could be argued that that too is a code — for a particular world-view that fancies itself neutral, objective and elite.”

Mlinko’s affection for a word like “pinetum” (protruding in the very first line of “The Distance Between …” above), her playfulness with syntax and association, and her lingering on the primacy of a mind (however satirized), tell us she has inherited a fortune from Wallace Stevens and John Ashbery. She has wisely invested it in the leap, the skittish remark – while sketching situations. There are vocal lapses here and there, such as in “Win-Win” where she channels Frederick Seidel: “A thousand hotheads make a Sarkozy: / at the sight of their BMW in a car-cozy / a thousand swans make a Sigolène / purring a win-win.” Yet this poem and “Securitization” are incisive entertainments on finance. [Postscript: Ms. Mlinko wrote to me after I posted this review to say that she was channeling Muldoon, not Seidel. Anyway, how can a reader ever really know, or need to know, who is channeling whom?]

In an author statement provided by the press, Mlinko says, “ ‘Shoulder season’ is a term from the tourism industry: it is a time period between high season and low season, ideal for budget travelers but perhaps less than ideal otherwise. The weather is in transition … it seemed to convey the right mood of uncertainty, in-betweeness and responsibility.”

That quaking global vibe runs deeply in Ange Mlinko’s poetry.

[Published April 15, 2010. 82 pages, $16.00, paperback original]

Note: Terry Eagleton's article "Living in a Material World" was published in the 9/20/2003 issue of The Guardian, but I was unable to locate a link via the website's search engine. I'll be happy to provide a photocopy -- just send an email with your mailing address. RS

Mlinko, Nagel, _Put Me in the Zoo_

Maybe it's not necessary to have some idea of what's in Nagel's _The View from Nowhere_ but it helps to open up some of the ideas in Mlinko's poem.

Nagel's idea is that science presents a 'view from nowhere' in that it concerns itself with the physical and structural properties of objects (weight, hardness etc.) in a way that seems fundamentally unlike our subjective perception (that's receptive to so-called 'secondary properties' like colour or taste). Nagel's book asks whether this subjective, perceptual understanding is continuous or not with mathematicisable scientific knowledge. The child's book _Put Me in the Zoo_ utters the cry of the philosophic naturalist--to be placed 'in Nature'--yet Nagel's work suggests this might be a false consolation if we took it to involve the claim that world has, contra science, to be like our perceptions of it because our natures frame the criteria for _any_ understanding. At the same time, we should hold onto what is distinctive in our perceptions: 'we don't have to reduce the mental to the physical', which also, as you say, suggests we needn't reduce the world to poems. A 'dual-aspect' theory might insist equally on these two components of our understanding of the world in Nagel's terms, the scientific and the perceptual.

This is poetry in the grand American tradition of lay epistemology--serious, consistent in pointing an argument, but also playful, distracted, observant of parenting, children, people outside the family.

Mlinko shoulder season

what I loved best about this beautiful book was the sheer exuberance of language.

Mlinko as postmodern

I'm glad you selected Mlinko to make your points about the "depth" of the postmodern, but I hope you'll go further in subsequent reviews. Seems to me Mlinko is a representative poet of the moment. Her work isn't especially unique. I mean her techniques are very familiar. But she may be quite representative because the things she does, once considered leading edge, are now common. I like her work a lot don't get me wrong. Will acquire this book.

On Lapse & Transitions

"Given the stakes, all innovative alternatives are most welcome."

Sure, by me too. I also hesitate to pan the postmodernists, not least because I suspect that they can (and will) invent their alternatives -- and maybe also because I suspect a little that "[...] the poet’s traditional case that simply paying close attention satisfies a moral prerequisite" serves only to place a rather inflated value on the former. But no matter. In reading the generous portions you give us in your review, I know that Ms Mlinko is certainly a strong and deep poet..but that's not because she knows how to use her dictionary. We are all distanced (or brought closer) by how others use their vocabularies; that some believe the language of poetry needs to be worked in extra tension with what it means, seems a shame. Call me old-fashioned. As a reader, I figure there's no value added when I feel I have to choose between looking up a word, guessing what it means, or just plain ignoring it. As a poet, I have to battle with how best to be understood. I figure that there are more than enough "situations" to share that are largely non-duplicitous -- and, by the immediacy of that experience, they are begging to be shared.

fascinating review. I think

fascinating review. I think I will have to go look for the book! thanks, Ron.
peter