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.
Ange 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.
But 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”).
If 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