By Ange Mlinko
Farrar Straus Giroux 2013
Wallace Stevens wrote that a poem “should resist the intelligence almost successfully,” and many poems have certainly resisted mine. These poems sometimes turn out to be my very favorites – they resist me not like dumb or stubborn animals, but because they seem so much smarter than I, containing what I can’t collapse or gloss. Their ultimate meaning seems close, but not entirely within my reach. They surprise and satisfy through approaches other than the strictly logical.
It’s deflating to be disabused of the mystical feeling such poems create. Several years ago, I gave my now-husband a copy of Robert Lowell’s “For the Union Dead,” a poem for which I have long maintained all the holy, glass-eyed fervor of a warrior saint. Upon thinking about it too long, I often get a faraway expression, and then begin to weep. At any rate, my husband read the poem; we proceeded to discuss it and he, to my intense dissatisfaction, proceeded to explain it: quickly, cogently, completely. My poor Colonel Shaw and all those snails, tied up with a bow! Luckily, I have a very flexible (that is, sieve-like) memory, and almost instantaneously forgot every inconvenient thing my husband had to say, if not the singular and palpable feeling of exposure that it occasioned.
The point is this: To be defied by a poem, to have your world made strange by it, is a particular delight, and not one that we should give up too easily when we find it. Ange Mlinko’s new collection, Marvelous Things Overheard, offers its readers many valuable things – music, history, very smartly turned phrases. I’ll turn to those, but let me begin with a poem that, for me at least, stands out in its ability to defy and satisfy simultaneously.
Like “For the Union Dead,” Mlinko’s “Words are the Reverse of Pain” deals in the confluence of the personal, political, and the mythic. The poem recounts the myth of Leto: as she labored to give birth to one of Zeus’s numberless by-blows, none of Greece’s islands would offer her sanctuary, lest she bring down Hera’s punishment. Intertwined with Leto’s story is the story of Mlinko’s grandmother, who was pregnant when she fled on foot across Europe to escape the Nazis.
And the islands
Close but uncrowded, like cousins slumped about
On pillows waiting for an adored movie to begin.
Think of Leto groaning amid them—trying to sweat a pearl.
Think of us cousins, watching Rudolph on Christmas Eve,
So many years after the camps and the ruses—
Lifetimes ago—pretending to be Polish!
This kind of poem could easily go sour – the identification of Leto with the grandmother not quite coming off, the use of the myth as a vehicle for personal history seeming too clichéd. In fact, the poem’s central observation: “That cruelty/has to exist to propel kindness into relief; that relief/must first imply pain” is not particularly original. But Mlinko resolves things neatly, writing of her grandmother’s health, destroyed by her journey, “they said this was the turning point.” The phrase is also the turning point of the poem itself, leading into its last lines, in which Mlinko describes the outcome of “Leto’s jammed labor”:
Did you know? Apollo! Arrester of tears.
A god in whose presence it is impossible to grieve.
Application of the tender to the elemental:
My thumb stops the knife’s turn through a carrot.
A dog roughs his tongue lapping rain on cement.
A callus rises. But words? Words are the reverse of pain.
Where pain is, no words are. Apollo loves words.
This ending resists my intelligence, but not my sense of what is correct. If I think about it at all, I simply don’t agree – words are not the reverse of pain, there is plenty of pain where words are, and neither can drive out the other. At the same time, there it is: Apollo loves words. What kind of reader would I be if I weren’t susceptible to this line of unreasoning? I wrote earlier that Mlinko “resolves” the poem, but she doesn’t – she’s created a perpetual motion machine. This poem provokes words even as it resists explanation. I could talk about it for hours; it undoes me. Not being able to tie it up in a neat bow makes it all the more precious. And if you find that you can – don’t you dare tell me!
To be sure, many of the poems in Marvelous Things Overheard do not resist the reader’s intelligence so as much as the reader’s knowledge. The collection takes its name from On Marvellous Things Heard, a curious mish-mash of “facts” traditionally ascribed to Aristotle. Read it and you’ll learn, for example, of plants that save tortoises from poison, a country whose blackbirds can only be caught by moonlight, and a bear with breath so foul that it kills dogs. If you’re trying to believe six impossible things before breakfast, this is the book for you. Marvelous Things Overheard doesn’t spend much time on poison-proof turtles, but while the book begins with poems that are either deftly self-explanatory as to any trivia they contain, or rely on the common currency of Greek myths, the situation gets more complex as the book goes on – so much so that, during the course of my reading, I felt compelled to research the following:
the work of Jean Cocteau
the names of the minor winds in both Ancient Greece and near environs,
nineteenth-century Ottoman officials
Native American place names at the time of the Roanoke Colony
the history of the ballet
man-made lakes in the Adirondacks
pre-Islamic Arabian poetry
ancient Persian units of measure
the origin of the word “chagrin”
idiosyncrasies of the King James version of the story of Jonah
the biography of Lynette Roberts
roughly 10,000 kinds of plants
I’m not a fan of “easy” poetry, whatever that means, but at times in my reading of Marvelous Things Overheard, I felt like I was participating in the King William College “Christmas” Quiz. I’m actually quite pleased with all the learning I garnered, but still, it’s hard to resist throwing across the room a book that seems to assume you are actually the Encyclopedia Britannica. My kingdom for adequate foreknowledge of the flora of Aleppo!
But the music of Mlinko’s work saves her book from a good thudding against the wall. A poem that bewilders you with references is just as likely to bewitch you with sound. Both aural and visual rhymes abound here. Take “Stabile,” a brief lyric that assures us, ominously:
We are a long way from a sea that cedes
black boxes from an area
forested like the Andes. Instead, a Mercedes
black as La Brea
leaps from the backlit red, anonymous,
when we try to cross
at the traffic island discarding hibiscus
with every wind-toss.
One of the book’s most difficult poems, the multi-section “Cantata for Lynette Roberts,” is ultimately a meditation on what it means to be a writer, a woman, and a mother. The poem meshes personal anecdotes that may, in fact, be too personal to have much meaning for the reader, with facts plucked from the biography of the poem’s titular subject, an Argentinian-born English poet. It’s an ambitious and demanding poem, constantly circling back on itself even as it requires the reader to absorb new information. Here, too, Mlinko relies on sound to smooth the way over the denser details:
My library is wreathed in double staircases climbing to a glass dome.
I imagine birds trapped at the top, a cucucurrucued curriculum, forming and dissolving
figures ad hoc.
Insofar that these are books that were ernes, atom-wise, in former eons.
In this way, Mlinko’s poems are many-layered – you can read them on their surface, and if you like that, you can come back and do a little research, and enjoy them differently, again. They’re also a bit like the Jean Cocteau she describes in “The Heliopolitan,” whose flights of fancy are forever exceeding your grasp, but no less charming for that. Indeed, more so:
“But the Romans must have built this here for a reason,”
he exclaimed. He was Jean Cocteau! Rain fell on the ruins
as he drew in his sketch pad the rooster with a toe.
“There are for instance,” he instructed, “spots on the earth
Where gravity is so light it barely exerts a pull!”
He lightly clucked as the pencil ran about….
Some people write books of poetry; others write poems that, for better or worse, wind up collected together in books. At first, it seems that Mlinko has done the latter – each poem is so intense in itself, in its music, in its facts, in its compression, that it leaves you drunk on its own particularities. Reading too many of them at once is disorienting and probably not healthy, like pounding back whiskey, beer, and vodka all at a go. A poem like “Symphonic Expanse” perpetuates a sonic fantasia of Mediterranean plants and place names:
. . . if you’d seen the bearded oat in Burjein,
the rayed white horehound in Tripoli, or maybe
the milkword in Ehden, as often I saw the strigose bellflower
and the cyclamen…
Meanwhile, a portion of “The God Category” imagines Echo as a guest at a Long Island cocktail party, chatting with the contemporary equivalents of e. e. cummings’ “Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls”:
They were like poems conceived, typical poems, near the metronome;
they preferred common complaints.
Good riddance to the husband who put the steak knives point-up like myrmidons
in the dishwasher
And if in their co-ops in Westport, or New Rochelle, or wherever, they resembled,
a little, pigeons – “Djinns,”
Echo flattered them, making them feel less less, bus somehow not all that
appreciated for it,
As when she had whispered to Narcissus “Us!” rather than, as he would have had
it, “Scissor us.”
A certain delirium can result from all this juxtaposition. But there is a uniting theme here, and juxtaposition is crucial to it. “Bliss Street,” a poem mid-way through the collection, exemplifies this. The poem begins with Mlinko looking out from her balcony, whose “sight lines are clear to the rooftop volleyball court of my son’s elementary school,” before sliding into memories of a trip to Cyprus:
We would pass the field of red dirt and then a schoolyard and wonder what it
would be like to be a child raised on an island like this
Squat between sun and sea, never an ice ace age, abounding with indigenous
flowers evolving freely, without extinctions
But, oh yeah—massacres
Barbed wire slicing Nicosia in a crescent ghetto
The poem goes on describe life her grandmother’s life on a Soviet collective farm, before finally placing her child’s school’s motto: “That life may be lived more abundantly,” alongside the fig trees
That survived the civil war by the looks of their thick trunks,
ringed by apartment blocks and antennae raised into a looming cloud the color of
putty. Putty not putti
The poem reminds me of Auden’s “Musee de Beaux Arts,” with its emphasis on the quotidian aspects of the tragic. But Mlinko is less concerned with myth than with the seething, soulless force of history, its indiscriminate jostling of beauty and destruction. Nothing in this world “evolv[es] freely, without extinctions.” Still, there is a carefully negotiated hopefulness here. No cherubs are watching out for them but the figs survive. After all, we imagine the gods – those oh-so-human actors we create to explain the inexplicable. After all, Apollo loves words.
The poems in Marvelous Things Overheard have something in common with those film sequences that begin with an amoeba, and then pull quickly back until you see all of New York City, and then the earth, and then the solar system, and then the Milky Way. They reveal the connections between seemingly unlike things. The poems also posit these as “human” connections, inasmuch as the history of any one of us depends on the history of all of us. But, for Mlinko, the meaning implied by these connections is equally dependent on human beings. As she writes in “After Sappho (The Volcano),” “the clouds mock me with their mimicry/ of continental landmasses. Chimerae.” We think the stars are beautiful, that those five together look like a bear. The stars don’t think anything about it – or us – at all.
Humanity’s meaning-making may ultimately be meaningless, but hey – it’s the only game in town. In turning over the detritus of history, biography, and myth, Marvelous Things Overheard deals in “the paradoxes of the imagination,” in weird survivals and associations. In the fact that the word “chagrin” may have come from “shagreen,” a rough, rawhide leather. In the fact that humanity managed to kill all the Carolina parakeets, while seeding an entire continent with horses. What can we make of these things? What should we? Myths, Greek and otherwise, represent attempts to make sense of the senseless through story-telling, to create contexts for the world’s otherwise disparate (and uncaring) mess of facts. Mlinko’s poetry at once resists and takes part in this anxious embroidery, in the very human need to take each marvelous thing in turn, and try to bind them all together.
Maureen Thorson is the poetry editor of Open Letters Monthly. Her first book of poems, Applies to Oranges, was published by Ugly Duckling Presse in 2011.