Shoulder Season by Ange Mlinko
(Coffeehouse Press, Minneapolis, Minn., 2009)
Poet Beyond Borders
Despite notions to the contrary blaring from conservative television, America grows through its economic, political and cultural interactions with the international community, importing and exporting not only commodities and resources, but also languages, customs, economic/political innovations, and, in surprisingly profound ways, transformative art. American music has incorporated the rhythms of Africa, South America, and the Caribbean into its jazz, rock, and folk music; America has infused the movement of dances from around the world into its choreography (is there a less insular art form than dance, motion translatable in ways that images and words are not?); and America has folded the indeterminacy of French literary theory into its poetry, to highlight how American art but in a few instances has been influenced from afar. Yet America also virulently excludes, flings up economic and cultural barriers, battening down its hatches. Though most of the political spectrum in the U.S. is currently recoiling from world citizenship, one side of the aisle has taken so many knee-jerk reactions in the last decade I can’t tell if that’s a kneecap I’m seeing or a bald face (lie).
In Shoulder Season, however, Ange Mlinko is no blind-folded superpatriot. Through poetry, she takes a Whitmanesque bear hug of the world thriving above and beyond the arbitrary borders of nation-states. As she says in a conversation with poet Jordan Davis, “I like poems that engage the world. I love shows of brilliance and virtuosity. I don’t share the American prejudice for modesty in poems.” In this her third collection, Mlinko is as unparochial in style and subject as one can get. In today’s political climate, steeped in bitter tea, Mlinko’s inclusivity is downright un-American. I’m going to report her to Sarah Hannity or Sean Palin or whatever their frickin’ names are.
Mlinko eschews provincialism. Her poems are teeming not only with references to places in the eastern United States, but also to myriad places in Europe and the Middle East: Paris, Gibraltar, Zurich, Venice, Breton, Azerbaijan, and Beirut, among many others. These references aren’t placed to impress; this isn’t name-dropping signify nothing. Mlinko’s details add flavor. In one instance, in “World Lit,” she quotes al-Harith passing by a secret cabaret, disclosed by the green light emanating from its transom:
if we cross that threshold
we’ll be in Agadir
with the hated Germans who go topless
as the Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche
(“World Lit,” p. 9)
Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche is a church in Berlin that has gone topless since being bombed in 1943, a geographical reference then that both provides a humorous simile, but also speaks to how nudity, a common practice on public beaches in one culture is a grave sin in another. Mlinko’s poetic world is replete with these bridges, jarring cultural associations reaching across differences for shared spaces.
Mlinko’s global vocabulary shouts in the face of Americans who want their news to be as monosyllabic and black-and-white as possible. Thalassotherapy, synovial joints, cruets, pollards, orts, plewts, pentimentos, jacquards, urushiol lacquers, and langoustines abound. These are not strange words used for shock value; they reach beyond the common vernacular to encompass a greater means of articulation, fine gradations rather than rough, broad expressions. Americans might have to download a dictionary app on their mobile devices to parse these poems, but they better make sure it isn’t an Ameri-centric dictionary.
With a style at times colloquial and at times eloquent, Mlinko is not only plucky enough to employ a variety of rhymes (riff/if, Massachusetts/massages, clock/talk/rock), she unabashedly rips off similes and images that would make lesser poets cringe:
Love will be organized like notes from a piano
emerging like ants from the furrows of a peony
( “Peonage,” p.12 )
The sky was laced with Irish cream mist
( “A Not Unruffled Surface,” p. 13 )
You putter in the wooden shoes a lathe cut like gouda
( “X’d The Go-Go,” p. 36 )
I saw the chess players over their griddles, all the furor of thinking
swallowed like a song in a furred flute
( “Eros of Heroines,” p. 47 )
Only a poet who is in part the progeny of the New York school could have the cajones to pull off these at first glance inept comparisons.
As Mlinko romps across the globe, she closely maps the world of consciousness, of attention, as well. In the first two poems, Mlinko stakes out her cognitive ground. She acknowledges the natural world as a respite from the man-made world, or, rather, the world un-made by man (America’s leadership in this domain is only now being challenged by China). The natural world is measured against the war-ravaged streets of Beirut:
a little spa for the mind–seeing butterflies
set themselves down by the dozen like easels
on bromeliads, when out on the street the boutiques
are dilapidated, construction can’t be told from ruin
(“Treatment,” p. 1)
On the other hand, in the flipside to the opening poem, a sequel with the same title, she asserts that the projective construction of the external through the lens of the internal has its fatal limitations. When human destruction is indistinguishable from what has been made new, to retreat to the imagination is an immoral escape (as stated in the imperative “You can’t”):
The Mind is not a little Spa.
You can’t retreat to its imaginary
when outside construction
can’t be told from ruin.”
Intellect cannot be a retreat from a landscape the body is in the midst of despoiling.
One of the best poetry books of 2010, Shoulder Season isn’t a flawless collection. Some of the formal experiments fall flat, e.g. the two column poems “Engineering” and “This Is The Latest.” The two flush left columns with ragged caesura in between drag the poems down, a sluggish staccato that detracts rather than adds. If reading across and down the columns would have increased the number of possible readings, the form might have been justified. In one poem, “Thalassotherapy,” the italicized chorus lines–“What remains of the rue,” “What remains of the crabgrass,” “What remains of the butter-and-eggs,” “What remains of bog sage”–seem to be tacked on, an afterthought, the chorus a frail closure for each stanza, a forced connective tissue deployed in an attempt to hold the poem together.
Mlinko surged onto the poetry scene with Matinées (Zoland Press, 1999), vigorously followed up by Starred Wire (Coffee House, 2005). She was one of those few poets whose work arrived fully mature, stylistically urbane with finely-nuanced content. Have her poetics in ten years not changed, not developed? Perhaps. I’d argue that though they may not have evolved, their application as demonstrated in these poems has become increasingly robust. She now plies her aesthetic to a wider, ever-expansive canvas, carrying her aesthetic across larger spheres and concerns.
Pirouetting beyond fields plowed and sown by Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, James Schuyler, and Alice Notley, Ange Mlinko is creating her own space in the world of poetry and more. To encapsulate her fecund body of work, the word glee keeps coming to mind. And that may be the most American aspect to her work, its joie de vivre. This may be the Shoulder Season, yet no one has to go slumping through it without some ecstasy.
Crag Hill until recently edited SCORE, one of only two journals dedicated exclusively to concrete/visual poetry. In the last three decades his work has appeared in over 100 journals and anthologies, including several available on-line. His creative and critical works in progress can be found at http://scorecard.typepad.com. He teaches English Education at Washington State University.