“Shouldn’t life resolve itself? » : On the « Venice » of Ange Mlinko
“Should we have stayed home and thought about here?”
It’s not Ange Mlinko, although it could be. It’s Elizabeth Bishop. The distinctions between “home” and “here” were obscure to the itinerant bishop. Nova Scotia, Massachusetts, New York, Key West, Brazil — “home” was never a fixed place; it was a word without a referent. Bishop appears several times in Venice, Mlinko’s sixth collection. First, we meet her in “The Elegance of the Pelicans,” a sextina featuring a scene of a puffer fish escaping from a hook, “passed and dribbled” by a flock of voracious birds with “ half of Naples / watching». Mlinko adapts this painting from one of Bishop’s letters. Bishop later provides an epigraph for the last of the collection’s four sections.
The two poets share interests beyond the zoological; questions about the ethics and merits of travel, once posed by Bishop, figure prominently Venice. Mlinko is an American poet who, although still maintaining deep ties to the American poetic scene, frequently turns her gaze to foreign shores. AE Stallings, Mlinko’s friend and recipient of some of his poems, is from the same pen — she resides in Athens, Greece. They inherit a tradition that hit a new high mid-century with Elizabeth Bishop and James Merrill. Although much contemporary poetry focuses on displacement and migration, the longing for a lost land or language is something else. Of course, displacement figures in Mlinko’s work—his family comes from Hungary and Belarus via Brazil; they left their home country after World War II and arrived in the United States shortly before Mlinko was born – but there is something distinctly and appealingly mid-century about his witty mark of literary peregrination, both self-aware and displaced. She is not “at home” abroad; she sees the sights, appreciates the culture, but remains an unimposing observer. From Herculaneum, a city covered in ashes and rebuilt, where the floor of the present is the ceiling of the past, Mlinko asks and answers: “Who was I there? A guest, a voyeur, a wanderer. “World Poet” is too inflated a term. But just try asking her if she’s a “travel poet”. She will oppose it.
Venice is a controlled and carefully crafted collection of formally inflected verses. Mlinko’s poems are often metric and usually rhymed. We find traces of the friendly and talkative poets of the New York school alongside the descriptive granularity characteristic of Marianne Moore. Mlinko’s scholarship is astounding, and his sense of language is maximalist. His references range from German writers Mörike and Mann to French director Claude Lelouch, and his vocabulary, always evocative, can send you back to the dictionary; specialized terms such as “whirlwind” and “déliquesce” abound. My angel – as she refers to herself in a poem – can never resist the joy of a pun, and the sheer fun bubbling behind her pun is irresistible.
Although Mlinko’s style has changed over the years, the poems of Venice are largely in the same vein as distant mandatehis latest book, published in 2017. If a book of poetry can really be anywhere, distant mandate takes place between Lebanon and Houston, two places where Mlinko lived at the time of the book’s composition. In Venice, the location is more difficult to pin down. The “Naples” where the crowd comes to see the puffer fish bounce was, for Bishop, a town in Florida, on the Gulf. But because Mlinko finds this story in Bishop’s correspondence “much like the incident related in the Mozart’s journey to / Praguewe suddenly find ourselves in the bay of another Naples:
[…] A reader,
Taking into account the change of sensitivity on two
centuries, could still conclude that they do not add up.
But between the feat of the pufferfish and the feat
suitors on the ripples, a chime like anklets
is my cue to keep flipping the pages for more of Naples.
Like an underground wild fruit runner, Naples
crawling to your feet, bursting through the ground
to snap your ankles and start to bloom!
During “The Elegance of the Pelicans”, “Naples” begins to fit more like a word on the page than a place. As the sestina makes its final turns, the reader comes across “Naples” at the end of two consecutive lines, stumbling over it. The word itself functions as a place of reception for a network of associations, superimposing the Naples of Florida on the Naples of Italy. There is also a Venice in Florida and one in California. In the United States, there are 47 towns and cities named Lebanon. While Elizabeth Bishop ponders the relative merits of ‘home’ and ‘here’, for Mlinko the two are sometimes indistinguishable.
In Venice, it is the very ease of moving between cities and countries that produces feelings of disorientation. There are hotel showers with surprisingly good water pressure, purgatory airports, suitcases for climbing stairs, video calls. And everywhere there is a trace of elsewhere. Even if you’ve left Venice, you might still languish in lingering “Venecite”.
A place visited by Mlinko is the entrance to the underworld. “The Gates of Hell” is an ekphrastic poem on a monumental sculpture by Rodin consisting of 180 figures and based on descriptions by Dante Hell. Although Mlinko’s speaker encounters the piece as part of a “travelling exhibit, arranged/in a gallery in Savannah,” it is a Rodin, so questions of cues and originality are never far away. The initial plaster is in the Rodin Museum; three original cast bronzes and several other copies are scattered around the world. The Thinker, one of the figures included in the work, often slouches to sit elsewhere. But there are 28 elsewhere.
Who can tell if the door Mlinko sees in Savannah is the original? Rodin’s is not even the first door of the poem. We start with a much more common one: the one found in an airplane terminal. “He didn’t mean those kind of doors,” writes Mlinko, “but here we are. Or I mean I. There is comfort in numbers. And being a “we” among a multitude might be preferable to a solitary “I”. This is especially true for what the speaker calls “my first vacation without my children”.
Seeing multiples everywhere and acutely sensing the flickering distance between “home” and “here” can be painful. There are echoes of Dante’s terza rima in “The Gates of Hell”, but Mlinko’s rhymes do not fit together. Instead, she opts for the ABCABC sestains, the form of George Herbert’s “Church-Monuments,” a poem that reminds us where we are all destined to return. Separation is as built into the forms of Mlinko as it is into life:
He deleted The kiss from the whole,
correctly assuming that bare happiness
didn’t belong at the gates of hell
If it is happiness that makes us tremble;
if it is not, too, its own abyss
between two gates and a terminal.
While Mlinko enjoys difficulty and density, his collection is also filled with simple, inevitably phrased descriptions. In Rome, “Romans come out the side doors, like cats that flatten themselves on a ledge, then venture boldly into traffic.” Nestled in Rodin’s bronze are “images of angel wings working to slow / a fall, not to maneuver an ascent”. And along the dusty peaks of Roman aqueducts, “[t]a rustic bicycle, like a feather / which has run out of ink, has written an invisible sentence / towards the ramparts and back. These observations suggest the selfless but awed detachment of a visitor to a foreign land, and the elegance of Mlinko’s descriptive mode persists even when that foreign country is as close as the small, failing mesocosm in his son’s bedroom.
Sometimes the soft boundary between foreign and familiar seems to signal impending ecological disaster. In “Bees in Cider” we meet the “puff bee” with the playful name:
It was a puffy bee, almost as big as the rose it lit up –
and that’s the point: so late in the season, it was
“remontant” – blooming all summer long –
every flower was now a shrunken simulacrum. So I lit
the question of all this sun leading to overproduction:
the roses I had counted in their furious overproduction
showing diminishing returns. something was wrong
on the whole project[.]
The poem is wonderfully repetitive and recursive. If it does not participate in a recognizable poetic form, there are rules: each of the words at the end is revisited, with twists. At one point “on” becomes “alight,” French for “we read.” It’s as if Mlinko’s tongue is drunk on its own. Heat and overproduction are terrifying symptoms of a climate crisis, one unsung effect of which is the vaporous wonder of nature rendered unnatural. It is here, in a poem that flouts historical chronologies – where the puff bee’s “wax wings” soften like a Roman tablet – that Mlinko offers his sharpest depiction of the self. – saying “the present moment”. Although Mlinko comments on various contemporary events throughout the collection – she worries “that Zoom is ruled by jinn / who filter the wavelength of love” and writes about the “cordon sanitaire,” a “postal vote,” and “impeachment hearings” — it’s poems like “Bees in Cider,” which avoid didacticism and leave things hanging, that provide the most productive enjoyment .
In one of the last poems of Venice, Mlinko writes: “I consolidate my dreams when I wake up. / Shouldn’t life resolve itself, like the acronym / by which the doubly shy Levin / persuaded Kitty to marry him? The word “resolve” is almost a contronym, a word with two opposite meanings – a lexical quirk in which Mlinko reveled a few poems earlier. To resolve is to conclude, summarize, or provide a satisfying ending. But it is also to atomize, to divide into separate elements. At Tolstoy Anna Karenina, the acronyms of Kitty and Levin are a private language. Levin communicates with Kitty through an acronym he chalks on the table between them. Much to her delight, her “I hnctly” is immediately intelligible to Kitty: “I never stopped loving you.” Their resolution – a revelation of love – goes through words resolved into letters. In VeniceMlinko reveals and delights in these harmonic resonances, “carillon[s] like anklets”, surprising links between places and times. In his flexible world, life “resolves” in both directions: there is always a Venice “here” and “at home”.
Oona Holahan was born in Venice, Los Angeles, and currently resides in Brooklyn, New York.