From Ange Mlinko’s Diary: “Squill”

It is often said that poetry in the late 20th Century and early 21st century concerns a search for identity, and this is certainly true for the great poetry being written by women whose work is now becoming one of the cornerstones of contemporary poetry.  Women’s poetry today is of such a high-caliber, experimental in both form and content, that some singular pieces are evidence of a level of art that is among the greatest poetry ever written in this country.

Ange Mlinko’s poetry has been a published since the late 90’s. She won the prestigious National Poetry Series competition in 2004 with her second book, Starred Wire, and was also a James Laughlin finalist. She also won the Randall Jarrell Award (in 2009) for best literary criticism. She has earned a reputation as an intelligent poet whose elegant lyrical style, quirky humor and surrealistic literary technique has found a sure place among her peers, as well as among older contemporaries, as John Ashbery and Rae Armantrout, who recognize her as a great talent. She has even been the subject of a mock satire by Kent Johnson. Mlinko’s poetry and criticism evidence nothing less than a first class literary intelligence. One suspects, however, that she may be in the same position as Ashbery was before “Self-Portrait in a Convex Lens,” as one who has created some poems of resounding beauty and intelligence, but whose best work is yet to come. At this juncture in her career, I believe she is one of those young poets whose readers have not taken her true measure.

Shoulder Season, Mlinko’s third book, contains poems bearing Mlinko’s trademark surrealism, a term which I use very generally to describe her individual style of portraiture, for lack of better expression.

Like rivets outlasting your jacket, the airplane skin
remains stitched in rags, your dreamlife more fragile than flight
or glasses on your pillow every night . . .

(“Lighter Fluid and Typewriter Grease”)

It was a wedding dress that took possession of the soul of its bride the minute she saw
it in the mirror, or it saw itself—and this we know happens, but not with the
malevolence of this dress that wreaked havoc at the reception, set the hall on fire
and dropped a crate of champagne on the string trio.
“Aha,” cries the groom as he realizes the chrysalis of evil he must divide from his bride:
“You are hardly an unruffled surface!”

(“A Not Unruffled Surface”)

Two flags nuzzle each other in the desultory gust
because they are
fleeing the trees, who are cruel to one another,
shading their neighbors to death

a mixed bag
advocating small business in a loose confederation.

(“Year Round”)

Even when the poems touch on apparent biographical matter, the poetic language is of a high order of fantasy and invention, where the Mlinko stretches metaphor into a multidimensional universe that seems boundless, often unresolved, because of the deliberate ambiguity in the images she assembles. When the stars are aligned, as they often are for her, the combination of lyrical craft and poetic imagination is stunning.

Mlinko is not always personally forthcoming about herself, unlike many of her peers. One thinks of D.A. Powell, Nikki Finney, Terrance Hayes, Daisy Fried, Emilia Phillips, and many others, whose poems contain many biographical revelations. Mlinko’s work rarely contains a straightforward personal narrative, and she will often reveal herself in the second or third person, much as Wallace Stevens did. When she works in the first person, for example, “Peonage,” “Kouign Amann” and “Eros of Heroines” (from Shoulder Season), the narrative is subjected to surrealistic manipulation. But where it is presented in more conventional language, as in “Squill” and “Bliss Street,” a family history is being recorded, not so much as exposé, but as a personal record and perception of herself in a specific time and place of her life.

“Squill” represents a poetic achievement so rarely encountered in the modern era, mixing the highest level of lyrical beauty within a complex fabric of thought that weaves the poem. The poem is the longest in her collection and uniquely framed within a sequence of poems that end Shoulder Season. “Squill” may be found at the website of the Boston Review:

With “Squill” Mlinko appears to have written a formalized diary entry, relying upon a tighter, more conventionalized framework, very different from other poems in the volume, indicating an intent to accord unusual prestige to its content. There is a subtle abab rhyme (a near-rhyme) scheme that is deftly handled among lines of four and five beats that stride with a regular rhythm, with some three-beat lines adding emphasis and relief at strategic points, so as to make rhythm and rhyme an integral stitching and yet evade the heavy footfall that standard rhythm and rhyme has on modern ears accustomed to freer forms. The pacing is exquisite, soft and deliberate, even as the emotional tide being evoked rises from a seemingly calm morning to the fierce intensity of a sudden storm, which then subsides into limpid acquiescence and resignation.

In this way, “Squill” is related to Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” not only in its poetic structure, which has similar attributes, with three, four and five beat lines linked with a varying rhyme scheme (so much so that it is considered the “the first major ‘free-verse’ poem in the language”[1]), but also its emotional curve. The poetic tide traveled by both poems also seems quite similar and, indeed, both poems also contain layers of cultural and social touchstones at the heart of which is a domestic drama.

In “Dover Beach,” Arnold’s opening lines describe the calm northern sea that subtly discloses a disquieting underbelly in the surf (“you hear the grating roar/Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,/At their return, up the high strand . . . and bring/The eternal note of sadness”), and the poet finds its historical analogue in Sophocles, who also found the “turbid ebb and flow/Of human misery” in the same sound.  In mid-19th century Europe human misery can no longer be relieved by the “Sea of Faith” whose “long withdrawing roar” leaves a world with “vast edges drear/And naked shingles.” As Arnold sees all history bear upon man’s mortality, only fulfillment of the vow of being “true” can shield the lovers from a life that “Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,/Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain.” The startling end of a work, which is recognized as a “honeymoon” poem commemorating Arnold’s marriage to Frances Lucy Wightman in 1851, is the description of the lovers: “And we are here as on a darkling plain/Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,/Where ignorant armies clash by night.”  The employment of the military metaphor was used traditionally (especially in courtly love poetry[2]) to indicate conflict between the lovers, and Arnold’s linking the lovers to two “ignorant armies” suggests more than one precipitated by the cultural vacuity he saw afflict the world.  Rather, the poet enjoins his lover to a “truer” commitment in a marriage that has just started, a time where one would normally assume that the lovers have reached their passion’s peak.  This discordant note suggests that Arnold is yet unsatisfied with their relationship and is trying to achieve understanding and common ground with his spouse. The pretext for being “true” is presented as an argument that the world is friendless, joyless and loveless, and has historically been so, and so the lovers’ only hope is each other.  Conflict between them can only be compared to “ignorant armies who clash by night,” to those blind to the real things that matter in life. The introduction of the military theme infers conflict, and the circumstance in which the argument is posed in fact makes it a more desperate lover’s plea.

I use this brief exposition of Arnold’s “Dover Beach” as an introduction for an even more absorbing domestic drama that unveils itself within the subtext of “Squill.” At its core, the poem describes the conflicts that contend for the poet’s identity as poet, as a woman, as a wife and mother, and even as a daughter. In short, the poet is involved in a complete self-assessment of her role, and it is done in the context of creating the poem, which provides an added tension, where the urge to create and assert her artistic persona is juxtaposed against the instinctual and societal demands that she serve in traditional roles of wife, mother and daughter.

The poem opens with a description of the poet in “sleep debt,” a condition with which all parents, especially young mothers, are familiar. The season is spring and the awakening here is not just seasonal, but gradually discloses the poet’s realization of the import of her new role as mother.

Half asleep, I heard a pin drop.
The quality of light was strong,
it was changing weekly,

The significance of the pin drop is not immediately revealed, it seems to waken the poet from some slumber, but the poet quickly moves from the sense of hearing to that of sight, as if to signal an opening of the eyes in “strong” (and with each passing day, stronger) light. Even though “[h]alf asleep,” the poet-mother has the ears of a cat (later described in the poem), and throughout the poem she insistently accords superhuman qualities to her senses.

The seasonal change also reflects an internal change that is happening in the poet’s life, in a sense that the “quality of light” is becoming more intrusive. Because of the intentional ambiguity that the poet invests in her work, the light may be a symbolized rendering of her creative powers, becoming enhanced and yet in transition (“changing weekly”), or a growing clarity of mind. What we feel is the mystery and anticipation at something new. We see, also, that this light is also closely identified with her child.

 but on top
of every new change was a lung-
like cloud with a violet
or oysterish froth burnished to pearl
by an untucked ray.

The description is highly visual, complex, and decked with classic poetic tropes. The image is first mysterious and ambiguous in the context. Is the poet looking to the sky, or is the cloud some psychological manifestation or a dream? The cloud recalls those classic Renaissance images where the divine light filters through. Here the violet mantle of the poet and the birth of Venus (“oysterish froth burnished to pearl”) are invoked. One hearkens to Wallace Stevens’ Le Monocle de Mon Oncle for a similar image in the words, “The sea of spuming thought foists up again/The radiant bubble that she was.” But the Renaissance image is negated by its modernist description as “lung-like.” A 19th century sensibility might have found the image jarring, but in the post-pop art world, this is a quirky and humorous touch, as it might well stand for the child’s cry as much as the classic figure for the poet’s inspiration.

The words “untucked ray” prepares the introduction of the poet’s child, who is later described as awake in his crib “gambling” with objects unknown. The child’s poetic figuration is interposed with physical sounds: he is “heard,” as in the opposite of the old saw, “children should be seen and not heard”. The “untucked ray” resists being obscured by the poet’s dream cloud, and in fact is responsible for the rendered beauty of the cloud. But as the poem progresses, “untucked” also suggests that something is amiss, some apprehension. The explanation follows:

 Sleep debt
would only let me half-unfurl
from what I could not be prised from.

Linguistically, “untucked” is juxtaposed and opposed to “unfurl”[3]. The poet is in creative parturition, but sleep debt is preventing her from delivering the goods, as she presents a rolled parchment or fetal image of the incipient poem. The phrase “from what I could not be prised from” accords an identity between the poem and poet; it is not just that she is attempting to deliver the poem, but it is something she will not or cannot relinquish.

At the far end of the hall, behind a door,
I heard a pin drop. In another room
on the unpolyurethaned wooden floor
where gaps were growing between slats—
I could distinguish the sound from
that of a screw. I knew it from a thumbtack.

The reiteration of the words, “I heard,” is echoed later in the poem with the words, “I could hear”, as the context of the sensory element is more fully developed. Revisiting the sound of the “pin drop” heightens the suspicion first alerted by the “untucked ray”: that a “pin” may present harm to the baby, a thought later elaborated on with “the sound of dangerous/small object falling from his pincer grip” and “What it belied/was that he might choke.” Yet, the mother does not move to check the infant, increasing the tension created by the pin drop.

There is a corresponding tension created by the reference to “unpolyurethaned wooden floor/where gaps were growing between slats,” which cleverly discloses a domestic anomaly. This is a house, with unfinished floors, and a discontinuity of things is apparently growing. The unfinished nature of the house might be a further reflection on the unfinished poem, but it more clearly points to the unfinished domestic circumstances, a husband’s absence, and that “gaps were growing between the slats” more insistently bears upon domestic separation. The fact that the only male figure that appears in the poem is the poet’s father is further indication of an absent husband. Thus, the domestic responsibility devolving upon the poet-mother is intensified by these lines.

Notwithstanding the presence of the pin, the poet’s mind wrestles away her maternal instinct, trying to get back to her poem:

What was that dream,
that brain candy cottoned to, the flight
from a battalion, a mane slipping my grip
—as my ear divined a button’s bakelite
from a Lego—leaving page-worn fingertips,
the vita nuova every night rejuvenated
and dashed to bits by a baby’s complaint,
my aural monitoring of his lonely play syncopated
with forays back into the dreamscape?

Her dream is vaguely remembered, but she describes “the flight from a battalion, a main slipping my grip,” as if sensing things are out of control and circumstances from which the poet must flee. The poet cannot hang onto to her inspiration “a mane slipping my grip,” and her flight is interrupted as she is drawn back to the sounds of the child.

The poet’s imagination is colored by her maternal role, not only in the opening lines, but here where the brain is “candy” and the double entendre in the words “cottoned to” cleverly pushes the envelope of meaning. There is a semblance of maternal guilt attached to the idea that the baby’s play is “lonely” in light of the mother’s role as poet, her insistence to dwell on the poem, all the while assuring herself that the baby is safe. But we sense that this is as a calculation and not a certainty.

This conflict is never more accurately expressed in the phrase “leaving page-worn fingertips/the vita nuova every night rejuvenated/and dashed to bits by a baby’s complaint.” The poet’s “vita nuova,” the new life she is giving to her poem is opposed to the baby’s life and “complaint,” and clearly there is a sense of frustration as each vies for the poet-mother’s attention. The monitoring of the baby, notably, is “aural,” for the poet is not moved to physically check the baby’s status and that reluctance pervades this part of the poem, as the poet describes her interpretation of the baby’s sounds in the next room. Picking up from the theme of domestic separation, the veiled reference to Dante’s La Vita Nuovo, a medieval poem on courtly love, adds a further urgency to the domestic drama being played out before the reader’s eyes.

From its no-backstory,
to my daylit past in waking, to recordless
and unknown history,
back again to what I knew: the sound of a dangerous
small object falling from his pincer grip
to the floor. I knew a crayon from a ballpoint pen.
A ballpoint pen from a felt-tip.
I knew the sound of his noggin
hitting the floor from the rattle
of a coffee mug.

“From its no-backstory . . .  to recordless/and unknown history,” looks forward to the concluding lines of the poem, which describes the “cells of a language/in my sleep” as “assembled from history.” Thus “its” refers to her dream, but also the poet’s own sense of her life. She is whipsawed between the unknown poem of her life, her role as poet, where she has an indeterminate sense of her place, and the reality of her role as mother, figured in the sounds the infant is making (“back again to what I knew”).

The poet-mother is insistent, almost indignant, that she knows the sounds of danger as she knows the sounds of words, assigning a value system to each, as she goes through the litany of objects she hears, discerning the relative threat to the child. The choice of the word “noggin” adds further intimacy. All of this is used as an excuse to stray back into her dream.

 Jewelbox, toolbox,
my ears’ spindles chimed and tattled
out of dreamland, the dice in their cups
little movie screens on each side
playing different scenarios.

The poet’s mind appears to work subconsciously, internally rhyming “Jewelbox” with “toolbox” (introducing for the first time the opposing genders through metonymy[4]) and provides an insightful image for creative thinking, how words and ideas are like “dice in their cups/little movie screens on each side playing different scenarios.” In fact, creativity does involve the hypothetical playing out of different scenarios, even as here the poet speculates on the different items that the baby might be handling. But this is suddenly broken with the notion of real danger:

 A joke,
the child too quiet. What it belied
was that he might choke,
but I could hear what his digits dallied
and knew he was still gambling.

The “joke” (children should be heard and not seen) is that a baby is seldom “too quiet,” except that the joke is “belied” by the real threat of choking. The poet attempts to allay this fear by injecting humor with the image of the baby handling poker chips. But the “gambling” is not just on the part of the child playing with his crib toys, but on the part of the mother who cannot pry herself away from her musings.

With the recollection of her father playing with her son, the poet suddenly switches gears.

This is what it means to rally
for the future, as my father lambing
on all fours with him madly
termed “answering the call of life”
never knowing whence I came
or what dirt was made flesh on my behalf.

This is what it means to rally/for the future” refers to the baby’s activities, the “gamble” of life, the calculations that we instinctively make in order to survive. Here “rally” has multiple connotations, as a “gathering or coming together” that is metaphysical and a marshalling of ones powers, as in the maturation of a human being, a family, a society. The irony of the father’s interaction with his grandchild is boldly underscored by the poet’s resentment. Her father’s indulgent affection (“lambing/on all fours with him madly”) contrasts with her own childhood, and she explicitly describes herself vis-à-vis her father as a virtual bastard (“never knowing whence I came”). This also echoes “no backstory” lines above. Hers is not the biblical “word made flesh” but “dirt made flesh”. [The use of the poetic “whence” as well as the biblical inversion gives a literate veneer to what is a highly emotional statement, for the purpose of maintaining tonal equilibrium and avoiding the bathetic.] This is a startling emotional reveleation that comes unexpectedly within the poem, and signals a transfer of focus away from the child to an introspective examination of the poet’s own place at this juncture of her life.

Through this gateway the poet’s emotions are inflamed and all withheld emotion erupts with repeated references to herself, beginning “I grew . . . ,/I could have heard,” and we are witness to an unburdening of the soul:

I grew the ears of a cat, tuft-flames.
I could have heard a seed growing.
A seed growing in their mirroring labyrinths.
Twin vegetal wombs in Eustachian tubes sown
with squill, which when the moss is absinthe-
green in the brownscape, is alone
the smallest simplest flower in the cold.
First flower of the year, Easterish
and yet it could be a bold
spy device, an earpiece.
Its cells assembled from history
outside my own window, as the light
stepped up—threw down—in mystery.

This bold assertion of the self, that she has “answered the call of life” through her poetry, her squill, her “smallest simplest flower,” betrays the self that feels chastened by her present role as mother, wife and daughter. There is an all but indignant tone in “I could have heard a seed growing/A seed growing in their mirroring labyrinths” (of her ears). The statement imports the superhuman senses of the artist, yet the use of the conditional form renders it suppositional and an unrealized experience. The ensuing description of the squill, the product of the seed is an intangible idea of the self and the poem. Here, the squill stands for the poetic creation and the poet herself, an unraveling because real life has gotten in the way.

The metaphoric combination of moss and absinthe provides a novel visual image as well as suggesting its intoxicating sensation. The notional supernatural power of the poem qua squill extends from the beginning of time (“cells assembled from history”) to the fantasy of technology (again using the conditional, “it could be spy device”), and is the primary agent of the poet’s knowledge (“outside my own window”). It is described as “Easterish,” by which it identifies with seasonal rebirth, as well as various religious connotations. These are all symbols of what poetry is and means: revelation, renewal, evergreen and resistant to the cold. The poet seems determined to thrive despite the loveless father and the absent husband, and confronted by the mystery of the child (“as the light/stepped up – threw down – in mystery”). The use of “threw down” also connotes the gauntlet, as a challenge presented to the poet.

This challenge is one that causes her to examine her pedigree (again a return to the idea “never knowing whence I came”) and its cultural history in the concluding section of the poem, which subsides into an uneasy resignation.

And though you say it is right
that no one descended from Uralic
language speakers
has Uralic
language structures
pre-determining the cast of thought until
badly retrofitted in English,
I could not see this Siberian squill,
this earpiece, Easterish,
and not think of the cells of a language
in my sleep, growing out of the frost,
assembled from history, a burned bridge,
as the first division, from which I was lost.

The rhetorical posture of “And though you say it is right,” introduces the notion of a pending dialogue with an unknown character whom the poet has been addressing all this time. But no one is there. The posture invites comparison with Stevens’ The Idea of Order at Key West, “Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know.” The unknown character being addressed is used as a foil for the concluding proposition, which questions the very possibility of the poet finding her own unique identity, one that is self-determined, in the circumstances. In this way, “you” must be interpreted as “one,” more or less standing for an internal dialogue, much as “Ramon Fernandez” presence is illusory in The Idea of Order at Key West. The use the negative construction, “I could not see this Siberian squill . . . and not think of the cells of language” also lends a Stevensian accent to the passage.[5]

The lines, “no one descended from Uralic/language speakers/has Uralic/language structures/pre-determining the cast of thought until/badly retrofitted in English” recall the Nature vs. Nurture language debate of Noam Chomsky and others.  Chomsky argued that language structures are innate and psychologically native to the individual, but as the poet suggests, modern empiricism has gradually accepted the view that language skills are acquired through use. Yet English (and America) seems to have compromised this. Perhaps growing up in a household where native Uralic speakers had to “retrofit” their language into English also had an adulterating effect upon the first generation of American born children.

The poet is clear that her “Siberian squill/this earpiece” is grown from the “cells of a language.”  Yet the cold-resistant “cells” are “assembled from history” that is a “burned bridge,” a “first division” from her native roots.  The wordplay brings together all attendant concepts: “cell division,” the “battalion division” and familial, social and geographical divisions.  The grammatical construction is complex (a burned bridge” is appositional to “as the first division”) and threatens to render the poem’s ending.  It is a “first division” because the inevitable social and educational paths pursued in America create even deeper rifts with one’s ethnic heritage. And her history (her heritage) becomes a “burned bridge” not only because of her American upbringing, but because her father has effectively distanced himself from her.   Ultimately, the poet concludes that her personal history and the essence of her poetic language has been severed, and there is undeniable pathos that comes with the heartrending admission, “from which I was lost.”

As in “Dover Beach,” the conclusion of “Squill” is indecisive. Unlike Arnold, Mlinko’s lover is not there and she cannot urge anyone but herself to the window. “Squill” is a breathtaking work that will live with us forever, communicating that tension that many of us live with daily: trying to find balance in one’s family life and yet still remain engaged in that selfish search for one’s divinity. It is as faithful a diary entry of a great poet’s life as there is in American letters.

Since Shoulder Season, Mlinko’s career has continued to rise and she has been published internationally.  Her work has become more complex, more subtle, and her subject matter more varied.  “Squill” is a look back to earlier times when her reputation was not so secure, revealing the vulnerability of a young artist whose poetic powers were just beginning to be made known to the world.  The modest squill imagined by Mlinko is revealed having all the mystery and beauty of a Siberian tiger.  Ears of a cat, indeed.

[1] Stefan Collini (1988) Arnold p. 41, Oxford University Press

[2] See, e.g., Sir Philip Sidney, Astrophil and Stella, Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queen, and John Donne, Elegy XIX: To his Mistress Going to Bed)

[3] The choice of “unfurl” may also hold a subconscious reference to “Dover Beach” (“The Sea of Faith/Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore/Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d.), and the relationship to “Dover Beach” becomes more evident.

[4] Mlinko engages in similar sexual politics in a number of other poems, notably in Engineering, where the redecking of the Tappan Zee Bridge is compared to plastic surgery (“And its’ a long way /(1) from thinking of skin      drawn over cheekbones/as if perpetually mid-kiss (2) from being on equal footing”).

[5] See, e.g., Stephen Brockwell, The Mimetic Music of Negation: The Imitation of Wallace Stevens in Robert Bringhurst’s “Hachadura.”

© Steven M. Critelli 2012

Categories: Literary Criticism

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