Literary Criticism

Reading Ange Mlinko’s Marvelous Things Overheard

The ancient work, Marvelous Things Heard, though historically attributed to Aristotle, is generally considered an apocryphal text of remade myths and tall tales thar were doubtlessly intended for readers steeped in a tradition of storytelling that straddled anecdote, superstition and religious belief and served to fascinate, inspire and teach. More importantly, the text tested the continued durability of the fabulous and the fantastic against the background of analytical Greek thought that was seeing its sun rise over Western civilization. In this cultural womb the grand narratives of human progress and freedom were born. Yet, in the wake of post-modernism, Jean-François Lyotard posited that the age of grand narratives was over, for these stories could no longer speak universally given our essentially diverse orientations, perspectives, desires and needs. Instead, Lyotard believed we had entered the age of micronarratives and that those stories would now sustain us.

In this vein, Ange Mlinko’s new book of poetry, Marvelous Things Overheard, expresses our contemporary experience by way of micronarratives, using poetry’s familiar lens of myth, fable, and anecdote, and overlaying these with the received “truth” of the arts, science and technology as they are filtered through our national experiences and family histories. The psychological perspective, one that Mlinko surely sees as uniting us with ancients, discloses an unsettling arrhythmia at the heart of our existence in the modern world. The people of the ancient world invented myth and religion to comfort and reassure themselves of the existence of a metaphysical order, however improbable, to counter the uncertainty, injustice and cruelty that were regular features of life in a largely uncivilized world. When the unknown and unexpected rear up in a modern world of science and information glut, it is a cause for unease and doubt in our collective ability to assert with any confidence that good will prevail and that our future will be better than the past.

The first poem , “The Grind” [which was published in Poetry in September 2012], is a microcosm encapsulating Mlinko’s predominant theme.

Three mini ciabattini for breakfast
where demand for persnickety bread
is small, hence its expense, hence my steadfast
recalculation of my overhead,

which soars, and as you might expect
the ciabattini stand in for my fantasy
of myself in a sea-limned prospect,
on a terrace, with a lemon tree…

Not: Assessed a fee for rent sent a day late.
Not: Fines accrued for a lost library book.
Better never lose track of the date.
Oversleep, and you’re on the hook.

The myth of our divine origins succumbs to the devil in the details that overwhelm us. The demands of modern life waste the soul and deprive the individual of a nurturing environment. “It’s life ground down to recurrence./It’s fewer books read for the thinking. . .”  Yes, the rebilled hospital bills, missing homework, and dog grooming expenses that displace one’s own personal care, these are the hair shirts of our daily existence. Sooner or later the phalanx of family and cultural values begins to crumble and other, more ominous forces begin to build within like a Grimm fairytale, where they create a replacement mythos for the good old-fashioned “potatoes and plain living” we were reared on and thought sufficient.

When I turn my hand mill, I think of the dowager
who ground gems on ham for her guests;
the queen who ground out two cups of flour
on the pregnant abdomen of her husband’s mistress;

I think of a “great rock-eating bird”
grinding out a sandy beach,
the foam said to be particulate matter
of minute crustaceans, each

brilliantly spooning up Aphrodite
to Greek porticoes, and our potatoes,
and plain living which might be
shaken by infinitesimal tattoos.

While the encroachments of modern life are recognizable, the cause for our pressing concern is the maturation of our relative tolerance for the oppressive forces we live with. An obvious example is that we in America once thought democracy was the impervious bulwark against the government foreseen in George Orwell’s 1984, but recent news reports have disclosed that the U.S. has been using its technological advantage for years, not only to eavesdrop on foreign enemies and allies, but to collect yodabytes of data from the domestic surveillance of ordinary citizens. And yet (at least at the time of this essay) no congressional hearings have been held calling on the government to explain, much less desist in, this facially unconstitutional conduct. As Dorothy Gale said, “Toto – I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” Clearly, “potatoes and plain living” is a thing of the past. As Mlinko pointed out in a recent interview, Baudelaire referred to poets as “lighthouses” who illuminate our existential geographies of the mind, and that, in part, is her role here.

Sometimes there is objective evidence that opens a theater of the unknown to us, as in “Heliopolitan,” which reveals the anatomy of myth-making, juxtaposing the subsisting charm of Jean Cocteau’s drawings at the Palmyra in Baalbak, Lebanon, against the picked bones of the Heliopolis. Myth lives as long as something vital of the past remains within us; but when it is remediated to the point of a “flaccid” synthetic, we lose all trust in its ability to teach and entertain. Likewise, in “The God Category,” classic myth is reformulated and then used as a counterpoint to modern cultural history and its associated phenomena of the fabulously real, albeit these run the gamut from toxic ocean plumes (“Flashflood: Arethusa”), the social mores among the Westchester and Fairfield County elite (“Squall: Echo”), tornadoes and a veiled reference to Spiderman (“Arachne”), to the weather and modern religious belief (“Hurricane: Hera”). The touchstone with ancient myth here is almost evanescent; yet the author’s point is not to make the ancient myth immanent within these scenarios, but rather, to show the modern semblances as the myth we need to understand.

“Alexander’s Naming of the Winds” seemingly exhausts the taxonomy of the ancient winds and terrain of the Mediterranean in a proposed contest whose prize enables the winner to possess them. Jewish myth tells us (and this is only one example) that Adam’s dominance over the plants and animals in the Garden of Eden flowed from his ability to name them, and Mlinko continues this long tradition, as her own design is “to bear you back to where the language bore its auger into ears of matching description.” To the same purpose, and in similar poetic salutations (“If you’d seen…”), a companion poem, “Symphonic Expanse,” seems to take off where “Alexander’s Naming of the Winds” ends, but instead of winds the symphonic space is dominated by lush descriptions of the exotic plant life in the Middle East, from which we are suddenly transported to the Sacandaga Valley in upstate New York, where Mlinko describes the flooding of the land for the creation of the Conklingville Dam, with a consequent Doppler effect on the receding culture of the past:

Power monkeys tamped
the holes with dynamite. The beaver-tooth gang’s axes
and cross-cut saws cleared the trees. Bush burners followed.
The fires burned for two years. The patience of dam-builders

built a force
to equal the water. It flooded the ashes, the station,
and a train, which I saw transported in the steely walls,
or so it seemed. But iron turns a torrent red.

These poems harken to the past with a fresh contemporary perspective, most pointedly in the cycles of history in “Civilization,” where Mlinko offers the example of the old world’s Venetians as the geo-political antecedents of modern terrorists, and in a parallel gesture draws on the 19th century financial meltdown that arose from Dutch ‘tulipmania’ in a way that clearly invokes the looming ghost of our own doomed financial speculations in U.S. credit default swaps, subprime mortgages and other sophisticated Wall St. “bets.”

Mlinko turns the art of storytelling on its head in one of her most charming poems, “Med,” from a myth-tinged tale qua advice for the lovelorn, to a compelling real-life fairytale about the dancers Tanaquil Le Clercq and Marie Taglioni. “Bliss Street” is another brilliant diary entry and family history (as is “Squill” from Shoulder Season) that serves as an emotional memory of her time in Lebanon. The Armantrout-structured “Dutch” starkly juxtaposes the grand household and domestic concerns of the accomplished Omar Pasha (the 19th century military governor of Lebanon who began his career as a writing master), which seem modern and progressive in comparison to the poet’s own rather classic (and modest) moral dilemma of allowing her son to view a video of an art lesson wherein a nun is teaching a “four-hundred-year-old painting” depicting the imminent sale of flesh in a bordello. Mlinko’s point is that our consciousness is constantly traveling through time and that our ability to understand our place in the world today is inextricably woven with our knowledge of where civilization traveled before. Yet contrary to George Santayana, we can never learn from history, but are doomed to re-interpret and hence repeat it.

Aside from, or maybe in view of these weighty concerns, Mlinko is also capable of some great high jinks, as in “Bayt” in which she humorously fashions old Anglo Saxon forms (with some language cribs) and Arabian folklore into an literary geek’s version of a Disney cartoon, and yet still manages to end it poignantly. “Naiad Math” uses mathematical metaphors to describe the feminine mystique, while the lawn sprinklers in “Cicadas” give rise to the “focal chill” of a haunting revelation. “Neo-Aeolian,” like “Bayt,” uses older diction juxtaposed to artifacts of modernity, but will especially appeal to followers of contemporary poetry. “Neo-Aeolian” is – and perhaps I am reaching too far into autobiography – a poetic conception of Mlinko’s notorious critique of the newest edition of Postmodern American Poetry: A Norton’s Anthology, where the “new winds,” “jazzy wingtip vortices” and the “small plane” represent recently-included minor poets of Norton’s revision who stand in humble contrast to big-leaguers symbolized by “mistral or the levanter,” the Airbus and Erebus (where modern greatness is seen as the natural descendant of the ancient by a similarity of sound). It goes without further explication that there is an old guard that is still interested in resisting the onslaught of the bathetic and banal.

It is no secret to the contemporary poetry community that Mlinko can be doctrinaire — even as her scholarship seems virtually inexhaustible in support of her aesthetic beliefs — in the same way that Prynne and Bernstein attempt to modernize us and undo the damage of culture’s tendency to ossify. She is a great teacher in this sense because she reacquaints us with classic ideals that, at their best, invoke the multi-cultural and multi-lingual elements of our essentially nomadic existence through time. What I like most about Marvelous Things Overheard, is its relentless grasping for the evanescent cultural background that is, like Eurydice, slowly receding from our view. There is always a sense about her most demanding poetry that, if you assembled the mosaic of thoughts perfectly, not only the explicit, but the ghost generations of the implicit as well, you would be breathing the ether of the greatest of poets, philosophers and artists.

In “Text and Context,” the first essay of his renowned treatise, On Difficulty (1978), George Steiner made the following assessment on the state of Western culture’s fading legacy, which I am compelled to quote in full:

The resort to the ‘canonic’ via quotation, commentary, knowledge by heart and mimesis, was of course, the backbone of Western literacy, of the cultures of civility which were in effective control in the West from the late Middle Ages until the recent crises of the old order. The scriptural patristic canon on the one hand, the Greek-Latin on the other, and the perpetual interplay, critical and conjunctive, between the Hebraic and the Hellenic lineage of texts, very largely generated and organized the shapes of western public speech and personal identity among the educated. Ovid’s or Horace’s tags on the immortality of the major text, tags themselves reproductive of high commonplaces in Homer and Pindar, became the talismanic cliché of Christian-classical education and self-fulfillment. They culminate, with perfect logic, in Napoleon’s claim that he would have rather written Werther than won his battles and in Mallarmé’s proposition that the aim of the universe is the creation of le Livre (the ‘text of texts’ so integral, so comprehensive of truth and ontological form, that it subsumes, negates all ‘context’).

That this hierarchy of values is now eroded, that the shared habits of biblical-classical reference, of articulate formality, of ‘order and degree’ both emblematic and expressly rhetorical on which the intellectual-social-political architecture of the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the nineteenth century were built, is now largely in ruins, that the very invocation of such values is a piece of élitist nostalgia – these are banalities of current debate. Knowledge by heart of the ‘texts’ has been done away with by the organized amnesia which now pervades schooling. The familiarity with the scripture, the Book of Common Prayer, with the great current of liturgical allusion and ritual routine, which is presumptive in the speech and inference of English literature from Chaucer to Auden, is largely dissipated. Like the fabric of classical reference, citation, pastiche, parody, imitation within which English poetry developed with Caxton’s Ovid to T.S. Eliot’s Sweeney Among the Nightingales, biblical literacy is passing quickly into the deep-freeze of academicism. The ‘text’ is receding from immediacy, from vital personal recognition on stilts of foot-notes, ever more rudimentary, ever more unashamed in their conveyance of information which, was once the alphabet of reading. Greek and Latin are, finally, becoming dead tongues. Less visible but equally significant is the death within our language, within our ready apprehension of the language, of that central historicity, density of cross-reference, felt synthetic and semantic elaboration which were, to be sure, related to atticism and latinity, but which also had their own prodigal life. The archival energies of Joyce, of Eliot, of Pound, the many-layered structures of allusion which characterize their work, are a ceremony of mourning for resources once naturally accessible to writer and reader in the contract of culture.

For all Mlinko’s efforts to draw the old world back to life, as Orpheus attempts with Eurydice, she is aware that, in the long run, it is as losing a proposition as the lost colony of Roanoke, Virginia, which she invokes in “Wingandacoia” with a prosody reminiscent of Wallace Stevens. At the end of this dazzling work she writes, referring to the exquisite beauty and capacious freight of the Elizabethan English which frequently traded in the treasure trove of myth, “that language is gone” (“Wingandacoia”). One is reminded of how W.B. Yeats’ earlier use of Greco-Roman myth often felt tired and threadbare, and how his later poetry gained so much vitality from Irish myth and folklore. Therefore, this other thing, this nomadic polyglot that we now speak, with its modern mythologies, must become the burden that Mlinko’s Atlas now assumes.

Most readers who are acquainted with Mlinko’s previous books (Matinees, Starred Wire, and Shoulder Season) will agree that, in the parochial world of contemporary poetry, there is no one writing quite like her, and with Marvelous Things Overheard we will doubtlessly continue to see her star rise. The poems here have an elegiac and narrative range, daring in form, content and execution, beyond anything she has previously done. For sheer linguistic fluency and awe-inspiring conceptualizations, she is in her own category. Take, for example, the first section of “Cantata for Lynette Roberts”:

Lynette, the stars are kerned so far apart—
Through a herniated zodiac I almost see your waled skylanes, your shocked Capricorn
  and Cancer.
In the hundred and two years since you were born, and the sixteen since your heart
  failed, and the nearly sixty since you gave up poetry, it seems we can’t navigate by
  the same star chart.
I’d like to think we were fated to work the same coracle: you steering with one hand,
  grasping your corner of the seine while I grasp mine; together sweeping the weirs.

Lynette saw the sky made wide-waled corduroy by the flight paths of fighter jets.
Corde du roi —“Cloth of the king.”
(“A baseless assertion,” states the OED.)
A fireman from the Midlands NFS said the raids on Swansea were worse than on
  Birmingham, where a ten-year-old Roy Fisher gaped at the garden where his cousins
  were slaughtered, and later wrote, It was like a burst pod filled with clay.

Last night, Lynette, my son thought he saw his father in the jumbo jet roaring over
  Cherryhurst: the weather softer, flight paths altered.
Three weeks now his father gone.

From the evening sky, to the zodiac, to the generational divide, to the comradery among poets, to the cultural touchstone of fishing, to the brutal nature of World War II, to bourgeois calm of modern Texas (and later other exotic locales), the conceptual reach of the poetry thrills and amazes. Marvelous Things Overheard argues, as Pound’s Cantos, on behalf of these coherences through time and among cultures. Particularly in “Cantata,” Mlinko conjoins Roberts’ history with her own (not only as poet, wife and mother, but whose family origins also track through Brazil), and draws unsettling tensions from the comparisons (noting that Roberts suffered personal hardships of divorce and a psychological disorder), with the overriding impression that, as she ages, life is likely to have similar hardships in store. Trenchantly she asks:

Lynette, if you were here, I’d ask you the one salient question
  for a woman at midpoint.
How not to harden?

As such a woman at “midpoint,” “Cantata” has a personal significance for Mlinko beyond the acclamation of Roberts. Doubtless, Roberts was a poet of great invention, daring and conceptual breadth. The artistic achievement of her epic poem, “Gods With Stainless Ears” cannot be overstated. Mlinko finds common ground with Roberts and is clearly striving for her own day in the sun. But whatever those professional aspirations are, one feels they are finally subservient to her real concerns as a mother and poet in transition:

Insofar as we’re just pre-ceviche, pre-cadavers-reinterpreting-
  flan, Lynette, let’s research articles, with babies at our
  feet: on Welsh architecture, the potato tax, coracles…
I see you floating out to sea in your coracle, the spirit of the
  Makah accompanying you as far as the Azores: halfway
  from a kitchen garden in Llanybri, halfway to a quinta
  near Buenos Aires.

However one interprets this wishful, final fantasy, what we see in many of these poems is a similar theme of gradual loss of those identifying feature of ourselves to the swift passage of time. What replaces it are the new fictions that we must invent to cope with the loss.

Steven M. Critelli © 2013




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