Literary Criticism

Notes on Ange Mlinko’s “Cottonmouth”

I was bedeviled and enchanted by Ange Mlinko’s newest published poem, “Cottonmouth” (Poetry Feb. 2016), a dense linguistic tour de force that weds the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice with a locus in the contemporary American landscape, using stacks of cultural references like sampled sounds and playing them against an urban rap rhythm, overlaying that with a verse form that invokes Virgil and Dante as it might have been imagined by James Joyce. By employing its prosody in this fashion, the poem becomes as much about the act of composition as about its content.

A few things are obvious: Mlinko composed her poem in an urban rap-sody of terza rima, the rhyme scheme used by Dante in the Divine Comedy. For most of us poetry geeks, this conjures Inferno. Yet, as Dante well knew, a literary journey to Hell/Hades will necessarily import Greco-Roman mythology. So the references in “Cottonmouth” to the River Styx, the boundary between earth and the underworld, and the tragic love story of Orpheus and Eurydice seem like natural fits. How we get to this mythic setting, i.e., its nexus with the contemporary world, is interesting.

There is also a River Styx on the edge of the Apalachicola National Forest (which also merges into Tate’s Hell State Forest) in North Florida, a three plus hour drive from the University of Florida where Mlinko now teaches. The location, because of its name, would intrigue anyone with a literary bent, even more so a poet like Mlinko who goes the extra mile in her allusive explorations. A few quick Google searches show a meandering river, bordered by grasslands and forest, and the poem makes use of these geographical details in provocative ways.

The O. & E. myth was first rendered into poetry by Virgil in his Georgics, a poem on the subject of agriculture, to which Mlinko makes pointed reference by the words “bucolic” and “boustrophedon.” Virgil, not coincidentally, was Dante’s guide in Inferno, and Virgil’s pastoral masterpiece, Eclogues, is also called Bucolics. The word, “boustrophedon,” has two applications, describing (i) the preferred way of plowing land in a continuous back and forth track and (ii) the appearance of early Greek texts (as in this example), with alternating lines of words being written, spelled and read left to right, then right to left. “Boustrophedon” also cleverly depicts the meandering shape of Florida’s River Styx.  Therefore, the remark, “Bucolics/ demand boustrophedon” is charming wordplay in this context.

Rather than rehearse the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice here, I offer a link to this Wikipedia article that provides the sum and substance of the story. I also note that the lyre (played by Orpheus) is the symbolic instrument of poets, and that Dante’s Inferno revisits, in part, Orpheus’s trail to the gates of Hades and beyond the River Styx with Virgil himself as his guide. [Ovid retold a modified version of the story of O. & E. in Metamorphoses, but I believe Mlinko chiefly relies on Virgil.]

From these mythic and real world components, Mlinko invokes multiple tropes and memes:

(a) The image of the snake in the eponymous “cottonmouth” (aka “water moccasin”) unites all elements of the poem. It primarily refers to the viper that killed Eurydice and indirectly caused the death of Orpheus. The poem’s central (fifth) stanza links the viper with Eurydice’s absent footwear, as well as those tragic affairs of the heart and the intoxicating highs of love that Mkinko’s poem traffics in. The alliterative “Distilled to systole-diastole” is the action of the heartbeat, the essential engine to which all life and love is distilled, but might also refer to the particular way snake venom acts on the heart in order to kill.

(b) The precise etymological or cultural link between the words “moccasin” (the shoe) and “water moccasin” (the cottonmouth snake) is a mystery, but Mlinko weds the two with “stealth.” A cottonmouth is stealthy because, unlike a rattlesnake (also a pit viper), it has no rattles. Eurydice is the soul of stealth, silently walking in the form of a shade as she follows Orpheus toward Hell’s gate, but she is also the victim of “stealth” when her life is stolen from her. To no surprise, “assassins” operate by stealth, and the use of venom or poison to do the deed has historically and metaphorically joined them with snakes. The use of the word “assassin” becomes more potent when its etymological roots are unearthed.

(c) The multiple “s” sounds in the fifth stanza are enough to evoke the hiss of the viper and the sound of the river. The “trails in uncut” grass, as “parallel snakes,” trace the meandering shape of the River Styx (mythic and real) as well as the winding path to Hades. The poem itself is a larger form of mimicking or parallelism that is frequently observed by the author herself.

(d) The word “cottonmouth” also has a pointed drug reference, describing a number of effects that follow from smoking “grass” (aka weed, pot, marijuana, Mary Jane, etc.), hash or any plant-based hallucinogen. Similarly, the word “assassins” is derived from a secretive murder cult, known as the “Hashishin” (the Arabic word “hash” means grass), or the “grass eaters.”  Legend has it that the Hashishin, led by Hasan Ben Sabah, would kidnap men, drug them with hashish, and then offer sensual pleasures, harem girls and the like, to make the men feel like they were in paradise. Sabah would send these men on gangland-style hits to kill designated targets, promising a return to paradise as incentive. The word “cottonmouth” has its share of urban dictionary entries which I leave the reader to pursue to whatever ends may appear applicable. In any event, love-death (Liebestod) and sensual pleasure find common passage in “cottonmouth.”

(e) Hallucinatory visions (like the riddle in “levitating anvil”) and omens (“seagull blown inland”) follow the exhalations of a cannibus high, but may also be associated with love’s intoxication and brewing tragedy. Here, “anvil” is used deceptively, because its secondary meaning describes a cumulonimbus cloud that has reached stratospheric stability and formed the characteristic flat, anvil-top shape. And “baffled thunder,” though distant and indeterminate, is indeed ominous.

(f) The reference to “moccasin” also adverts to Native American ritual and myth. It may be serendipity, but my research disclosed a connection to medical practitioners within the Modern Seminole Indian tribe (which originated in Florida) who believe in the existence of a “double soul,” one that leaves the body in sleep and may wander far afield, the other leaving the body only in death. The Milky Way is considered a starry pathway that leads the dead westward to the afterworld.  In the manner of Orpheus, a medicine man may retrieve a wandering soul by blowing into his “medicine pipe,” another reference to smoking herb.

(g)  The foot-play is abundant. Photos of the area of Florida’s River Styx show the river surrounded by grasslands, and thus, “no place to put a foot down,” is a realistic observation.  But references to “foot” and “feet” also invoke units of poetic meter. I may be going out on a limb, but the Greek “boustrophedon” suggests a continuous turning, as in the ode, and not lines that march like Roman troops in ancient Latin verse. So too, the references to “red wedge,” “Mary Jane band” and “stilettos” evoke women’s footwear, transporting the mythic to a contemporary world. [As noted above, “Mary Jane” is also another term for marijuana.] The “wetland mosquito and midge circling ankle” is also a bracelet or anklet used as an insect repellent, whose adjustable straps are “punctuated” by successive holes (made by an “awl”) that Mlinko envisions mimicking the periods of an “ellipsis.”

In addition, there are parenthetical comments, which appear as quoted material in the poem.  I could not find these as part of any previously published material. They may be derived from material not on-line; however, I am inclined to view these as diary entries and interlineated remarks by the author, commenting on the text and its loaded content. The lines describing the poet and her friend “shoulder to shoulder” while “The male cicadas thrummed their stomachs . . .  Tree-shook,” as well as the image of the dragonfly on the pole hook,  invite comparison to the mating rites, with perhaps a fortuitous glance at Steve Miller’s lyric in “The Stranger” (“I really love your peaches, want to shake your tree”). These sexual references dispel any puritanical reading.

These incidental asides conclude with the poem’s most affecting image of Eurydice, morphed into an epiphyte, a plant that harmlessly grows on another for the purpose of obtaining necessary nutrients (light, water and air), “goose-pimpling the languid pond/with its dependent clause.” The charm of the image is the notion of Spanish moss tickling the surface of the pond and producing the virtual equivalent of a shiver , an emotional ripple in goose bumps on the water’s surface. But if we go further, we imagine Mlinko has extended the myth by envisioning Eurydice’s downfall as one that flows from her desire to dip her unclad foot in the pond, her limb (as the branches of Spanish moss) the metaphorical equivalent of a “dependent clause.” This final linguistic turn is an insider’s joke that, I confess, appeals to the poetry nerd in me.

Finally, while the poem is composed in the form of terza rima, its phrases do anything but sing in the fashion of Dante. Instead, what we get is something closer to a Nicki Minaj rap rhythm, syncopated with internal and end-stopped rhymes, with imagery that echoes the hallucinatory experience of the poem. The deliberate wedding of the O&E myth with a drug-fueled Liebstod experience seems particularly apt in the circumstances. I especially like the way the imagery in the poem emulates Ovid’s Metamorphoses and swarms with life and symbolic significance (“And everywhere sharp palmettos/clacked their tongues in homage to language-“). In the end the poem is a marvelous original work of art and, dare I say it, a new high for Mlinko.

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