Monday, January 09, 2006

Although she has lived in Boston, Morocco & even right here in Tredyffrin Township, Chester County, PA, everything on the back cover of Ange Mlinko’s Starred Wire hollers “New Yawk School, New Yawk School” virtually at the top of its lungs. There are blurbs from John Ashbery & Charles North, and then this from Bob Holman, impresario of the Bowery Poetry Club, who picked Mlinko’s effort for the National Poetry Series, published by Coffee House Press:

It’s a heady heady brew – O’Hara conversation, Ashbery sophistication, Koch hilarity, Schuyler shapeliness, Guest adventures, Notley grain, Mayer utopia, Padgett whimsy, Oulipo oofs . . .

If the U.S. had sent this many troops into Iraq, we wouldn’t be dealing with an insurgency now. The funny thing about all this blessed-by-association overkill is that it’s more or less true – if you like the poetry of the New York School, you’re going to feel completely at home with Ange Mlinko. Yet what’s really interesting in this superb little book are all the ways in which this isn’t the case, or at least isn’t the point at all. Here is one example, a poem whose title takes up two lines:

Three Crickets.
The Blind Cricket.

When the chirping of the males rises to a furor,
charged particles accumulate in the gut – duodenum, say
due to internal cracks caused by déformation professionel:
rubbing wings in an ecclesiastical mode while flexing
the opaque, muscular, contracile diaphragm.

It enters houses, lighter and more graceful,
though it knows not exactly how it accesses its gift
suspended in aqueous humor then thrown out on its ear
like rain bounced off a small false roof
over the spiral volutes of its capitals.

Whether or not this poem reminds you of the NY School seems to me largely irrelevant to what makes it an excellent poem (&, in any event, there are other works in Starred Wire that wear that particular tattoo far more visibly). These are, as I see it, four things:

  1. an eye for the particular – there is nothing vague here, the details are a delight
  2. a rich ear for language itself, which comes out in some fabulously physical vocabulary – this poem is a trip to read aloud
  3. an accomplished sense of form: twin five-line sentences with no sense of padding at all
  4. a gestalt of personality projected through the poem that comes out in all of Mlinko’s work: smart, funny, articulate, self-confident.

Somebody somewhere is going to want to call that last item “voice.” More accurately, tho, it reminds me of Peter Yates’ definition of “content” in music as “aesthetic consistency.” There are tonal elements in Mlinko’s writing that show so constantly that the reader watches for them & feels rewarded when they arrive – like understanding the importance of the adjective false right at that spot in the next to last line, both echoing the al in small & setting up the run of l sounds that thread through the p & t consonants of the last line. That false is the sort of detail that Mlinko gets right consistently throughout this book. Does this have anything to do with “voice” in the sense of Mlinko having a recognizable persona in her work? I think pretty obviously the answer is no, just as it is no indication of her regional accent.

So what makes this poem shine – I think it may be my favorite here, tho frankly I have several – has little to do with the poem’s allegiance to a particular heritage or to any sense of the poet’s voice. In some sense, it has most to do with poetry’s equivalent of Occam’s Razor – Mlinko makes the complex appear completely straightforward. It’s a demonstration of Pound’s dictum of dichtung = condensare at its finest.