Q & A

POETRY: Tell us what you're thinking here about 1) conversion and 2) comedy.

ANGE MLINKO: This poem was written around the time I was thinking of getting my sons baptized in the Episcopal Church. (I grew up Catholic, long since lapsed.) It felt right to raise them within this tradition generally; and locally, the community is smart and warm. The question remained as to whether I could really be Episcopal — that is, Christian. My priest suggested books by the theologians James Alison and René Girard, in order to give me a philosophical framework for Christianity quite apart from metaphysics. Girard is a French literary critic turned anthropological theologian. His study of literature led him to meditate on what he considers a universal human pattern: scapegoating and sacrificing. To make a long story short, he believes that Jesus made himself an innocent scapegoat to illuminate the psychic mechanism by which all peoples dehumanize and victimize others. And thus by illuminating, end it.

Although I really am addressing this priest throughout the poem, it was Girard who said that the origins of music lay in the necessity of drowning out the cries of sacrificial victims. So when I say “I start listening for them — the cries — under my own singing,” I suggest that this Dionysian account (like a lowercase creation myth — a myth about how we create) is relevant now, as poets continue to write in a world of strife. At least, in this view, art is not exactly frivolous. But it is frightening! Either way, the turn to religion is born of the perceived moral shortcomings of art.

Ultimately the poem reveals an apostate, someone who remembers a joke about language by way of a near-death experience; someone who juxtaposes an electrical outage with an abbot's disingenuous claims about power; someone who can only think of God in terms of art.

There's a suggestion in both Don Giovanni and A Winter's Tale that art can be enlisted to reveal the truth: the Commendatore's statue escorts the Don to hell; Hermione's statue is revealed to be her breathing self, not a mockery of Leontes's bad conscience. Both are considered comedies for their happy endings; I call my poem a comedy because the ending is a jesting one. (Lightning doesn't strike, either at apostasy or puns!) But now I don't think it's nearly light enough: despite the jokes, the rhythm of the lines doesn't swing, and that probably conveys more about the anxieties of the poem than, well, the content it's stuffed with!

P: Why do the lines look the way they do, e.g., the indents? Are you trying to break up a kind of linear narrative the poem could otherwise have?

AM: The long vatic line wars with the terse, grammatical, no-nonsense sentence.

There's a false sense of a turn starting to happen when I break between the cantos; the poem starts tipping toward some kind of climactic realization (the conversion) but then corrects itself; it balances steadily on the notion that one might convert but doesn't in the end.


This poem originally appeared in the March 2008 issue of Poetry magazine

March 2008

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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