Prose from Poetry Magazine

Two Takes

Ange Mlinko’s Shoulder Season and Gjertrud Schnackenberg’s Heavenly Questions.

In describing Shoulder Season there is a risk in drawing too much attention to the poems’ subjects. This is Mlinko’s third book, and in it the baroque cosmopolitanism of Starred Wire (2005) has given way to a wedding, Westchester, and motherhood, though there are some glimpses of the Arab world and a wild motorcycle ride à la Frederick Seidel (I presume incidentally—her article on him, worth looking up, saved me the next five years of trying to imitate him).

Shoulder Season, by Ange Mlinko.
Coffee House Press. $16.00.

In describing Shoulder Season there is a risk in drawing too much attention to the poems’ subjects. This is Mlinko’s third book, and in it the baroque cosmopolitanism of Starred Wire (2005) has given way to a wedding, Westchester, and motherhood, though there are some glimpses of the Arab world and a wild motorcycle ride à la Frederick Seidel (I presume incidentally—her article on him, worth looking up, saved me the next five years of trying to imitate him). But listing these things tends to elide Mlinko’s characteristic interest in language and idiosyncratic relationship to content. Language—sound, idiom, etymology—arranges her entrées into poems, which are not really construed as missions to find the right words for feelings, experiences, and situations. That gets the direction wrong. If an occasion, squeezed, yields language that is sufficiently weird, then that occasion is sufficientlyinteresting. She might hang a poem, for instance, on nothing more than “Kouign Amann” (“It sounded Irish / and / or Maghrebi”). Not one for silences, she takes a why-not maximalism for her upward arrow:

Zsigmund ii & Zsigmund iii in the Romi-Isetta
up the switchbacks of Santos in the time of Quadros.
      —From “Dirt”

No purist either, she likes acronyms and model numbers, unburdened signifiers where one finds “meaning / meeting no resistance from the flesh”: “Yamaha yzf-r6,” “9m133 Kornet” (don’t mix them up—the latter is an anti-tank missile). A Nabokovian vocabulary (and indeed sensibility), less esoteric than clinical, includes synovial, meninges, frass, ort, plewds, and pinetum. A given poem may or may not point this apparatus toward some greater significance, but in any case its value is not to be cashed out in those terms. To exaggerate the point slightly, Mlinko’s poems have real affect, content, and reference, but no use for them—the poems are about things, but blithe about being about them.

Mlinko seems both pushed and pulled into this approach: pulled by authentic enjoyment of pleasures proper to language, pushed by worries about the alternatives. She is self-conscious about aesthetic cliche (like a tree in the autumn) that descriptive fidelity would expose her to. She sees, too, an element of betrayal in representation, as any work of art that appeals to one has probably distanced itself from its subject to do so. She worries, when listening to a sad but enjoyable song, that “the self-inverting melody // can’t contraindicate its brutal remedy,” and muses that “the precision required to paint / a seastorm seems duplicitous.”

There is a faint religious element, in the sense that Plato is religious. Since a focus on language is oblique to matter, it cannot corrupt essences in any important way, and the more evidently it is indirection, the better. This particular subordination of content has unexpectedly particular strengths and weaknesses: beyond the surface pleasures, there are cases where relative verbal independence permits a treatment of subjects otherwise infertile or blank. One of her best poems, “The Eros of Nothing,” takes place on an eventless housebound winter day where nothing more memorable happens than “eating a pomegranate / with my small son.” Attention to the word “nothing” (“nothing, carried out to the letter”) opens a door where another poet would have met a wall, and she finds room to maneuver inside an experience that I think would extinguish a head-on attempt at verbalization:

Though when the blanched leaves shiver
silent chimes beyond the glass
brings either the rapture [my children . . . ]
or self-criticism             of one who comes with a theory
. . . are an economy of scarcity]
of myself there is no more evidence
to admit—only consistent
with limestone’s incessant weeping
cave a madonna’s

The break on “evidence / to admit” inverts a definition of the self in negative to one in positive, nicely re-inverted in the figure of the cave as an inside-out statue. Nothing is quite literally given shape and, as it were, trapped.

There are similar felicities, notably in “Win-Win,” where a marital rough spot on vacation is tartly universalized through shifts of scale and self-similarities of imagery and sound, as the poet assembles an unlikely frame through which “the meltdown” can be seen both up close and in social proportion. All of these capabilities, though, require a highly active and ornamented surface, and against this it is difficult to tell if some of the quasi-precision in the writing is for effect: “lcd screen,” iron “composed of millions of tiny north poles,” “pixelated as a jpeg.” More seriously, the content that does appear can be under pressure to act more exotic than it is:

Cordy is the “single point of failure”
in a system that generates 160 million
thanks to his proprietary algorithms.
Cordy wants twenty thousand from the budget
to build a mirror site near Rutgers
thirty miles from the “blast zone”
among the pick-your-own blueberry farms.
        —From “A Single Point of Failure in the System”

“Single point of failure” is just the kind of phrase likely to trigger this poet (it almost seems like bait), but the expression on its own terms is scarcely improvable. It is a case where language, while a tempting toehold, crumbles away quickly. Put another way, Cordy’s phrasing is the good news. The poem can scare-quote him, but has no way—no available discourse, you could say—to rebuke him. There is also a collapse into prose here, which tends to happen the closer Mlinko comes to denotation, as the carpentry of a squarer poet becomes conspicuously absent (this happens acutely in “Securitization,” in which Mlinko explains how the mortgage industry works—it’s like hearing Frank O’Hara undertake an explication of Khrushchev’s foreign policy). Shoulder Season is a bit like a hydrofoil, either up out of the water and zipping along, or not.

On balance it is easy enough to accept the primacy Mlinko gives to language, as the book is guaranteed by such an activated and gung-ho verbal intelligence that it is only a question of where its successes will be. Those successes occur, it seems to me, not in topical ambitions the book is not equipped for, but when its wealth trickles down to an underserved subject. Blurbs have been keen on comparing Mlinko to New York School poets, in whose company she places herself (her epigraph is from James Schuyler). It’s not an inapt classification, but in a way it is striking how unlike the major ones she is. Exciting, she is now at best passingly interested in the dynamics of boredom and interruption. She is not the social being Frank O’Hara was. Schuyler is exposed as could be, but Mlinko has a kind of security through obscurity. Her voice, if that is the right term, is all but distinct, and the improvement in her three books so far is precipitous.

Heavenly Questions, by Gjertrud Schnackenberg.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $23.00.

Two books ago in The Throne of Labdacus (2000), Schnackenberg retold the Oedipus myth with an especially sharp eye to the severalthings one might mean by fate, depending on whether the gods behind it are understood to be disinterested, malign, capricious, or not there to not pay attention at all. She has had, and has, a fascination with something amoral in the larger shapes of human life, in the physical and metaphysical conditions a body is bound to eventually submit to. “The human being,” she writes in that book, “in the end, is an injured body / . . . / that lies unburied / Outside the bourn of right and wrong.” Heavenly Questions in effect orbits and addresses this statement, and the body in question is now her husband’s. (Schnackenberg was married to the philosopher Robert Nozick, who died in 2002.) You could certainly call the book, Schnackenberg’s sixth, an elegy, but it is one of an intellectualized kind, where lament becomes an imperative to at least adumbrate philosophical, narrative, and scientific understandings of existence and nonexistence. Grief raises the question “Why him?” (which, as every good elegist realizes, means “Why me?”); the book undertakes to turn this question into a generalized cosmic Why.

That sounds diffuse, and the remit of Heavenly Questions is indeed immense, with the kind of ambition perhaps only possible when you have nothing to lose. But, line by line, the book invites. The medium is an almost singsong blank verse, with occasional rhyme-clustering as in Robert Lowell or Patrick Kavanagh. There is a pervading lullaby softness (marked by phrases like “hush now”), buffering a fever-dream restlessness, not to say nightmare, of cleverly nested contexts and liquid syntax. The title comes from the “Heavenly Questions” of Qu Yuan (c. 300 bce), cosmological riddles he left on temple walls as he traveled around; the six chapters, long poems unto themselves, do not correspond exactly to separate questions, and range in setting from a park bench to (on the exotic end) a miniature Mahabharata with cameos by Scheherazade and Tamburlaine. We meet Archimedes in limbo, counting all the sand grains in the universe, and one chapter is devoted to a lowly snail, Fusiturricula, whose mathematically pure spiral shell makes an artless claim on eternity:

But hush now, close your eyes now, all is well:
Underwater ink enlarges, blurs,
In violet-brown across a spiral shell:
A record of volutions fills a scroll
With wondrous deeds and great accomplishings,
A record of a summons not refused:

Of logarithms visible and fused
With thoughts in rows of spiral beaded cords
As X goes to infinity
; impearled;
Violet; and inviolate; self-endowed;

Itself the writing, and itself the scroll
The writing’s written on; and self-aware
With never-ever-to-be-verbalized
Awareness of awareness of awareness,
; all in play; a sole
Immaculate example of itself;

And in the aperture, the remnants of
A Heavenly Question, lightly brushed across
With opalescent ore of consciousness:
The universe is where? Is hanging where?

           —From“Fusiturricula Lullaby”

Certain phrases recur, like “all in play” here—an ironic stipulation that nothing be excluded from consideration, and everything be excluded from mattering. A “water-ceiling” periodically bathes everything in aquarium light, and there are variants of “all that could be done has now been done,” hospital waiting room banality and the tagline on fate’s card. Appearance and disappearance figure prominently (often as “materialize, and dematerialize”), and there is a continual recursion of appearance and actuality, as what seems like naked matter turns out to be another veil. A blue-clad surgeon turns into Krishna. An elevator door opens, and a bell falls down the shaft. She pauses on her way home one night to cry in a phone booth, and in the very material phone book (“a sprawling weight / Of paper pulp from long-forgotten trees”), awfully, finds his name still among the living. The current of thought circles and circles, trying to open the “door to the house where no one ever died,” and trying to grasp how meaning keeps asserting itself against the intellectual entropy of materialism, the seeming stability of “things as they are,” and death’s rout of order:

Is matter the enchanted lathe? Or mind?
But which one spirals from the other’s blade?

It is as if heavenly questions cannot be posed without a set of temple walls to write on, and so evanesce outside of some immuring representation.

There is little dailiness, little humdrum reminiscence as such of the beloved. In this respect the book’s approach is the opposite of that taken in the early sequence “19 Hadley Street” from Portraits and Elegies, where the generations posing in succession for their exquisite portraits communicate a sense that eternity is made of days. In that first book Schnackenberg already shows a gift for offhand poise—an unusual kind of voice in American poetry, feeling no demotic pull at all, and at ease in literariness as though in a vernacular. Yoking earthly love and affection to philosophical, religious, and scientific thinking (she is one of very few poets who can address the latter with dignity) is, then as now, her strongest theme—her domain is the erotics of these types of thought—and the warmth tends to keep the empyrean chill off Heavenly Questions. Her worse problem is qualifying her relationship to the engines of meaning she takes apart and puts together. Her fluency with various abstractions of the ultimate—God, math, the Kingdom of the Final Cause, Lord Krishna—shows range and perhaps tact, but she likes the abstractions where they are, and does not broach the problem of belief. This is frankly the only limitation I see in her art, on her art’s terms: a cycling of everyone’s props—Late Antiquity’s, Sanskrit epic’s—but her own. It could be argued with some justice that a mish-mash of Mahabharata and modern cosmology constitutes present convention, parallel to Milton’s including St. Peter in a pagan pastoral. But then the spiritual substrate of Milton’s imagination is relatively transparent, and Schnackenberg’s is not. There is one instance in A Gilded Lapse of Time (1992) where God is addressed vocatively, but most often her passages of the kind convey the impression they were written by a university. That book in particular recalls C.S. Lewis’s comment that if you can’t think of something to say about an old church, you can always mention Cromwell stabled his horses in it. There is something of the flailing docent in Schnackenberg—her interest in almost everything is tangent to its raison d’être. Commitment, or a formulation of its difficulty, is the one thing she isn’t getting into.

My favorite passage in Heavenly Questions is a page-long rhapsody on the moon (pp. 45–46), but not far behind is the moment of the husband’s death:

I stood, barefoot and powerless, and heard
The distant drum in heaven begin to beat
That takes up when a heart falls motionless.
I stood instinctively to hear the call.
Beyond the muffled noise of our goodbyes,
The bindings falling from the swaddled drum
Fall quietly. Before the sight of all,
Before the sight of each and every one,
Untouched, the immaterial knot unties.
     —From “The Light-Gray Soil”

The swaddled drum upends the commonplace of life as a candle or “point of light,” and lodges an unsettling existentialist perception that takes the living to be exceptions to nothingness—bubbles in a void, which pop. It is through perceptions like this that the book sidesteps the phenomenon of elegiac inflation, where grief must continuously justify itself through escalating intensity. The poet finds ways to pour her energies into mystery rather than injustice, and does so on a scale that takes a while to sink in. Schnackenberg has written nothing less than a Miltonic book-length poem on eternity, infinity, and the meaning of life, and it is, as these things can be expected to go, unarid and fleet. She mills her ponderous themes, by imaginative inhabitation and force of skill—I am hard put to call it something more specific than “skill”—into fairy dust. I wonder who else would try such a thing as Heavenly Questions, and how far back you would have to go to find someone who could even fail at it (Conrad Aiken, maybe). It will sit on this year’s shelf with a hundred other poetry books, to all appearances an identical order of thing.

Originally Published: November 1st, 2010

Poet, critic, and editor D.H. Tracy earned an MFA at Boston University. In his formally engaged poems, often infused with sly humor, he explores themes of intimacy, perception, and loss. His debut poetry collection, Janet’s Cottage (2012), won a New Criterion Poetry Prize, and his work is featured in The...

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  1. November 5, 2010
     Terry Valentine (poetry enthus

    I'm sold on Mlinko. I can't wait to read that book.

    I do hope that, with the sharp critical prose that POETRY publishes, it will consider applying that same critical insight in determining the poems that it includes.

  2. November 5, 2010
     Daisy Fried

    D.H. Tracy--I love Ange Mlinko's book. Wouldn't you say that in "Securitization" (in which I'm not hearing a "collapse" into prose--I never really know what that means anyway--why "collapse"?)...wouldn't you agree the explanation is not only of the mortgage industry, but also of marriage, with maybe, glancingly but finally, a bit about a mother's fear for her children?
    Daisy Fried

  3. November 7, 2010
     Alfred Corn

    In this fine review D.H. Tracy produces once again a critical prose that partakes of poetry itself. Reading him, I think of R.P. Blackmur and Kenneth Burke.