No to Aristotle
Marvelous Things Overheard, by Ange Mlinko.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $15.00.
This is a book I adore, but I feel compelled to begin with a complaint: when Ange Mlinko goes to such lengths to point out Aristotle’s presence in Marvelous Things Overheard, evoking him rather unnecessarily in both her epigraph and in the concluding notes (“A selected bibliography would include Aristotle’s treatises ‘On the Naming and Situation of the Winds’ and ‘On Marvelous Things Heard’”), I cringe and feel more than a slight tinge of misplaced cultural authority attempting to bookend this lovely work.
Aristotle almost certainly did not write the work commonly known in Latin as De mirabilibus auscultationibus or simply, De mirabilibus. The presence of Pseudo-Aristotles throughout history is neither new nor a secret and, aside from Mlinko feeling the need for some reason to spell out her riff in the title, there’s no reason at all for this book to anchor itself to Aristotle in the way that it does. Mlinko’s poetry is ambitious and nimble; ideas on the history of art and thought inhabit her poems like dollar bills on the table in a shell game. But shell games and poetry both function smoothly as a matter of trust: the balance between too much and too little is of the utmost importance. If a poet feels obliged to offer a selected bibliography at the end of a book of poems it’s a good idea for the poet to have a handle on who did and did not likely write what. Typically, the Pseudo–Aristotle would be more of a rhyme with the book anyway. Sometimes the traveler through the history of ideas needs to make sure to carry sunblock or read scholarship or, heaven forbid, consult the original.
Marvelous Things Overheard, sumptuous as it is, has nothing to do with philosophy, and this is to its merit. We are hitting our head against the same wall that we do with Stevens: the poetry is not philosophy, not better understood via philosophy, does not enhance our understanding of philosophy, nor is it a replacement for philosophy. It’s poetry. Beautiful poetry. And Mlinko’s book is neither smarter nor more significant for having cited il maestro di color che sanno. Speaking of Dante, he followed the medieval tradition of referring to Aristotle as “the Philosopher”: enough said, no further information needed; and you’ll have trouble finding a bigger name-dropper than Dante.
The raw power of Marvelous Things Overheard comes from the absence of a hierarchical center toward which the intellect is inevitably pulled. The book revels in Mlinko’s kaleidoscopic imagination and her incurable case of word-fascination, all brought together tautly by her ear’s wonderful ability to edit and shape an idea — “You never hear of Ixion, tied to a revolving wheel, / but it’s an axiom that, sooner or later, a hurricane’ll hit here”; “snakes desquamate their own simulacra”; “the rough marine roof / kicked up by the hoof of Notus if necessary” — if stone tablets could breathe through their hard skins, this may be what they would sound like.
So, no to Aristotle and yes to lyric poetry. Mlinko’s turn on the phrase Marvelous Things Heard to Marvelous Things Overheard brings immediately to mind the theory of the lyric. Particularly Mill’s defining statement:
Poetry and eloquence are both alike the expression or utterance of feeling. But if we may be excused the antithesis, we should say that eloquence is heard; poetry is overheard.
The love of lyric poetry and the very idea of the lyric is so ripe in Mlinko’s fourth collection of poems that it almost reads as a defense of poetry, or at least as a defense of the types of poetry that Mlinko writes.
This work is an arabesque stroll through the gardens, orchards, wild growths, shores, and splendid ruins of the English language. It’s a love letter to the history of poetry in our language — a love letter apparently lost in transit, its contents recited by heart to anyone willing to listen by someone who had found it and, not knowing its destination, still felt moved to sing of the joy found in those pages.
Of course, we learn as children that these types of transmissions lose things in transit: “love” may become “live”; “blew” may become “blue”; or, as in the case of Mlinko’s poem “Bayt,” “ana” as the Anglo-Saxon word for “alone” can become the Arabic word for “I”: “But ana [“alone”/“I”] do not grieve”; “And ana [“alone”/“I”] have drawn / the wilderness around me,” etc.
“Bayt” braids the two aforementioned traditions — the Anglo-Saxon and the Arabic — via subject and form. The poem evokes in its three subtitled sections the pre-Islamic era poets Abu Aqil Labīd ibn Rabī’ah (or simply “Labīd,” whose work has been preserved in the Mu’allaqat) and al-Shanfara. Meanwhile, each line carries a heavy visual split in it, representing the distich-making effect caused by alliteration in Anglo-Saxon poetry. Add to this that the poem is peppered with Anglo-Saxon words and you end up with moments such as:
On leftovers ana breakfastlike the spleenish wulf the wéstenes chase.He sets out hungry,nose in the wind, up the wulfhleoþu.
There is a glossary at the conclusion of the poem to glean the words in italics: “ana” has been mentioned above, “wulf” means “wolf,” “wéstenes” is said to be the plural of “desert” or another highly-loaded word in the history of poetry in English, “wasteland.” It hardly needs saying that this is an entirely different poem without the glossary at the end of it; or that some of the definitions offered should be taken with a grain of salt — like the aforementioned “wasteland.” All of this is a part of poetry’s play, as is the pastiche of forms and cultures and the formal signifying.
In short, provided you love how poems can sound and have a simultaneous abiding interest in the history of the lyric you’ll likely have a sense of what Mlinko is up to, which is nothing short of searching for a cup capacious enough to hold as much poetry in a given moment as it can. It is my hope that all readers of poetry are interested in how poems can sound and in the history of the lyric. Mlinko is seeking to meet us there, although very much on her own terms.
As a consequence, Marvelous Things Overheard swims in the glimmering waters between islands of pleasure and knowledge. Take “The Med,” for instance, which touches on Tanaquil LeClercq’s life upon performing with a smitten Balanchine in New York in 1944 and subsequently leaping, in the same sentence, to Copenhagen in 1956 — tethered, unnamed, to the tragic irony of events. The first of its two stanzas ends with:
But consider a worse fate, my dear:Consider a ballerinawho dances a benefit for her choreographeras the villain Polio; she pretends to fall, stricken;but gold ingots, tossed at her by a ring of children,heal her miraculously;a dozen years later polio, for real,cuts her at the waist.
Largely a compendium of Mlinko’s life in Beirut and her travels to Greece and Cyprus, Marvelous Things Overheard gathers a certain amount of wild energy from Mlinko’s travels that subsequently is tempered into very thought-out, mapped-out poems. Temporarily living elsewhere renders one a type of intimate stranger (a condition made still more severe when one doesn’t know the languages of the place). The symptoms of such a condition are rife in Mlinko’s poems: “The Med,” for example, after fingering the biographical edges of a ballerina’s life, finds its footing, and its conclusion, after a telling line (“remember this, and think instead”) in those embassies of the visitor: the museum and the sea.
In the museum where we saw it, Aimée, it glowsthe color of the sea near certain villages where fallthe narrow blades of shadow rudderspointing to bedroomsdarkened at midday;the sea is violet with iodine.
“The Heliopolitan” likewise creates a palimpsest of place and events: a hotel in Baalbek, Lebanon, the presence in that hotel of a sketch by Jean Cocteau, and thus the implied metonymic presence of Cocteau himself “as he drew in his sketch pad the rooster with a toe.” But where does the palimpsest end and where does it begin? Baalbek was conquered by Alexander and named Heliopolis and the native gods syncretized into the more familiar Western gods. Mlinko chooses her subjects wisely throughout, finding topics that poems can flesh out but can barely contain. “The Heliopolitan,” in this instance, appears to be settling into a reflection heading in one direction, when suddenly “L’ange Heurtebise,” Death’s chauffer in Cocteau’s classic film Orphée, and “____ the Flaccid” make their way through Mlinko’s tercets, “a rhododactyl turns the page.” There is nothing surreal about this. Rather, it is incident caused by coincidence made into poetry. It doesn’t stand against reality, rather it stands beside reality as a record of, well, a marvelous thing overheard.
The scope and achievement of Marvelous Things Overheard reaches its highpoint in the villanelle sequence, “Wingandecoia,” a terrific poem somewhat about the lost colony of Roanoke and the pleasure found in words like “psittacines,” “pot pot chee,” and “swisser swatter”; how they move in the mind like a concentrate in liquid, settling into something marvelously heard or overheard; or perhaps — as Mlinko writes in the finale of her final poem, rather tellingly titled “Reason, Love, Control” — something “evolving / only toward more feeling.”
Coolly the bodies of experts,the professional committees,hone their vocab to tweezers.And I love it too. I love how it controlsmy breathing — subcortical, ischemic —for we life-forms are evolvingonly toward more feeling.
“Only” here can mean “merely” or “single-mindedly” and thus takes some of the semantic pressure off of “feeling” and places more emphasis on “evolving” — a suitable close for this poet of process and this book of processes.
Born and raised in New York City, poet, literary and art critic, and translator Rowan Ricardo Phillips earned a BA at Swarthmore College and a PhD at Brown University. He is the author of the poetry collections The Ground (2012) and Heaven (2015), which was a finalist for the National...