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Home > Book Reviews > Could Poetic Incantations Redeem Historical Disasters? Felix Nicolau on Ange Mlinko

Could Poetic Incantations Redeem Historical Disasters? Felix Nicolau on Ange Mlinko

March 3rd, 2015 margento






In the post-postmodern era highly-encoding your creation may be a cultural suicide or a dignified way of masking one’s frustrations. Just try to criticize this phenomenon and those absorbed into the Establishment will label you as a frustrated loser. Ange Mlinko mythologically stresses her poetry, but keeps a keen eye on the catastrophes of recent history. The stake of the bet is recklessly increased but, in the end, she saves the day for poetry by galvanizing the cryptic content. The poems become incantations, which is not the final aim of the poet, as she provides glossaries of the ancient terms used. She ambitions to conjoin polyphony and critical discourse, both of them wrapped in a beautiful language and an elevated vision.

The most ciphered environment of communication is sophisticated poetry. In such a cultural context the addressee has to “translate” allusions, ironies and cultural concepts. In spite of reducing the dynamism of understanding, this cultural contextualization offers spacious shelter for past traumas. Ange Mlinko envisages a healing capacity of poetry when she resorts to complex means of reflecting historic catastrophes. The effort of comprehending her poetry involves not only methods specific to cultural studies and aesthetics, but also others pertaining to mythological hermeneutics.

In an interview with Tyler Burgoise, June 13, 2013, in Paris Review, Ange Mlinko proved her impressive intellectual capacities. Her answers are more documented than her poetry, which is not a negligible aspect. As the interviewer remarks, Mlinko “treats the reader to lines that feel both alive and spectral” (document without pagination available); she also makes extensive use of lots of unfamiliar words and names. As it were, this kind of poetry is not as much as cryptic, but allusive and a bit aloof. The poet, in her turn, points up to the fact that she focuses on exploring time and allows for “measure of strangeness” in her poetry, especially with the help of voices: “I grew up listening to languages my immigrant parents didn’t want to teach me, so I get a regressive pleasure out of feeling my way through sounds to their possible meanings” (ibidem). What the author targets is not Ostranenie, the Defamiliarization practiced by the Russian formalists, but the pure sound experiment; an evocation of events past bearing upon present. Of course, every possible profane reader (how utopian can I be?) of her literary production could enjoy the in-take as sound poetry, as long as her cultural “affiliations” remain obscure for her readership. On this level, poetry is music; on the following one, there show up intricate mythologies and history – a symbolic fantasy with memory scars. In her volumes we have lettrism, but also rich content. All in all, a musical cargo floats on melodious villanelle scores or proceeds in parent-speaking ritornelles. Formal mastery gets embedded in historical allegories and prophecies. Past and Future are filtered through the Present and the other way round. In using repetitions and variations, Mlinko admits to Wallace Stevens’s influence, although she also bows to Wordsworth, Omar Khayyam, Robert Browning, S. Coleridge, and Philip Sidney’s and to other famous sources. Then, she invokes T. S. Eliot’s imperative of comprehending a poem before understanding it. This means that tonalities are preceded by the riddles embedded in the text.


Is there something like musical and mythical memory?

THE GOD CATEGORY, a cycle of poems in Marvelous Things Overheard, is especially rich in exotic and picturesque sonorities: “in nearby Baabda,/ connate alexanders in Quadisha, fodder vetch in Zgharta,/While rocket in Sour, gypsywort in Mrjeyoun,/ headed ziziphora in Baakleen, bladder skullcap in Batouk” (SYMPHONIC EXPANSE) (Mlinko, Marvelous Things Overheard 2013: 31). Or let’s lend our ears to the atonalities of this BAYT, with the subtitle 1. LABID’S “LAST SMILE”: “Is as if she were an earn// gebideo prey for her eyrie.// Perched alertly,// ahoegtesse,// her heart-glittered feathers// suddenly she sees//a fox on the westen.// At that she rouses,// heaved up on high,// and heads straight at him,// in harrowing hoeste// Hearing her, he freezes// his tail. He’s terrified” (Ibidem 34). The author helps us out with a glossary:earn= “eagle”, gebideo= “waiting, alert for”, hoegtesse= “female seer”, morgenceald= “morning chill”, westen= “desert, wasteland”, hoeste= “violence”, stela= “scaling (along the ground)” and so on and so forth. The bits absorbed into the poem from medieval texts, like The Wanderer, are also explained or “translated”. But do we really need a semantic translation here? Isn’t it preferable to translate them into musical signifiers, without an intelligible signified?

Mlinko drops a clue when she warns: “A culture that belongs to science and journalism abjures myth” (Bourgoise). Nevertheless, myths refuse logical and exhaustive explanations. What matters in their case is not clarification, but empathy. That is why she dismisses the possible accusations of intricacy and elitism when she insists that the sophisticated constructs in her poetry are “less of an intellectual pleasure than incantation against absence and loss” (Ibidem). However, we smoothly shift towards polyphonic tonalities, as sounds become incantations on plural voices. This feature is consistent with her allegiance to the traditional poetry and philosophy, as shown above. She refuses assimilation into the group of language poets, as she points out that descriptivist linguistics is void of human pathos. When history is a series of tragedies, how could poetry remain sterile, in an abstruse and abstract realm of ideas? Is her mythological affiliation a genuine one? I would say no: Mlinko always mixes myths with blunt and bleak reality. Sorrow and pain are indiscernible phenomena, they must not be forgotten, but nor mournfully worshiped. They have to be spiritualized and made perennial in our souls through mythization. That is why WORDS ARE THE REVERSE OF PAIN: “Had something gone wrong then I wouldn’t be here/ to tell you this: In November 1944 a baby boy was born/ in Germany – ‘in a cave’, they kept saying,/ ’she gave birth in a cave’. Who thinks a woman in labor might be dancing?/ From a distance of gods, Leto might have been dancing,/ The Leto Whom Hera hated. The Leto who reeled/in search of a place to give birth/Fled Arcadia, Leto did./ Fled Parthenium, fled the land of Pelops (Mlinko, Marvelous Things Overheard 2013: 5). Myth is thus endowed with Christian valences, whereas femininity is highlighted at the expense of the sanctity of the sanctified baby. It could lead us towards a Catholic approach of glorifying the sufferance of Virgin Mary. But before the end of the poem we realize that myth and religion are localized and “globalized” in order to imbue the horrors of history with a hidden meaning and an unexpected dignity: “not the normally hospitable Corcyra, not Cos./ It can seem so cordial, this sea, with its views/ clear to spiky urchins fifty feet below. And the islands/ close but uncrowded, like cousins slumped about/on pillows waiting for an adored movie to begin./ Think of Leto groaning amid them trying to sweat a pearl./ Think of us cousins/watching Rudolph on (Christmas Eve,/ so many years after the camps and the ruses-/ lifetimes ago – are pretending to be Polish!” - DEMYTHISATION (idem, ibidem)

Is this postmodern demythization, as one could infer from the disrespectful postures or from the “presentification” of worshipped circumstances? I’d rather incline towards a post-postmodernist vein owing to the lack of obvious irony and to the close-ups on maternal and humanitarian stances. In the quoted interview with Bourgoise, Mlinko opposes truncation to condensation. The first manner of communication imply a loss of sensitivity “in an age where information is privileged over symbols”, whereas the second one “must use intuition and sympathy”. Besides, poeticity is not only about subtlety, memory-commemoration and voices. “Poetry must still dance”, the poet brings forward and she reminds us that atrocities shouldn’t become a burden that makes the artist cut a dour figure. Writing about Marvelous Things Overheard, Rebecca Ariel Porte dwells upon The Aesthetics of Enchantment to be found in this volume. Mlinko would have the mysterious ability to re-enchant what has been disenchanted.


Sorcery can beautify dire realities

So, are we speaking about an irrational post-postmodernist witchcraft? Or could it be an artistic craft stirred by some Dadaist techniques? Hardly! Not even some surrealist blasts of imagination could be traced along these pages. Porte invokes the figure of Marie Taglioni (1804-1884), prima ballerina, who in 1835 tamed a Russian highwayman by dancing for him upon a panther’s skin spread over snow during a starry night. The suggestion is that Mlinko’s enchantments are pure art and clever craft. THE MED is the poem built on Taglioni’s risky performance. Such a poetic “expertise” is the result of Mlinko’s trips to Orient as well as of her voyages on cultural wings in time. “The Med” is short for Mediterranean. This explains how the poet can hybridize all realities in her texts, but still manages somehow to keep them whole. Chiron, the centaur, is the symbol of successful magic, as Porte puts it: “a hybrid beast, half-horse, half-man, botanical savant”. His half-ness is disentangled from many other halves or quarters. In fact, only this hybridity insures the genuine communication without which there is ever-lasting conflict and masked terror.

The motto of the book is taken from Aristotle’s On Marvelous Things Heard: “The she-goats in Cephallenia do not drink, as it appears, like other quadrupeds; but daily turning their faces towards the sea, open their mouths, and take in the breezes”. Confronted with this fragment, we are left with two interpretations: either the “positivist” Greek philosopher preserved a large quantity of naivety, or he simply stuck to the Platonic poetical vein, in spite of his scientific mindset. In the second case, it means that what a scientist brands as “miracle” may be something unexplainable for the time being and very beautiful, irrespective of its lack of logic. But not every illogical deed or phenomenon attracts poetry. It is the symbolic absurdity that engenders significant openings: “When I turn my hand mill, I think of the dowager/ who ground gems on ham for her guests;/ the queen who ground out two cups of flour/ on the pregnant abdomen of her husband’s mistress” – The GRIND (Mlinko,Marvelous Things Overheard 2013: 3). Mlinko does not simply “hear” things; she “overhears” them, conjuring the miracle out of the easy-to-explain realm. Her miracles are mostly phonetical ones, exotic in-takes in the magma of her poems. She “has a tendency to glorify the administrative potential of language a little too firmly at times and to glance askance at emotions that occupy the more disagreeable, anarchic registers” (Porte, no page numbers). Rebeca Ariel Porte, in the same interview, notices that “words may be the reverse of pain but pain is also the parent of language” (ibidem), so it would be a folly “to forget this, to live in the tyranny of a poetics in which words offer pleasure and onlypleasure” (ibidem). Without any doubt, Mlinko dwells on the causes and effects of pain, even if she dodges, most often than not, the aesthetics of ugliness.


The music of encrypted communication

Giving birth, for instance, is a painful situation, but ennobled owing to its consequence. The stress will not fall on the misery of delivery, but on the context of the semi-tragedy of not being allowed to add to life: “There was an island not permitted to anchor,/ named Asteria. Asteria wandered/ across the Aegean, across the Saronic Gulf/ until some unnamed wind blew that midwife,/ part earth part skiff, and Leto together/ The island took pity, and let Leto deliver./ Hera couldn’t intervene. Asteria had once been a woman/ Who accepted punishment rather than bed Zeus./ Double bind rebounded./ After succoring Leto, the island could anchor at last/ She became renowned as the heart of the Cyclades, Delos” – WORDS ARE THE REVERSE OF PAIN, (Mlinko, Marvelous Things Overheard 2013: 6). This fragment pinpoints that this poetry is both musical and para-musical. Every concert needs an auditorium with a fine acoustics. If the “unresolved tension between plaisir andjouissance explains Mlinko’s fascination with angeliques, chatoyance, psittacines, Pterophyllum altum, the regenbogen, medusozoan nerve nets” (in Porte, no page numbers), we should add to all these the ability to stage this sonorous tension against imposing symphonic contexts. Deeply rooted into the soil of modernism, which is not so far away from high postmodernism, this art does long for a romanticGesamtkunstwerk: a well-organized totality. Such a holistic approach to poetry – through history, myth, music, architecture and many others – could counterbalance the “continuous process of disenchantment in which mystery recedes into personal interactions” (in Porte, no page numbers).

I may infer that Mlinko does not care particularly about communication, but about recovering and working towards sublime memories, myths and legends – the stuff of a petite histoire. Her process of enchanting sufferance is not an escapist one, although she refuses to pass judgments or to insist, at least, on instances of torture or unhappiness. As Rebeca Ariel Porte remarks, “enchantment can have an ethics only insomuch as it has a politics”. The politics here may be that of saving the celestial beauty of an aggressive sublunary world. The bird’s-eye-view dispenses with atrocious details and selects only contrasts, counterpoints and splendid effects of confrontation. In this way, it is hardly possible for any literary critic to label this art as being a scaffolding of phonetic oddities. But then, it is true, such a poetry is digestible only in medium-sized portions and even in these circumstances not to every mind’s stomach. Mlinko’s eavesdropping is not democratic, but definitely elitist. Of course, one can listen to her poetry as to atonal music, without understanding its message. Disenchantment cannot always be told from enchantment, and poetry can be tackled with the stoicism a patient accepts her treatment. The purpose is to avoid oversimplification or fast conclusions. We should remember a poem from Shoulder Season: “It’s a little spa for the mind-seeing butterflies/ set themselves down by the dozen like easels/ on bromeliads, when out on the street the boutiques/are dilapidated, construction can’t be told from ruin./ A single taste bud magnified resembles an orchid/ but what that one’s drinking from is a woman’s eye/which must be brineless. I wonder what she consumes/ that her tears taste like fructose. For minutes she’s all its./[…]// And each tree casts its shade in the form of its summary leaf./ Is a woman’s eye a single taste bud magnified?/ Yet construction can’t be told from ruin./ Out on the street the boutiques are dilapidated// by the dozen like easels. But the mind – it’s a little spa” (Mlinko, Shoulder Season 2010: 1).


Yes, it is irony that redeems complexity

All these poetries are permeated by healthy irony. The purpose is to dissuade both excessive enchantment and excessive disenchantment. It seems that the pride of the poet resides in her (cultural) lucidity. Her approach to history and art is subtle, all-encompassing and redeeming. Such an architecturalized poetry has the dignity of a temenos, “the meticulously ordered temple precinct dedicated to a god or hero in archaic Greece […] the product of such divinatory thinking, governed as it is by taboos of pollution and the cult of purity” (Tzonis 1992 1). Mlinko’s art is a multi-layered and strictly hierarchized edifice despite apparent democratic contiguities: “brilliantly spooning up Aphrodite/ to Greek porticoes, and our potatoes,/ and plain living which might be/ shaken by infinitesimal tattoos” – THE GRIND (Mlinko, Marvelous Things Overheard, 2013: 4). But this masked stratification is even more detectable in THE GOD CATEGORY cycle, with the poem 2. SQUALL: ECHO: “What we need is a suitor perpetually new, the wives agreed/ (their imported spreads, their filigreed eyelids)./ What we need are marvelous things, they said, but Echo/ could not say what she had seen./ Sitting among their pale accessories, all in harmony with white/ceramic tile,/ eggshell balcony railings, green-grape sunlight spilling on the/ metallurgical sound of the waves – more like staves-/ collapsing,/ and so collapsing every riff into one note// The sand was all one color, oat, and the grasses kept/ rebearding where hosanna-ing thalassas/ massacred oysters to pure nacre” (Ibidem 10). Obviously, there is strong and miraculous meaning in this ever-renascent reality. Irony expurgates vanities and fetishisms only to re-state the salient beauty of existence. Thus, Ange Mlinko celebrates the Lévinasian “ethical subject”: “The rationality of the human psyche is explored in the intersubjective relation, the relationship of one person to another, in the transcendence of the ‘for-the-other’ initiating ‘the ethical subject’, which initiates the entre-nous” (Levinas 1999: XI).

I wouldn’t take this reassessing of cultural memory as social involvement, but as a cultural critique of history. Mlinko is not seduced by contemporaneity; she whirls her words up in intricate spirals and she highlights their beauty by chopping away bits of the shameful deeds committed by our ancestors. The beauty she targets is truly artistic, not simply enchanting for our senses – a trans-beauty: “Art and beauty are not, of course, synonymous: one can easily think of many art works that deliberately eschew beauty in order to pursue some other ideal or effect” (Burns 2002 1). A complex, Briareus-like art, may be less artistic, but deeper and more significant. A cantata may remain both ex-temporal and cross-temporal: “Lynette, the stars are kerned so far apart-/ Through a herniated zodiac I almost see your waled skylines/ your shocked Capricorn and Cancer./ In the hundred and two years since you were born, and the/sixteen since your heart failed, and the nearly sixty// Last night, Lynette, my son thought he saw his father in the jumbo jet roaring over cherryhurst: the weather/softer, flight paths altered./ Pastoral ding-dong is OUT”, Lynette wrote, and no wonder -/bombs hidden on the glossy knolls./ In the sorrel./ In the termentil” -CANTATA FOR LYNETTE ROBERTS (Mlinko, Marvelous Things Overheard, 2013: 56-59).


Is this tap dancing or tango?

Mlinko’s assumed stance is that of a difficult artist, although many of her verses are impregnated with less-elevated ricochets. Actually, this is the compost which nourishes the branches of her elaborate poems. As Neil Roberts realizes, there is an academic doom in what concerns the poets on the threshold between the 20th and 21st centuries: “Especially in America, to be a professional poet almost necessarily means teaching writing in a university, and in the latter part of the century, especially in postcolonial studies and the influence of poststructuralism on writers such as the Language poets, the discourse of academics have merged” (Roberts, 2003: 2).

Could this be the source of Mlinko’s many-voiced, even polyphonic low- & high-pitched “intonations”? She may share the fate of high-brow poets, as Dana Gioia envisaged it: “American poetry now belongs to a subculture. No longer part of the mainstream of artistic and intellectual life, it has become the specialized occupation of a relatively small and isolated group. Little of the frenetic activity it generates ever reaches outside that closed group. As a class, poets are not without cultural status. Like priests in a town of agnostics, they still command a certain residual prestige. But as individuals they are almost invisible” (Gioia, 1992: 1).


A happy paradox

This is the paradox: to belong simultaneously both in the academia and in the subculture. In both cases, the point with the poets and their verses’ invisibility stands aloof, I could say. Shoulder Season and Marvelous Things Overheard are homogeneous volumes in what concerns their beehive multi-level structure. Maybe the former keeps communication – understood as permeability – in higher esteem: “We went to the vivarium – to see/ the tropical butterflies in a/ walk-through biodome. They were/ cocooning, their insides filled/ with meconium. The chrysalises looked/ like jade and rosy quartz pendants/ for ladies’ ears – with gold worked in,/ something Babylonian./ Enormous specimens/ breathed against tree bark.// Belated naturalists we./ I kept repeating to myself:/ the mind is not a little spa./ The Mind is not a little Spa./ You can’t retreat to its imaginary/ standard distance/ when outside construction/ can’t be told from ruin” – TREATMENT (Mlinko, Shoulder Season2010: 2). The message lurking behind the indirect approach clearly specifies that with the end of the Ancien Régime the ivory tower has become not only immoral, but downright impracticable: inward there is a nightmarish mindscape. The poet as mythical flâneur pinches the cords of an instrument with vast possibilities of expression. Its diapason is so wide, that only powerful choirs could enact the grandiose opera imagined by Ange Mlinko. The plurivocal implications of the verses save them from bleak cultural affectation and cleanse them of phoniness: “Like architecture, rhetoric is formed around divisions that enclose and exclude; Plato’s ideal republic famously excludes poets because of their tendency to adopt duplicitous multiple voices, yet poetry’s multiplicity is inseparable from rhetoric, and keeps seeping back even into the text he is writing. Plato’s democratic vision also excludes women, and the doubly excluded figure of the poet who is a woman offers a revealing point from which to explore the interwoven aspects of language and place that form the contemporary city”(Skoulding 2013: 2). This is Mlinko’s miracle: to pour life into highly-refined formulations. What with other poets would have ended up as formulaic language, with her becomes commemoration and inciting communication: “‘How easy it was to put treacherous beacons on the shoals;/steal a map; distribute counterfeit maps;//falsify navigational charts, or the names for things/in foreign languages.’” – THE HELIOPOLITAN (Mlinko, Marvelous Things Overheard, 2013: 18). How difficult must have been for the poet to use the mythological paradigm in order to protest against recent history’s aberrations!

Primary Sources:

Mlinko, Ange. Marvelous Things Overheard. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013, USA.

Mlinko, Ange. Shoulder Season. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2010, USA.

Secondary and Theoretical Sources:

Burns, Allan. Thematic Guide to American Poetry. Greenwood Publishing Group Inc, 2002, USA.

Gioia, Dana. Can Poetry Matter? Essays on Poetry and American Culture. Minnesota: GRaywolf Press, 1992, USA.

Levinas, Emmanuel. Entre-nous: on Thinking-of-the-Other. Translated from the French by Michael B. Smith and Barbara Harshav, West Sussex: Columbia University Press, 1999, USA.

Roberts, Neil, ed. A Companion to Twentieth-Century Poetry. Blackwell Publishing LTD, 2003, USA.

Skoulding, Zoë. Contemporary Women’s Poetry and Urban Space. Palgrave Macmillan, 2013, USA.

Tzonis, Alexander. Classical Architecture, 5th printing, The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1992, USA.


Bourgoise Tyler, Poetry Must Still Dance: An Interview with Ange Mlinko, June 17, 2013, Web 26 November 2014, http://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2013/06/17/poetry-must-still-dance-an-interview-with-ange-mlinko/.

Porte, Rebecca Ariel, The Aesthetics of Enchantment: Ange Mlinko’s “Marvelous Things Overheard”, in Los Angeles Review of Books, Web 26 November 2014.http://lareviewofbooks.org/review/the-aesthetics-of-enchantment-ange-mlinkos-marvelous-things-overheard.


Felix Nicolau is Professor in the Department of Foreign Languages and Communications, The Technical University of Civil Engineering, Bucharest, Romania. He defended his PhD in Comparative Literature in 2003 and is the author of five volumes of poetry (among which the latest, Kamceatka – time IS honey, 2014), two novels and eight books of literary and communication theory: Take the Floor. Professional Communication Theoretically Contextualized (2014), Cultural Communication: Approaches to Modernity and Postmodernity (2014), Comunicare şi creativitate. Interpretarea textului contemporan (Communication and Creativity. The Interpretation of Contemporary Text, 2014), Homo Imprudens (2006), Anticanonice (Anticanonicals, 2009), Codul lui Eminescu (Eminescu’s Code, 2010), and Estetica inumană: de la Postmodernism la Facebook (Inhuman Aesthetics: from Postmodernism to Facebook, 2013). He is on the editorial boards of Poesis International, The Muse – an International Journal of Poetry, and Metaliteratura magazines. His areas of interest are translation studies,  communication theory, comparative literature, cultural studies, translation studies, and British and American studies.


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