Ange Mlinko, Shoulder Season (Coffee House Press)
Rae Armantrout, Versed (Wesleyan)
A psychologist once cautioned me against “going into my head.” Maybe at that point in the conversation I had begun to drift, or speak too abstractly, or . . . Come to think of it, I’ve never known exactly what she meant by the phrase, but it has helped me navigate some tough conversations since then. I think, “Belz, stop. Listen. You’re going into your head.” And I begin to reason and respond more practically.
But even if introspection is a social vice that can produce logorrhoea, it’s an important element in sanity. It is in fact the job of poets, artists, philosophers, academics—even scientists and mathematicians, to some degree—to loosen the mental tether, float out a bit, and just see.
Reading Ange Mlinko’s Shoulder Season, I feel the warm wonder of my own mind. Of course, it’s not really mine—it’s Mlinko’s. I’m reading the world through her glorious sense of verbal contraption, construction, connection, destruction. This is why I have always loved poetry! The first poem, “Treatment,” strikes close to home:
It’s a little spa for the mind—seeing butterflies
set themselves down by the dozen like easels
on bromeliads, when out on the streets the boutiques
are dilapidated, construction can’t be told from ruin.
The poem circles back around, an impressionistic chiasm, to conclude, “But the mind—it’s a little spa.”
The second poem in the collection, also (ironically) called “Treatment,” contains the lines, “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 . . . ” So, yeah, it would seem Mlinko and I have the same therapist.
We also have a similar ear. In “Kouign Amann” she writes,
And now I’m here in Croton-on-Hudson
trying to remember what was sinister
about the asymmetrical cruets,
swan and cygnet, I thought I heard
—listening under a sweet duvet—
duet. (But do swans vocalize?…
Which (I’m not sure it’s cool to do this in a book review, but here goes) echoes some of my own in-rhyming, such as in latter half of the poem “The Slick Ruts.” Mlinko, I now recall, once lauded one of my poems, “Pushkin,” for its slanting end-rhymes! So I guess we are, as businesspeople say, “on the same page.”
Mlinko is something that all poets ought to be, and that is a lover of language for language’s sake. The poems in Shoulder Season relish the physical feeling of words and phrases, of names, the varying weights of different slang idioms, and so on. So she is able to work aesthetically and create real poems.
This is a good point at which to transition to our other subject, Rae Armantrout, whom I mentioned more than a year ago in this very journal. Armantrout has since won the Pulitzer Prize for her book Versed, from which I heard her read in February, 2009, at Casa Romantica, a now-defunct reading series in San Clemente, California.
I took a handful of my creative writing students to the reading, and they responded enthusiastically to Armantrout’s short, bizarre, often barbed poems. Information-age appropriate, the poems are often in tiny sections strung together by asterisks. Here’s a sample from the title poem:
The self-monitoring function
of each cell
The “Issues of the Day”
are mulled steadily
of each experience.
by robotic surveyors.
See how the syntax of that third section just cuts off? There’s one whole sentence in the second section, and the others are fragmentary. I really like it, and it reads aloud well, but I have discovered that some people do not like Armantrout. Here’s a snip from one of Versed‘s disgruntled Amazon reviewers:
There is a laziness to these poems, a fake rigor—short sparse lines that imply lyric tension, but feel like no more than cocktail coaster jottings. Lots of vague pseudo-connections, hocus-pocus, imagistic smoke and mirrors—and to what end? There is little here that speaks to an intelligent, receptive poetry audience. It is all word games, which we are told to believe contain some higher purpose and deeper meaning, indiscernible but ever-present. How the hocum that the academy has labeled “language poetry” has taken root would be hilarious if it were not such a destructive force in American literature.
The key phrase here is “some higher purpose and deeper meaning,” and the reviewer seems to be taking on the past century of modernism in much the same way C. S. Lewis did when he objected to T. S. Eliot’s poetry as “paper money.” “What does it mean?” Lewis asked of Eliot’s “A Cooking Egg.”
And yet, as time has marched on and aesthetic tastes have changed, Eliot and other literary modernistes have become mainstays of high school and college curricula, even loved by “normal” readers who have made the mental adjustments necessary to appreciate obscurantist, imagistic poetry. Still, some readers feel like insiders and some feel like outsiders, the former inevitably offending the latter with their appearance of insiderness, the latter seeming hopelessly entrenched in outmoded forms and styles.
Mlinko and Armantrout recognize in each other, as their quotes on each other’s book backs indicate, a certain eccentric delight. Mlinko’s quote nails it: at the core of these poets’ poetics lies the belief that something is happening in the universe outside of, or irrespective of, the human narrative. Here are both of those blurbs:
I would trade the bulk of contemporary anecdotal free verse for more incisive, chilling poetry like Armantrout’s. There’s more pathos in a poetry that recognizes the universe is central; the poor human, eccentric.
—Ange Mlinko, Poetry
In Ange Mlinko’s Shoulder Season observation and metaphor are always on edge, ready to flip into an unexpected and dissonant key. A pleasant spot is “a spa for the mind” or the mind is only “a little spa.” We’re never quite sure where we are in this poem sequence. Mlinko uses the virtuosic precision of her terminology, paradoxically, to estrange. The poems are at once formally engaged, playful, and disturbing. It’s a wild ride and a great read.
I wonder if this tension can be resolved in the initial picture of talking to a psychologist. Aesthetic turbulence has always been comforting to depressed and discouraged people, always threatening to ideologically confident people. The sad ones among us view a Jackson Pollack painting and muse, “This makes sense.” Does that mean that the edgy ones among us are less in touch with reality? Are we too prone to going into our heads?
It seems that all readers must learn to appreciate Frost and Cummings alike, the representational and the abstract, the human narrative and the universal “other,” if they are to understand what art is good for—why it always has been and always will be such a powerful culture-shaping element.