Ange Mlinko’s Venice opens with a prefatory poem recalling a trip from Beirut to Cyprus, the birthplace of Aphrodite. It is Boxing Day 2009. The poet and her children look forward to the new year and the new decade, and, pushing their luck, bid a “good riddance to the past.” How could this decade be any worse than the one we’d all just endured? The ironies are precise, lethal, and Greek.
Venice is partly a book about comeuppances. And so dark portents intrude upon the fragrant scene, even as “clover makes handsome reparations” and “fennel sends up plumes.” From the ramparts where, in the Ottoman–Venetian War (I googled it; reading Mlinko, you keep open a rolodex of tabs), “the Venetians/witnessed the Ottomans flay/their commander,” she sees, on the surface of the water, how “a whitecap’s surrendering tower, a glittering as of weaponry,/rehearse their capacity to stun.” Violence is inscribed everywhere in this vista where forgetfulness was sought: “Every wave,” she concludes, “has a will to power.”
“Can you say/by what ghost we are detained?” Mlinko asks. The ghost, haunting the word “detained” as well as “reparations,” “plumes,” and the Nietzschean phrase “will to power,” is history, which tees up empires only to topple them, one after another. But Mlinko’s style is a “perspectival warp,” like the buried village in “At Herculaneum”: it’s a substance “not wasted, but preserved” by catastrophe.
As you dig and dowse and x-ray your way through Mlinko’s poems, you develop an intuition about where the treasures might be hidden. Often the most interesting word is also one of the simplest: here, “rehearse.” Another tab opens, and I am told by Etymonline.com that it is cognate with the word “hearse”:
c. 1300 (late 13c. in Anglo-Latin), “flat framework for candles, hung over a coffin,” from Old French herse, formerly herce “large rake for breaking up soil, harrow; portcullis,” also “large chandelier in a church,” from Medieval Latin hercia, from Latin hirpicem (nominative hirpex) “harrow,” a rustic word, from Oscan hirpus “wolf,” supposedly in allusion to its teeth. Or the Oscan word may be related to Latin hirsutus “shaggy, bristly.”
I did not know that, as John Goodman put it in The Big Lebowski. But now that I do, I can say that the rehearsal here is at once a performer’s preparation; a technical agricultural term that suggests aspects of writing poetry (like versus, the turn of the plow and the origin of our word “verse”); a kind of allusion, what with the ghost and the ramparts, to Hamlet (“it harrows me with fear and wonder,” Horatio exclaims when he beholds King Hamlet’s ghost); and, a little playfully, the act of dying over and over again, as the hearse becomes a rehearsal. And since we’re thinking about Aphrodite, that whitecap’s “surrendering tower” is also, by the way, a figure for ejaculation.
“Death is the mother of beauty,” Wallace Stevens wrote. Venice adds to its contemplation of death and beauty a deep account of motherhood at a crossroads, now that art and mortality share an empty nest. Those kids who in 2009 “fill their lungs, stretch their bodies,/roll in long grass amid half-hidden rocks” are, in the retrospected scene, old enough to be left alone to do such things while their mother gazes out at the Mediterranean. These days they’d be (I am guessing) perhaps eighteen, twenty? They’ve flown the coop, or will soon, and the precious decade that promised them a grand reset turned out to be an utter shitshow.
Venice is, among many other things, a beautiful elegy for teenagers of this generation (my own children’s generation, and my students’), their lives consumed by guns, climate anxiety, disease, and social unrest, written by an ex-teenager who remembers a freer and fuller life when she was their age. The kids, though, seem all right:
Two sounds in the house lately:
clanking barbells and electric guitar
behind garage and bedroom doors.
J.’s mesocosm failed; he flagrantly
excused himself on the basis of gender,
as the gathering of mud and spores,
weeds and worms for “nurturing”
is not the métier, apparently, of boys.
Mesocosms may not be these boys’ métier, but neither do they seem like boneheads. Their Mother’s Day present of a moth orchid is very thoughtful—like their mother’s writing style, an expression of “equal parts extravagance and thrift”:
Or say that the gift of a moth orchid
to the mother from her kid
encrypts something of her lonely midnight vigils,
the moon in varying dosages like Advils…
Because its soft tints and moon-tones
combine with its etymological cojones
to represent the parent who must hybridize
both mother and father in her kids’ eyes.
The cojones in this passage is its placement of “moon-tones” and “cojones” in rhyming position, thereby forcing us to mispronounce the latter, and even to make it read as a two-syllable word. But I find a frustrating deficit of cojones in Mlinko’s decision to make the pun that is loudly implicit in the poem’s title, “Moth Orchid”—it looks like a collision of “mother” and “child”—explicit, nervously connecting those dots. The moment that follows is completely lovely: the moon as an Advil conjures, very lightly, Philip Larkin’s own comparison of the moon, in “Sad Steps,” to a “lozenge.” A mother’s loneliness inheres in Advils; a bitter old bachelor’s in lozenges. I like making discoveries like these on my own.
Poets have such advantages over readers, you sometimes wonder why readers agree to play their games at all. “Style” is, among other things, the way those advantages are managed: some poets flaunt them; others level them. But any game whose rules are devised arbitrarily by one contestant, in secret, with all the benefits of time and cunning on their side, has to be considered rigged. Poets should, at the very least, apologize for all the little wins they’ve arranged to give themselves along the way. It’s simple courtesy.
Mlinko does seem to apologize at several points in Venice. Once, explicitly:
reason to do with our touristing in the ruins
over which a seagull made a W
—or was it a bent drill bit, a (sorry) augur?
But what sort of apology is that parenthetical “sorry”? Does it excuse runaway prowess? Too-muchness? Grating aplomb?
Or is the poem, in fact, glitching? An “augur”—a soothsayer—is also, in this poem about Roman engineering and American dread (“The Whisper Networks”), “a bent drill bit,” that is, an “auger.” The homophonic pun falls apart when the word is spelled out. Or maybe the “sorry” corresponds to the botched images, neither one a perfect fit, for the seagull? Can a bird contort itself to resemble a W? Or perhaps it excuses the awkwardness of the article “a” (“a augur”) which inconveniently nestles up against the word “sorry” before reaching its intended noun.
Whether issued for irritating cleverness or a malfunctioning pun, the apology betrays Mlinko as a writer riding shotgun with her own style. A poem is “a kind of adventure that I go on with the language,” Mlinko said in an interview: its materials “add their own intentionality to the poem.” Every artist believes a version of this: the suppleness of silk, the hardness of marble, the viscosity of oil paint—these materials all have minds of their own. But one person’s “adventure” is another’s walk in the park, and the narrative enclosures of these poems only permit certain kinds of thrills. The girl who “puked on the tour bus/on the switchback up to Vesuvius” would have no trouble at all keeping her food down in the journey that the poem (“Chimenea”) takes us on as it cruises along at an even rate of speed, its tame rhymes and cultivated ironies presented as souvenirs.
As Mlinko’s style has evolved from book to book, she has more and more begun to communicate in the argot of her influences. Her formalism originates upstream with Auden, James Merrill, and Elizabeth Bishop; picks up mannerisms as it courses through the work of Richard Howard, Rachel Hadas, Paul Muldoon, Gjertrud Schnackenberg, Daniel Hall, and others; and eddies in the work of Mlinko’s friend A.E. Stallings, who is addressed throughout this book. I like all of these writers to varying degrees, but the mode has become a coterie, and many of Mlinko’s poems seem as though their crowning ambition is to join the club.
This style, crowd-sourced far from the madding crowd, is not merely a kit of formal moves. It’s also a set of locations, affects, binds, sentiments, stances; it leads a person to vastly overvalue certain talismans of sophistication, refinement, and taste. There is always more to say, in life, about Rodin, Puccini, Botticelli, Respighi, Antonioni, and about the villas and piazzas and ruins and chapels of Italy; but the meeting of style with rococo setting in many of Mlinko’s poems is too predictable, and it consigns her, as the American traipsing through such scenes, to a kind of permanent slapstick where her own mishaps emerge from the backdrop, chiaroscuro-like, to lighten the mood.
And the mood is lightened, often, in a very heavy-handed way. There are, first, the intentionally belly-flopping puns: comic relief, bits of gaucherie to even out the potentially stifling erudition. Not every pun functions this way, but those that do are usually marked—by italics, by their placement at important points in the line, by metrical emphasis, by explicit commentary—as near-misses. A fuse trips every time one goes off: the “suitor’s pseud” of an orchid’s petal, a guide who “pines” among the pines for the “does”—not the snows—“of yesteryear,” a shelf “where recto sits, and verso appears/in blinding dazzle seeking cover.” These puns require either assent or resistance; you can’t just pass your eyes over them. And so, Mlinko’s poems provoke in her reader the same stance of perpetual evaluation that their author models within them. Do you like it when, in “Venus in Naples,” Vulcan presents Venus with “a necklace/of lava beads” to indicate that he’s “in the mud for love”? (I don’t.)
The success of the poems often depends on how craftily they’ve captured ordinary—even if elaborate, exotic, or luxe—places, events, and objects. You’ve seen fireworks? Have you seen fireworks that “branch like cave-paint stags/jumping in brief bursts above the roof”? If that image were a perfect success, we wouldn’t need the subsequent phrase to clinch it. As anyone who teaches poetry workshops can tell you, similes almost invariably draw the most feedback. You see what’s on either side of the equal sign, and you check the math.
There are other elements here that cry out for an up or down vote. All rhyming poets invite us to grade their right margins. I liked “cojones” and “moon-tones” and, for the same reason (in “Sleepwalking in Venice”), “program” and “1 AM.” The latter pair forces you to make that time on the digital clock say what it appears to say, when you’re blurry-eyed and insomniac: I AM—“an existential cry from the clocks,/the gulling of a campanile.” (Robert Lowell plays with the same insomniac misreading in a late poem, “Shadow,” in which his digital clock cries out with “Job’s tempestuous, inconstant I AM.”)
I’m less sure, in the same poem, of this passage, in which “a bout of tennis”
on an uneven Moroccan clay court
put my right ankle in a cast.
The rhyme surely made an imprecation,
a sort of curse-cum-tort,
as well as the fact that in contrast
to other sport, Venice is a game for one.
The “rhyme” that made the “imprecation” is Venice and tennis; an imprecation is a curse, as the irritating rhyming pair “Moroccan clay court” and “curse-cum-tort” makes all too plain. These lines seem sacrificed to their end-words, elongated needlessly to dangle their rhyming terms in position: it’s tempting to try to rewrite some of them, to create a more interesting context for the word “contrast” than what Mlinko offers us in the slack penultimate line of this stanza.
The very American heroine of these poems reliably arranges her own mortification at the hands of suave Europeans. The poems, therefore, are often stories about education, including the setbacks encountered along the way. Misperception is one of Mlinko’s great themes: “A little blue heron/(not, as I first thought, a baby ‘great’ blue heron)/was trying to keep a low profile in the shallows,” she writes in “Scales and Probability.” She shares with Bishop, one of her named guides in this book, the tendency to leave errors of perception in her poems and to correct them parenthetically. Ideally, we’re persuaded that something crucial is at stake in the error; with the heron mistake, I can’t detect what’s important in the slip or crucial in the correction.
Here they are, the error and its correction, in context:
After paging through La Primavera with less comprehension
than awe at the three-stranded braid of music and German/
Italian librettos—for which the words Träume and sogno
stood in microcosm—I sat outside the library at a sinkhole
encircled by palms, ferns, and moss. A little blue heron
(not, as I first thought, a baby “great” blue heron)
was trying to keep a low profile in the shallows,
perfectly still except for the ripples of invisible darters
that seemed to be kissing the surface from the other side.
The elements come to seem literally predictable: every few lines some foreign phrases, a bit of high culture balanced by something gritty or “real,” a rhythm somewhat monotonous, like a munching caterpillar. To succeed in this style, as Mlinko often does, is to evade risks that were unnecessary to tolerate in the first place.
The fixation on slight mistakes suggests a poetry machined for precision but wary of fastidiousness. That’s the dilemma we encounter in the poetry of queer twentieth-century poets like Merrill and Bishop, where transgressive passion, though inscribed as wit, accuracy, and formal control, is nevertheless intended to be experienced as passion. I can’t find the meaning in Mlinko’s impersonations of this bind; the more she seems to insist on it, the more she strikes me as a writer who cuts herself a lot of breaks. I wish, in Venice, that she sounded more often like herself: her previous books, especially Distant Mandate (2017), made her one of the premier American poets of my generation, and I never felt, as I do here, the threat of pastiche.
The concluding poem in this volume, “Venice, Florida,” is the best poem in the book and one of the finest Mlinko has ever written. I do not want a poetry that wins me over; I want something as sublime and tender as this poem’s opening stanza:
The clouds went on each afternoon—
bodybuilding to a rippling mass,
flat-topped, or with bedhead;
from a puffball, picayune,
they did something to the grass
fluorescing on the watershed.
It’s a poem about enduring lockdown with teenage boys, their Covid prerogatives—bodybuilding, tennis, jogging, manscaping—reflected in the weather and the natural world. It is rhythmically surprising (“from a puffball, picayune”) and, in the bemused kindness it extends to these strange creatures who share her life, deeply morally attractive. Venice is best when it hits closest to home.