A Review of Ange Mlinko, Distant Mandate

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book review

Brooke Clark

A Review of Ange Mlinko, Distant Mandate

New York, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017
ISBN 978-0-374-24821-5, 112 pp., USA $23.00, hardcover





Ange Mlinko’s Distant Mandate occupies unusual ground in that it weds an experimental impulse to an interest in formalism. Where most experimental poetry is experimental at the level of language, fragmenting syntax sometimes to the point of unintelligibility, Mlinko experiments at the level of form. Many of the poems here make use of rhyme and meter, but they rarely fall into expected or conventional patterns. Instead, Mlinko works out her own idiosyncratic relationship with form while using the compressed, allusive language characteristic of contemporary poetry. Distant Mandate deftly manages the trick of being formal without ever feeling traditional.
 Movement and travel are key themes in this collection, and there seems to be a relationship that has ended, or ended and started again, lying behind many of the poems: “our hiatus was on hiatus,” Mlinko observes in “Marriage as Baroque Music,” and “Epic” begins, “It’s you I’d like to see Greece again with.” (According to the notes Mlinko provides, the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice—one of the earliest stories of a broken marriage—“subtends” this book.) Several of the poems feature a blurry, suggestive “we” that the reader can’t quite pin down: is it the speaker and her spouse? The speaker and her children?
 There is plenty to admire in this book, but I’m going to focus on its formal experiments. The poem “Two Hangings from Ovid” is a good place to start, giving a sense of both Mlinko’s boldness and her interest in classical myth. This is the beginning:

    It is Hermes stepping off his winged sandal.
        I saw the Writing Spider sitting with aplomb
    Even his caduceus, despite the scandal
        dead center her creation, above the compost
    of its forfeiture, lies abandoned
        (sage location!); what I wondered most
    like an Android or an iPad on a nightstand
        was whether the sweetgum burrs and dried leaves
    grown footed for the purpose of bearing away
        were ornaments or accidents she interweaves
 It’s essentially two poems woven together, marked off from one another by the rhyme scheme and the switching between italic and Roman type. The lines in italics relate to the well-known story of Arachne and her weaving competition with Athena, while those in Roman type tell the story of Hermes (Mercury) and Herse, both from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The interlineation demands a kind of breakage: only by pulling the lines apart and reconnecting the ones that go together—the Roman type to the Roman, the italic to the italic—can we understand the two narratives and see that there were two poems all along, both obscured by the relationship with one another into which they had been forced.
 The choice of this interweaving form is most obviously a reference to the story of Arachne, and to the sixteenth-century tapestry, “Aglauros’s Vision of the Bridal Chamber of Herse,” which inspired the poem. But the tapestry departs quite sharply from its source. In Ovid’s version, Herse is barely mentioned; all the interest is in Aglauros, Herse’s jealous sister, and the way she is punished for her envy and greed. The scene of Hermes and Herse in the bedroom is (uncharacteristically!) barely even suggested by Ovid. Given the way Mlinko, following the tapestry, refocuses the story on the romantic relationship, it’s tempting to consider the form of the poem in that context too. Taken as a metaphor for a relationship, the poem’s interlineation suggests that marriage attempts to weave two people into one another, but in so doing destroys their individuality and renders them, in a sense, meaningless; in the same way the poem can’t be read line to line, the couple, the forced jointure of two people, makes no sense.
 Mlinko has a marvelous touch for rhyme, particularly unexpected rhymes (“abandoned” and “nightstand” above, for example), and her experimental approach leads her to build her rhymes into unexpected patterns. “Captivity” is structured as a sequence of sonnets, or at least of sonnet-like poems; here’s the opening one:
    If it’s Yuletide in the New World,
    then what bellies up to the manger
    are rattler, gator, buzzard. Just as a
    wooden snake in a basket of toys
    at this barbershop I bring the boys
    seems to hiss “. . . es su casa,”
    I take the part of the friendly stranger
    only where hair is imperiled.
    Festive lights are strung up, arranged
    around amusing headlines on the wall:
    ROSENBERGS DIE (scissors flashing);
    BIN LADEN KILLED (clippers gnashing).
    And that’s not all (no, that’s not all . . .):
 Mlinko maintains the standard octet-sestet arrangement, but both the octet and sestet rhyme into the middle and out again, rather than rhyming in one of the more common alternating patterns (ABAB, for example). This gives the poem an odd feeling of stasis—it does not move forward so much as walk around in a circle, coming back to where it started in each section—and this feeling of circling within an enclosed space is fitting, not only for the experience of sitting in a barbershop waiting for your sons’ hair to get cut, but also for the other forms of captivity that the poem examines in the rest of its sections. And it’s certainly a darkly ironic joke on Mlinko’s part that she chooses the sonnet, the quintessential form for love poetry, for these poems that focus mainly on kidnapped and captive women. This opening poem uses its form to emphasize the theme of being held in stasis—whether by choice or by compulsion—that is at the centre of the whole sequence. It also suggests that for a woman, motherhood is just one of the many forms captivity can take.
 Here is a poem called “Cooked In Their Own Ink,” with six-line stanzas that rhyme, or half-rhyme, mainly ABCABC:
    Byblos—unreclaimed by the sea
       through which it nurses
    myth, grudges sand to its neighbors—
       is visited no more by goby,
    gilthead bream, octopuses . . .
       Impresarios of fresh labors

    have gone elsewhere, though
       orchards of pomegranate
    and lemon flourish amid ruins,
       sepulchers repurposed, as though
    a new dynasty to admit;
       like the melting down of coins,

    bells, the material persists.
       First, Chinese scholars
    abandoned far-flung pavilions.
       Alexandrian scribes; archivists
    from Córdoba; illuminators
       of Celtic vellum; civilians

    drafted into the holy orders
       of manuscript hoarders;
    were next to come to Byblos,
       last resort and headquarters
    for stylus-conscious courtiers
       and scriptural sibyls

    at their philias, their alphabets.
       I know “it is here
    that the banished gods are in hiding.”
       Children chisel fridge magnets
    of fish fossils off grottoes
       for tourists of writing.
 There are some remarkable rhymes here: “nurses” with “octopuses,” “admit” with “pomegranate,” “though” rhymed with itself but with two different meanings (the first concessive, the second making a comparison). Then, in the second to last stanza, an almost quadruple rhyme appears, where “orders” goes with “headquarters” and “hoarders” with “courtiers” according to the scheme of the rest of the stanzas, although to the ear they sound more like couplets: the gravitational “d”s in “hoarders” and “orders” seem to pull them toward each other, and the “t”s in “courtiers” and “headquarters” have the same effect. Through the conflict between the pattern we are expecting and the way our ear hears the words, Mlinko makes us aware of the spell the poem is weaving even as she casts it.
 In terms of experimenting with stanza forms, perhaps the most remarkable poem in the book is “They That Dally Nicely with Words May Quickly Make Them Wanton,” a sequence that ticks down to its own extinction. The first section consists of six six-line stanzas, the second of five five-line stanzas, then four quatrains, three tercets, two couplets, and a final monostich. Here are the last three sections:
    Do I have to be mailed in bubbles or
    toiling over bouillabaisse,
    frisées, port glaze for Sir Omnivore;

    protagonist of a page-turner, Haze
    mère or fille; people-pleaser, cocktease,
    she-bear, in niqab, in getup, in stays;

    having taken St. Paul’s advice to seize
    the gold ring: Who groks to the paradox?
    Though one would sooner burn than freeze . . .

    I’ve taken to the dark stuff since you left:
    a stovetop espresso maker with the heft

    of a campfire kettle
    to express more strongly my mettle.

    Isn’t love all this, all this mocks?
 Notice how “paradox,” left hanging as the middle line of the third tercet, is then picked up by “mocks” at the end of the concluding monostich, bringing these last three sections to a neat sonic close. The phrase “since you left” offers another hint at the relationship that has inspired many of the poems, and in this one, which by its own disappearing pattern seems to suggest that endings are inevitable, we have another case of Mlinko using the form of her work to comment on its content, the difficulty of relationships.
 “Milkweed” is another poem that uses an unusual form; here is the first stanza:
    It’s August. Loosely we follow the arc
       of the monarch.
    A pilgrimage north, a pivot, a retorno.
    MONTREAL, where the earring on a bough
    is genuine chrysalis. Bon courage!
    The milkweed it’s fed on renders it
    poison. In lieu of camouflage.
 This intriguing seven-line stanza, rhyming AABBCXC, continues throughout the poem. The playfulness on display here—two multilingual rhymes in one stanza—demonstrates Mlinko’s confidence in her own skill. And again, form and content are perfectly in tune with one another. It’s impossible not to notice that we have two couplets to start with, two lines joined to one another by rhyme; we could then see the remaining three lines not as a tercet, but rather as a broken or separated couplet, with that unrhymed line intruding in the middle, splitting up what was intended to go together. From later in the same poem:
    Magnets in the antennae help orient
       the monarch, seemingly vagrant
    but espoused to miniscule lodestones.
    Mine gravitate to bittersweet zones
    driven by memories, not instinct.
    Driving through the heartland of sad songs
    builds a contract stronger than the one we inked.

    We’re driving backward through the season—
       no more gold on trees, on
    wine-red stems along the roadway; in the South
    it’s still hot and florid as a tiger’s mouth.
    My dear, not one of these black-and-oranges
    shows their offspring the whole route over gaps
    in generations and mountain ranges.
 Scientific information dropped into poetry can often make it appear that the author is simply showing off or forcing something she read into the poem for its own sake. But not here. The facts about butterflies illuminate the human relationship that lies behind the poem: the speaker is like the monarchs, drawn ever back to the same “zones” of memory, and the lines about butterflies not showing their offspring the full route evoke questions around modern parenting, suggesting children will manage to figure things out on their own, and maybe even benefit from not having everything explained to them. And at the same time she is making these serious observations, Mlinko’s exuberance with rhyme continues: “trees, on” with “season,” which is marvelous enough, and then the little play with the famously unrhymable “oranges” being picked up by “ranges.” Oranges and ranges aren’t perfect rhymes, of course, but within the context of Mlinko’s loose and exploratory approach, which knocks words together to see what will happen, it works.
 And beyond the form this poem is, quite simply, gorgeously written. The language is extremely economical but incredibly rich in suggestion. The word “espoused” practically leaps off the page in what seems to be a poem about a driving trip taken with the figure of the ex(-husband?) who hovers beneath the surface of the book, connecting the idea of the way the monarchs instinctively return to the speaker’s own inability to completely break free of this relationship—she has referred to “hemlock (not wedlock)” in an earlier stanza. Driving back through the seasons is a beautiful description of the movement from north to south, where you actually seem to move backward in time from autumn to summer—not to mention the incredible image of the South being “florid as a tiger’s mouth,” which of course has “Florida” hidden within it. But all the linguistic pyrotechnics serve the larger purpose of the poem, conveying the speaker’s state of mind: she is moving through recollection, back into her past and memories of the person with whom she “inked” a contract—a marriage, presumably.
 But I keep coming back to that stanza form, and those last three lines. On one level, the sixth line is clearly an intrusion, breaking up the other two; at the same time, though, the fifth line does ultimately find its rhyme in the final line of each stanza. So we could see it as representative of a separated couple, or we could see it as a sign that the couple will ultimately come back together again; like so much in this book, the arrangement of the lines enacts the struggle between hope and despair, Orpheus about to look back over his shoulder and lose Eurydice forever. But will he look? This book holds us in that moment of anticipation, poised on the fulcrum between two possibilities, unsure which will ultimately be realized.
 Mlinko’s use of surprising rhymes and innovative stanza forms gives Distant Mandate an immediately engaging feeling for the reader. Beneath this iridescent surface, however, darker feelings seem to run like an undertow that continually draws us deeper into the poems. Much contemporary lyric poetry deals with the feelings and experiences of the poet, of course, and there are many different ways to approach personal subject matter. At its worst, personal poetry can seem too open and direct, and reading some books can feel like someone has just added line breaks to their diary entries and then published them.
 Mlinko’s poems are nothing like that: she drops little hints of the personal into her work, but so lightly that we feel we are getting fleeting glimpses of something, not every detail. These hints are tantalizing because we aren’t sure how true they are, or even exactly what they mean; they intrigue us, arouse our curiosity, and make us read the poems more closely, trying to interpret them. By keeping the specifics vague, Mlinko draws you in; she gives you mysteries you want to solve. Her best poems, in my opinion, also reach the highest level of formalism, where the form isn’t just a vessel that the poet fits her thoughts into, but rather an element that expresses the key idea of the poem. Over and over again in reading this book, as the idea of a poem would open out to me, I would suddenly realize how perfectly chosen the form was, how it matched precisely with what the poem was expressing. And yet nothing ever feels labored or overdetermined, the finishing touch is always applied with an elegant, understated flourish. Distant Mandate is a book that deserves the close attention of anyone interested in the possibilities of contemporary poetry.