A Review of Ange Mlinko, Distant Mandate
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
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 . . .):
MAN IN TX JAIL CELL FOUND HANGED.
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.
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?
“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.
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.
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.