Loads of Learned Lumber

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Ange Mlinko, _Shoulder Season_

MLINKO'S POETRY CRITICISM is some of the best in circulation today, I think; her poetry is not as consistently rewarding, but it's the real deal.

I picked this up because I enjoyed, in a baffled way, her previous volume, Starred Wire. Shoulder Season is already a few years old and is not her most recent volume; it's a bit more accessible than Starred Wire, but still has more than enough opacity for most readers, I daresay.

The first thing I noticed was its formal variety. The book's epigraph, from James Schuyler--"'Like that gathering of one of each I planned'"--seemed in the early going a description of the forms of the poems in the book, each one of a kind. Eventually, a few of the forms were repeated, but Mlinko's ability to mix it up delighted. She even likes to rhyme occasionally, sometimes audaciously ("diptych" and "realpolitik," "the whole shebang" and "interrobang"). She's not shy about throwing you a simile inside of a simile:

Love will be organized like notes from a piano
emerging like ants from the furrows of a peony.

The imagery tends to be homey-whimsical: butterflies, bakelite, young children, car-seats, lots of flowers and other plants. Why is it, though, that all this winds up sounding ominous? The little ante-room one goes through when entering or exiting the butterfly house turns into a security checkpoint. The bakelite shows up in a poem about how a mother's ear catches every slightest nocturnal sound. Even the plants turn into explosives: "And ferns flame where their spores crashed."

Since the book was published in 2010, perhaps its poems took on the dark coloration of the news of 2008-09. "Someone uses your mortgage / to leverage / something / far inside the starbursts of a server," we read in "Securitization"; in "Atgm," "Earth looms like rock / outside the window threatening fissure / from a petaled 9M133 Kornet."

There may be a kind of as-above-so-below consolation when she finds small patterns repeating themselves on a larger scale: "each tree casts its shade in the form of its summary leaf," for instance, or "Crystals of sodium chloride // are made up of smaller crystals of sodium chloride," fractal-fashion. But by page 30, it's winter, and all we have are "icy clearances / where the trees used to cast their shade / in the form of their summary leaf" (my emphasis).

The volume ends in a children's museum, which sounds fairly cheery, but if you have actually been in a children's museum, you know they can a little...unsettling. "The ice wigs' molecules vibrate, but in a gas state // they're distracted [...]." That kind of children's museum.  Let's hit the gift shop quick and get out of here.

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