“Shouldn’t Life Resolve?”: On Ange Mlinko’s “Venice”

“SHOULD WE HAVE stayed at home and thought of here?”

This isn’t Ange Mlinko, though it might be. This is Elizabeth Bishop. The distinctions between “home” and “here” were murky for the peripatetic bishop. Nova Scotia, Massachusetts, New York, Key West, Brazil — “home” was never a fixed place; it was a word without a referent. Bishop appears multiple times in Venice, Mlinko’s sixth collection. First, we encounter her in “The Elegance of Pelicans,” a sestina featuring a scene of a blowfish escaped from a fishhook, “passed and dribbled” by a gaggle of ravenous birds with “half of Naples / looking on.” Mlinko adapts this tableau from one of Bishop’s letters. Bishop later provides an epigraph for the last of the collection’s four sections.

The two poets share interests beyond the zoological; questions about the ethics and merits of travel, once posed by Bishop, loom large over Venice. Mlinko is an American poet who, though always maintaining deep ties to the American poetry scene, frequently turns her eyes toward foreign shores. AE Stallings, Mlinko’s friend and the addressee of some of her poems, is of the same feather — she resides in Athens, Greece. They inherit a tradition that reached a new peak at midcentury with Elizabeth Bishop and James Merrill. Though much of contemporary verse focuses on displacement and migration, on a longing for a lost land or tongue, this is something else. To be sure, displacement figures in Mlinko’s work — her family is from Hungary and Belarus via Brazil; They left their home countries after World War II and arrived in the United States shortly before Mlinko’s birth — but there is something distinctly, appealingly midcentury about her witty brand of literary peregrination, both self-aware and out of place. She is not at “home” abroad; she sees the sights, appreciates the culture, but remains an unimposing observer. Of Herculaneum, a city blanketed by ash and rebuilt, where the present’s floor is the past’s ceiling, Mlinko asks and answers: “Who was I there? A guest, a voyeur, a vagabond.” “Global poet” is too inflated of a term. But just try and ask her if she’s a “travel poet.” She’ll demur.

Venice is a controlled, carefully wrought collection of formally inflected verse. Mlinko’s poems are often metrical and usually rhyming. There are traces of the convivial, chatty poets of the New York School alongside the descriptive granularity characteristic of Marianne Moore. Mlinko’s erudition is astounding, and her feeling for language is maximalist. Her references range from the German writers Mörike and Mann to the French director Claude Lelouch, and her vocabulary, always evocative, may send you to the dictionary; specialized terminology such as “tourbillon” and “deliquesce” abound. Mon ange — as she refers to herself in one poem— can never resist the joy of a pun, and the sheer delight bubbling behind her wordplay is irresistible.

Though Mlinko’s style has changed over the years, the poems in Venice are largely in the same vein as Distant Mandateher last book, which was released in 2017. If a book of poetry can truly be set anywhere, Distant Mandate takes place between Lebanon and Houston, two places where Mlinko lived around the time of the book’s composition. In Venice, location is harder to pin down. The “Naples” where the crowd comes to see the bouncing blowfish was, for Bishop, a town in Florida, on the Gulf. But because Mlinko finds this story in Bishop’s correspondence “rather like the incident related in Mörike’s Mozart’s Journey to / Prague,” we suddenly find ourselves in the bay of another Naples:

[…] A reader,
Accounting for the change in sensibility across two
centuries, might still conclude they don’t add up.
But between the feat of the blowfish and the feat
of the suitors on the wavelets, a chime as of anklets
is my cue to keep skimming pages for more Naples.

Like an underground runner of wild fruit, Naples
creeps up to your feet, bursting through the soil
to clap you by the ankles and start flowering!

Over the course of “The Elegance of Pelicans,” “Naples” starts to register more as a word on the page than a place. As the sestina makes its final rounds, the reader runs into “Naples” at the end of two lines in a row, tripping over it. The word itself functions as a holding place for a network of associations, overlaying the Naples of Florida on the Naples of Italy. There’s also a Venice in Florida and one in California. Across the United States there are 47 towns and cities named Lebanon. While Elizabeth Bishop muses on the relative merits of “home” and “here,” for Mlinko the two are sometimes indistinguishable.

In Venice, it is the very ease of movement between cities and countries that produces feelings of disorientation. There are hotel showers with surprisingly good water pressure, purgatorial airports, suitcases to carry up flights of stairs, video-calling. And everywhere there is a trace of someplace else. Even if you’ve left Venice, you might still languish in persisting “Venicitis.”

One place Mlinko visits is the entrance to the underworld. “The Gates of Hell” is an ekphrastic poem about a monumental Rodin sculpture composed of 180 figures and based on descriptions from Dante’s Inferno. Though Mlinko’s speaker encounters the piece as part of a “traveling show, arrayed / in a gallery in Savannah,” it’s a Rodin, so questions of replicas and originality are never far off. The initial plaster cast is at the Rodin Museum; three original cast bronzes and multiple other copies are scattered across the globe. The Thinker, one of the figures included in the work, often slouches off to sit elsewhere. But there are 28 others.

Who can say if the gate Mlinko sees in Savannah is the original? Rodin’s is not even the first gate in the poem. We begin with a much more common one: the kind found in an airplane terminal. “He didn’t mean these kinds of gates,” Mlinko writes, “But here we are. Or I mean I.” There is comfort in numbers. And to be a “we” among a multitude might be preferable to a lone “I.” This is especially true on what the speaker refers to as “my first holiday without my kids.”

To see multiples everywhere and feel acutely the vacillating distance between “home” and “here” can be painful. There are echoes of Dante’s terza rima in “The Gates of Hell,” but Mlinko’s rhymes do not interlock. Instead she opts for ABCABC sestains, the form of George Herbert’s “Church-Monuments,” a poem that reminds us where we all are fated to return. Separation is as built-in to Mlinko’s forms as it is to life:

He removed The Kiss from the ensemble,
surmising correctly that naked bliss
was out of place at the gates of hell
If it is bliss that makes us tremble;
if it is not, also, its own abyss
between two gates and a terminal.

Though Mlinko prizes difficulty and density, her collection is also filled with simple descriptions, inevitably phrased. In Rome, “The Romans exit doors sideways, like cats flattening / themselves on a ledge, then / venture boldly into traffic.” Nestled into the Rodin bronze are “images of angel wings working to slow / a fall, not maneuver an ascent.” And along the dusty tops of Roman aqueducts, “[t]he rustic bicycle, like a pen / that spent its ink, wrote an invisible sentence / to the ramparts and back.” These observations suggest the disinterested but awed detachment of a visitor in a foreign land, and the elegance of Mlinko’s descriptive mode persists even when that foreign land is as near as the small, failing mesocosm in her son’s bedroom.

At times, the supple border between foreign and familiar seems to signal impending ecological disaster. In “Bees in Cider,” we encountered the playfully named “bouffant bee”:

It was a bouffant bee, almost as big as the rose it lit on —
and that’s the point: so late in the season was it, that
“remontant” — blooming through the summer —
any blossom now was a shrunken simulacrum. So I lit on
the issue of all this sunshine leading to overproduction:
the roses I had counted in their furibund overproduction
showing diminishing returns. Something was out of joint
about the whole project[.]

The poem is wonderfully repetitious and recursive. Though it does not partake in a recognizable poetic form, there are rules: each of the end words is revisited, with twists. At one point “lit on” becomes”on lit,” French for “we read.” It’s as if Mlinko’s language is drunk on itself. Heat and overproduction are terrifying symptoms of a climate crisis, an underrecognized effect of which is the gauzy wonder of nature made unnatural. It is here, in a poem that flouts historical timelines — where the bouffant bee’s “waxen wings” soften like a Roman tablet — that Mlinko offers her sharpest depiction of the so-called “present moment.” Though Mlinko comments on various contemporary events throughout the collection — she worries “that Zoom is ruled by djinn / that filter out the wavelength of love” and writes of the “cordon sanitaire,” an “absentee ballot,” and “impeachment hearings” — it is poems such as “Bees in Cider,” which avoid didacticism and allow things to remain unresolved, that give the most productive pleasure.

In one of the last poems in Venice, Mlinko writes: “I shore my dreams up when I waken. / Shouldn’t life resolve, like the acronym / by which the twice-shy Levin / swayed Kitty to marry him? The word “resolve” is nearly a contronym, a word with two opposite meanings — a lexical oddity in which Mlinko delights a few poems earlier. To resolve is to conclude, to sum up or provide a satisfying ending. But it is also to atomize, to distribute into separate elements. In Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Kitty and Levin’s acronyms are a private language. Levin communicates with Kitty through an acronym he inscribes in chalk on the table between them. To his joy, his “I hnctly” is immediately intelligible to Kitty: “I have never ceased to love you.” Their resolution — a revelation of love — comes through words resolved into letters. In VeniceMlinko reveals and revels in such harmonic resonances, “chime[s] as of anklets,” surprising linkages between places and eras. In her flexible world, life “resolves” in both senses: there’s always a Venice “here” and at “home.”

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Oona Holahan was born in Venice, Los Angeles, and currently resides in Brooklyn, New York.

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