Ange Mlinko, Distant Mandate (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, $23.00).
Ange Mlinko’s previous book was called Marvellous Things Overheard, a quotation from Aristotle. ‘Distant Mandate’ is, according to the dust jacket of this new book, a quotation from the Hungarian novelist László Krasznahorkai and is a quotation from Krasznahorkai’s essay on the Alhambra. In the previous book, Mlinko worked verse from the early Arab poets Labid and Al Shanfara with Old English terms; for which she, thankfully, provided glosses. In one way, such magpie-ing from a writer might feel like a suitable candidacy for ‘Pseud’s corner’. In another way, there is a sense that Mlinko sees the literature she reads has having a centripetal relation to her own writing; that it contributes to the warp and weft of the experience both actual and linguistic which furnishes her with subject matter for her poems.
That linguistic experience is also hinted at in the titles of these two books. Not only are rumour and fantasy to be welcomed into the fold of the poem, but also welcomed are those more formal, more mandated and authorized elements which. In these linguistic elements, there is a conscious concern with register; with the sense of formality and social origin in language. Interestingly, one description of Krasznahorkai’s writing is that it ‘flirt[s] with surrealism, but without ever consummating the relationship’; which is also a useful description of Mlinko’s writing. In that sense, her poetry might be seen as related to the poetry of Frederick Seidel or August Kleinzhaler; writers who are both conversational, but liable to subvert conversation with language from other often more arcane areas. A Mlinko poem can contain words such as, ‘boustrophedon’, or ‘abortifacient’; so Mlinko shows interesting attitudes to the rhythms created by polysyllables, at the same time as working hard with form and rhyme.
Mlinko’s own hard work means that her poems often need to be read slowly. And it is not only Mlinko’s formal qualities which need to be absorbed slowly, that pacing also applies to the way the poems move. The narratives in each poem, and there are often narratives moving the contents in the poems, may contain elisions and slippages; as in ‘Breeze Blocks in the wild Hollyhocks’,
in sandbags. Cement should be
our chief export. Some of it’s made
a stadium, some a prison. Slurry
is churned from the rainy season.
At any time, any number of yellow-
hatted helots surrounds one
volatile jackhammer or backhoe
askew on a quickening dune.
Thus, in the space of nine lines, the reader is moved from exhortations made with throwaway irony, to further ironies which contrast entertainment and punishment. The poem then moves from a comment on weather to a scene were ‘helots’, or slaves wear hi-vis helmets and are involved in construction in some kind of desert. Later in the poem, we get references to ‘the massacre behind the scenery’, and a soldier with an AK-47 and ‘an Ides of March smile’ whereupon the narrator pops up in the final lines as on the ‘right side/ of concertina wire, I smile back.’ Mlinko’s tone is one of unremitting and fierce irony, but she is not afraid of coming straight out with threat; the rhyme scheme and the rhythm of the lines push that irony straight into the dynamics of the text.
Mlinko is nothing if not a versatile poet, and elsewhere, the narrative is, perhaps, calmer, as in ‘Gelsenkirchen’. This poem begins, ‘At some point they got off at Gelsenkirchen,/ which is on the same train line as Hannover,/ and while there, had their portraits taken./ That’s all the sense I can make of this stopover/ on their way to the coast, where the ships/ were taking the faux Poles, the birchen people,/ to whatever hospitable continent…’ The longer lines of ‘Gelsenkirchen’ allow Mlinko to relax a little, the tone is more speculative, and slightly warmer, until the final two lines where she comments, ‘…knowledge lies in imitation,/ as in the train window, dark as boots and caraway,/ they composed the mystery of salvation.’ There’s an obvious resonance with the train journeys which accomplished the Holocaust here, but in the last cadence the final word is ‘salvation’. Mlinko’s control of tone and address is as sure and composed here as it is throughout this endlessly beguiling book.