Who could resist this invitation to eavesdrop on the fabulous? The title for Ange Mlinko’s most recent book, Marvelous Things Overheard, is taken from a collection of anecdotes and wonders, falsely attributed to Aristotle, which explain, in tight descriptive units, marvels of the Mediterranean lands. Already in the title, two gaps have opened up between the world-as-we-find-it and the world-as-we-might-be-about-to-encounter-it. First, we understand that we will be treated to the marvelous rather than recognizable. Second, we will overhear it, rather than listen to it carefully, and we all know from the game of Telephone how distortions will accrue, how wildly unreliable any system of information will prove which depends on overhearing for its dissemination. Into this joyfully unstable narrative space steps Mlinko, wielding all kinds of formidable talents: a wry humor, a deft and exacting ear, a spiky, unraveling syntax, and ambition—ambition for the poems themselves, rather than for herself. Airplanes abound in this collection, and the extent to which a poem can carry freight (historical information, other textual references) and remain airborne seems one of Mlinko’s pivotal aesthetic concerns.
True to the collection’s title, the poems are rooted in the classical world, but they don’t stay there, and one of the book’s boldest repeated rhetorical flourishes is to deliberately flatten history so that our world and the world of the ancients become inextricably meshed. Thus in “Words Are the Reverse of Pain,” the fleeing, pregnant Goddess Leto is not allowed to “loosen her elastic-panel / drawstring jeans”; while Arethusa, Echo, Arachne, and Hera join forces to subtitle a sequence on freakish weather, coinciding with Shakespeare in the Park and Grand Central Station, among other (post-)modern things. The book becomes yet more wide-ranging in geographical and historical terms as we sojourn with the Phoenicians, with the Dutch of the Golden Age, with the modern-day Lebanese. In the poem “Bayt,” Mlinko’s penchant for geographic and historical fusion gets carried over to a fusion between two languages, contemporary English and Anglo-Saxon. The poem sits divided between its twin vocabularies, telling its inching story, invigorating both languages at once via continuous tricks of contextualization and decontextualization which are hard to keep hold of, but well worth it if you try (and a glossary at the end, printed like a found poem in itself, helps).
Indeed the language throughout this book is tropically rich and sensuous. I would guess that most readers will be sent repeatedly to the dictionary (at least I was), so unusual and broad-ranging is Mlinko’s actual lexis, as well as her historical range. At the end of one of the sections of “Cantata for Lynette Roberts,” an elegiac tour-de-force, Mlinko describes a giant cross (which is “earth’s axis extracted”) “tendering foliage all over Florida.” Her talent for similarly stunning and unexpected imagery, “like glimmering variables through an algorithm,” is everywhere in evidence.
Perhaps a fitting metaphor to sum up how this book works would be as a cabinet of curiosities, that early-Renaissance, secular reliquary of “marvelous” things. In a cabinet of curiosities, all sorts of difference gets simultaneously upheld and elided: upheld by the physical divisions of drawers or receptacles, elided in the whole effect, as a skull, a peacock’s feather, an astrolabe, and a sword are accorded equality in display. In the fourth section of the poem “Wingandecoia,” Mlinko writes:
Once, among a cabinet of curiosities,
a nobleman displayed a child mummy.
That it survived the centuries is a kind of marvel.
For us there’s little magic that remains
except as what has managed to escape us:
What is gone becomes our greatest marvel.
There was bells from Henry VIII’s fool;
also, fireflies from Virginia.
That fireflies survive is a kind of marvel.
The corpse of a child, bizarrely recovered and preserved against time, is by no means diminished in its tragic resonances by the oddness of the company it keeps.
In “Wingandecoia,” the improbable survival of the mummified child is matched with the improbable survival of the firefly as a species. The refrain “What’s gone becomes our greatest marvel” attempts, as Elizabeth Bishop’s refrains in “One Art” do (and “Wingandecoia” is a kind of exploded villanelle), to highlight a painful gap: the discrepancy between the idea of language as redemptive, as able to rescue people, objects, animals from time’s obliteration by naming them, and its spectacular inability to avert disaster—particularly, in this collection, but not exclusively, environmental disaster.
You missed your father’s homecoming,
missed the obit for Lonesome George
the Galápagos tortoise
the late-night BBC broadcast
even as you clutched your turtle pillow.
This is neither easy, nor straightforwardly personal poetry, and these poems not only withstand re-reading, but demand it. I admire this collection for its knotty depth, for the welcome sense that I’ll be extracting its “gems” (“ground” by a “dowager” “on ham for her guests”) for a long while yet.
Sinéad Morrissey was born in 1972 and grew up in Belfast, Northern Ireland. She is the author of five poetry collections: There Was Fire in Vancouver, Between Here and There, The State of the Prisons, Through the Square Window, and Parallax. She has been the recipient of the 2013 T. S. Eliot Prize, the Patrick Kavanagh Poetry Award, the Irish Times Poetry Now Award, a Lannan Literary Fellowship, and first place in the 2007 UK National Poetry Competition. She teaches creative writing at the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry, Queen’s University, Belfast.
Ange Mlinko was born in Philadelphia in 1969. Educated at St. John’s College and Brown University, she has spent most of her adult life in New York, and has also lived in Ifrane, Morocco, and Beirut, Lebanon. Mlinko’s previous books include Matinées, Starred Wire, and Shoulder Season. She has received the Poetry Foundation’s Randall Jarrell Award in Criticism and a Guggenheim fellowship and currently teaches in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Florida, Gainesville.