If Venice, Italy, is the height of the sublime, then Venice, Florida—an ironic bestowal probably meant in earnest by some town father—may well be a kind of miniature American parody of the Queen of the Adriatic. The music of such earnest irony is the matter that Ange Mlinko makes into dazzling poetry: Venice, her newest collection, turns its learned eye from Italy to Florida, back and forth, and the result is a singular and beautiful metaphysical receipt. At times the sublime and what, for the poet, is a kind of anti-sublime merge and blur. But mostly they don’t. Poems called “Venice, Florida,” “Death in Venice,” and “Hurricane Florence” often highlight similarities between Italy and Florida—both are peninsulas bedded on limestone, a connection that caught Mlinko’s attention in the same way that limestone caught Auden’s—but these poems mostly play upon the way their differences dramatize each other. With the verve of Mina Loy and the wit of Charles Simic.
This kind of transatlantic sensibility runs through the poet’s personal history. Mlinko, who grew up in Pennsylvania, who’s lived in New York, Beirut, and the Middle Atlas Mountains of Morocco, whose parents were refugees from the Soviet Union and Hungary—Minsk and Budapest—coming to the United States by way of São Paulo, who spent the early part of her career teaching in Houston and who now lives in Gainesville, Florida—making a living as a critic and a professor of creative writing—has, in a sort of quarrel with herself, become a Southerner. But is still as internationally minded, as polyglot, as would-be Venetian as ever, even if she comes to terms with her latest home state. (Some of this gets into an unusually biographical poem—for Mlinko—called “Country Music.”)
She is above all a master craftswoman, a poet of relentless exactitude combined with charm and restraint, and she has a gift for pure description. Hurricanes, storm-fronts—these appear regularly in Mlinko’s poems, and it’s unlikely you’ll ever come across a more vivid, ingenious description of these sorts of clouds than when she writes that they are “bodybuilding to a rippling mass.” “A storm breathes—down our necks,” begins “Naples, Florida.” The poem is in terza rima—Mlinko is so deft and various in her use of inherited forms, from the villanelle to the sestina to the sturdy quatrain or couplet, to the more capacious—and, at this point in her work, most favored—six-line stanza—so nimble you might overlook for a moment her Merrill-like virtuosity and Stevensesque linguistic élan.
You might overlook these things in the case of “Naples, Florida,” for instance, because the poem is about an act of kindness, an account of saving a bewildered tortoise trying to cross the road in a storm, a telling as surprising as it is precise—and strange. Terza rima, with its interlocking stair-step rhymes, is what Dante used to conjure the rhythm of descending into hell. In Mlinko’s poem, the form lifts a living creature out of hell, if hell is a highway from a tortoise’s point of view. “As likely to wave / a flag of surrender as to appreciate / my dash into the road …”—the poem gives us that dash, and the hoisting of the “autoclave- // like contraption” that “hissed in its breastplate.” And who is “delivered” “to the long grass” just as “low Florida mist like laughing gas” issues from the earth. There is no ego here, no sense of righteousness. The poet in her infinite and perfected restraint seems to want us to see that ours is a world “of cold-eyed underlings in balaclavas.” But still a world where pity and serendipity can be intertwined in a song.
JESSE NATHAN: How do you tend to compose? How do you move from image or word or rhythm—or lump in the throat—into the artifice of the poem? I imagine it’s different every time, but are there tendencies?
ANGE MLINKO: There’s a lot of truth to Keats’s remark that “if poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all.” I won’t sit down to a blank page—well, screen—unless I feel the narrative coalescing in my head. (“My head,” I say, though poems begin in the ear; “narrative,” I say, though I think poems are powered by rhyme and metonym, not story.) Perhaps what I mean is: when I have a direction from A to B, and a musical phrase to start with, then I’m on my way. And it goes fast.
Of course, I do a lot of reading and thinking and connecting dots in the run-up to writing. So I might choose a different metaphor than Keats’s—I think of a wave traveling, gathering force, then breaking. At the moment a wave breaks, that’s when the fingers should start flying over the keyboard.
But then I fear that sounds airy, mystical, vibe-y. I’m an earth sign—a September Issue—and I like to know where the ground is. My ground is always the materiality of the language: not only regarding acoustics, but also the double entendres and false friends, the contranyms and the etymologies. When I write a poem, I’m not expressing myself; I’m collaborating with a resistant medium, which has expressions of its own.
“Moth Orchid,” for instance, practically wrote itself after I made the startling realization that it transliterates as “Mother Kid.” My son gave this moth orchid to me on Mother’s Day—that’s your “lump in the throat” donnée. I was fascinated with the unearthly look of this flower, so I kept one eye on the flower and one eye on the letters dancing around in “mother kid,” with its moth/mother (perhaps like Bishop’s “Man-Moth,” too). But the etymology of orchid is the Greek word for testicle, so that had to be accounted for. That justified the rhyme of “moon-tones” with “cojones” and the final revelation that I had to be both mother and father to the kids for a good portion of their childhood. (Their father was living and working in the Middle East.) Or take “Naples, Florida.” It’s driven by rhyme rather than pun, but it amounts to the same thing: once the terza rima starts making its demands, all the poet need do is follow. And it’s always a surprise to see how it ends. That’s why, although this is the oldest of arts, it never gets old.