In a 2019 piece for the New York Review of Books, the poet-critic Ange Mlinko quotes from Karen Solie’s “Fables of the Reconstruction”: “Do we impose pattern / or rehearse it in our being?” Mlinko declares this question “the perfect agnostic’s conundrum,” and it’s a conundrum that Mlinko returns to, again and again, in her own poetry. Do we create pattern or do we recognize it? Does rhyme, the calling out of one word for another, reveal something deep about language? Or does it just reveal what Wallace Stevens calls our “blessed rage for order”? Does our perception show, as Mlinko writes in her poem “Death in Venice,” “a design still hidden in things”? Or does it show, as that poems continues, not so much design as “masqueradings,” “rococo masks” that we all assume for ourselves and place upon the world? Mlinko doesn’t answer these questions in her essay on Solie. Nor does she answer them in her poems. That’s okay. It’s not in the nature of a conundrum to be solved. Mlinko’s sixth collection, Venice, was recently published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. The following interview was conducted by email.
ANTHONY DOMESTICO: As you wrote in an earlier book, “Discipline / is stylish,” and there’s plenty of stylish discipline in Venice: poems in terza rima, sonnets, sonic and visual rhymes that are inventive and outlandish. (In “Moth Orchid,” for instance, you rhyme “moon-tones” with “cojones.” Ha!) What new formal challenges gave you the most pleasure in writing this book?
ANGE MLINKO: It’s really always about the rhymes, which I think of less as a musical device than a conveyance: it propels the movement forward, creating a staircase to further floors and mezzanines. I don’t think there’s a poem in the book that isn’t beholden to it, and even “Whisper Networks”—which looks like an odic, sprawling thing—has a hidden skaldic rhyme scheme.
The other formal challenge was to ring changes on the theme of “Venice” through the book, with a play on “Venus” as well.
AD: The collection’s title refers most explicitly to the Italian city of Venice, with its “canal steps troubled by centuries” and vaporetti. But it also refers to Venice, Florida—a city on the Gulf Coast where, you write, it “rained so hard all summer long, / every field was canalized / by overflow.” In this book, you also consider Naples, Italy (both the real place and the city as memorialized by Elizabeth Bishop) and Naples, Florida. How do Florida, where you live now, and Italy, where you so often remember or dream of being, resemble one another?
AM: Not at all, except that both are sunny peninsulas built on porous limestone (I had Auden’s “In Praise of Limestone” in the back of my head while I was seesawing between the two places.) Florida appeals to the primitivist; it’s a place to start from scratch. I have a horror of the Crusoe fantasy, so I gravitate to a place with thousands of years of history. I’m not one to paddleboard with the alligators. Maybe I was trying, in this book, to feel more at home here.
AD: Your previous collection, Distant Mandate, has a poem, “What to Read This Summer,” that begins with the pronouncement, “Terrible are the rose names,” before offering a litany of them “Grande Amore,” “True Love,” “Buttercream,” and so on. In Venice, the Don Juan rose, mentioned once in Distant Mandate, comes up in several poems. What attracts you to this rose and its name? To naming roses generally?