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?
AM: James Schuyler said you must learn the names of roses, but then you must forget them. I take him to mean that nothing about roses, or memory, is permanent. But in fact I planted a rose called the Don Juan and it was extravagant: gorgeous and fecund. The canes grew taller than the house, it was in bloom for most of the year, and pruning it was a gladiatorial event. It began to seem as though it had the outsize personality of the man of legend. I’m a huge fan of Mozart’s opera as well as the Byron poem, so I couldn’t escape those resonances either. I hadn’t explicitly thought of this till now, but I suppose I think greediness is a natural state—the state of vegetation, which is invasive, and the state of men, with their invasions and incursions—and it’s up to poetry to remind us that constraint is not natural, yet it makes us more beautiful.
AD: You’ve said that you were raised Catholic but have “long since lapsed.” How would you say your thinking—about time, form, figuration, atonement—has emerged from this background? In “The Mysterious Barricades,” you describe “a retrieval / of standards and emblems, the use / of symbol, allegory, amulet, // the team colors you cannot refuse.” I’m wondering to what extent Catholicism remains your team colors.
AM: Certainly it’s the most aesthetic religion, this side of Eastern Orthodoxy (my maternal grandparents were Orthodox), and maybe if it had retained Latin it would still have me! (I can’t stand mundanity in sacred spaces.) I am, yes, alert to my favorite artists who were either Catholic or gravitated to it. I’ve been returning to Dante periodically since I was nineteen.
I benefited enormously from the philosophical and theological grounding that Catholicism gave me; it provided some of the only real intellectual stimulation I had as a child. It prepared me for the iconography and architecture and musical structures of Western art. Now, as a professor of creative writing, I see where the disdain for philosophical tradition has gotten us as a society—a lot of canned language about wellness and trauma, a narrow frame of cultural reference, and little access to transcendent experience, romantic or otherwise. I’m sad for my students.
AD: One of your favorite poets, Marianne Moore, writes that “to explain grace requires a curious hand.” That word, “grace,” comes up in the new book, and it’s come up in previous collections, too. How do you see the relationship between poetry and grace?
AM: Poetry is the intersection between two kinds of grace—the quality of being graceful (agile, courtly) and blessed happenstance. Because one can’t simply write a great poem, or even a great line, on command, one of the mysteries of poetry continues to be its provenance. Why isn’t it simply a skill one learns? Why does it depend on being hit by lightning, as Randall Jarrell put it? You can’t plan for it, depend on it, or demand it. (Like love, I suppose.) That’s why the Greeks spoke of Muses and Rilke spoke of Angels.
AD: You open Venice with an epigraph from the Florida chapter of Henry James’s book of travel writing, The American Scene. “In the Nursery” contains another James reference. Is he an important writer for you? How has he shaped your thinking about the relationship between life and art? I’m thinking particularly of his famous claim from a 1915 letter: “It is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance.”
AM: Yes, I couldn’t agree more. Portrait of a Lady is one of my favorite novels, and his stories about artists, particularly “The Figure in the Carpet” and “The Aspern Papers,” have worked their way into my poems. The conundrum of making is always presenting itself. Which is to say the conundrum of fiction, of representation, of simulacra. The old question: What is it our fictions add to nature? I’m endlessly interested in this. Why aren’t I growing vegetables instead? Wouldn’t that be more practical?
AD: Your poems so often emerge from travel and the kinds of contact it enables. As a lover of travel, what have the last two years been like for you?
AM: Yes, I thrive on motion, so it has been grim. The pandemic shutdowns forced me to reckon with staying home, or rather, traveling strictly through the library: I’m working on a manuscript on the influence of Florida on the stylistic imaginations of Stevens, Moore, Bishop, Merrill, and Harry Mathews. But that’s prose, so it hardly counts!