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Starred Wire.

Ange Mlinko. Starred Wire. Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2005. 64pp. $15

You'd think Ange Mlinko would grow weary of comparisons with New York School poets. Publishers Weekly, in its review of the present volume, lauds her "Frank O'Hara-inspired verve," which is probably related to "the clear-eyed big-heartedness of Frank O'Hara" the same journal discerned at work in Mlinko's debut, Matinees. The Believer ups the belle-lettristic ante: where Matinees betrayed "a faux-slapdash, sociable concentration very, very close to Frank O'Hara's," the new book is "half John Ashbery, half Harriet the Spy." The New Yorker restrains itself to noting that Mlinko is obviously influenced by "the conversational, paratactic style of Frank O'Hara." Ron Silliman strikes the inevitable meta-note by observing that Starred Wire's "back cover hollers 'New Yawk School, New Yawk School,'" and furthermore that "if you like the poetry of the New York School, you're going to feel completely at home with Ange Mlinko." The back cover in question sports blurbs from John Ashbery and Charles North, while Bob Holman, who chose the volume for the National Poetry Series, manages in his encomium to name-check Ashbery, O'Hara, Kenneth Koch, James Schuyler, Alice Notley, Barbara Guest, Bernadette Mayer, and Ron Padgett. I presume he ran out of space before he could get to Ted Berrigan.

What is strange about all this isn't that it's inaccurate--one look at Mlinko's poems confirms their affinities--nor even that Mlinko, far from being tired of the comparison, embraces it, proudly declaring herself "a New York School poet" on her blog, but that the New York School should have produced an aesthetic that, well into its sixth decade, continues to inspire an exuberant and honorably derivative poetics. It is hard to imagine that a young poet proclaiming herself a Beat or SF Renaissance poet at this late date would be met with anything but ridicule. But Mlinko has mastered her predecessors' styles "from highlight to crosshatch, in the Aeolian distances, / amid such gypsies as one becomes in the true illusion" of a successfully negotiated agon. If Starred Wire retains the deceptively casual register of Mlinko's first book, it is also more adventurous and more finely wrought than Matinees. Many poems work expert changes on contemporary poetry's marriage of lyricism and near-cartoonish abstraction, made the more beguiling by what seems at first to be an easy play of surfaces:
 Meanwhile the music
 strobes so rapidly it uncoils in understanding, not time,
 adrift in technical registers holding relations in light patterns
 all the night till morning's mimosas under blue sky embowering
 our nicer noise to a gold-stringed noon acoustic.

Where one suspects pointless wordplay ("It exercises cerise"), one is advised to keep reading, as lines adrift in technical registers ("Even the Baroque gets lost in it") reveal relations that uncoil as contemplation yields to understanding:
 Recalling the equations derived for ballistics--
 aiming cannonballs is not like squaring lintels,

 and skyscrapers are all lintel.
 There isn't a straight line among all these that never meet;

 I will write away for it.

An argumentative impulse belies the clever surface pleasures of most of these poems. "Keys & Scales" turns out to be about maps, not music, but the pun is purposeful, and the tropes meet in the final couplet, in which the metaphorical engines of cognitive mapping and actual mapmaking are made musically cognate: "The wilderness took shape; the stars were of where / Two had met, in honeydew shadow, and made maps praise." Wonderfully unlikely turns of phrase appear like bits of brilliant but nonchalant cocktail conversation: "The buffalo of philosophy"; "a jaw of pines and water towers"; "Day is a fine discrimination to get away with / lipreading through the moving leaves"; "Schoolkids jumping the jellyfish fences / Wearing cranberry jackets / Through the paisley briars and stars / In starred wire."

In the midst of such quasi-surreal pyrotechnics one might find a show-stopping rightness of perception, as in the final couplet of "Everything's Carousing":
 Sparrows petulantly, like petals, adding subtracting
 to crumb-strewn cafe tables, then boarding the ferries.

Where another poet might take a whole stanza to describe the frenetic, absorbed, graceful hopping of sparrows, half-flying from ground to tabletop and back again, Mlinko nails it with four repeated consonants and the judicious omission of a comma. "I was trying to describe the perfect library," she writes at the end of "Poetry as Scholarship" "when I remembered that all you need to know is its etymology, rallying place." Mlinko has a facility that seems intuitive but must be the product of long study: "It's the sort of weather Tybalt murdered Mercutio in." "In January there isn't the same participation. / The tree that was lit up is dark." "Today we'll see, wild epiphenomenon, how to stay under the sky."

If there is a problem with the book, it is its occasional willingness to loaf at the post-avant doorpost. The lazily conventional intrudes, and one could be reading any poem printed in Fence: "Dear Soho. Dear Sappho. Dear Orpheus. Dear Silenus. / Dear King Midas. No, dear Soho"; "A sick manager, mammal, Malthusian / induced to become a patriarch, patricide." Such lines will be familiar from any number of contemporary journals catering to a period style of forced ellipsis and levity, whose practitioners can seem to write solely in order to flout the potentialities of pathos, as if genuine feeling or intellection in a poem were enough to earn one the opprobrium associated with confessional poetry. Underlying this aesthetic is the unfortunate assumption that there exist two warring camps in English-language poetry--but, to quote Ghostface Killah, it don't have to be this way. Many of the most intriguing poets now at work seem to perform something like the "double refusal" Pierre Bourdieu diagnosed in "Flaubert's Point of View." Merrill Gilfillan's quietly experimental poems, for instance, provide reasons not to believe poetry in English is irredeemably Manichean, beholden either to the Language school or to epiphanies involving deer. Jennifer Moxley, Donald Revell, C.D. Wright, and Forrest Gander come to mind as well. And Ange Mlinko, despite her lapses into the sort of chatty patter that infests so many hip journals, can bring us to that necessary point where a cricket is thrown out of a house "like rain bounced off a small false roof / over the spiral volutes of its capitals"--where, that is, our "view of the sweet / hypoglycemic across the street" unoccluded, our interest in "precise correlatives to describe the randomness of the universe" might be sustained long enough for us not to mind that we will never find them.
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Author:Robbins, Michael
Publication:Chicago Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2006
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