Triptych image: Khalid Hussein, "Basbossa in the Sky," 2012
I. Words Are the Reverse of Pain
“Taglioni’s Jewel Casket,” Joseph Cornell (1940) / (Image via moma.org)
“TAGLIONI’S JEWEL CASKET,” conjured into form in 1940 by the artist Joseph Cornell, is a wooden box glazed with violet velvet and festooned with glass: glass cubes, brilliant-cut glass gems strung into a necklace, chips of glass in clear colors, glass dust, glass fragments, and a rectangle of blue glass under which there is a photostat. The text of the photostat, set into the inner lid of Cornell’s sculptural tribute to prima ballerina Marie Taglioni (1804–1884), says this:
On a moonlight [sic] night in the winter of 1835 the carriage of Marie TAGLIONI was halted by a Russian highwayman and that enchanting creature commanded to dance for this audience of one upon a panther’s skin spread over the snow beneath the stars. From this actuality arose the legend that to keep alive the memory of this adventure so precious to her, TAGLIONI formed the habit of placing a piece of artificial ice in her jewel casket or dressing table where, melting among the sparkling stones, there was evoked a hint of the atmosphere of the starlit heavens over the ice-covered landscape.
All that glass, which resembles ice, which melts to water and then to nothing — all that glass might intimate a kind of glamour, tinged with camp, a brittle rhinestone glitter, so that Cornell’s box much like an eye, is full of vitreous humor.
The artist probably derived his text from an anecdote in Albert D. Vandam’s An Englishman in Paris (1892), which claims to record the ballerina’s own comments on her impromptu performance for the bandit Trischka: “I danced for about a quarter of an hour,” Vandam says Taglioni said, “and I honestly believe that I never had such an appreciative audience either before or afterwards.” This is a short story about romanticism. It is also, in Cornell’s hands, a reflection (all that glass!) on the tricky erotics that entangle artist, artwork, and audience. “[E]nchanting creature,” Cornell calls Taglioni. He takes enchantment seriously; it is, in “Taglioni’s Jewel Casket,” a binding element, the relational force that triangulates the maker and the observer through the made, which bears a suspicious likeness to the organ of sight. Trompe à l’oeil: how we name a specialized case of enchantment.
What are the aesthetic conditions for enchantment? Cornell’s box seems to ask. And what do you make of a world that, sometimes, impossibly, given the totality of history and fact, allows these states of wonder to exist? What are the ethics of enchantment — are there any? — for spellbound and spellbinder alike?
In Marvelous Things Overheard, the poet Ange Mlinko is also in the business of taking enchantment seriously—and nowhere more so than in a poem called “The Med,” which invokes “Taglioni’s Jewel Casket” in its closing movement. The problem of this poem is that old saw, the eros of longing:
If there were a way to set it right,
because life, for all its shortcomings,
Aimée, is a resource not to be squandered
on desire for the impossible,
or love for that which is absent,
then Cheiron would know it
Although the poem frames “desire for the impossible” and “love for that which is absent” as ways in which finite lives might be “squandered,” it stops short of suggesting that longing is perfectly soluble. The address, after all, is to Aimée, which means “beloved.” A voice that warns the beloved about the act of loving is very likely to be indulging in a dram of self-mockery. Aimée, the poem advises, might do well to become a student of Cheiron, the wise centaur who tutors heroes in the Greek myths, Cheiron, who “knew every herb and its medicinal properties [...] in the Aegean archipelago.” (Mlinko’s time in Morocco, Lebanon, and other Mediterranean countries marks the referents of this collection in ways that might recall James Merrill’s treatments of Greece or else James Schuyler’s of Italy — “The Med” is short for Mediterranean.) If there were a remedy for impossible love, Cheiron would know it. Then again, he might not. The conditional echoes: the cure for the impossible may be, itself, impossible.
Cheiron is impossible: a hybrid beast, half-horse, half-man, botanical savant. And yet, for Mlinko, he is a figural necessity. He is indispensable inasmuch as impossible things (marvelous things) and our desire for them are indispensable to her poetics. In “The Med,” desire and love cannot be disentangled from the impossible and the absent. And this awkward arrangement creates the basic conditions for great disappointment but also for the states of wonder we might file under “enchanted” or “marvelous.” “What’s gone becomes our greatest marvel[,]” Mlinko writes in a later poem, “Wingandecoia.”
To Cheiron’s physical hybridity, his “half-ness,” “The Med” juxtaposes the story of Tanaquil Le Clercq (1929–2000), a principal dancer at the New York City Ballet whose relationship to her art acquired new layers of complexity when polio “cut her at the waist” at the height of her career. About what Le Clercq felt in the aftermath of her illness — about the precise nature of her relationship to the loss of the use of her legs — we can’t know much and Mlinko doesn’t speculate. (Le Clercq gave few interviews during her lifetime.) Here, the poet’s concern lies with the renovation of the relationship between art and artist that has to occur when absence or impossibility makes its presence felt. For Mlinko, one possible engine for this reconstitution involves a deliberate vulnerability to the marvelous:
So, however powerful the indifference
of beautiful men,
remember this, and think instead
of Marie Taglioni: To remind herself
of the night she danced
on a panther skin on the snow, beneath the stars,
for a stranger,
a highwayman who’d waylaid her,
she watched an ice cube dissolve in her jewel box.
It is salubrious, “The Med” advises, not to let the memory of evanescence evanesce. We best honor the absent and the impossible by refreshing our susceptibility to the transformative and the strange, especially as they apply to past selves, experiences, and endeavors. And that’s how “The Med” gets, at last, to Cornell’s box, pirouetting on enchantment’s tightrope: “Taglioni’s Jewel Casket” — “[i]n the museum where we saw it, Aimée, it glows / the color of the sea” — commemorates an act of ridiculous virtuosity one night on the ice; it reminds us that ice melts.
The advice is a little tendentious, perhaps, but, then again, it is in the nature of advice to be tendentious. The Mlinko of Matinées (1999) or Starred Wire (2005) had little interest in the rhetoric of advice, though the poet of Shoulder Season (2010) had begun to take one. An interest in advice is, in itself, a mark neither of progress nor regression. But it does signal the way in which Mlinko’s concerns have developed as she matures. Now, in Marvelous Things Overheard she is much more keenly invested in prescription: invested in what cures, where to take the cure, how to cure, who might know how to cure, and what words they use. She is also, in moments, much more transparently autobiographical than she has been in previous collections.
In “Reason, Love, Control,” a poem that touches on her father’s illness — the diagnosis might be Alzheimer’s — Mlinko writes of how “the bodies of experts, / the professional committees, / hone their vocab to tweezers.” Moreover, she confesses that:
I love it too. I love how it controls
my breathing — subcortical, ischemic —
for we life-forms are evolving
only toward more feeling.
The poem’s conviction that language, used rightly, checks or channels feeling is coincident with a suspicion that feeling is always on the verge of outpacing our names for it. Of course, words do more than control the breathing. But if Mlinko has a tendency to glorify the administrative potential of language a little too firmly at times and to glance askance at emotions that occupy the more disagreeable, anarchic registers, then it is usually, at least, in light of the postulate that feelings matter and exert force in the world.
“[I]t’s ironic,” Mlinko writes In “Words Are the Reverse of Pain,”
That Leto’s jammed labor would yield a god
in whose presence it is forbidden to cry.
Did you know? Apollo! Arrester of tears.
A god in whose presence it is impossible to grieve.
Words may be the reverse of pain but pain is also the parent of language. And what folly, Mlinko’s poems intimate, to forget this, to live in the tyranny of a poetics in which words offer pleasure and only pleasure. (Equally dismal: a lexicon limited entirely to expressions of pain.) A poetics in which it is “impossible to grieve” is its own grief.
II. Tracking Trischka
In The Pleasure of the Text (1973) Roland Barthes makes a distinction between texts that act as vectors of plaisir and those that promise jouissance. (Yes, it has the reek of high theory about it, a reek which is, nonetheless, occasionally tonic rather than not.) Artworks that give plaisir are, roughly, those that offer us the pleasure of knowing who we are, confirming us in our identity. By contrast, artworks that give jouissance are those that, reaching beyond the forms we know, offer us the bliss of knowing that what we are is very far from the totality of what is and also the totality of what we may be. For Barthes, both forms of textual pleasure have their uses but jouissance is undoubtedly the keener, more provocative aesthetic response. Mlinko isn’t so sure. A poet who cares deeply about what kinds of joy art might be able to represent, she has always worried the question of how to value plaisir (indexed, in her work, by sustained rhetoric, narrative tension, and formal closure) against jouissance (her penchant for etymological play, sesquipedalian abstruseness, and passages in which texture and sound seem to matter more than sense).
This unresolved tension between plaisir and jouissance explains Mlinko’s fascination with angeliques, chatoyance, psittacines, Pterophyllum altum, the regenbogen, Medusozoan nerve nets and (at the same time) her recourse to potato cellars, playgrounds, and hospitals. It explains why “redemptores” and “rhododactyl[s]” rattle so nonchalantly through “The Heliopolitan,” a poem about Jean Cocteau’s stay at a hotel in Egypt. (The piece almost turns, not quite, on a high-toned penis joke involving “the story of ____ the Flaccid” and the cinéaste’s sketch of a rooster: Cocteau “awarded his coq with its big toe to the proprietor.”) The plaisir/jouissance quandary explains how, in a poem called “Bliss Street,” Mlinko can move from the Cypriot potato (“fluffy as a/buttered cloud”) to political crisis (“But, oh yeah — massacres / Barbed wire slicing Nicosia in a crescent ghetto”) to family history (“My grandmother picked potatoes on a collective farm at the / age of nine, after her father died”) to a view of:
Bliss Street overflowing with students slowing traffic as they
drift across the road, scooters clustered outside the
gate inscribed with the motto “That life may be lived
Perfect motto for a university. Perfect.
This vision is assuredly romantic: the jouissance that would be, in a perfected world, the university’s best gift to its students. But what prevents this “perfect motto” from being, also, a statement of breathtaking complacency? If anything, it’s the poem’s acknowledgement that mottos are aspirational; they map unevenly onto experience, rather like the “looming cloud the color of putty” that ends the poem. “Putty,” Mlinko insists, “not putti.” Clay, not angels. The ideal transfixes, whether it’s the ideal of the university or any other. The ideal enchants, partly because we ordinarily deal in putty and not putti, because it can be a real effort to remember that a world in which massacres exist sometimes gives rise to joy, that a world in which joy exists sometimes gives rise to massacres.
It’s even harder to know how to act in light of this knowledge, sometimes framed as the problem of evil, more rarely as the problem of good. What are we to do with our susceptibility to marvelous things, which, like our susceptibility to beauty, bears only a situational relationship to any given ethical imperative? When should we give in? When resist? Do we turn the waddling brooms back to inert cordwood as fast as the sorcerer’s apprentice can magic them up? A thankless task, if taken as a rule: some hapless agent of the Ohkrana, tracking Trischka through the snows by the trail of frozen panther skins the trickster leaves behind him.
III. Enchanted Things
What to make of an enchanted thing? “Let us first of all clarify what this intellectual rationalization through science and scientific technology actually means in practice,” writes the German sociologist Max Weber in a lecture from 1918,
the knowledge or the belief that, if one only wanted to, one could find out any time; that there are in principle no mysterious, incalculable powers at work, but rather that one could in principle master everything through calculation. But that means the disenchantment of the world.
For Weber, the principle of sufficient reason — the idea that everything is explicable even if everything has not yet been explained to satisfaction — means a continuous process of disenchantment in which mystery recedes into personal interactions and the “transcendental realm of mystical life” as scientific explanatory models expand their range and power.
Disenchantment is hardly a totalizing process. It spreads unevenly, as a number of cultural critics have pointed out, arguing (Thomas Moore) that the disenchanted world may be and should be re-enchanted or else (Rita Felski) that enchantment — and particularly the enchantment of aesthetic experience — never went away and isn’t likely to. The political theorist Jane Bennett has even contended that enchantment — everyday experiences of wonder and absorption — might form the basis of an ethical system. (Enchantment can have an ethics only insomuch as it has a politics.)
The world is not a Manichean battle between the forces of enchantment and the forces of disenchantment, two kaiju going at it over a pasteboard city. Mlinko would probably have some sympathy with Bennett, Felski, and Moore: her poetry wants to render things enchanted or memorialize experiences of enchantment that are unrepeatable and might otherwise be forgotten. But her work is much less about how enchantment and disenchantment might cancel one another out and much more about their uneasy and often discontinuous co-existence.
So the nymph Echo, stranded, in one poem, amidst a gathering of wealthy wives, might tell of “marvelous things, akin to shine on a child’s straight / hair or brushed titanium / of the early adopter’s new trophy” and receive a disappointing reply: “These things, against what they obsolesce / do not make us feel less less.” The kind of poems that catalogue marvelous things, Mlinko is aware, are often likely to look ineffectual in a world habituated to the discourse of disenchantment. No — not ineffectual, insignificant — the language of cause and effect is, itself, an artifact of a disenchanted world. And there’s the problem: it’s not that the procedures of enchantment are inherently good and those of disenchantment inherently bad, it’s that they are both necessary and mutually incommunicable. They happen in concert but have no common tongue. How, then, to speak of both processes at once?
Naiads who practice arithmetic; demi-goddesses who are also storms and aquifers; Mount Etna, which erupts; Dutch tulips, which do not smell; Alexander the Great, who names the winds. Mlinko’s collection of marvels searches for a unified idiom in which to account for the mythological, the ordinary, and especially those things dropped half-way between: “Can’t I have it —” the emperor Alexander asks, “Or if I could describe it, / I could have it?” A volatile salad! The poet turns to the tradition of the riddle poem in order to articulate her paradoxes. “Bayt,” for example, imagines the work of the Arabic language poets Labīd and Al-Shanfara as translated by a speaker of Anglo-Saxon. Here, Mlinko seems to take some cues from Paul Muldoon at his most riddling, incorporating various archaic English words and phrases into her adaptation: “Do you faint / because they flet ofgeafon?” She includes a glossary, which suggests that part of the point of the exercise is to impart the participatory feeling of translation to the reader, to encourage her to revel, as Mlinko so obviously does, in the oddity and textural complexity of unfamiliar words — a cleverness some will enjoy, some scorn.
More lucid in their ambitions, though no less riddling in their way, are two long sequences: “Cantata for Lynette Roberts” and “Wingandecoia.” The first considers the life and poetry of Lynette Roberts (1909–1995), an Argentinian-born poet of Welsh parentage who endured World War II in Wales. Bits of Roberts’s poetry swim in and out of Mlinko’s cantata (“I almost see your waled skylanes, / your shocked Capricorn and Cancer”) and the intricacy of that dialogue illuminates, perhaps more than any other poem in the book, what Mlinko demands from poetry and what she thinks it ought to demand from readers: “Hers was a poetry of metals and alloys; air raids they were, ear raids [...] ” Mlinko mulls over Roberts’s storehouse of words (“Saint Cadoc and curlews versus confervoid; cranch-crake versus/ceraunic clouds; into Euclidean cubes grid air is planed. / Where did she get the nerve?”). Mlinko sees in Roberts’s daring diction a model and, perhaps, a warning: “Lynette, if you were here, I’d ask you the one salient question / for a woman at midpoint: / How not to harden?” Poetry enchants. But it need not enchant. Poetry disenchants. But it need not disenchant. Roberts, as Mlinko notes in the poem, ceased to write after she became a Jehovah’s Witness in 1956.
Meanwhile, the collection’s second long sequence, “Wingandecoia” is a series of elegant villanelles that meditates on the establishment and eventual disappearance of the Roanoke colony. (Wingandecoia is a corruption of a Carolina Algonquin word meaning “Land of the Parrots.”) Mlinko invokes the sonnets of Thomas Wyatt (“Whoso list to hunt it with a camera”), the extinct Carolina parrot (“Pot pot chee. (Seminole / for ‘smart bird with the Semibabble’)”), and Roanoke (“Gone Raleigh’s colony, gone”) in order to think through what we lose when we lose not only people or species or places but the language associated with them. (Granted, the elegiac properties of the poem reverberate more clearly than the accompanying post-colonial critique, which sometimes feels muddled.) Villanelle form, which relies on repetition for its effect, stresses Mlinko’s preoccupation with salvage as lines recur and transmute: “In truth, their language is gone” becomes, at the poem’s conclusion, “in truth my language gone.” The riddle here is not only the absence of Roanoke, which gives the poem its pretext, but the question of what can be recuperated through inherited form, through repetition, through memory. Not much. Enough, perhaps: “It feels emeritus — the very name, the stars — / when, at dusk, a ghost crab emerges.” What’s gone becomes, for better or for worse, enchanted, “our greatest marvel.” Enchantment, Mlinko reminds us, rarely travels unaccompanied: it carries with it the taste of lost things, lacrimae rerum, mono no aware.
A marvelous thing is a fleeting thing; the category of the marvelous persists. Mlinko takes her book’s title and its opening epigraph from Aristotle’s treatise, On Marvelous Things Heard: “The she-goats in Cephallenia do not drink, as it appears, like other quadrupeds, but daily turning their faces towards the sea, open their mouths, and take in the breezes.” Aristotle’s “marvelous things heard” becomes Mlinko’s “marvelous things overheard” a small revision but a telling one. It summons up J.S. Mill’s definition of poetry in an essay from 1833:
Poetry and eloquence are both alike the expression or utterance of feeling: but, if we may be excused the antithesis, we should say that eloquence is heard; poetry is overheard. Eloquence supposes an audience. The peculiarity of poetry appears to us to lie in the poet's utter unconsciousness of a listener. Poetry is feeling confessing itself to itself in moments of solitude, and embodying itself in symbols which are the nearest possible representations of the feeling in the exact shape in which it exists in the poet's mind.
“Overheard-ness,” for Mill, is the essential quality of poetry, the one that keeps it honest, exalts it above mere eloquence, which is, presumably, a calculated effect, tainted by persuasive motives. There’s almost a quaintness about it, this insistence that poetry ought to maintain such a coy relationship with its readers. But, then again, if we take Mill’s definition seriously (without requiring that all poetry adhere to its tenets), we might see overheard-ness, the soliloquizing actor’s seeming ignorance of her spectators, as a form of play — a feigning space that makes certain truths possible and communicable. The poem becomes, then, the field of enchantment, the place where the marvelous shivers into being and stays — so long as the careful fiction of speaker and eavesdropper obtains.
Mlinko’s decision to ally herself with the overheard becomes, then, an argument about what kinds of formal conditions allow poems to produce marvelous effects—not, of course, the goal of all poems. Is there room for the marvelous, though? There is room. Imaginary gardens, do not, as Marianne Moore tells us, forbid the presence of real toads. In fact, the first requires the last in order to achieve the fullest realization. The danger, in marvelous poetics, is the danger of bungling the ratio of toads to gardens. Breatharians die under observation. Cephallenian she-goats, whatever Aristotle says, are not Aeolian harps, sustained by air. If Mlinko, who loves words as much as Apollo, tends to prefer amaryllis to amphibians, she is, at the least, witty enough and self-aware enough to poke fun at her tendency to bookish romance, which often seems like a response to varieties of disenchantment that range from grinding quotidian discontents to historical trauma writ large. That epigraph — the origins of the word tragedy were long thought to have originated with the sacrifice of goats at the rites of Dionysus. Tragos (goat) + aoidos (singer) = goat-song. It’s a good story. Imagine it: the thinnest wafer of sense dividing Aristotle’s marvelous animals from the quantum of pity and fear. Contemporary scholarship suggests this etymology is false.