Review: ‘Venice,’ by Ange Mlinko

VENICE
By Ange Mlinko


Ange Mlinko’s poems are animated by an unusual combination of impulses. They are formal, highly polished, with hard, smooth surfaces and dense interiors, the products of intense and serious craft. But whereas formal so often suggests staid or restrained, Mlinko’s poems are anything but. They are wild, energetic, alive, want only Catholic in their allusiveness, often downright chatty. Some have the feel of postcards, especially in their opening lines. “The hotel showers were splendidly profligate,” begins one poem in “Venice,” Mlinko’s sixth collection. The next one starts: “After the olivine waves of Marina di Torre del Lago,/we drive between colonnades of umbrella pines.”

Elsewhere, the tone is morely philosophical speculative: “In or around 1929 the character of dreams changed.” And sometimes it is blunt, straightforward, urgent. A poem late in the book begins, “We don’t have much time.” The situation it goes on to describe is specific and immediate, but as with so many of Mlinko’s phrases it is impossible to ignore the second, shadow meaning that looms over the first: that we as a species are running out of time, that it may already be too late. That anxiety is pervasive in “Venice.” In poem after poem, daily events generate dark, sometimes nightmarish overtones. Consider, for instance, this stanza, spoken by a plant expert, from the poem “In the Nursery”:

“And further, if the roots don’t dig
under the house and re-twig
indoors via cracks in the foundation,
there’s still damage being done,
and history will bear witness
with numberless lifted eyelids.”

A shift takes place halfway through the stanza: Read those final three lines on their own and they seem to be about something much vaster and more ominous than a potentially invasive backyard plant. In Mlinko’s universe, small, modest things frequently symbolize immensities, and our locally aimed, often casually delivered remarks — We don’t have much time, there’s still damage being done — often turn out to have application well beyond their intended domains.

Those cracked foundations, corrupted and undone by ceaseless strenuous efforts of botanical life, may remind us of Venice, a city built on unstable and impermanent foundations, and so give us a clue to the title of the book. Venice, increasingly subject to storms and floods, and to the damages wreaked by floods of tourists — tourists drawn by the very beauty they are helping to destroy — seems to stand as a symbol of all that is precious in, and all that stands threatened by , human life. In “Sleepwalking in Venice,” Mlinko seems to describe how, in the midst of her own visit to that city, she found herself slipping into unreality:

… I fought
the cold, green voice that declared

It was as though she’d never been. Yes? Or it’s that she went alone …
and saw myself reflected nowhere,
deprived of some … vitamin …
like a vampire feeling her bones
that can’t find herself in a mirror …

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