The two poets discussed here have more differences than similarities, but they are representative of a group of young to mid-career American women who are using sound as the controlling force in their work, in their speakers’ lives, and in their world, all of which have gotten a little out of hand. Mary Jo Bang, Ange Mlinko, Karen Volkman, Lucie Brock-Broido, and others are doing what the best poets have always done: using sound as a mode of thought, when other supposedly more ‘logical’ modes fail them in their attempts to transform their ‘private nightmares’ (and other dreams) into language.
Beckett comes to mind because the title of Bang’s collection, The Downstream Extremity of the Isle of Swans, is taken from a line in Ohio Impromptu (a 1980 one-act play by Beckett), but also because both poets share with him a love for the darkly playful, and the unexpected phrase. Both also have an awareness of the page as stage, and the poet as dramatist. It is an illuminating accident that the opening poems in these two books involve, in Bang’s case, an opera, and in Mlinko’s, a matinee.
‘Pear and O, an Opera’ begins The Downstream Extremity of the Isle of Swans, and introduces us to Bang’s unique style, where images flare up like coals in a fire. The poet blows on one, makes it glow, then quickly moves to another, even before the last has had a chance to cool or fade. The poem begins:
They kept us thin, but O when the treats came!
The thumbprint cookie was good, Dear Doctor.
What can it mean? A girl with no arms
kissing a boy in a black leather jacket?
Her mouth moving on the other side of a glass.
At the door, she turns to leave a slips
on the small O of snow. A whistle is blown
and the blowing brings round a pair of taxis.
Time will weight her equal to gravel.
She seems so grave.
They kept us thin, but O the malted milks!
I loved them. Sister was vanilla, I was something pink.
A cast of shadowy characters inhabits these poems, but language is the real star here. Even though some of these characters (like the Doctor and the sister) appear more than once in this book, words and the letters that make them are Bang’s true ‘characters.’ The poems often feel as if they are being spoken by a ‘mouth moving on the other side of the glass,’ but repetition of like sounds, words, and phrases help hold them together. This poet moves through her work with abandon, and trains us to read with a different kind of ear and eye.
The character ‘O’ is deemed important enough to appear in the title of the opening poem, and even reappears later in the book in ‘Begin Here,’ where it (he? she?) reminds us that the sound of a word is, for Bang, an integral part of its definition:
O onion, o open, o equal-eyed quail egg
with swell yellow lake.
O dove and small love effaced
by a late disbelieving.
Bang’s lines always form complex sonic chains. She makes a word’s relationship to other words so important that it loses some of its individuality, but gains power by its placement in the complicated matrix of all language.
In ‘Begin Here,’ two simple words at the end of the first line are related to almost every other in the stanza by one sound or another. ‘Quail’ takes care of ‘swell,’ ‘yellow,’ and ‘small.’ ‘Egg’ pulls in ‘eyed’ and ‘effaced.’ Both seem equally related to words like ‘equal,’ ‘lake,’ and ‘late.’ This play is not simply an attempt to please the reader (although we can be thankful for that side-effect). It works to illuminate each individual word by placing it in its infinite context.
For a book that is so driven by sound, it is interesting that Bang’s major subject is sight. Almost every poem makes an overt reference to this sense, often with an obstacle (like a glass pane) placed between the eye and the thing it views, a recognition of the difficulty involved in transforming sights to sounds. The poem ‘A Tour of the March Equinox’ ends with a perfect metaphor for telling it slant: our childhood method of looking at the sun projected through a pinhole, instead of staring at it directly. Here sight is at least as important as sound, because for Bang, sight is the origin of sound, a subject she addresses in the last poem, ‘The Origin of the Impulse to Speak.’
The Downstream Extremity of the Isle of Swans is full of quirky, interesting poems, but all of them seem to push us forward to this long final prose poem. The form does not immediately suit Bang’s style, because her wonderful turns of phrase get a little lost in the equalizing blocks of prose. She works her lines so well that readers may be disappointed to see her abandon them, but prose serves her in different ways. The paragraphs in ‘The Origin of the Impulse to Speak’ are great clumps of language, like balls of string too tangled up to ever be unraveled.
As Bang says, ‘no linearity in a flood.’ And this is indeed a flood. Bits of speech swirl past us, as we sit on top of the house and try to catalogue those few things we recognize. Some seem familiar. We’ve seen them before in the houses of our neighbors, but many are foreign, washed down from the cave of some forgotten hermit.
This is a poem of parts, some of which, if taken on their own, are easy to see as small fragments of a larger (if slightly unconventional) narrative:
The tar and gravel slash on the hill side equaled the number of places the road went. Heavy curtains would help keep it dark and dark was what they wanted. It had been a pedestrian tour, foot after foot on the track that went over the trestle. She lay down with her ear to the rail but didn’t trust her own hearing so held her breath on the trestle.
Bang’s stripped-down descriptions are combined with a lot of childlike speech, and however incoherent the poem becomes, there is always the sense of a philosophy of language at work. This is more than a collection of pleasing sounds. Before language, we have sight, and the childishness of some phrases brings us as close to that ‘origin’ as possible without abandoning language altogether. The final poem is also peppered with the sub-language sounds we make, from a baby crying ‘like a stuck siren,’ to a whistled tune, from the ‘small screams of amusement’ at a party, to the sound of adolescent girls, laughing at a joke.
This reminds us that Bang’s first loyalty is always to sound, and that to read this book, we must hear it first, as we hear the din of a party from down the street before we enter the house. At her best, Mary Jo Bang is an inviting poet, and the parties her invitations advertise are wild, exciting, full of smart and interesting people, but also fun.
Bang does push the boundaries of narrative, and occasionally falls into the trap of experiment for experiment’s sake, but she never abandons humanity for the sake of invention. Most of her work succeeds because she knows that the best inventions come by accident, when the inventor is simply playing at her work.
Although Ange Mlinko is a very different poet, it is obvious from Matinées, her first book of poems, that she shares Bang’s love of sound. Her poems are more fragmented than Bang’s, but they compensate with more definite settings. The backdrop for Mlinko’s book is the city, and her surreal catalogues capture the multitude of sights, sounds, smells, and textures that are unique to this landscape.
‘Matinée,’ the first poem in the volume (and one of the best), begins the book much as Bang begins hers. The speaker emerges from the darkness of ‘backstage’ and comes out to see and be seen under the bright lights of the world, a fitting beginning for a first book.
They placed me backstage in the dark for so long
after such a short part to wait for the bow
gingerly among the splinters and props
lost between curtains of black burlap
I finally found my way quietly into some light
a fine aerosol like night in a movie
that I parted a slit and came into day
in the middle of a city
where some worked and some didn’t
and in the back of a Portuguese market
a boy strummed basement songs to the junkies
and others laid off by sleep and asides
from paradise came stumbling in...
These lines move forward relentlessly, refusing to allow the reader (or the speaker) time for breath. Mlinko’s rhymes are fresh and light-handed, and provide the poems with an invisible structure that holds them together, even at their most disjointed. ‘Movie,’ and ‘city’ are linked at the end of the first stanza by their like sounds, interrupted by the sight rhyme of ‘day.’
This simple linkage is actually an intricate map of the consciousness that inhabits this book, where the city is examined like a movie (or other text), and presented in a series of ‘daytime entertainments.’
Because the poet refuses to use a period until the end of the penultimate stanza, the reader is forced to choose between breathing and continuing to read, or, to push the metaphor to its extreme, between life and language. This flippant aggression, the speed of these poems, the illusion of ease, and Mlinko’s subjects all call to mind the work of Frank O’Hara, who is an obvious influence on Mlinko’s work. A few lines from ‘City Story’ should be enough to demonstrate: