Short Cuts: Joan Houlihan on Ange Mlinko

Reviewed: Shoulder Season by Ange Mlinko. Coffee House Press, 2010. 81 pages.

If Shoulder Season were a town, it would be a deserted one. All evidence of life—buildings, boardwalks, beds and tables, monuments and blankets, pots of flowers, tools, cars and cribs—would be left intact, the people gone. The only sound would be a voice emanating from a speaker left on somewhere. Wandering into this town, so eerily empty of human life, we would naturally be attracted to the disembodied voice: Who is speaking? What is it saying? To whom is it addressing itself?

If an orchidophage’s tastebud magnified

resembles an orchid

So my buds indubitably mimic pricking ice cream cones.


Clearly, someone is concerned with the bacterium of an orchid—more specifically, the taste bud of said bacterium. How the taste bud may or may not resemble the thing it has invaded (the orchid), and how this resemblance relates to the speaker’s “buds” are implied questions as well. Will the speaker’s taste buds also mimic the thing(s) it invades, in this case (indubitably!) “pricking ice cream cones”?

This may be the only voice we hear. It’s important we get it right. Do bacteria invade orchids? Do bacteria have taste buds? Do ice cream cones “prick”?  Is the insertion of “indubitably” a verbal wink to the listener? If so, why? Is it all supposed to be funny? To whom? Who is the audience for this joke? What is the joke, exactly? Joke or not, we want to know: is there sense to be made of these lines? (The joke can’t be “gotten” without a background of sense.) Or is the speaker talking to herself? Wandering into Shoulder Season is as mystifying and estranging and frustrating as this.

It can be rather quickly ascertained that the voice in this collection is educated (or well-read), fanciful (“orchidophage”), ironic (“Win-Win”), jokey (“indubitably”) and cool (that is, unemotional, though surely “hip” as well).  And, while the semantic sense doesn’t quite add up, at least the syntax is recognizable, and syllogistic in form. Maybe we don’t need semantic sense to understand the voice. Maybe the syntax alone works as sense. Here’s my attempt with the same syntax, simpler terms:

If an [anteater’s] tastebud magnified

resembles an [ant]

So my buds indubitably mimic ____ (insert something “funny”).


As for the funny part, how about:

If an [anteater’s] tastebud magnified

resembles an [ant]

So my buds indubitably mimic [a prick].

Now it works as a broad-based (pun-intended) blow-job joke as well as a serious rose-has-thorns (roses start as buds!), along with a sleeping beauty allusion—and the whole apparatus can be easily be imported back into the orchidophage lines. It even salvages one of the original words (“prick”). But this is a lot of work for the reader on a handful of lines, and the book is 81 pages long.

Since, in Shoulder Season, a voice is all we have, and that voice doesn’t satisfy our need for semantic sense, maybe we can be satisfied with the feints and fooling, the display of erudition, the unusual phrasing, and not worry about ratio of noise to signal. The collection as a whole is mostly purged of human drama and personal revelation, though occasional domestic references float up and disappear without purpose.

Maybe the tone provides the sense. When Frost talked about “the sound of sense” his analogy was to that of listening to voices through a closed door. Though it’s impossible to understand the context of the words, we can understand the tone (joyful, woeful, pleading, angry, and so on) and cadence (hurried, leisurely, halting, measured, and so on) and thus glean the “sense” of the voice. As with visual cues (like gesture, facial expression, physical appearance), voice cues provide information that enhances, contradicts, extends, or even eliminates the need for the meaning of the words themselves (as demonstrated most famously by Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky”). It’s best to dispense with word meanings altogether:

Two flags nuzzle each other in the desultory gust

because they are

fleeing the trees, who are cruel to one another, shading their

neighbors to death

a mixed bag

advocating small business in a loose confederation:

the flags don’t give any shade at all.

On the anniversary of our country

we throw dynamite at the air

we build into.

“Year Round”

These lines seem to be meaningful. Are they? The syntax works. The tone is ironic. The lines have flags in them, and the fourth of July. They also have small business and a loose confederation. Perhaps it’s a political poem. Perhaps it’s a poem about how poems are like countries and small businesses that keep their populace (or words) confused. Or maybe it’s more about how poems are machines made of words and words don’t have to mean anything in particular–they just have to serve as components. Perhaps it’s about how poems shouldn’t be examined too closely because they’re not supposed to be real or true or taken as something worth thinking about, and if you start examining them too closely you might get mad and revolt. And, really, why should it matter that flags don’t “nuzzle” in a gust, desultory or otherwise (let alone how a gust could even be desultory)? Why should it matter that everything after “because” isn’t funny or surprising or true—literally or metaphorically or emotionally? Why can’t I just stand in the town square and listen to the anonymous voice, pretend it’s saying something meaningful or beautiful or even informative, and stop asking questions? Simple. I want poetry to matter. Not only that, I insist that it matter.

This question of mattering, first posed so well by Dana Gioia, continues to haunt contemporary poetry. But for poetry to matter, do things need to matter to the poet, or do they only need to seem to matter to the reader?  Poets prove time and again that age means little, origin means less, and that for any great work the proof is on the page, not in the life.  So, while there has been much talk about poets needing to dig ditches to improve their poetry (rather than digging into their bank accounts to pay for seats on the MFA train), I am not convinced that so-called “real life” helps a poem matter all that much to a reader.  What matters to the reader, to this reader, is what’s on the page. For example, here is the entire title poem:

On the strength of the light in the southeast

I could surmise this isn’t the time for poinsettia.

Snowflakes hard as schoolyard jacks

fall from a cryogenic layer of air

eagles use as lorgnettes. It’s unseasonable

judging by the light in the southeast.

The poinsettia has been delicately

loosening the bolts locking velvet bracts

in attitudes of warm jouissance

so that a cuticle of dried blood hue

encroaches on the edges of a lively red,

then altogether drops to the ledge a corpse.

On the strength of this I could prise

piccolo jonquils out of April edemas.

There is certainly cleverness here, of the Ashbery brand, and the poems have a good education and a lovely whiff of eau de Armantrout; but without a sense that this poetry matters, I am left holding another handful of interesting phrases, thinking about whether to order a pizza or eat in tonight. Reading should not be harder than writing. I shrug and put the book down. It must be shoulder season.

About Joan Houlihan

Joan Houlihan is author of three collections, most recently, The Us (Tupelo Press, 2009). Her other two books are: Hand-Held Executions: Poems & Essays (2003) and The Mending Worm, winner of the 2005 Green Rose Award from New Issues Press. Her work has appeared in many journals, including Boston Review, Poetry, Harvard Review, Gettysburg Review, Harvard Divinity Bulletin, Black Warrior Review, Gulf Coast and Pleiades, among others, and has been anthologized in The Iowa Anthology of New American Poetries (University of Iowa Press, 2005) and The Book of Irish-American Poetry--Eighteenth Century to Present (University of Notre Dame Press, 2007). Her critical essays on contemporary poetry are archived online at and she is a contributing editor for the Contemporary Poetry Review. Houlihan is founder of the Concord Poetry Center in Concord, Massachusetts and of the Colrain Poetry Manuscript Conference. She teaches in Lesley University's Low-Residency MFA in Creative Writing Program in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
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  1. “I shrug and put the book down,” indeed! Though I disagreed with the Wiman review, I very much agree with this one.

  2. Katherine Lucas Anderson

    It is true that much of the work in Shoulder Season is not up to the acerbic and acrobatic high standard set by Mlinko’s earlier Coffee House publication, Starred Wire, which had many poems that make the best sort of sense: aural, syntactical, emotional, and intellectual.

    Most of the poets whose work I think matters — and they are all over the poetic map — have a book or two that isn’t quite up to snuff. Indeed, most poets, with some dazzling exceptions, only have a handful of poems that are true “keepers.”

    Angie Mlinko has far too much realized promise and real talent to be so easily dismissed. I look forward to reading her next book.

  3. Ludicrously faulty logic, so full of presumption I don’t know where to begin. The assumption is that it’s nonsense, so it’s nonsense. But because the reviewer doesn’t get it doesn’t mean the poet doesn’t care about her poetry, that she doesn’t want it to “matter”, whatever that means. And citing Dana Gioia doesn’t help the case. We all know where he stands, and now we know where the reviewer stands. Might as well have been the first words of the review and let us move along.

    I don’t know Ange Mlinko’s work. I can say the snippets the reviewer provided (the only thing I see of value here) perplex me, too. Only I see that state as attractive, generative. And despite the reviewer’s (and Dana Gioia’s) opinions, I think the poetry matters–even the stuff that I can’t immediately intellectualize, the stuff that communicates before it’s understood.

    Sad we’re still having this silly argument about sense. What does it mean? What does it mean? Let propositional prose like this review make sense. I look to poetry for wonder.

    “Reading should not be harder than writing” smells like a workshop platitude to me. And, well, lazy.

  4. I think that the poem should matter to the poet, and real life experiences can help the poet; and, yes, reading should not be harder than writing.

    Real life can temper the poet, make him impatient with boring poems from so-called “distinguished” poets.

    On the other hand, digging up sidewalks with a jackhammer doesn’t mean you will wow us with your poem. Imagination must take hold of the material to give it flight, intrigue and lift us rather than threaten us with the awful job, disaster, defeat, massacre, so that we turn aside from the poem and do something else.

  5. I appreciate the playful language of Mlinko, but trees shading neighbors to death strikes me more than flags fleeing the trees–– the former is sensible carried further, the latter comes out from a poetic license–– which is fine, anything goes in the pomes vortex these days, but too much license undercuts what stands out and moves us. Personification becomes irritating especially in poetry which verges on indulgence anyway–– who do we think we are?–– if it isn’t just right–– it comes across as absurd–– or worse, patronizin–– which is also okay, no law against it, but shouldn’t undermine the poem.

  6. Ange Mlinko is a fantastically gifted poet. To me the lines you quote are full of frisson and delight. And they matter, in the way that physicists theorize matter can have consciousness, or stars could have an intelligence greater than ours, because of the vastness of their molecular and electronic connections.

    It’s interesting to me you mention Ashbery — as she is often compared to Frank O’Hara. While she has clearly taken O’Hara’s sensibility into her own (to our great pleasure) I think her voice is much more detached, a la Ashbery. She’s not writing about sex (all you have to do is take your clothes off) or envisioning her friend’s journey through schizophrenia a la Frank in “For James Schuyler.” Or, to quote Wallace Stevens’s Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction:

    “Until flicked by feeling on a gildered street
    I call you by name, my green, my fluent mundo
    You will have stopped revolving except in crystal

    I feel there’s something of Stevens’ crystal in Ange’s voice. Which can be a splendid thing: look at Wallace.

    I think when Ange writes personnification, she’s actually experiencing it, it’s not a verbal trick. It’s what Harold Blume calls deep subjectivity, which he says is essential to any work of art.

    The idea is that art changes our minds — if we read Lorca, for example, we start experiencing the world more like Lorca — but this grafted to our own experiencing, so the voice is unique. Ange’s voice is singular, which is such a pleasure. I think poetry is physiologically related to speaking in tongues — and poets who have the guts to do what she’s doing are so immensely satisfying, because what they’re really doing is making a new language, that can put us in a trance. I think this is what Stevens means when he writes:

    “Equal in living changingness to the light
    In which we meet, in which we sit at rest
    The vivid transparence that you bring is peace.”

    These thoughts are all very rough.

    Remember, taste is an enemy of beauty, as a rules.

    Love reading y’all’s thoughts here, and I love Ange’s poems.

  7. Ms. Houlihan writes: “This may be the only voice we hear. It’s important we get it right. Do bacteria invade orchids? Do bacteria have taste buds? Do ice cream cones “prick”?

    I couldn’t agree more. An orchidophage is not a bacterium. The suffix -phage means “eater of,” not bacteria or bacterium. Ms. Mlinko, having a passing knowledge of Greek roots, would know this.

    There are in fact insects–wasps, butterflies–whose mouth parts resemble the orchids they on and fertilize.

    If it is important in a review to “get things right,” Ms. Houlihan’s review has a distinctly inauspicious beginning. Perhaps she should start by assuming that the author knows of what she speaks.

  8. I love reading Ange Mlinko. She has also written a superior and luminous essay on James Schuyler in The Nation (May 20, 2010). A must read for all Schuyler lovers, of which I am now one, having read the essay by Mlinko.

    “This was Schuyler’s shrewdness: to develop his gift for spontaneity in the direction of elegy, and simultaneously to sublimate his sense of loss in keen attention to the present. Spontaneity looks forward; elegy, backward. Spontaneity is light; elegy is heavy. The weight of the world is a ballast against the levitating effect of James Schuyler’s courteous English, which made him our most angelic poet: full of air, intelligence, light.

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