Florida Baroque

The tropical verse of Ange Mlinko

In her new book of poetry criticism, Difficult Ornaments: Florida and the Poets, Ange Mlinko identifies two contrasting lyric styles: the plain and the ornate, or the Temperate and the Tropical. The poets Mlinko treats in that book, all captivated by Florida, are representatives of the Tropical. Wallace Stevens and James Merrill are two examples. Their poetry is abundant and ornamental, given to excess and flourish, like the lush southern landscapes that inspired them.

Stevens and Merrill were snowbirds. Mlinko too is a non-native Floridian who finds in the region a warrant for the stylistic extravagance and exuberant wordplay of her own poems. Driving south toward her adopted home, she passes “the intangible line / beyond which bougainvillea grows.” The appearance of the fire-bright flower announces a shift in both latitude and attitude, licensing whimsy and witty performance. Here where “the land is flagrant,” flames charm rather than char, safely “trimmed to the shape / of an arch or a carport.”

Think of the stanzas in “The Bougainvillea Line” as a poet’s version of trained vines and brilliant highlights, in which lattices of syntax are accented by clever rhyme. “Flagrant” calls out to “fragrant,” “capture” to “rapture.” More surprising are “shape” and “crêpe,” “aplomb” and “cumbersome.” Mlinko saves her best rhyme for last: as “night turns blue … Dissolving clouds” seem delicate and “amorous,” like the “rained-on ink of billets-doux.”

Beguiling as it seems, Mlinko’s Florida, like a stage set, is not built to last. “Berceuse,” a lull-aby composed of three chatty sonnets, describes daily life in a “high-rise” vacation condo on the coast, one like the building in Surfside that collapsed catastrophically in 2021. The ground is unsteady. The sea breeze, “an omnivore,” eats whatever it finds, and the deodorizer in the corridor poorly disguises “something iffy.”

Mlinko’s poems revel in rare words like “volplane,” weird names like “maltipoo,” and the clustered vowels in a phrase like “Dorothy Lamour’s sarong” (quoted from a Joni Mitchell song). Listening on headphones to The Iliad while exploring a Scottish cemetery, she sees “Prestons, Grays, and Grahams” inscribed and hears ancient Greek names intoned. Savoring “the umami” of those mingled sounds, she tastes “iron-laced water like blood-anointed spear-tips / and the tangy granite in the skirling burn.” That may be the first sentence ever to include both “umami” (“delicious savory taste” in Japanese) and “skirling” (from a Scandinavian root, referring to the shrill wail of bagpipes).

“Tropical” is a playful, novel name for this sort of rich, mixed style. “Baroque” is the more familiar term. “La Folía,” a candidate for the most popular tune in Western history, deriving from folk music of the 15th century, was a favorite theme of Baroque composers such as Vivaldi and Corelli. In “La Folía,” Mlinko creates her version of a Baroque theme and variations, musing on the fact that a certain 17th-century harp and cello were made of wood from the same tree. The history of music, the poem seems to say, is a long story of artful variation; what may look like frivolous decoration—or pure folly—has potential to disclose something living and essential, “a time signature / secreted in the evergreen.” For poetry, language is that evergreen tree.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Langdon Hammer, the Niel Gray Jr. Professor of English at Yale, is the poetry editor of the Scholar and the author of James Merrill: Life and Art.


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