March 8, 2006
Like many fans of singer-songwriters, I am a poetry reader. While visiting friends over the winter holiday, I picked up a copy of Ange Mlinko's latest book of poetry, Starred Wire. In the slim volume, Mlinko paints her poems with playfulness, her work reminded me (and the Believer) of Frank O'Hara (a definite compliment, O'Hara is one of my favorite poets). The book has garnered rave reviews, with the New Yorker writing, "her intoxicating, cerebral poems display a unique sense of humor and mystery."
Thanks to Ange for taking the time (and representing the first book of poetry) to participate in this series.
In her own words, here is Ange Mlinko's "book notes" submission for Starred Wire:
Because I don’t listen to music while I write, I culled this list from songs I love and songs that have influenced my thinking about travel, childhood and art: the three thematic axes of Starred Wire. Ten years ago, I may have looked at poetry partly as a compensation for being unable to sing; now I am wedded completely to my art and its particular technical problems: the poem has to be guitar, piano, drums, bass, and lyrics all at once.
1. Going to Morocco (The Extra Glenns)
“There’s a gutteral stop in my throat ... I’m changing from inside.”
Description is a technical problem for a poet. If you have ever gone to Morocco, you know that the usual methods of description don’t apply. You can catalog it, but you will never approach its true strangeness. So in the end you just drop the catalog and listen for the change in your throat.
2. Spanish Bombs (The Clash)
“Trenches full of poets ... I’m hearing music from another time.”
O my corazon! The exuberance of this song brings back the note of danger recently lost to the concept of “adventure,” especially since Europe is the most domesticated travel experience of all. In “trenches full of poets” I can’t help hearing a reference to Apollinaire, and his own song of exuberant modernity, “Zone.” (Or, should we say, Corazone?)
3. The Bends (Radiohead)
“The words are coming out all weird ... Alone on an aeroplane”
Anxiety and ambivalence stalk the traveler, the cosmopolite, the restless youth of clubs and cafes. Is this cousin to “The time has come to make it unclear / To write off lines that don’t make sense”? It’s tempting to compare the Romantic power of Cobain, coming out of a provincial northwest America, with the sophisticated, Modernist, European York.
4. Army of Me (Bjork)
I think more of the Michael Gondry-directed video of this song than the lyrics: in it, Bjork is a terrorist planting a bomb in a swank contemporary art museum to liberate a boy trapped in an artwork. It is a concept that anyone with an attraction/repulsion to the international art scene, and its bizarreries, can relate to.
5. Fool (Cat Power)
“Apartment in New York, London and Paris / When will we stop we’re all living on top of it”
Another song broaching the delicate relation of worldliness to wealth, global travel to globalism, pleasure to pain. Exuberance gives way to melancholy and even ennui: like any drug, modernity has its 2 a.m. comedown.
6. Figure 8 (Elliott Smith)
“That’s a shape that turns around upon itself.”
A child’s song, a simple melody, a single image serves as introduction not to the infinity symbol, but to recursion. An amuse bouche preparing the palate for Borges or Nabokov, it is given a chilling little echo by Elliott Smith in this obscure b-side.
7. We’re Going to Be Friends (The White Stripes)
“Climb the fence, books and pens”
The bond between childhood wonder and romance is one template for the love song. Or is the love song the template for the lover discovering he is a poet? The nursery-rhyme simplicity of the melody reminds me of something I heard about pop – that it’s children’s music for adults: all pleasure, melody, familiarity. Poetry, having to do double duty as music and words, has to find the right tension, from line to line, between pleasure and rupture, melody and syntax, familiarity and strangeness. I don’t think there’s any relationship between poetry and pop except where both aspire to very basic pleasures even at their most complex.
8. Is It Wicked Not to Care (Belle & Sebastian)
“Rusting armor for effect”
Insouciance serves as a mask for disappointment as childhood grows into adolescence. The adolescent playing with masks when the world itself begins to fail her – is that another template for the poet, the artifice-adorer?
9. Chelsea Burns (Keren Ann)
“Chelsea burns under my feet”
An urban nocturne for those who have almost outgrown lullabyes. Dreamwalking through one’s youth as the artist-voyeur in a playground for the wealthy. It’s difficult to make out two consecutive lines in the song: the real eloquence is all in the sound. It’s one thing to try in poetry, this lack of “prose sense.”
10. Information Age (Damon & Naomi)
“Computers crashing all around us...but I don’t believe the Times and I don’t believe the Globe”
Contemporary global anxiety revisited, this time as divorce and drift, a definite refusal of everything secondhand and simulacral even if it should form the very sky over our heads.
11. Unwritten (Natasha Bedingfield)
“Today is where your book begins”
The end as rupture and new beginning: the next page, optimistic Australian Bedingfield reminds us, is the one yet unwritten. “A beginning reaches one from far away,” ends Starred Wire, and listens for the beginning of the next book across an ocean of experience. Bedingfield: “No one else can feel it for you.” As one says in strange cities and at the end of stanzas: “What should I do next?”
Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)