(This essay was first published in Poetry Proper, Issue 3, September 2011)
“Language comes so naturally to us that it is easy to forget what a strange and miraculous gift it is,” wrote Steven Pinker at the start of Words and Rules (1999), a book presenting language as “not only a tool for communication but also a medium for wordplay and poetry and an heirloom of endless fascination”. So far, so inoffensive; but at least one word in that opening gambit, “miraculous”, signals the controversy in which such arguments often find themselves embroiled. Pinker’s most iconic book, The Language Instinct (1994), connected language acquisition to evolutionary science, arguing that the capacity to communicate in words is as genetically definitional of homo sapiens as the spider’s capacity to spin a web, and earning a laudatory jacket quotation from Richard Dawkins. Its success was a huge disappointment for those who believe Adam really did name all the animals himself. So why that word, “miraculous”? Although used here in a secular capacity, simply to marvel at the power of speech, it cannot be divorced from its religious connotations; the same could be said, indeed, of “gift”, which begs the question, “From whom?” Pinker’s choice of phrasing is perhaps mischievous, or petty, but it is far from pointless when creationism can still be taught in schools. How children learn to speak – how they raise themselves, in language, from the babbling of babyhood – is an ideologically loaded question.
Shoulder Season (Coffee House Press, 2010), the third collection from the American poet Ange Mlinko, writes itself confidently into these debates. Mlinko’s first book, Matinées (1999), demonstrated a jaunty awareness of language-as-medium that earned her many comparisons to the New York School. Her second, Starred Wire (2006), tackled modes of cultural production and curation. Fascinating as these earlier books were, their excessive verbal dexterity and propulsive, investigative force sometimes lacked focus. Shoulder Season solves this by bringing language into the foreground as the explicit subject of the poems, and, at the same time, reckoning with the challenge of parenting young children, so that the linguistic concerns of an adult poet are fused with the concerns of a new mother and the radical economies of language-exchange with young children. Paying particular attention to the poems “Squill”, “This One and That One” and “This is the Latest”, I would like to discuss the perspective Shoulder Season offers on competing models of language acquisition, as Mlinko discharges her poet’s responsibility not just to demonstrate but also to enlarge the “miraculous gift” of language.
Whilst working on Shoulder Season, Mlinko began to write a regular column on language for The Nation. A piece from April 2010 contrasts a neuroscientific volume on the cognitive impact of literacy (Reading in the Brain, by Stanislas Dehaene) with a book about hunting for rare words (Reading the OED, by Amman Shea), showcasing Mlinko’s characteristic impatience with utilitarian approaches to language: “There are people, in sum, who read weird things for pleasure. There are people who read, period, for pleasure. This sense of reading as excess, as perversity, or sheer epicureanism is left unaccounted for in Reading in the Brain.” Books that merely use language, like a whip or a spoon, or which fail to take into consideration those readers who are motivated by “the weird, obsolete or eccentric among us”, are of limited interest to Mlinko. It is the surprises in Dehaene’s book that really capture her imagination, like the news that the three bones of our middle ear are left over, in evolutionary terms, from reptilian jaws. Shoulder Season often mentions ears zeugmatically in order to remark on “the ability / to attend”: a quotation from “Tree in the Ear” regarding children’s music lessons, although Mlinko is concerned not only with the ability to attend school but to remain attentive long after graduation. As the column is keen to emphasise, language acquisition is a lifelong process:
You probably remember your early schooling in the alphabet song, letters and numbers, and handwriting practice. The process went on much longer than that: your neurons went on building a mental lexicon, compiling statistics about the prosodic and spelling patterns in your language, and coordinating the different networks that recognize meaning and sound so that they could work in close association. The granularity of this knowledge can’t be summed up easily: any language consists of untold numbers of arbitrary, infinitesimal differences. It calls on one part of the brain to, say, distinguish pair and pear, another to pair pair and couple, and another to suppress the arbitrary difference between pear and PEAR, or “pear” as it is printed here and its cursive version. And that’s just ambiguity at the level of the word.
These columns were written for a general audience, so in this case Mlinko draws no parallels with literary language; but those of us who are interested in her poetry, too, can see further implications. If meaning and sound work in close relationship for everyone, how does that affect our attitude towards poetry, which then seems to have no special claim on such a “close association”, but rather to be surfacing a system that already perfectly exists? Where does that system originate? Is Mlinko, or any poet, really invested in what Pinker calls “the principle of the arbitrary sign”, which would disbar any genuine sense of the “miraculous”? And how does she square those rather cold and clinical “arbitrary, infinitesimal differences” with the pleasurable, prodigal excesses of her “sheer epicureanism”?
Taking “arbitrary, infinitesimal differences” as a starting point, the ability to make hairline distinctions between sounds provides an aesthetic and rhetorical device throughout Shoulder Season. This is at its most conspicuously self-conscious in “Squill”, a poem about the broken nights of parenthood, which begins, “Half-asleep, I heard a pin drop.” The line seems to hang itself on a familiar figure of speech, until we remember that the figure is normally “you could have heard a pin drop”: in Mlinko’s poem, that hyperbolic eventuality has come to pass. The pin returns after a few lines, and more pressure is applied to the image:
At the far end of the hall, behind a door,
I heard a pin drop. In another room
on the unpolyurethaned wooden floor
where gaps were growing between slats –
I could distinguish the sound from
that of a screw. I knew it from a thumbtack.
What was that dream
the brain candy cottoned to, the flight
from a battalion, a mane slipping my grip
– as my ear divined a button’s bakelite
from a Lego…
The mother is half-consciously trying to decide whether to be alarmed by the noise she hears or not. Different objects are invoked and told apart from one another – a pin, a screw, a thumbtack, a bakelite button, a Lego brick – and the methods by which the narrator tells them apart are equally various: she “heard”, “distinguish[ed]”, “knew”, “divined”. In this manner, the poem yokes the supercharged sensory experience of the anxious parent to the linguistic facility of the poet, sliding from sound to sound, apprehension to apprehension, picking them apart with hallucinatory precision. It is not coincidental that the poem rhymes: the half-twists and consonant-shifts of the rhyme-words reproduce in us the same absolute alertness to tiny distinctions between sounds that the speaker is experiencing as she listens to the pin and then its successors drop. This is something Mlinko may have learned, in part, from Muldoon; certainly the use of a small noise to unleash a huge amount of imaginative work finds several precedents with him, noticeably in Horse Latitudes (2006), as “Tithonus” ties “the day-old cheep of a smoke detector on the blink” to “the two-thousand-year-old chirrup / of a grasshopper” by way of an improbable family history; or “It Is What It Is”, where the playthings of a child – like the Lego in “Squill” – launch a parent’s flight of fancy.
Shoulder Season is saturated with parental anxiety, and as a result the poems display an almost hyperactive awareness that sees, hears and feels intimations of danger at every turn. The cheap ubiquity of high-speed travel, for instance, gives rise to poems like “Penny Squasher”, which shows vulnerable children in the back seat of a car “whooshed through the nickelodeon lights // of the turnpike”. The violence of the old-fashioned penny squasher (or penny smasher) of the title, a machine which would elongate pennies and emboss them with new designs as souvenirs, is conjured up by the speaker in response to a rather innocent “anamorphic octagon” of light thrown across the wall at a service station. The poem ends, with relief, “Boys asleep, unharmed, in car seat, in carrycot.” In “Thalassotherapy”, Mlinko combines nonsense refrains with what would appear to be a radical updating of Larkin’s “The Explosion”, the result of which is entirely her own – a strange and moving piece that navigates nimbly between childlike delight in word-play (it begins “Envying binges / of unbandaged waves”) and the urgency of protecting the fragile brain-matter that makes such enjoyment possible. The poem ends, “The life jackets made / of the same foam / as the bicycle helmet – / que’est-ce que c’est – cracked in two / in your hands. / What remains of the butter-and-eggs.”
This specific anxiety dovetails with the book’s more general apprehension of a world dangerously in thrall to the idea of danger. We read of a human being designated ““the single point of failure” / in a system that generates 160 million / thanks to his proprietary algorithms” – the algorithm being, in a sense, the grammar of computing. In a society obsessed with information security, even domestic chores become occasions for paranoia: “Someone’s taking the recycling out with frozen hands / when the difficult wind chooses then / to explode its data all over the streets of Peekskill”. Post-crunch, bonds and “securities” are relentlessly ironised, securing nobody but the provider, as “Someone uses your mortgage / to leverage / something / far inside the starbursts of a server.” A woman sits up sleepless, “cocked” like a gun in her own bed, as “Earth looms like a rock / outside the window threatening fissure / from a petaled 9M133 Kornet.” But this feeling of powerlessness in the face of systems and forces so much larger and more inevitable than the individual will also makes for exhilarating poetry, as Mlinko and her reader surrender to the unfathomable complexity, intelligence and redundancy of a language evolving at high speed to keep pace with the world it has to describe. In evolutionary terms, our sense-skills are always ahead of our language-skills. Poetry – Mlinko’s poetry, at least – simply tries harder to keep up. Does the feeling of gorgeous inevitability in Mlinko’s work come from its acquiescence to the sublimated patterns of English, or from an active engagement with, and manipulation of, those patterns? This is a false dichotomy, we learn: her poems show that intelligent language never simply speaks “through” us, but demands the application of intelligence in return, in a mutually-invigorating loop.
This loop reflects Mlinko’s more prosodic views on language, particularly her attitude towards the theories of acquisition proposed by Pinker. In an interview with Jordan Davis for Molossus in 2010, she said, “I am such a hopeless Byzantine that I almost believe, contra Steven Pinker, that language structures genetically shape the brain. You see the epicanthal folds in my Americanized family, so why not in our language?” Epicanthal folds are the heavy eyelids obscuring the inner corner of the eye in peoples of Asiatic descent, including those from the Urals. Mlinko’s family came to the United States from Hungary, and here she makes a comparison between their persistently Uralic facial features and the imagined persistence of Uralic predispositions in their speech. Although she presents this position as “contra” Pinker, insofar as it suggests that the brain’s genetic make-up is modified by developments in language, rather than simply producing the “language instinct” itself, she only “almost” believes it, leaving us with a residual sense of sympathy for Pinker’s work. Nevertheless, it is a mark of her investment in this issue that she cannot simply repeat Pinker’s argument, but must add nuances of her own. It is at a similarly qualified idea that “Squill” eventually arrives, first picturing the squill of the title, “the smallest simplest flower in the cold”, growing inside the “mirroring labyrinths” of the speaker’s ears where it acts as a sensory organ, and then suggesting that the squill may be both receiver and transmitter: “First flower of the year, Easterish / and yet it could be a bold / spy device, an earpiece.” Is there something, she asks, embedded in my ear, like that lost reptilian jaw, suggesting certain strategies to me? The poem concludes with a passage that presents the idea of a genetic predisposition to Uralic formulations in the same wishful, uncertain way Mlinko uses in interview, with an added sense of exile:
And though you say it is right
than no one descended from Uralic
pre-determining the cast of thought until
badly retrofitted in English,
I could not see this Siberian squill,
this earpiece, Easterish,
and not think of the cells of a language
in my sleep, growing out of the frost,
assembled from history, a burned bridge,
as the first division, from which I was lost.
The idea of a foreign object embedded in the ear, and its connection both to language and to divine or genetic dictation, inevitably calls to mind Rilke’s famous “hoher Baum in Ohr”. As we may remember, Mlinko herself makes this reference explicit with the title of “Tree in the Ear”, and the poem’s memory of a park “Where I had strolled with my son /for the first three years of his life, / but which he no longer remembered, / for that cherub no longer existed. / O hoher Baum in Ohr!” Mlinko’s review of Edward Snow’s new collected translations of Rilke (2009) opens with a discussion of Caedmon’s hymn, written by Caedmon in the 7th century after a dream in which an angel commanded him to “Sing the beginning of the animals!”, as divine dictation; Rilke tackles the same story in his Sonnets to Orpheus, and Mlinko uses the two poets’ approaches as staging-posts in poetry’s journey from inspiration to “orphic radio”, of which her own “earpiece” image is an example.
As if to further examine how that “first division”, and the “cherub” her son used to be, are “lost”, “Squill” is followed and faced in Shoulder Season by a poem called “This One and That One”, which anatomises the language-relationship between mother and child at three different stages of development. The deictic title draws attention to how we indicate different objects and their closeness to our own sphere of influence: “this” is close to me; “that” is further away. The poet Rachel Blau DuPlessis has written, “Deixis in linguistics is a particular category of words: the shifters, precisely those that change in reference given the position in time and space of the speaker. They are words that can only be fully understood as particular statement about particular contexts; they point into this situation, Now” (Jacket, 2008). Deictic words are intrinsic to language acquisition as a stand-in for missing nouns: children soon learn to ask “What’s that?” as a way of requesting names for what they see, or to tell people what “this” is as a way of confirming their knowledge. Deixis also enacts the separation of the child from the mother, as the child must account for the “this” of itself being different to the “that” of its mother’s body. Mlinko constructs her poem in three brief numbered sections. Here is the first:
She swears she saw, in this one’s crib last night, that phosphorescence
that portends horns of a kind, fabulous appendages
when he proceeded to speak in ancestral gibberish.
The poem is playing with tropes of prodigality. One the one hand, the child in the crib, or manger, overhung by a shining light that announces his birth and/or has a kind of halo-presence, puts us in mind of Christ; on the other hand, the “horns” make us think of the devil incarnate. The “ancestral gibberish” recalls speaking in tongues, which comes either from possession by the Holy Spirit or possession by a demon. Moses was often depicted with horns in medieval and Renaissance art, a trend widely but not exclusively attributed to the Vulgate’s mistranslation of the Hebrew qeren as “horns” instead of “rays of light” in the Exodus description of Moses descending from Mount Sinai after his communion with God (see Mellinkoff’s The Horned Moses, 1970). Famously, the baby Moses was also floated downstream in a rush-basket, a rudimentary crib, to be adopted by the Egyptian royal family because his mother feared for his life. Mlinko invokes both the horns and the rays of light (as “phosphorescence”) to suggest the onset of “the word”: the onset of language.
Those “fabulous appendages” are words, and everything words bring. To “append” means to attach something after the fact; it is a word associated with words, with writing. Language’s arrival lags behind the arrival of the child. At the same time, “appendages” are physiological – limbs, fingers, and so on – which returns us to a biological origin for speech, and to the idea of speech resulting in biological changes to the body, in this case the horns Moses acquires. The “fabulous” nature of these linguistic appendages is another manifestation of the lingering sense of the “miraculousness” of language that Pinker was unable to resist.
“Prodigal” gives rise to “prodigy” and “prodigious”, all but divorced from their biblical root, now, and taken to mean someone who demonstrates, at a young age, exceptional facilities or talents, or to describe the production of exceptional amounts of work. In this sense, we can see “prodigal” linking back to those ideas of excellence and excess that Mlinko was so keen to foreground in The Nation. Her preceding column, in March 2010, offered The Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary as an occasion for “thinking about the difference between superfluity and bounty”. What a prodigy gives us is bountiful; anyone else’s virtuosity or over-production is simply superfluous. This is a huge challenge for any poet, vulnerable as they are to accusations of frivolity or uselessness. Some try to hide this with a semblance of utility; others, like Mlinko, make an open secret of it, and a virtue of their own virtuosity. As she said in the Davis interview, “I love shows of brilliance and virtuosity. I don’t share the American prejudice for modesty in poems, but I do believe in a sense of proportion and elegance, things which give meaning to the idea of virtuosity, I guess.”
Mlinko’s word-play in “This One and That One” is one example of how to “give meaning to the idea of virtuosity.” A crib is not just a child’s cot, it is also a literal translation, or a handy guide to something much more complex than itself. The language of children, and the language mothers use with their children, can be seen as a crib rather than a text; and language is a crib for experience, a way of making it more easily understood. If we look at the sound-patterning here, we can how see the “ib” of “crib” is picked up by “gibberish”, and the “p” and “end” of “portends” and the soft “g” of “gibberish” by “appendages”. We can hear “phosphorescence” recur in “ancestral”. These patterns give the lines a feeling of inevitability, of portentousness, as we hear a sound occur and recur; but each recurrence is a reformulation, undermining the familiarity even as it appears. Likewise the sophistication of the patterning is undermined by words like “gibberish”, which alert us to the many nonsensical aspects of poetry, and to language’s origin in the gibbering of simian antecedents.
This prodigious, paranomasiac virtuosity is openly admitted to the argument of the poem in the second section, where we learn how “that one”, an older child, has discovered the joys of rhyming “things that click”: he plays with words, and make nonsensical connections based on sound and satisfaction alone, an obvious parallel to the satisfaction taken by a poet. The nebulous “she” has now become “his mother”, and with this separation her anxiety has grown from a wondrous fear of the supernatural into a rational fear of her son’s potential to damage himself or others, as the uncontrollable rhyming makes her “dream of switches on safetys simultaneously flipped.” Finally, in the third section, the mother’s attention turns to her own speech:
She swears she hears, in her own mamanaise, thoniers on a fishing-boat
haul in seine nets full of langoustines; cats enceinte in hyacinth;
tongues evolved to cleanse them of the telltale smell of meat,
the smell of meat on cubs, telltale bas-cuisine.
“Mamanaise” is the simplified language adults use with babies. “Thonier” means “tuna-fisherman”. A “seine net” is a long, flat fishing net used to enclose schools of fish, like a fence. The noun “enceinte” refers to the enclosed inner wall of a fortification; the adjective means “pregnant”. “Bas-cuisine” is cheap local food, or cheap, tough cuts of meat. Those “tongues evolved”, then, are literally the rough tongues of cats, but we also use “tongue” as a synonym for language, as in “mother tongue”, or a synonym for babble, as in “speaking in tongues”. Mlinko is reasserting the idea of a buried or nascent linguistic tradition, not Uralic this time, but French: for English speakers, a smattering of French is a sign of linguistic prestige. There is a deictic pun lurking behind all this: “who’s she, the cat’s mother?”, we say, when telling children off for a disrespectful address (there is also, I think, a joke about tuna mayonnaise). In this case, the speaker is positively identifying herself with a cat’s mother, cleaning her offspring of the “telltale smell of meat” – their primal, speechless animalism – with her own developed tongue. In the final line, this comparison slips gears into social commentary, reminding us that language can be developed not only to communicate one’s origins but to conceal them. The repeated “telltale”, here meaning “giveaway”, but derived from “telling a tale”, alerts us to the ways in which language allows us to “tell tales” about ourselves, including biblical tales, which conceal how we too were once là-bas: as Mlinko puts it, again using French to signal her own distance from infantile speech, “O because one is never là-bas for long, / holding an infant is like going to Paris” (“Rocamadour”).
Mlinko’s attention to the connective deictic ligaments of language also puts us in mind of Muldoon, “This One and That One” riffing off Muldoonian titles like the aforementioned “It Is What It Is”; and we notice, too, in those “seine nets full of langoustines” a version of Muldoon’s “a fishing boat / complete with languorous net” from “Paul Klee: They’re Biting”, a poem which also contains “goitred, / spiny fish-caricatures”, and reassures us, “At any moment all this should connect.” Connection definitively occurs in the subsequent poem from Meeting the British (1987), the well-known “Something Else”, in which the sight of a lobster being lifted from a tank activates a long chain of associations, from “how Nerval / was given to promenade / a lobster on a gossamer thread” to Nerval’s eventual suicide, as the poem concludes:
he hanged himself from a lamp-post
with a length of chain, which made me think
of something else, then something else again.
The final poem of Mlinko’s that I would like to consider here, “This is the Latest”, extends this double-jointed use of the crustacean as a vehicle for exploring the connections between words; and it is in this poem that the loaded tensions between evolution and creation that bubble away throughout the book are brought most clearly to the surface.
“This is the Latest” takes place on Christmas Eve. In the first section, the speaker settles a sacrificial lobster in the bath tub, where it will remain until it is time for it to be cooked. The poem is again divided into three sections, each spaced into two columns on the page, and this vertical and horizontal segmentation mimics the segmentation of the lobster’s shell, which is itself identified with other joints and plates in the poem:
Wrapping an oversized box ….. (coffee maker)
can’t find a swathe ………………. of paper
big enough ………………………… Start to cobble bits together
with tape (ah― …………………… chitinous)
Chitin is the primary material from which the exoskeletons of arthropods are formed. The attention paid to the structure of the exoskeleton (segmented, chitinous, with a “gooseflesh” appearance) and its mirroring in the structure of the poem reminds us again of the “Uralic language structures” that Mlinko considers in “Squill”, the skeleton of a language, if you like, which is innate to speakers of Uralic descent, moving outwards from within. The lobster appeals as an image because of this inverted relationship; and it appeals because its structure is so clearly visible, so publicly apparent. Its tail, its claws, its feelers, are all “fabulous appendages”. In Mlinko’s imagination, this kind of visible and segmented structure is linked not only to language but to language acquisition, as the depiction of “kindergarten’s disjointed tidbits” (“Pandas eat bamboo. Koalas eat eucalyptus”) against the backdrop of a bamboo screen’s “living, jointed segments” in “For All the World” makes clear. Increased sophistication means the increased ability to conjoin disjointed facts: to make the words link up. Muldoon himself, an incorrigible joiner-upper, one often given to nomenclative readings, might well make something of Mlinko’s name containing the words “link” – as in connection, as in joint, as in “the missing link” – and “ange” (Fr.) or “angel”. Indeed, Mlinko might do the same: when asked to free-associate on “language” by Jordan Davis, she replied, “It has angle and gauge in it, which are instruments for measuring; it has gag in it for fun; it has egg in it for possibility; angel which means “messenger” and Ange, for talisman.”
Wrapping a gift for Christmas brings us full circle back to Pinker’s “miraculous gift” of language: the coffee maker wrapped in paper, the lobster wrapped in chitin, the gifts brought to Christ, and the gift of Christ himself. To make this explicit, “This is the Latest” navigates from the bathroom to the kitchen, where the lobster’s final destination, an extravagant fish soup, is being prepared:
…the broth ……………………… of something Provençal
sings from the pot …………….. a little tomatoey
a little stigma (not stamen) …. of Crocus Sativus
under the Star of ………………. Bethlehem
Sensitised as we are to Mlinko’s linking of language and cuisine, her appetite for “sheer epicureanism”, and the foodie words and concepts that populate not only poems that obviously treat language acquisition (the bas-cuisine of “This One and That One”) but other poems whose delight in words is matched by their delight in eating – “Gourmandizing”, about a fancy organic restaurant, or “Gallimaufry”, about cooking for friends – we understand that this bouillabaisse is a way of exploring speech, and in particular a way of drawing together the competing attitudes towards language on display throughout the book. What we might not be prepared for, however, is the cosmic scale of the treatment: after two sections of cosy domesticity, the poem suddenly zooms out into space:
If the universe is ………………. ―this is the latest―
bouncing between …………….. inflation
and shrinkage ………………….. as if on a trillion-year
pendulum ……………………….. why wouldn’t
an infant’s sobbing ……………. on the exhale
have a prosody ………………… as on the inhale
it has the chemistry ………….. of tears and seas
or our bouillabaisse, …………. indeed,
a primal soup contain ………… ―besides babbling
and nonspeech ………………… and raspberries―
in the briny speech stream …. a scuttling underwriter?
On a literal level, that “scuttling underwriter” is the lobster, its carapace clicking against the pan, its body giving “body” to the soup and providing a foundational flavour upon which subtler notes can be built. Metaphorically, however, the “scuttling underwriter”, underwriting the poem as it does on its own line, returns us once again to the tantalising idea that there may be some kind of definite origin for the “primal soup” of speech. The fact that the poem takes place on Christmas Eve raises the possibility that this origin may be divine as much as ancestral, even as that image of the lobster “scuttling” along the base of the pan puts us in mind of aquatic origins, and of the “primordial soup” theory proposed by J. B. S. Haldane; and we think again of the isolated line underwriting “Something Else”. In “This is the Latest”, the arguments and counter-arguments of creation and evolution, nature and nurture, exist not as hard antitheticals but as “ingredients” held in suspension together: that “briny speech stream” contains them all, the angel and the egg, the gag and the gauge.
I would like to conclude with the idea that, as the vertiginous complexity of this poem’s final sentence might suggest, navigating the “speech stream” of Mlinko’s work is itself an act of language acquisition. We are regaled with “the weird, obsolete or eccentric” vocabularies and constructions she so thoroughly enjoys, linguistic resources that are themselves imperilled; we learn to wield the latest additions to the global English lexicon; and we are invited to view language as evolution-in-progress, participating as active readers in her virtuoso displays. If in our ordinary lives, as Dehaene has suggested, we “suppress” some of the differences between words, do poets ask us to de-suppress, to let ourselves be sensitised to every last distinction, and overload our circuits with a “granularity” of information they are not quite fit to handle? What does that do to those circuits? Does it perhaps enlarge them? The resounding answer Shoulder Season provides is: yes.