This work is an arabesque stroll through the gardens, orchards, wild growths, shores, and splendid ruins of the English language. It’s a love letter to the history of poetry in our language — a love letter apparently lost in transit, its contents recited by heart to anyone willing to listen by someone who had found it and, not knowing its destination, still felt moved to sing of the joy found in those pages.
Of course, we learn as children that these types of transmissions lose things in transit: “love” may become “live”; “blew” may become “blue”; or, as in the case of Mlinko’s poem “Bayt,” “ana” as the Anglo-Saxon word for “alone” can become the Arabic word for “I”: “But ana [“alone”/“I”] do not grieve”; “And ana [“alone”/“I”] have drawn / the wilderness around me,” etc.
“Bayt” braids the two aforementioned traditions — the Anglo-Saxon and the Arabic — via subject and form. The poem evokes in its three subtitled sections the pre-Islamic era poets Abu Aqil Labīd ibn Rabī’ah (or simply “Labīd,” whose work has been preserved in the Mu’allaqat) and al-Shanfara. Meanwhile, each line carries a heavy visual split in it, representing the distich-making effect caused by alliteration in Anglo-Saxon poetry. Add to this that the poem is peppered with Anglo-Saxon words and you end up with moments such as:
“On leftovers ana breakfast like the spleenish wulf the wéstenes chase.
He sets out hungry, nose in the wind, up the wulfhleoþu.”
There is a glossary at the conclusion of the poem to glean the words in italics: “ana” has been mentioned above, “wulf” means “wolf,” “wéstenes” is said to be the plural of “desert” or another highly-loaded word in the history of poetry in English, “wasteland.” It hardly needs saying that this is an entirely different poem without the glossary at the end of it; or that some of the definitions offered should be taken with a grain of salt — like the aforementioned “wasteland.” All of this is a part of poetry’s play, as is the pastiche of forms and cultures and the formal signifying.
In short, provided you love how poems can sound and have a simultaneous abiding interest in the history of the lyric you’ll likely have a sense of what Mlinko is up to, which is nothing short of searching for a cup capacious enough to hold as much poetry in a given moment as it can. It is my hope that all readers of poetry are interested in how poems can sound and in the history of the lyric. Mlinko is seeking to meet us there, although very much on her own terms.