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    blurry abstract photo of an empty corridor

    Two Poems

    “Scherzo” and “Cordon Sanitaire”

    By Ange Mlinko

    January 11, 2021


    Impeachment hearings displace
    the usual programming. Emissaries
    with instruments now to a provincial
    Joseph Cornell box-writ-large concert hall
    come, beguiling us with Slavic symphonies,
    the mood at once hothouse and ice palace.

    Like the diva who danced for the brigand
    on a fur laid in snow, I’m dressed up in
    sequined blue velvet – from Beirut,
    whose ateliers come and go with le gout
    du risque.
    I give the “Pathetique” a spin
    and await my entrée to its wonderland.

    In mermaid dress swans Olga Kern
    to the piano. The strong bare arms
    and shoulders that give expression to
    Tchaikovsky do so with rubato,
    as if the root word, “robbed,” warms
    to playing as to speaking out of turn.

    I get fuzzy. On larger stages, nations
    tip their hand, but with what éclat
    musicians showcase their treasure!
    which resonates with truth to measure,
    something no jargon can obfuscate –
    craft and cause are one, and stations

    itself above pettier resources.
    It is the only agape any more;
    I dress up for it, as for church,
    naturalized to onion dome and birch
    iconostasis for the length of the score,
    beyond the reach of “historical forces.”

    Now an encore of Rachmaninoff.
    The conductor, half priest, half
    lab technician, judging by his jacket,
    has in turn adjudged this racket
    to be fair – he bows even to us riffraff
    who applauded wrong, our timing off.

    Cordon Sanitaire

    Hester Prynne was a great Venetian,
    stitching those rococo masks of hers in
    – what was it, Salem? Concord? –
    arduously embroidering toward
    her eventual return to the fold . . .
    Every stitch a step, every step foretold
    by a design still hidden in things
    – or should we say masqueradings,

    as cardinals join the sewing circle,
    then bluebirds with their creamsicle
    bibs. Even the plain homespun wren
    and sparrow have masks; they warn
    me to put on my own. I try on theirs,
    they try on mine; each embroiders
    the air with its signature, shoots the breeze,
    as Hester sews another with intricacies

    like the rubrics of illuminated manuscripts,
    bindweed coiling through hearsay and tips,
    dirt and buzz. The bluebirds on the fence
    look for words, I mean worms, to mince.
    One mask is a gingham and floral rigmarole,
    another denim, another a kind of origami
    of Venetian paper, such as Hester Prynne
    would have studied for its pattern.

    I catch a glimpse of the bird-within-a-bird
    that, seen from below, is white embroidered
    on its shadow self, its own dark side
    or like its groom self basted to its bride.
    The cardinal’s note pierces the fanfare;
    he pauses in the leafage before making a pair
    with an unassuming female. Hester
    doesn’t make like a camouflaging nester:

    She’s flamboyant, x’ing out the rules
    (“on a field sable, the letter A, gules”)
    – “embroidering,” as if thereby
    remaking rule as sumptuous lie.
    I sit, a silhouette, behind the porch screen,
    trapped, while the trapezoids of green
    deepening with shade cannot withhold
    sparrows from returning to the fold.

    Now human speech is overdubbed
    by winged droplets of sky subdued
    into bluebirds. Now instead of blithe,
    they’re anxious, almost out of breath.
    Night is falling. Forced by the pinprick
    abysses in our threadbare communal fabric
    to wait for immunity at needlepoint,
    we sit behind screens, or pay the penalty.

    Hester Prynne embroiders her mask
    while singers with their jeweled-flask
    bodies make pass after pass across the borders
    peeping back at us back-porch birders.
    This cordon sanitaire between us
    is determined less by microbes than discourse.
    Masked, every cardinal’s a wild card as
    a bluebird falls for its own reflection in the glass.
    Contributed By

    Ange Mlinko is a professor, critic, and author of five books of poetry. She is the former poetry editor of the Nation, and her work has appeared in Poetry, the New Yorker, the Paris Review, and many other journals. She has won the Randall Jarrell Award in Criticism, the Frederick Bock Prize, and a Guggenheim Fellowship.

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