Thursday, September 04, 2008

MARY JO BANG—ELEGY



My first question about Mary Jo Bang’s Elegy is whether it represents grief as obsession or obsessive grief. The persistent attention that Bang pays to her subject—the death of a child, a son— is impressive, but after a while I started to wonder if it wasn’t a little macabre. All that energy that was expended by Bang to recreate the son image by image, memory by memory was undoubtedly a tender and thoughtful effort on her part, but it also felt a little bit like entering Borges’s “The Circular Ruins” with the dreamed image slowly being dreamed until it came alive. Very otherworldly.

I can imagine some readers being put off by the obliqueness of the speaker in Bang’s Elegy. After all, we are very rarely put in touch with a straightforward depiction of what happens. The reader pieces together most of the details of the situation from the glancing blows the speaker deals to its subject in poem after poem.

With this technique of erosion, Bang seems to be commenting on the slow dissipation of grief over time, how if one befriends it and doesn’t fight it, then it becomes a companion to while away the empty hours. This is an interesting notion; however, I can’t say that my brief episodes with grief have worked that way. The loss presses itself very urgently in the moments directly afterwards. Then there seems to be a point of activation where the grief evaporates very quickly (often life’s other pressing matters begin to wear on the lingering grief).

Then again, I might just not be doing grief right. One of my brothers accused me of not grieving enough when my mother died.

I thought mom would probably understand my “callous” behavior.

So, for me, this lingering in grief and biting off a bit more to chew on poem after poem seemed a death by a thousand cuts. It didn’t map on to my experience. But of course, it doesn’t delegitimize Bang’s experience or even her depiction of said experience. To me this experience of another’s grief is the most fascinating part of the book. I find myself gawking at Bang’s odd emotional striptease, discarding layer after layer of memory and image.

The fairly opaque language (Bang’s poems are rarely straightforward depictions of experienced scenes) can be viewed in one of two ways. One perspective might be that Bang doesn’t allow her speaker to co-exist in the same space as its subject, the lost child. It is not experience rendered with any interest in heartfelt anecdote. It finds its subject in more of the details and the detritus. Bang’s speaker is not regaling the good times and the bad times. One might wonder how one is able to hold such stories at a distance, why one, a mother, would be reluctant to depict the relationship with the son in such way. It is suggestive of fracture, strain, disconnection.

However, another perspective onElegy might be that it is actually one of Bang’s most open and accessible texts. In earlier work she seems very wedded to verbal and language play as seen in 2000 from Jacket 12 . . . and probably a holdover from her days as editor of Boston Review. There is still a good bit of sleight of hand in Elegy and at least one reader has confided in me that the verbal play is irritating. But in Elegy the turns always lead to a further definition of the subject of the book. In previous work those turns would always take one to the far ends of the universe. The wilder turn always seemed better.

I found there to be some beautiful moments, despite the rather rambunctious Heather McHugh-inspired machinations of her language. In fact, my favorite piece in the book was one that McHugh chose for inclusion in The Best American Poetry 2007:

The Opening

1.
Open the door and look in.
Everything is in place.
The flickering heart
The owlet eyes are locked on.
A serpentine hair hangs over an ear.
A hand comes up to touch it.
A rhythmic hum runs ahead of the wave.
Someone turns her head
And hopes, no, lopes across the lawn.

2.
Open the door and look in.
The black magic cat is clawing the sofa.
The midnight lamp is loosing some light.
Someone is getting undressed.
Her pajamas are pressed
And she’s getting into a bed of flowers.
Ophelia is lying in the bog in the park,
A moment’s orphan in the afterdark.
Sing me a song, Pet, I beg of you.

3.
Open the door and look in.
The Vivian Girls are reading the books
Their countenances were cut from.
It’s like a mirror. The parent and the penguin
Child. Two men with two suitcases.
The hand mirror making its lake
Last as long as it can.
The self looking the depth
Of Wallace Stevens’ wife on the dime.

4.
Open the door and look in.
A murder, some mayhem, the night
News. A cloak on a hook in a closet.
There’s no rug on the floor and the wood
Feels warm. There may have been an arson.
Mistakenly Released Suspect Still Missing
In Dogville or Dogtown or the Down-and-out
Sorry state of things now. Listen,
Brenda Lee is singing, I’m sorry.

5.
Open the door and look in. Look
Down the page to the footnote. To the fine print.
To the FedEx box on the bedside and
The floral print jammies that are jarring
Against the previous-era paper on the wall.
Some ice-cream topper Jimmies
To top off the night. Red Yellow Blue White.
The deer-leg lamp, says Jessica, really does work
And with that, she twirls the shade like a top.

6.
Open the door and look in.
A pin under the bed.
A dust layer on the desk top.
The minutia and the microbe, the fear of failing
To ward off the inevitable, It will be done.
Whatever the It is. The static of darkness,
The dissolve of the moment.
The mouse crawls out of its house,
Remembers where it last ate a grub.

7.
Open the door, Mother, and look in.
The babies in their boxes are sleeping like beetles
In ladybug red, each with a Santa hat.
They’re all at the border of risk,
All about to vanish into the past
Of the unvarnished after.
A longer word for gone. Girl.
Boy. Girl. Boy. Girl. Boy.
If we turn out the lights, they will keep.

8.
Open the door and look in.
In her pajamas, she looks thin.
Pale skin, short nails, hail on the rooftop
And window glass. January is ant dark
Every morning and early in the late afternoon.
With a gloom aspect like a seascape
That was smoke damaged above a fire grate.
The wrapped-mummy mood mutes
The emo that spins like a Catherine Wheel.

9.
Open the door and look back.
Over your shoulder. A peach-cheek
Love bird on a cage roost
Is swinging back and forth.
He’s nature, but he also seems nervous.
The traffic din music comes floating in.
He’s nature, but he also seems nervous.
Sing us a song, Pet, and he does. He sings of arson
In Alexandria, of Helen of Tragic of Troy.


Despite urging the reader to play at Peeping Tom, to check in on the room where the one who is lost had stayed and has now been replaced by a woman in floral print jammies, this somewhat transgressive act of voyeurism feels permissible. Bang allows her speaker to comment on Bang’s own(?) condition as the woman in the floral print jammies, the mother whose meditations on the vicissitudes of human personality have her (also) peering in on the child shortly after it is born where it is poised at the border of risk (in so many more ways than one).

The risk that is alluded to throughout the book is the aggressively aberrant behavior (with respect to drug addiction and anti-social behavior) of the son (presumably that of 37-year-old-at-the-time-of-passing Michael Donner Van Hook — to whom the book is dedicated) that is hinted at by Bang.

One is never transported into a full-on account of the details of the son’s demise, and it is curious to me to see how Bang chooses the details around the life, the detritus of a life to stand in for that drama. You can tell she doesn’t write for television. If the same subject matter were touched on by television scriptwriters, we’d have action, action, action, followed by drama, drama, drama. I suppose this is what happens when you put twenty-somethings in charge of the depiction of tragedy.

Thankfully, Bang is much more seasoned and given to repose— a luxury these days, I guess.

Her discipline to the subject of her grief is the most fascinating aspect of the book for me. With the months as our tour guides, Bang takes the reader on a journey through her grief, quietly dipping into the past days and memories of the son, taking up just enough detail to sustain her for the next ritual grieving. I kept asking myself whether this masochism was necessary. Finally, I concluded that for Bang it was. For me, probably not.

However, Bang also labors to make these poetic reflections [part oddly-turned phrase, part peculiarly-enjambed line, part alliteration-and-rhyme casserole) a work of art. This is a difficult task. One can appear to be exploitative. Yet as sensitively-attuned as I am to the gimmick or the crutch that one’s artistic efforts can be pinned to, I didn’t find those notions creeping into my head. Bang’s pain and care of attention were palpable, not an affectation in service of “art.” [Of course, I’m easily fooled by Hollywood films into thinking that what I’m seeing is genuine.] Yet, the sheer scope of the project seems to favor an interpretation of Bang’s efforts as lovingly rendered, not exploitative. The book’s theme at that point appears to be dedication, devotion . . . without doting, a difficult line to straddle, especially for a mother.

In “A Sonata for Four Hands” that initiates us into this grief space, Bang longs for the face in the photograph, then at the end juxtaposes it against the ornamentation on the morgue door. The two are synonymous. That kind of quirky association permeates Elegy and Bang’s work in general. In a sense it is, I hope, one of the things we come to poetry for, for the singular associations that a poet can bring to bear, the equivalences between the plethora of objects in a world of things. Is that beauty too? It just might be, Dorothy. It just might be. Or at least one of its distant cousins.

For those readers who might wish to have a poem’s subject more clearly delineated, Bang will seem a tad bit jittery (to crib from Tony Hoagland), and as a result, I suspect, such a reader will find such “jittery grief” off-putting. Or is it enlivening? Is Bang’s mind alive in her grief? Should we expect a more moribund treatment of the subject, a mind that stays within the parameters of just the subject, without diversion? What kind of grief would that be? What kind of voyeurs would we be to look in on that?

In “Where Once” the dead son is invoked but is immediately placed back in the world. Very often Bang employs this technique to animate the dead. It is the dead “as if”. Such a move on her part signals to me a great sense of personal regret for things turning out the way they have. Bang walks right up to the edge of accepting responsibility for fate, which, if she did, might signal a particularly unproductive space to dwell in. But I find this undercurrent of unnamed self-blame to be acutely present at certain times in the book. One almost wishes to console the speaker except for the speaker’s equally vehement resistance to being a sink for consolation.

That Bang can measure and balance these tensions consistently throughout the book is a testimony to her skill and experience as a poet. For many who have followed Bang’s wilder poems in the past, the tonal and technical shift in Elegy will be a curiosity. However, as one makes one’s way in the book, sees the subject matter at hand, one will understand this shift. In fact, it should deepen one’s respect for Bang as a practitioner. Her more obvious craftedness in this collection is done in deference to the emotional landscape of grief. Rightly, the extraneous and carefree diversion in much of the earlier work would seem out of place, like she is trivializing her pain too much, avoiding it for the sake of her own and her reader’s enjoyment.

There are plenty of other complications of tone and subject matter in Elegy if this more-stripped-down (in terms of the line) version of Bang displeases. As for me, I found it very interesting to see what happened when the generous line and imagination of Bang’s past work got toned down, became compressed by grief.

With still one more parent to go [not to mention two kids (heaven forbid, I should outlive them)] Bang’s Elegy gives me hope I can get it right the next time and adopt a more circumspect tone.

3 Comments:

Blogger Toast said...

"grief as obsession or obsessive grief"? Wow, jeeze, holy shit, you're a jackass. Your experience of loss differs from others? That's because you're a self-absorbed douche. It really is. No, shut up; it really is. Your inability to get anyone to read or publish your work? That's because you're a really crappy writer, and your thoughts are worthless. That's all.

Thu Jul 16, 09:22:00 AM PDT  
Anonymous Paul Photenhauer said...

In order to get the true meaning of this review, it's best read in the voice of Daffy Duck.

By the way, I half agree / half disagree with Mr. Toast. You are not really a crappy writer (come on - "emotional striptease" - that's clever!), but your thoughts are in fact worthless. Sorry, but that's just how it is.

I really can't wait until you post your much-anticipated review of my cookbook, Natural Harvest - A collection of semen based recipes. I'm sure that only your robust writing style could do it justice.

Your greatest admirer,
Fotie

Thu Aug 27, 09:59:00 PM PDT  
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Wed Mar 03, 12:23:00 AM PST  

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