Saturday, August 2, 2008

Elegy, by Mary Jo Bang

This volume is composed almost entirely of laments over the death of the author's son, so commentary seems almost unavoidably callous, but the poetry itself is so direct—more confrontational than confessional, buttonholing as much as soul-baring—that I think a few words are not out of line.

Bang's lyricism, when she employs it, maintains a singularly high level—it is not a common poet who can craft these lines:
The small war of the heart made bigger
by far in the world.
And daylight a gift.

Small cog after cog slips into the hour
And razor thin minute slot without stop.
And daylight a gift tied with some tinsel.
Yet this is just the latter half of a poem ("The Cruel Wheel Turns Twice"), possibly the loveliest in the book. The first half is marred by a handful of touches—random nominal capitalizations, an ostentatious and obvious line break between the syllables of "endless") which seem more willed than required—as if Bang tried them out in the course of composition but did not consider their relevance to the poem or its meaning. In fact, the entire work seems untouched by second thought, a state which revives the question of how much arranging, how much revision is appropriate for expressions of pure grief.

Clearly, very powerful work can come from the undiluted encounter with grief. But the question is not so much whether anything aesthetically good can come of grief, but whether things that are aesthetically modest should be retained because they are connected to the living tissue of the emotions which produced the good things. Grief, perhaps alone of our emotions, is often treated holistically when it is rendered artistically, as if it is a whole and seamless cloth which drapes the subject and which cannot be tailored.

Bang's poems often stretch to the very bottom of the page; many spill over onto the next. I have nothing against poems of any length, but it seems as if she meant to write pungently, to capture sharp impressions, pangs of sadness, rather than the persistence of depression. And it is not that she kept writing after what she meant to say, that her poems fall off as she tries to hold on to her subject through the act of writing; rather, the weakness of the poems' beginnings suggest that she simply had trouble fitting her emotions into words—an understandable situation, certainly.

Elegy is also heavy with repetition—of images, of phrases, of ideas. Again, this digs to the heart of some very important questions about the work of mourning, particularly as it is undertaken artistically. Bang has a very beautiful line early on in the book: "This is life's bargain that motion / Is hope." The unexpected length of the first line and the absence of a comma between "bargain" and "that" retraces the meaning of the phrase, quickening the pulse of the poem to a point that is slightly off-balance, as the sentence is off-balance absent the comma. The repetition that features so heavily in the book, however, undermines the equation of motion and hope, for Bang's repetitions do not accrete new meanings as they iterate, but compress them, taking slightly different images or usages and superimposing them forcefully. Boxes, for instance, repeat in many different forms, but they become, in each instance, the same box—a box of ashes. This is a use of metaphor, rather than a use of something to make a metaphor. Or as Bang acknowledges, "Thoughts / Washed against a reef, as if metaphor / Would make it less real."

Mourning and grief balance uneasily between the need for motion away from loss—to "move on"—and the compulsion to repeat, to revisit, to reënact. Art that begins as a sublimation or an expression of grief merely duplicates this tension, but in its highest form, it negotiates a stable settlement, as Milton's "Lycidas" makes clear. Beginning with the words "Yet once more," it culminates in a couplet marking a sincere closure: "At last he rose, and twitch'd his Mantle blew: / To morrow to fresh Woods, and Pastures new."

The word "new" is, I think, a straightforward word for Milton; it is a synonym for "fresh," indicating that ground has been passed over which will not be traveled upon again, and that the ground which lies beyond is in some ways unconnected to that which has been traveled. Yet the spatial motion forward is in some conflict with the temporal motion of the daily cycle renewing itself—"To morrow." This division—temporal repetition, spatial progress—may be a common settlement for the work of mourning, though its inverse may be just as common, or more so.

Bang's book, on the other hand, treats space and time very differently and not, I think, productively in the end. Space is circular—the repeating wheels make that clear—and enclosed—the many boxes aforementioned. Time is definitively stopped or retraced, but retraced in a hydraulic, see-saw manner—the poet jumps back to an isolated moment in memory, then returns immediately to the atemporal moment of the poem. This binary temporality asks the reader to relinquish depth on behalf of directness, a trade which works occasionally. To some degree, Bang acknowledges the poverty of this treatment of time: in "She Remembers His Hat," she writes "The quality of time is 'poor.' / An abstraction that dissolves / Of its own accord. / There is no language // Unique to time. Devoted. Addicted. / The claustrophobic 'because.'" Time doesn't, unfortunately, dissolve of its own accord; Bang ignores it, and she decides not to create a language for the time she ignores.

Bang addresses the form of elegy and its cultural significance and constraints in a poem called, straightforwardly, "The Role of Elegy," a poem which dramatizes the problems I find with the book as a whole.

The role of elegy is
To put a death mask on tragedy,
A drape on the mirror.
To bow to the cultural

Debate over the aestheticization of sorrow,
Of loss, of the unbearable
Afterimage of the once material.
To look for an imagined

Consolidation of grief
So we can all be finished
Once and for all and genuinely shut up
The cabinet of genuine particulars.

Instead there's the endless refrain
One hears replayed repeatedly
Through the just ajar door:
Some terrible mistake has been made.

What is elegy but the attempt
To rebreathe life
Into what the gone one once was
Before he grew to enormity.

Come on stage and be yourself,
The elegist says to the dead. Show them
Now—after the fact—
What you were meant to be:

The performer of a live song.
A shoe. Now bow.
What is left but this:
The compulsion to tell.

The transient distraction of ink on cloth
One scrubbed and scrubbed
But couldn't make less.
Not then, not soon.

Each day, a new caption on the cartoon
Ending that simply cannot be.
One hears repeatedly, the role of elegy is.

I find this disappointingly disorganized and contradictory. I understand that the poem is meant to deploy (and perhaps decry) the mutability of the elegy form, that it is or has been so many things, many of them contradictory. So my disappointment in the poem does not derive from the fact that it collects these contradictory things, but that it does not organize them into a structure which dramatizes the contradictions, or that does so with any success.

Masks and drapes, for instance, seem to be called forth together to activate the notion of elegy as a way of covering over grief at its most raw, but the poem seems to be indifferent to the way these two things differ—a drape merely obscures, while a mask substitutes one image for another. The rest of the poem seems to give up on even this level of organization: we have afterimages, consolidations, refrains, rebreathings, stages, shoes (?), stains, cartoons.

Bang's work is quite often excellent, and many of her formulations stand alone with an awesome power: "The rudderless language of everyday life." "The congress of humorless solutions." Or, at greater length,
You are in the zebra crossing,
Moving into the tornado green morning,
The shabby irradiation
Of sunlight seen through the hint
Of rain about to be.
(Actually, that whole poem is great—you can read the whole thing here.)

However, the elegy form demands things that I don't think Bang intended to put into her poems—discrete notions of time and space and a high level of organization. And I am not sure that Bang sees her work as an expansion of the possibilities of the form; although she fights against its conventions, she does not seem committed to providing a coherent alternative to them. This is not a damning thing, but it does sustain a pervasive awkwardness which has little to do with the emotions the poems intend to describe or evoke.

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