The Bride of E
In her follow-up to the National Book Critics Circle Award–winning Elegy, Bang is up to some of her old tricks again, but the previous collection’s tour of a loss-inflected world has also taught her some new ones. The book takes the alphabet as its jumping-off point, with one or more poems titled for each letter (A Equals All of a Sudden, Beast Brutality, etc.). Here again are Bang’s quirky poetic leaps (In another corner, Freud says, Yes/ In the dark of primitive desire means yes/ Forever), but somehow they are more foreboding than before, the wild associations of a haunted mind: The note rises from something awful./ A woman in a jam. Train wreck of crumpled cars. Poems vamp on literature, fables, fairy tales, pop culture icons (like Cher) and shards of a lost childhood world. One poem rewrites Poe’s most famous work (Her name is Lenore Nevermore), while B is for Beckett sums up the Nobel laureate’s work in one line: There is so little to say. The book concludes with a short series of prose pieces that flirt with memoir. This book bridges a gap between an experimental tradition in American poetry and an older high lyric tradition. This is some of Bang’s best writing, and one of the most exciting books of the year.
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Mary Jo Bang’s remarkable elegies recall the late work of Ingeborg Bachmann—a febrile, recursive lyricism. Like Nietzsche or Plath, Bang flouts naysayers; luridly alive, she drives deep into aporia, her new, sad country. Her stanzas, sometimes spilling, sometimes severe, perform an uncanny death-song, recklessly extended—nearly to the breaking point.”
“A work of startling breadth, one that explores what is essential to all losses.”
—The Philadelphia Inquirer
“[A] powerful fifth collection . . . Writing to mourn the death of her adult son, Bang interrogates the elegiac form and demands of it more than it can give, frustrated, over and over again, with memory, which falls pitifully short of life . . . Bang offers, if not hope, a kind of keeping company, a way, however painful, to go on.”
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Bang tears asunder and reassembles the elegy, an ancient vessel, infusing it with feelings pure, piercing, and cauterizing.”
“Had the jacket not said Elegy chronicles the year following the death of her son, Bang’s book would still move you for its grace, not its real-life poignancy.”
Louise in Love
Bang, author of the prize-winning Apology for Want (1996), unveils an enrapturing series of poems about a woman named Louise; Ham, the man she’s sweet on; her sister, Lydia; Ham’s brother; and a child. Amorphous characters, they are figments born of romanticism and figures out of paintings or film, yet Louise, who is more mood and musings than body, is driven into a fugue state by desire. These sly, subtly narrative poems manage to be both languid and epigrammatic, sensual and ironic as Bang conjures a diaphanous yet edgy realm in which Louise and her companions travel by train and motorcar to mansions and mausoleums, lakes and rivers, beaches and mountains, perhaps for real, perhaps in their dreams. Bang pays tribute to Keats and Woolf in scenes of emotional and physical opulence that are underpinned by reflections on death, just as flesh covers bone. Her language is musical; her consonance consummate; and the depth and complexity of her thoughts take on different configurations with each rereading of these playful yet serious, coy yet passionate poems.
The Eye Like a Strange Balloon
Bang is an adventuresome and dynamic poet, and consequently each of her collections is distinctive and animated. Her fourth is especially commanding in its metaphysical puzzles, tart irony, antic yet adamantly channeled energy, and devil-may-care poise. The eye is a reigning image and metaphor, Alice in Wonderland a companion and muse, and the workings of the brain, the “alchemy of mind,” to use Diane Ackerman’s phrase, a subject of wry analysis. “Experience returns as memory,” the poet tells us, but personal occurrences do not occupy Bang; instead, she performs ekphrasis, the writing of an intense pictorial description of an object, usually a work of art. And Bang has chosen her inspirations well, riffing with supple imagination and spiky wit on paintings by such provocative artists as Paula Rego, Sigmar Polke, Max Ernst, and Redon Odilon, the source of the collection’s title. Although these works are the keys to Bang’s sharply intelligent and gorgeously textured poems, her fresh, exploratory, and superbly crafted work takes off on its own blazing trajectories, creating its own mental pictures.
The Downstream Extremity of the Isle of Swans
“Mary Jo Bang’s poetry is vivacious and at the same time mysterious. Its surface glitters with the sparkle that the brightest American writing has always given off, and in the depths it reveals a mixture of smoky, quirky complexities, a blend that is hers alone. Characters are driven to distress or exuberance by the fate she has prepared for them—their stories bloom on the page, ripen strangely, and quickly disappear. I love it.”
—John Tranter, editor of Jacket Magazine
Apology for Want:
Never weakened by self-pity, these are the poems of a shrewd clinician making the psychological rounds, and their feminism is the more powerful for being implicit….
—The New Yorker