Poetry Review: ‘A Film in Which I Play Everyone,’ by Mary Jo Bang

That stanza is crowded with rhymes, and this book often feels crowded, like certain scenes in “The Wizard of Oz” (the film of this book would have long credits) or like “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” by Hieronymus Bosch — crowded with selves (“I’m a version of a self”) and with others, mini memory people. (And clowns, and a lion, and the Minotaur.) They’re all shrunk to fit, like “the therapist” who “lives now/inside a synapse.” (Poets tend to have favorite words that they somewhat lay claim to. I associate the word “brain” with Emily Dickinson, “jilted” and “brute” with Sylvia Plath. “Synapse” is a Bang word.) And shrinking the self, or selves, hurts — cuteness hurts: “A pain/the size of a toy dog left on a rowboat/adrift in a mist.”

These poems are full of pleasure, color, sound and light — but also torment, as if the speaker had to watch, that is, relive, these scenes, involuntarily and indefinitely. This is a kind of hell, this spectacle — a circuslike inferno. “I put away one/moment and up comes another.” In one poem, Bang alludes to Dante’s Francesca: “She knew how nice/a tormenter looks when buried in ice.” But no, the end is definite, which is part of the torment. This speaker is highly aware of the end, the end of cognition as the end of everything: “the absolute fracture/that death represents”; “the world will die when we die.”

Bang has another signature move, which involves using part of the first line as a title, or extending the title to form the first line — no way of knowing which came first. For example, the first line of “Staying Is a Form of Haunting” is, in full, “Staying is a form of haunting wherever you are.” The first couplet in “Eyes Open, I Process the Data”: “Eyes open, I process the data and in time/become aware of the way it all works: the corruption.” And “One Could Say the Train Is Resting” begins: “One could say the train is resting when it’s stopped/in the middle of the tracks, the passengers waiting/for the lulling sentiment of forward motion.” In each of these cases, the title can be read as a complete thought, but the poem extends the thought; the thought continues. In this way, the title stands in for something longer, more complex, the way a photograph stands for a living, moving person.

It’s a move that reminds me the title of a poem is a line in itself, the zero-th line. It has a break like any line, and a break always forces some kind of change or shift in view, however subtle. Sometimes the change is as subtle as it is in that title move, a continuation: “Ophelia,/I think, looking like she’s in a state of thinking/she had never seen anything like it, however,/she had.” The thought could be over after “in a state of thinking,” but it isn’t — but it could be! (It would be, if you died before you got to the last stanza.)

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