“Once there was,” the poem “Glass Bird” begins, echoing some fairy-tale’s familiar “Once upon a time.” As in fairy-tales, the landscape in these poems is an ever-turning kaleidoscopic “now” where what seems as if it might be literal (“a fire that engulfed a bird”) can, in an eye-blink, assume the figurative (“the zoo of me . . . an earth inside me for animals”). Like in a magic act, the transition happens before our very eyes (the squirming rabbit pulled from the inside of a hat that was just proved to be hollow, a river of scarves flowing from an inhabited coat sleeve). After reading any of these poems, one goes back in order to better understand where the so-called material world leaves off and the imaginative world begins. The glimmering narrative backstory, like the bedtime tale, tends to stay around and become a haunting. The oddity grants the reader a new set of eyes. Out of the estrangement, time, matter, language, and emotional substrate, cohere to form miniature cities that rise and fall as one goes about the day. Nothing is decided because nothing can be decided. Who is “set on fire”? Who “becomes a column of bone”? Whose feet will be glued to the floor? This is a welcome terror, unlike the terror of the real world that remains the Damocles’s sword it is. This is an escape into a dream state that will outlast any given moment because it is part of what it is to be human—to think and give shape to what is thought.

—Mary Jo Bang


Glass Bird
Once there was a fire that engulfed
a bird. She emerged with fused wings,
translucent, fragile, dangerous if shattered.
I found her in the ash, dusted her off,
and then hung her on my wall near the window
where she could watch the robins hop about
in the yard. I wanted to keep her inside
me. I always want to keep animals inside
my body in pockets or sacs. In the permeable
walls of cells, I want them.
In the zoo of me, but happy, content,
so not a zoo, but an earth inside me for animals
to roam free, and I will protect them
through the armor of my body, albeit a weak
armor. But of course some of them will die
or really all of them will die eventually,
as will I. If I swallow the glass bird, I worry
that she will break as I muscle
her through me and that I will
bleed inside—a great flood rising
and no ark for the animals to escape.
Because I plan on fasting
I am always hungry even though
the fast has not begun.
I want to fast to burn away my fat.
But even more to feed off
my own heat as my uneasy body
becomes a column of bone.
In another place there is no fat
and a girl is set on fire.
I am a slug
It’s hard to know what to do about
my sadness, the way it has accumulated
in my face and its drift downward. The way
I shape-shift into a slug, who I imagine
is sad only because it is slow
and close to the ground. The slug could be
the Buddha, for all I know. It’s hard
to know how many others are sad
in any given place. It seems that we
should all be sad. Yesterday, I was angry.
But, like I think the Buddha might ask,
if the Buddha was a meditating
slug in my head: have you seen the path
that shimmers behind me? I have been so sad
that I have wanted to be swallowed. I have been
so mad that I forgot I was a slug. I have
had to count my breaths to remember
them—to give each one the name
of a number while I spooled my rage around
the spindle inside me. Such a full
spindle, dear Buddha. My sadness floats
like a lotus flower on the pond of each eye.
My anger is all thread and no weave. I am
a slug traveling the long path.
Valley 2
From the bases of trees,
tentacle shadows reach
for you. Wanting entrance
though your ribs, wanting
to hold your heart gently.
The light has always been
too bright. People too sure
of their goodness. To have
your heart held by a tree’s
Salvage 5
He was presented in a ramshackle house
He was weathered stone
He was dust-stained in the folds of his robe
He was a perch for birds
And a someone to pray to
He had hung on a tree in a yard
But had fallen with his house
He was unstable, barely able to stand
I took him in
I put him on my shelf
I would not ask him for anything
I would not want him to be an intermediary
His house did not protect him
He would not have sought this shelter
He had disavowed comfort
I was living in constant uncertainty
Except when my hands were moving
I disappeared from my own thoughts
I was going to fix things
His house was too small
You cannot live in a shrine,
he seemed to say to me
Yet, I would nail his roof back on
I would glue his feet to the floor