The Bride of E
Mary Jo Bang
Graywolf Press, $22 (cloth)
Mary Jo Bang’s Elegy (2007), a critical success, was on its own terms a failure. In a poem called “The Role of Elegy,” Bang puts the matter bluntly:
What is elegy but the attempt
To rebreathe life
Into what the gone one once was
Before he grew to enormity . . .
Each day, a new caption on the
Ending that simply cannot be.
Written after the death of Bang’s son, Elegy is a deeply intimate but also potentially paralyzing book. If the poems have as their “role” little other than the repetition of grief (“I say Come Back,” Bang writes, “and you do / Not do what I want”), and if the book takes place in a stream of months and seasons moving steadily away from the event of death, as well as presumably or at least hopefully out of the grief that occasions the work, we might be justified in asking what, for this poet, could possibly come next?
It is not surprising that Bang’s latest book, The Bride of E, reprises many of the themes and compulsions of Elegy. What makes this continuation bearable, however, is that out of mourning and its aftermath, The Bride of E asserts a new and energized approach to elegiac work. The titles of the poems begin, more or less, with a successive letter of the alphabet. Bang’s is not a rigid approach to the abecedarian form, but through it The Bride of E retains much of the obsessive nature of Elegy’s iterations of grief: one of the implications of the abecedarius is a fixed forward motion, a learned-by-heart sequence that admits little deviation. One cannot avoid the letter D—the mention of death—any more than one can avoid the problem of what to do, eventually, with the letter X. Where Elegy concerns itself with the persistence of personal feeling over time, The Bride of E engages with the mind borne forward by the mechanics of language.
Many of the stylistic devices employed in Elegy also recur, but vivified, in The Bride of E. In the former, Bang’s characteristic parataxis aptly emphasizes the violence of the propulsive motion of time, and of verse: “Hello to the empty present and.” Yet, while in Elegy each clipped sentence or end-stopped line jeopardizes the elegiac imperative to begin again, The Bride of E proceeds by a slightly different mechanism: the spaces beyond Bang’s sentences and lines, rather than opening into a vague and vertiginous néant, frequently become spaces of creation. An excerpt from “A equals all of a sudden”
exposes the process:
All in all things were very bad.
As for me, I was still thinking, why
The longer I thought,
The more determined I became.
Up to this time, I had been in a boat.
Homeric. A small fishing box. A
To support purgatory.
All of a sudden, I was still working.
Here the parataxis marches us step-by-step and line-by-line through the construction of the poem; it marshals us along beside the emerging poetic voice, emphasizing the pauses and insistences of this voice. Each stop implies a question and each start the answer, pulled from somewhere, which allows the voice to continue. Bang’s is certainly a voice that questions; it grasps at a variety of registers and possibilities not only at the level of the letter (“all in all,” “all of a sudden”) but also at the level of the poetic trope. That the poet is “in a boat,” as Bang tells us, is no playful accident— it is a reference, a piece of linguistic driftwood clutched at from the sea of the “very bad.”
Throughout The Bride of E, we might liken the poet to one afloat in a strong current—bobbing, reaching— and yet still carried forward by the poetic line and by the abecedarius’s structure. It is the motion of bobbing that might best correspond to the creative kinetics of the poems: the moments of grasp and resolve, the freedom of small movements on a vertical axis squeezed in despite the inevitable forward progression along a horizontal one. In “Death and Disappearance,” we find
A plague. The population shaped by
The meeting with mammals whose
bones are not found
Upright anymore. The slow pandemic
and its subsequent
Even in the poem that comes perhaps the closest to the void that haunts Elegy, Bang uses the space of the line break to manipulate time, securing the bones of the mammals from oblivion. At first they appear “not found” at all, but we read on and find they are simply “not found / Upright anymore.”
The poem rises into a sure and glittering image, a deft reworking of the familiar issues of grief and re-beginning.
The Bride of E comprises a sort of repository for the “fascinating . . . stratagems of staggering forward with exhaustion // Into the final further line of inquiry”: Bang draws from a repertoire of characters, references, masks, tones, and tricks so vast as to be disconcerting. While, as in “Death and Disappearance,” lines frequently move forward in a way that connotes a sort of escape, temporal or semantic, Bang also delights—or terrifies—with lines that refuse to resolve into anything other than their expected conclusions (“a dragon threading itself around a giant / Ship” or “Where liquid met the last white marks on the gray / Rock”). Sometimes Bang’s reaches end in silliness, sometimes lines are suddenly dead earnest: all in all, a wacky unpredictability that tends to render each poem somewhat difficult to reconcile with any other. The experience of reading through the book is occasionally similar to the situation of the speaker in “I in a War,” who proceeds “now forward, into the fog, driving a golf cart”: slightly out of control and perhaps a little blindly, the poems hurtle us on.
The abecedarius flows inexorably to its conclusion but also carries a resonance beyond the compulsory rehearsal of a sequence. While most of us know our ABCs as song or game, the abecedarius’s origins reach back to ancient religious verse—prayers, hymns, oracles—in which, according to the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, “not only the Word but even letters and sounds, given pattern, bear mystical significance and incantatory power.”
Bang’s use of this form is as much an act of conjuration as of compulsion; elegy as it operates in The Bride of E is less the continued description of an old absence than the eventual creation of a new presence. In an interview with the poet Susie DeFord, Bang explains how the structure engenders something beyond itself:
I initially wrote a poem called “C Is for Cher” and that gave me the idea of writing a book that would be a series of letter poems that would have a pop culture figure at the center [of] each. I wasn’t sure exactly what I would do within that constraint but it seemed a useful way to begin. . . . Eventually, the poems took on a life of their own and the letters themselves began to act as the sole prompt. I no longer felt compelled to place a known figure at the center of each. When I ran out of alphabet letters, I decided to extend the series by having alliterative titles for each letter.
Some of the most moving and elegant poems in The Bride of E occur toward the end of the sequence as exactly the result of this sort of conjuration, once the scaffolding begins to fall away. The poem “U Is for United,” for example, rises into a sure and glittering image, a deft reworking of the familiar issues of grief and re-beginning:
May I please have a short-term loan
Of agate to build a house against
thunder and thirst.
Yes, I know, the gold star is tarnished
in the cap
On the coffin lid. An oil-spill
Catches the dying light. “Sorry,” says
Each mouth moving in unison.
The move from Elegy to The Bride of E bears a striking stylistic parallel to that of an artist with whom Bang is deeply familiar—the French Symbolist Odilon Redon, whose drawing The Eye Like a Strange Balloon Mounts Toward Infinity supplied the title for one of Bang’s earlier collections. Redon worked only in charcoal and lithographic chalk until the age of 60 or so, but is better known for the showy, billowing color of his later pastels. Redon’s exchange of black and white for a more varied palette is akin to the difference between Elegy and The Bride of E: in its best moments, and with the aid of the abecedarius, The Bride of E benefits from a jaunty, surreal freedom of register and reference—all the more striking after the spare, bleak lines that came before it.
To figure The Bride of E as Bang’s emergence from personal loss would be to ignore the formal problems posed by both The Bride of E and by Elegy and to emphasize perhaps unnecessarily the sequential nature of Bang’s collections. Yet if in Elegy Bang’s “I,” and “eye,” can only turn inward on a mind “drugged blunt,” The Bride of E does suggest a more sustainable poetics. The work of elegy is ongoing, but here Bang moves beyond the confines of grayscale into a world in which elegy can use language to conjure, play, and provoke as it works through and moves beyond grief.