Mary Jo Bang’s volume of poems Elegy is a heartrending read. Bang wrote the poems in response to almost unbearable loss – her only child, a son, at only 37, died of an overdose. The poems track the year after the death. What comes through the poems is that Bang’s son had long struggled with drug addiction and that she had, prior to his death, already gone through a harrowing process of supporting him through withdrawal and recovery programs: “The day in May when he was in withdrawal/And a doctor said almost and dead.” What the reader is given – and it does seem like a gift offered by the poet – is an insight into the long-drawn-out process of grieving after everything possible had been done. Yet the mother still feels she has failed: “I said I would never leave you to the monster.”
Bang had set herself an almost impossible task – to write about absence, to conjure “the gone one” with words, while always acknowledging that death is final, and that words have no power to bring him back. By calling her volume Elegy, Bang consciously places her work in the tradition of the funerary poem, calling on inherited forms to give shape to the incoherence of grief. The result is a collection that is striking for the severity of its verse. The formality and distance that Bang employs seems to be a kind of protective device from the raw, wild emotion that surges underneath the lines. Her themes are eternal – death, grief, love, motherhood – but her eye for particularity and the telling detail give this collection a degree of personal investment that is painful. The reader is put in the position of being a witness to another person’s pain. Bang, in turn, bears witness to a year in the life of new grief, analysing an experience that challenges the limits of art, that is indeed, ‘beyond words’.
The central poem of the collection is “The Role of Elegy.” I first came across this poem at the “Poetry and the Trace” conference in Melbourne, July 2008. Hazel Smith gave a paper called “Afterimage: Loss, Commemoration and Enquiry in the work of Mary Jo Bang, M. D. Coverley and Joan Retallack”. Bang’s poem was distributed to the audience and the title “Afterimage” comes from a word in this poem. The hard-bitten, yet fragile tone of this poem, as well as the very moving combination of critical distance and powerful emotion immediately caught my imagination. Smith’s paper dealt with how Bang uses this notion of the “afterimage” to create a poetics of loss, to give shape to nothingness. The “afterimage” stands as the approach Bang has taken – these poems trace what was once seen, once present, but which now only exists as a phantom, held in the mind’s eye. “The Role of Elegy” stands just past the mid-point of the collection and offers a reflection on the task Bang has set herself: by writing these poems, is she collaborating in the “aesthetization of sorrow”? Is it merely therapy for the grieving, an “imagined/ Consolidation of grief”? Is there any chance of ‘success’ in such an undertaking, since the craving to “rebreathe life/Into what the gone one once was” is doomed to be forever unmet?
I used the poem “The Role of Elegy” as a practice task for my year 12 IB class this year, and they responded doughtily, noticing the halting difficulty of the lines of verse, and the lonely oddness of certain images such as “a shoe” and the “cabinet of genuine particulars”. They also noticed the central predicament of the poem’s speaker in this piece – that the elegy is not enough, that its formality and brevity cannot do justice to the prolonged, complicated business of grief. Yet, this is the form we have in which to chisel into art that most untidy of emotions. We have nothing else that approximates the elegy for its ability to commemorate the dead in words that tune sorrow to song.
Early poems in the collection detail snapshots of realization in the wake of death: “The pills/On the floor had rolled under the sofa./The wheel begins its if only turning.” In interview with Jenifer K. Dick (available on www.poets.org) Bang reflects on her earlier training as a professional photographer: “By distancing itself, the “eye” establishes a degree of remove that allows me as poet, as the “I,” to appreciate the world anew, with a degree of objectivity, and to comment back on that world.” Bang was commenting on an earlier volume when she said this, but it does shed some light on the structure of this volume and how it reads. Like a collage of separate, but related images, the poems of Elegy painstakingly build up a composite picture of loss. Many of the poems do not stand on their own, but are small contributions, fragments, of a larger whole which the poet constructs through her resolutely objective tone. For example, a theme picked up from the beginning is a dream of arrested time – the wish that the time just prior to death could be brought back and stilled: “You’re forever on the platform/Seeing the pattern of the train door closing./Then the silver streak of me leaving./…/That car should be forever sealed in amber.” This idea is explored repeatedly through an arrangement of images that accrete significance across the poems. Hence, there is also the remorselessness of time’s march, with the speaker, in her grief, trapped, frozen in muteness. In “The Essence” Bang writes, “Dumb numbers gawked from the clock face./The hole where the hands were/Supposed to be was empty/And endless.” The speaker grapples with the irrecoverable nature of death, and its indifference to pleading: “The snake of time was spending itself/Like an arrow in motion, aimed at a bale of hay,/Each bale a bad day. Then wham, and over.” Bang explores each moment that cannot be replayed with a different outcome: “How/Does the heart stop? On what/Moment’s turning?/Which tick? And why?”
She is unflinching in her determination not to sentimentalise, not to “put a death mask on tragedy”. Yet there is a kind of consolation to the exercise. The bleak narrative of Bang’s series of poems does not bring her son back, but does portray a hard-won acceptance. She offers a reflection at the outset on the impermanence of life that applies even to one’s own child: “You/A child, then a man, now a feather/Passing through a furious fire/Called time.” The paradox of Bang’s verse is that these moments of objectivity are paired with fierce emotion to create a painfully beautiful portrait of love. A poem towards the end of the collection, “You were you are elegy” states: “Thank you for that. And/For the ineffable sense/Of continuance. You were. You are/The brightest thing in the shop window/And the most beautiful seldom I ever saw.” Bang ends on a note that, if it does not offer redemption, does offer a “glimmer” of solace.