A Banquet of Imagery: Mary Jo Bang's The Bride of E

Christy DelahantyChristy Delahanty is a former Poetry Center intern, and recent graduate in Creative Writing and Linguistics from The University of Arizona.

Mary Jo Bang will be reading with Joni Wallace at the Poetry Center on October 6, 2011 at 7 p.m. at the University of Arizona Poetry Center.  Joni Wallace will be leading a shop talk on Mary Jo Bang's work on October 4 at 6 p.m. prior to the Oct 6. reading. Both events are free and open to the public. Join us! To read an interview between Mary Jo Bang and Joni Wallace, click here.

Mary Jo Bang's books of poetry include Elegy (Graywolf Press, 2007), which received the 2007 National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry and was listed as a New York Times 2008 Notable Book, and The Bride of E (Graywolf Press, 2009). She was the poetry co-editor at Boston Review from 1995-2005, and has been the recipient of the Alice Fay Castagnola Award from the Poetry Society of America, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a Hodder Fellowship from Princeton University. She is a professor of English at Washington University in St. Louis. Her translation of Dante's Inferno, with illustrations by Henrik Drescher, will be published by Graywolf Press in July 2012.

Perhaps the first thing to notice about Mary Jo Bang's The Bride of E is the heft of it. The book itself is slim, but the pages are dense with the poetic conventions of allusion and self-referentiality, peppered with recursion and persistent themes. What results is an intensely playful work, singing in spite of its heavier truths.

Unconvinced as I may be that the words "Guggenheim" and "Kafkaesque" can pull their stuffy bulk in poems like these, Bang's allusion-happy tendencies do more than drop names. The result of so many Mickey Mouses, Edenic Eves, and a few spare Freuds is this: A banquet of imagery, one part recaptured American kitsch and one part sampled world beats.

Through the course of the book Bang's poems pick up no speed and gather no crushing force, even eventually. The pace, approaching meditative, gives a semblance of studious with its choice repetition, eternal recursion, and all-around grave, coded feel. In a line that could well describe the collection itself, Bang writes, "Here we are viewing the land: waves of grave and grain. / That slight tremor? A house settling. A violent past walking through." It is in fragments and the muted colors of history that Bang ferries over the image-rich particulars born of her brain. Like chips of precious stones dusting the pages, jewel lines in bits cast a common sparkle on her sparely peopled plane.

Bang's language, too, has a modus operandi all its own; leaning the beauty on the internal properties of words, she forfeits simple structure only to craft airtight coils of patterning her own way. She writes, "Who would dare hold a real bear so near to the outer ear." Later, "Sharp shadows. Summer sunlight. / An artichoke. A chokehold." Thick with internal rhyme but porous with pockets of obscurity and repetition, Bang's lines swivel over the surfaces of things as they seem to be, recording their shapes in maximalist impressions so thorough a topographical map could be drawn from their details.  

Perhaps it is from here that Bang's obsession with innards grows. Among the lines to which she frequently returns are the set on wiring, where she is interested not in the whether but in the nearly unknowable how: "Let's take that wiring apart and see how it works. / Like that. As if it could be done." So, how does it work? The Bride of E might argue that to scrutinize such an opaque landscape as wiring or poetry yields (briefly) glimmers, which in turn yield awareness of eyes.

Created on: 
Friday, September 30, 2011
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