by Mary Jo Bang
Graywolf Press 2007
Reviewed by John Deming
“Goodnight. I will see you // Tomorrow. I know I will.”
Sometimes an elegy arrives with such force, it starts to feel like an individual poet can only have one tremendous elegy in them. Or one great person they’re capable of elegizing properly, a person capable of making the poet wrench in silence that there is no proper way to live in a world where this person has died. That’s not to imply that the poet doesn’t care as deeply about someone else: only that the transformation it causes and knowledge it yields means the elegy can probably only be written once.
Maybe. If so, Mary Jo Bang’s Elegy for her son Michael Donner Van Hook accomplishes this. Bang avoids the trap of simply narrating her own grief, and instead lays a crying, nightmarish, high-minded and elastic tribute beside the deceased. The poem “You Were You Are Elegy” makes her son her best and most important elegy. The world doesn’t exist without him:
I’ve been crying. I think you
Have forgiven me. You keep
Putting your hand on my shoulder
When I’m crying.
Thank you for that. And
For the ineffable sense
Of continuance. You were. You are
The narrator in Elegy is plenty grief-stricken, and even blames herself. Yet she confronts her son’s death with fierce and immutable intelligence; ultimately, this means a reminder that “The Role of Elegy” is not to expunge a poet’s grief, but can instead be a tribute to a life, or a person who was and is very real:
Come on stage and be yourself,
The elegist says to the dead. Show them
Now—after the fact—
What you were meant to be:
The performer of a live song.
A shoe. Now bow.
What is left but this:
The compulsion to tell.
These lines regard the difficulty one can have with the urge to “explain” oneself to other humans. We are authorities on our own lives, yet none of can properly know the totality of his or her own life; it is impossible to see its completion. It becomes the role of the elegist to tell the tale: not always of the person’s specific actions and deeds, but of that person at his or her greatest moments of inspiration: what s/he was “meant to be.”
The poet never states explicitly how her son died, though she gives his age (37) and hints that his death had to do with drug addiction: “this last act where you disappear / Behind the curtain of addiction catastrophe.” Her son died a full-grown adult, not a child, but it seems a mother never outgrows the feeling she should be the protector, a sensation fully realized in this recollection from “Worse”:
A jerky reversal of forward momentum.
Back into memory. Into a cereal bowl
On a table decades ago, the color of an orange
Aspirin for a fever at age four
That produced a heat-filled forehead hallucination.
Think of a hive made of glass, all the bees,
Theoretically at least, describable but not all at once.
That’s my mind and you
Are doing all the things you ever did at once.
In the end, I think the poet’s great elegy recognizes the constancy suggested in that final line: her son is gone, and all the moments he ever lived outlie conventional, or at least present, “time.” “All the things” he ever did have little to do with seconds passing; they are one buzzing thing.
A great elegy, then, is the result of a death so immediate and painful that there is an inevitable, if to some extent imagined, realization that death is not what you thought it was. Time passes and people watch it, record it; beyond earthly life could be space-time and stasis. Nothing, even, equally something. After Michael’s death, the poet finds “He continued to live in the space that it took / To conjure him up.” I’ll repeat something I wrote in my review of Sarah Hannah’s final book: that along these lines, time on earth is just an abstraction, and it is possible to discover that to have lived at all is to live eternally.
Time can seem even less than an abstraction following such an important death; time is dumb, silly, cruel, and of little need—“The dull mind is a different kind / Of world. Earth was frozen.” The poet is left amazed, equally strengthened and dulled, by the fact that a whole year can pass after a tragedy. If the world is a new thing following this kind of death, one might live it out in tribute to the deceased. Then things will be as they were: rather than being two different kinds of abstractions, our tandem can inhabit the same vacancy.