‘The Last Two Seconds’ by Mary Jo Bang
“turning meaning for hours”
Mary Jo Bang’s The Last Two Seconds opens with a woman seeing a dead roach near her bathroom sink, then later a man who looks like Kafka. She calls someone: “a friend to complain about the bugs.” This points, most obviously, to The Metamorphosis, but also the end of that story and the dead Gregor Samsa. Thus I can’t help but think of Bang’s 2007 collection Elegy, a meditation on the death of her adult son remarkable for its searing focus—not only outward, but inward as the surviving parent of a son lost to accidental overdose. That specter (as well as Kafka and his legacy in the philosophical mind) haunts us from page one: now what?
While hardly autobiographical—much of the book uses second-person, others read as persona poems—there is “A boy gone” and “The damaged family. The early ruin,” at times reading as a continuation of Elegy. But mostly the collection is an obsessive interrogation of the existential by a thoughtful, doubting mind. “She knew she was one of countless others, / any of which one might meet and soon forget. / There was no reason it should be otherwise.” Bang reworks this meaninglessness in relief against the usual I’m-a-special-snowflake Americanism, presenting a central figure dazed and confused by the world and being, and thus interested less in the curated spectacle than its audience. The circus is a recurring image, as in “The Circus Watcher”:
I practice, when I’m not sure of myself,
this repetition: know, know, know, knew.
I think that chaos fascinates me. I say,
I am part of that,
one of the characters in a cage.
This is an attempt at control through knowledge eventually lost, at being as merely a play for spectators’ eyes. Grasping for control promises nothing, for “a diagram / has no predictive value. / A blueprint can’t keep a house from falling.” These concerns tether unsurprisingly to depression (“winter will bring emptiness, // emptiness, emptiness winter will bring emptiness. / All spring, emptiness. All summer. All fall.” The repetition here not only accurately portrays the blue mind but also (ironically) empties the words of meaning. Not even the change of environs will fill the bleak mental landscape.
It isn’t all so bleak—like all good philosophical texts, there are elements of the absurd (Freud makes a few appearances, and one poem involves Cyndi Lauper). But overall, the book is a constant philosophical churning: what, exactly, is a life, and how is it measured? The senses? Sight is hardly dependable: “the optical / illusion of a mountain melting, each former rock // now a bird in the mouth of a cat, or something / like that.” What else has no dependability? Time? “The clock was her mind.” (Ticking, another recurring image). The mind? “the mind / isn’t everything, only a grey-suited troop of mechanics / working to ratchet the self through the teeth of a wheel.” The body? She sees herself in a rat’s face, and at another point realizes “It was relatively painless except for being / all she could see.” With each turn to so-called dependable measures, none prove stable, troubling any thinking about anything, even appreciation for random physical objects: “a small plastic / held to the cheek is also quite nice.” But then,
we both know, is nothing but a patchwork
of particles, a mash-up of atoms, petroleum
before or after it’s oil—but still, it means
so much more […] I turn out the light,
lock the door, lie down, brush my hair,
from my forehead and listen
for the cinematographer to say to the dark,
Just wait and the world will come back.
The terror I have, I keep hidden.
Nothing in that woman’s mind can be taken at its superficial levels—her mind drills those objects or realities back to their origins, considers their meaning, the terror, the cinematographer/mind’s eye, recording. These are the most heartrending moments of the book: the central figure gets close to happiness, or at least some normalcy, only for it to fall apart. At one point, she interacts with a dog after a night of staring at her hands. She shakes its paw:
It was extraordinary, life was.
Furs being petted, people standing upright,
panic, fear, tight skirts, ankles, thought.
The creature standing, her giving little pats.
She was enjoying this standing there.
She had forgotten this feeling.
Then it careens—
A boy gone. Death.
Death without life. Terror. Fear. Disaster.
Punishment. Profound darkness […]
How odd, she thought, to be.
The notes at the end of The Last Two Seconds reveal that Bang largely drew upon other sources for inspiration via appropriation or ekphrasis. This is surprising considering the consistency of voice and content, mostly “the continual dread” accompanied by such philosophical concerns. Bang compels with deep philosophical investigations (“Are we not ridiculous, / torn between the true / and what we’d so like to believe is true?”) coupled with her usual tight, surprising diction (“She ate a chocolate / arranged around a walnut”). The experience of reading the book is best described thusly: “The edge of her mind turning meaning for hours // at a time. Hours and days. A sound like a sickle. / Her head a bunch of heather. Then over.”