The Bride of E
by Mary Jo Bang
Graywolf Press 2009
Reviewed by James Cihlar
“There is wreckage. / There is reiteration.”
Often in her previous books, Mary Jo Bang used a variety of formal structures to organize metaphysical exploration, including the character pieces of Louise in Love, the ekphrastic verse of The Eye Like a Strange Balloon, and, most effectively, her thorough sounding of the poetic tradition of mourning in Elegy. Of course, the latter book also gave expression to her very real grief over the loss of her adult son. A rigorous philosophical workout, Elegy is remarkable for its discipline, focus, and lucidity. Ransacking the familiar sources of consolation and finding them wanting, the poet goes for several punishing rounds before staring down fate, emerging two-fisted and disillusioned. In her latest book, The Bride of E, the organizing principle is the alphabet, and the results, predictably diffuse, nevertheless contain some rewards.
In the spirit of dictionary entries, these poems provide lists, catalogs, of associations that benefit from the implied narrative of sequential order. Often composed of short, declarative sentences, they take sideways turns, resulting in staccato bursts of stories that seem to revise themselves as they progress. The result is a layering of fragments, an overwriting of the surface, as if one is looking at a wall with scraps of wallpaper of successive vintages showing through.
This approach suits Bang’s exploration of the metaphysics of time, as she illustrates in “The Wake Was a Line and We Watched”: “the nature of looking / at the future while married to the moment.” Collaged fragments mimic time’s operation, with one minute overwritten by the next:
Of the sheerest substance stacked one atop the other
And finally forming a substrate
Never quite solidifying but after the fact forming a z
(“Z Stands for Zero Hour”)
This revisionist nature enhances our perception of the insecurity of the persona, and her honest unreliability:
It’s April again. It’s October,
That’s what I said.
It’s over, like a ghost in the going to go
(“Outnumbered at 0”)
“There is wreckage. / There is reiteration.” Evoking palimpsests or automatic writing, the fragments of The Bride of E also return to the same obsessive concerns. “Let’s take the wiring apart and see how it works” from “D Is Dying, As One Going in the Dark,” recurs in “For the Final Report” as “I would take the wiring apart / And see how it works.” Bang acknowledges the once-removed aspect of phenomenology: we are capable of examining the history of knowledge, the tropes and conceits that attempt to phrase philosophical concepts, but incapable of coming face to face with those philosophical concepts:
This is the world
When it is reduced down to a moment.
The mind doesn’t halt but goes halfway up
In the elevator and then finds itself stuck.
This is the entirety. Eternity. Made of a material
That is unlikely to change but is forever.
(“F Is for Forgetting”)
The time necessary to understand experience is longer than the experience itself, so the problem must lie in the engine of the human brain, “the gray one” (“For the Final Report”), whose default position is fear:
Terror of being. That mysterious conceptual nothing.
A worn electrical wire connects all the lights.
They go and you say, Good,
That little irritating suspense is over.
The hollowing wait. The stupid puncture of rejection
That, in the moment, wears a human face.
(“O Is in Outside”)
If dialectic is the standard method of philosophical interrogation, the mind’s ability to make distinctions is key. But this leads to separation, alienation, and detachment: “now you’ve divided yourself / From yourself. Now you’re something simple.” (“H Is Here Is a Song, Now Sing”)
What results from division is a gap, the difference between the self and the world, one moment and the next, with the challenge to “negotiate the question of the space / Between the two.” (“P Equals Pie”) This daunting task is perhaps not accomplishable through simple determination applied to a rigorous progressive program. Instead, we encounter meaning through accident, through slips of the tongue: “The sea of the present kept meeting / The vast.” (“Heretofore Having in Mind”) This is true in the prose pieces of the short second section: “I’m tied. I mean tired.”; “And now a scar. Okay, a car.”
Any poetic method is only as good as the lines that result, and in poems such as “W Is for Whatever” and “U Is for United,” we see the rewards:
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 tarnish in the cap
On the coffin lid. An oil-spin iridescence
Catches the dying light. “Sorry,” says Cerberus,
Each mouth moving in unison.
Vestiges of literary and popular culture — Alice in Wonderland, James Joyce, Little Orphan Annie, Six Feet Under, Fargo — mingle with Mao Zedong, Max Beckmann, and Alexis de Tocqueville in The Bride of E. With obvious and slant rhymes at end stops, and consonance and onomatopoeia sprinkled liberally throughout, some poems read as demented nursery rhymes. But the short staccato lines, repetition, and interrupted trajectories create an effect opposite to the expansive ambition of the content itself. In this loose abecedarius, readers might understandably hunger for the open-ended luxuriance of D.A. Powell rather than the insularity of John Ashbery, the latter seeming to influence this volume more. But perhaps most of all, remembering the power and focus of Elegy, with its amazing ability to connect with readers and provide clarity to anguish, we may be disappointed by the occasional solipsism and obfuscation of these lines, resulting in a sense that this volume, an accomplishment in its own right, may appear premature and incomplete when seen in the poet’s oeuvre.
Drawing on personal history, the second section’s prose pieces suggest that a more generative mining of meaning is possible, including this acute description of depression: “Every day would be the same. Waking on the dot to that repeated realization. The crosshairs of a hidden life.” (“G Is for Going”) Revelations also dot the narratives here, increasing their power, including an apparent act of child abuse by an aunt’s boyfriend: “And I’m left with him. I’m six. He says do you want to sit in my car. I never say. We sit side by side on the seat. I look at the dash. I leave myself somewhere else.” (“G Is for Going”) These pieces hint at a new approach to come from this signature poet.