The alphabet can be a tedious, snooze-inducing thing. Once, when I was having trouble sleeping someone told me that when I was lying in bed I should visualize each letter of the alphabet, pair it with its numerical value (A=1, B=2 and so on), go down to Z and then work backwards (Z=26, Y=25 and so on). It’s a technique I still use sometimes to get to that zombie state of mind, the idea of someone else’s order, a standardization, the unchangeable patterns we share, take in and embody. However, it’s not usually what I look for in great literature for this very reason: I know what’s coming next, and next, and, well next.
In Mary Jo Bang’s book of poetry The Bride of E, though, the alphabet is used to undermine this very idea. In her hands, the alphabet is supercharged with questions. The poems move in alphabetical order (until Part II), but there are 54 poems, not 26. In the titles themselves, there are some clear announcements of the structure (“B Is For Beckett”) but these are interspersed with much more obfuscating ones (“I As In Justice” and “In the Present and Probable Future” (which is a “P” poem)). There is no set gimmick where the poem itself begins with the letter which inspired it, and there is definitely no sense that any real knowledge or experience can be standardized.
I have been reading Mary Jo Bang books for awhile. My second favorite book of hers is Louise in Love. I admire her quick turns, the way she can make me puzzle over the way language works, and the way she can surprise me into feelings I didn’t even know I had. The Bride of E is definitely the Queen Mother of these accomplishments. The first poem, “ABC Plus E: Cosmic Aloneness is the Bride of Existence” does this just in the title. Can one add letters? (well, yeah, after one thinks about it). Can letters stand for things beyond the alphabet? (yeah, but again, thinking is going on). How beautiful and sad that the character “Cosmic Aloneness” is being married to the character “Existence.” I would like to think that Cosmic Aloneness could get married to Togetherness and that then she would take his name. The book title: The Bride of E. Married to something that doesn’t change her, married to something that is only a fact of continuance. The poem follows young adults at “a spectacular bacchanalia” where girls are flirting and dancing and exchanging kisses with chaps who say:
Leave me, I love you, I’ll always love you.”
Which they took as irrefutable evidence
Of a general greed for human warmth,
I.e., for touch, even among the agonized
Post-adolescent dreamers who morphed on the dance floor
That night into naughty boys, echoing the girls’ questions
Of “how shall we live,” “What shall we do,”
Words without end, without weight.
What is so touching about this poem is the impossibility of full communication, even amongst dancers who are so close and so receptive and so young. Clichéd love language pushes through the bodies of “post-adolescent dreamers” who are really asking and saying something else. Of course, if one reads this as only the speaker’s unshared perspective, it’s not as touching. But really, aren’t we all brides of existence?
I have much more to say and very little time in my life to say it. A rough jump cut to: . . .This notion of what is or is not personal is very interesting to me and something I have been obsessing over in my own poetry. Poetry that people identify as too personal is given the now pejorative label of confessional, and yet poetry that is not somehow tied directly to some account of the personal is often criticized as quirky or impenetrable or uneven. Mary Jo Bang is such an interesting poet because she moves between these polarized notions of the personal so often. In her previous book Elegy, a heartbreaking book about the loss of her son, the autobiographical origins of the book are clear. Yet, even as a reader who is going through her own process of grief, that is not what keeps me reading. What keeps me reading are the moments of uncertainty. The end of “Three Trees,” for example:
…In the dust, a celluloid woman
mows a multilayered lawn.
The arch overhead reads, O Art
Still Has Truth Take Refuge. Where? There.
There, there, says someone.
Here, personal loss collides with the more abstract redemption of art. The two are unalterably intertwined and are, literally, located in the same word. “There” becomes both a location and an attempt to comfort. Both seem important but also ultimately insufficient. In The Bride of E there is much more of this collision of the personal with the universal. These poems are constantly resisting the self and yet trying to recuperate the self. In “ABC plus E” Bang mentions Camus, and certainly her poetry and this collection in particular are informed by existentialism. The bride, in each of these poems, is really Sisyphus who keeps rolling that big rock up a hill that is never going to summit. The end of “D is Dying, As One Going in the Dark”:
…His gray beard felt so soft.
An engine keeps making the noise of an interior radio
Through which I hear a machine that keeps churning
Out: “For I seem dying,
as one going in the dark/ To fight a giant–.”
All the petty errors of life.
Let’s take that wiring apart and see how it works.
Like that. As if it could be done.
The quoted line about going into the dark is from a Browning poem, and the “I” is one which is enclosed in another “I,” but how deeply personal (in the way in which personal might stand for true) this poem is and how transformative in the turns from engine to radio to life. How hopeful that “Let’s” is—for a moment not alone, for a moment believing in the power of understanding, or if never believing taking that wiring apart anyway because this is what we do.
Is an alphabet an engine? A radio? A life? By the end of this book I’m grateful to say that I don’t know what an alphabet is anymore. The last poem in The Bride of E is a great prose poem (props to Graywolf for publishing a collection with both lined poetry and prose poetry, though I think it’s a shame the prose poems had to be cordoned off into their own separate section). In “Unknown and Unknowable” the speaker moves through several surreal snapshots of her life and ends:
…The hall closet filled with
books with spines facing outward and forming a readable text of titles that
merged together to pose questions about the status quo. “I guess” was all
she ever answered. And something he said.
All the struggle and echo of those two words! I love Mary Jo Bang’s poetry because it refuses the personal/not personal camps of poetry, refuses the idea that something is either straightforward or elliptical. It is the struggle of experience, not the achievement of understanding.