Review by Britta Andersson

by Mary Jo Bang

Graywolf Press
2402 University Avenue
Suite 203
Saint Paul, MN 55114
ISBN 13: 978-1-55597-483-1
104 pp. $20.00

Mary Jo Bang's Elegy arrived on my desk one week prior to the suicide of a fellow classmate. The cover's title, bold and white, immediately lured me into Bang's secret realm. The day it arrived I skimmed its haunted pages, filled my mouth with Bang's letters, my lungs with her lyric--and put it down. Interesting? Yes. Evocative? Definitely. Yet, at that time, I was not in the focused and meditative state one enters when the messenger of death comes knocking. On my second reading, the degree of craft and insight surfaced, and served as a gripping and grounding companion during a time of sorrow.

"Open the door and look in," a refrain Bang summons in her poem, The Opening, invites her readers to enter the after-life and grieve, question, meditate. She binds the living and the dead with interrogating language and melodic force. Elegy, Mary Jo Bang's fifth book of poetry, offers up a harrowing death-song amidst a persistent landscape of private grief. Very much an autobiographical series, Elegy allows readers to share her deeply personal and haunting journey through her everlasting memory, her mother-instinct, her mother-love. Elegy chronicles the year following the death of her son.

The language and rhythm employed throughout the book compliment Bang's evocative shifts in form. Bang is technically competent, driving her readers through her year by means of sporadically addressing the poems by months of the year. September Is, November Elegy, January Elegy, April Is Ending, and A Year Ends, all serve to ground the reader chronologically.

Bang is at her best when observing the consequences of loss. Over and over her voice delivers the "after-sorrow" that will last a lifetime. Anyone who knows loss cannot escape the repetitive stillness death summons, and can understand the terse and cyclical arrival of time after loss, as depicted in January Elegy:

There is this still, night-coming, beautiful horizon
Birds gunning up and the dead grass
That means winter is still
Here and held in its dull intent.
Within minutes, the horizon is no longer
A flat gradation of gray

With a hint of silver mirror decay
Instead, it's absence black.
And the moment is made up of car brights

And music sending a sound wave from inside
The mind. Nothing is stopping.
A year in tatters is interrupted by the thought

That the future is manacled
To the indefatigable now of February.
Still as the knife-girl strapped to the circle spinning,

Her hair splayed to one side.
Her eyes empty behind the blindfold.
The sense of silk. Her heart stopped.

Not only obsessed with time, the then and now, and the "dull intent" of the seasons, Bang also questions the existence and persistence of the perpetual cycle of life; she exposes the dark aftermath of death experienced by those the dead leave behind. Her ability to bypass the dimensions that separate the spirit world from her own is evident in her beautiful declaration: "To say the future will be/ Okay and mother please pray for me/ Now as I travel across another green sea."

"Open the door and look in." Bang commands her readers to examine the corridors and compartments that shelter the particulars of memory. Her resilient spirit is present amidst cunning lines that seem to surface from the back of her skull: "the black magic cat clawing the sofa, the dissolve of the moment, a moment's orphan in the after-dark."

Traditional elegies mirror three stages: lament, praise, and solace. Bang's, Elegy does just that. The poems feed each other, constantly calling forth the dead from "a welled nothingness of definitely." The loss rendered through these poems is as necessary as air; the poems themselves serve as a bridge for spirits to enter, converse with the living, and exit back to their eerie, elegant, and luminous country.

Bang is a necessary and accomplished poet, author to four previous poetry collections: The Eye Like a Strange Balloon, Louise in Love, The Downstream Extremity of the Isle of Swans, and Apology for Want. Elegy, dedicated to the memory of her son, Michael Donner Van Hook, honors "the three things she'd been given to remember." Mothering. Death. Love. In the midst of sudden tragedy and death's mysterious cloud, Bang delivers solace. For me, Bang's Elegy, not only serves to express sadness, it has been a luminous blessing against the dark.


Britta Andersson is a poet living in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She recently completed her BFA Degree from the Institute of American Indian Arts.