The Bride of E
I have been thinking about how to talk and write about Mary Jo Bang’s new book, The Bride of E, for quite some time. It is one of those books that I immediately took to, but had a hard time articulating how it was doing its work on me. Which is exactly the indication I look for to see whether or not I want to spend time on a book—whether or not I want to absorb or articulate its properties.
The Bride of E is an abecedarian engaging in existential questions in a post-post-modern context. If you are thinking that this is the territory of what is supposed to be oxymoronic (how can you go through post-modernism without negating the game of existentialism?) you are correct. And you’ve already tapped into the nature of the book’s difficulty and delight: the audacity of taking a box cutter to that Pandora’s box.
Further, the poem titles alone snag me: “ABC Plus E: Cosmic Aloneness Is the Bride of Existence.” Cool. Funny. And how damnably true. And then there is “B Is for Beckett,” which reads, in its entirety, “There is so little to say.” To which I reply: yes and exactly. What I appreciate here is the taking up the childhood pedagogical play of attaching figures to letters in the alphabet, and how very wickedly different “B Is for Beckett” is to the usual “B is for ball.” Here Bang re-instruct us in the attachments of association, gives us an adult existential primer, gives us a little glimpse of the way her own mind associates, toggling the “for” from “stands for” to “is for” into a dedication: this poem, this B, is for Beckett. A whole page, one sentence, just for him. Further, the phrase “There is so little to say,” alone on the page as a poem, is so very Beckett. The phrase might have been said by Beckett, but is also an optimistic (perhaps) response to the end of Ohio, Impromptu, which finishes: “There is nothing left to tell.”
Here, the subtle difference between “telling” and “saying.” “Telling” connotes a relationship with a listener; “saying” has undertones of personal reservoir. Here, the tremendous difference between there being “so little” to say, and there being “nothing left” to tell. Because of Beckett’s work, we have a little to say—not nothing. We have followed his direction, have gone on when we couldn’t and so, by his lead, he has, in some small part, delivered us from nothing. Yes, “B” is for Beckett—we should dedicate a whole alphabet to him, or at least a cheer. Give me a “B” give me an “E.” Give me a “C-K-E”—a “double T.”
In addition to my attraction to the book itself, there is the book’s circumstance driving me to write, although more than a little part of me is inclined to agree with Ray when he proposes that “the books which you consider [good] are likely to make the case for their arguments and preoccupations via the poems they contain more effectively than can your prosaic assessment of them.” However, this particular book follows Bang’s award-winning book Elegy—a book that charts the year of grief following the death of her adult son. With immediately accessible subject matter and a pared-down range of language, Elegy is more typically lyric in a New Critical sort of way. Elegy has many fans, as it should, but the overwhelmingly positive reception of Elegy has made me anxious about its younger sister. Much of The Bride of E resists the clean lines of the New Critic’s lyric and, so, it will likely receive less attention than Elegy. Which is, I suppose, OK, except for the fact that there is so much here to be missed.
Additionally troubling, this allotment of attention seems to have much to do—even over 100 years after such wild poetic energy as Tender Buttons was released on the reading public—with what the average poetry reader (which means the average poetry writer) seems able to read. Or, maybe readers can “read” books like The Bride of E, but we still don’t have a way to usefully talk about them and, so, tend to wax apophatic. This fact (among other things) makes me bristle at reception such as the following from a review on The Bride of E: “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.” Asking for “more” is not a problem: what is a problem is expecting the values of one text from another without explaining why such expectation is apt.
Let’s look at another poem, titled “And as in Alice”:
Alice cannot be in the poem, she says, because
She’s only a metaphor for childhood
And a poem is a metaphor already
So we’d only have a metaphor
Inside a metaphor. Do you see?
They all nod. They see. Except for the girl
With her head in the rabbit hole. From this vantage,
Her bum looks like the flattened backside
Of a black-and-white panda. She actually has one
In the crook of her arm.
Of course, its’ stuffed and not living.
Who would dare hold a real bear so near the outer ear?
She’s wondering what possible harm might come to her
If she fell all the way down the dark she’s looking through.
Would strange creatures sing songs
Where odd syllables came to a sibilant end at the end.
Perhaps the sounds would be a form of light hissing.
Like when a walrus blows air
Through two fractured front teeth. Perhaps it would
Take the form of a snake. But if a snake, it would need a tree.
Could she grown one from seed? Could one make a cat?
Make it sit on a branch and fade away again
The moment you told it that the rude noise it was hearing was rational thought
With an axe beating on the forest door.
As I wonder if meta-poetic gestures, such as the Alice moment at the beginning of the poem, are what the reviewer considers “solipsistic,” I am first caught by the charm of Alice speaking to me through the poem, and then notice the sadness that Alice’s refusal has evoked in me. For readers who know Bang’s work, Alice’s refusal to be in the poem will resonate as betrayal. A familiar figure in previous books, Alice was there for us when Bang took on the problem of representation in The Eye Like a Strange Balloon, Bang’s fourth book of ekphrastic poetry. Alice even appeared in Elegy. Now, when we expect her to be here (for, other pop culture figures such as Cher, Mickey Mouse, Jackie O, Freud, etc) make appearances in The Bride of E)—she refuses to show. What does she mean she “cannot be in the poem?” How dare she. We knew she was a metaphor all along, but one that we loved and that previously refused to neglect us. What do we do when even our broken images refuse to appear? At the same time, I appreciate the irony of my response: by saying she won’t be in the poem, Alice puts in an appearance. Bang is so very sly this way, offering us an imaginative moment, and then pulling the rug out from underneath, provoking questions like what does it mean for something (someone?) such as Alice to be present?
In many of these poems Bang dramatizes what we already know from so much theory: the emptying of the sign of its meaning. We know intellectually that figures such as Alice have been over-used, but it is still surprising to find a writer who is able to convey what that loss means—how it feels to be abandoned even by one’s own used-up images and to what extent they can still be of use. To address, imaginatively, the question of what we do without them? “What is there to think?” asks characters in other poems from the book. “How shall we live,” “what shall we do?”
In many ways, the girl with her head in the rabbit hole can be seen as a mock-up of the poet who “goes on” nevertheless and assumes Alice’s story, even without her. Written in the form of “perhaps,” the rabbit-hole girl narrates her possibilities along the same storyline as Wonderland’s, speaking to the power of narrative to guide us—for better or worse—even when its images have worn out its imprint is present.
The Bride of E comes to us from the ends of things—from a position that well-knows the death of god, the death of the author, and the death of the conventional lyric subject. As such, this “end” is no more personal to Bang as a poet as it is to her contemporary, American readers. The work of course reflects her image reservoirs and gestures, but it does not have the autobiographical focus that Elegy (and elegies in general) demand. The book is much more about the way we still can make use of worn-out images and phrases to ask existential questions of the post-postmodern world.
As I am thinking through Bang’s book and my reaction to its work, I have also been considering the question of the review, addressed in such different ways by Ray and Vanessa’s recent contributions. Do I feel it is my job, as reviewer, to rectify the fact that many readers will wish The Bride of E to be a different sort of book than it is—that (to repeat myself—but I can never get over it) over 100 years after Stein we have a hard time reading work that angles out at the edges, that shows up the opacity of language even while it makes use of its transparent properties?
Further, to my mind, reviewers have almost always done a rather mediocre job with Bang’s work. Positive reviews consist mostly of quotation, as if the work can’t be unfolded. Negative review-moments (and there really aren’t many) seem to object to the work on the basis that it does not cleanly fit into a poetic camp. And I suspect that, like much work that has been sloppily handled, this is because experimentally engaged reviewers won’t know what to do with her work’s deployment of personae, imagery, chiseled poetic form—and reviewers engaged with the New Critical lyric will persist in wanting all of her work to be Elegy. Reviewers like categories, and Bang is bad at staying in them.
In his 2003 review of work by Mary Jo Bang, Michael Collier, and Stanley Plumly, David Biespiel quotes a passage from Bang’s third book, Downward Extremity of the Isle of Swans, and proceeds with the following critique:
This is the hyperventilated opening of “It’s Winter in the Eye, and Like Ophelia.” It is certainly quirky if quirky means turning nouns into verbs, inverting syntax, or referring to the vision of only one eye. But the relentless drive toward oddity quickly wears thin (though oddity is what constitutes these poem’s originality.) Bang’s approach is to plunge through abrupt cacophonous bursts of language…Much of the time Bang’s crazed vision luxuriates in giddy extremes and frivolous, cheery spiels—cheery because they’re oblivious to life. Control is what’s lacking, and its’ too bad…After three books Mary Jo Bang shows an extraordinary, if uneven, talent in poems that are imbued with a sever but flippant charm.
The review then proceeds with a paragraph beginning: “But at the other side of Bang’s inconsistency are exceptional strokes…” and the review ends with phrases of praise such as “extraordinarily good, irreverent deadpan.” In employing both positive and negative evaluation the review comes across as being objective about the book and does not explicitly lay bare the reviewer’s ethics and aesthetics. However, even through the guise of impartiality, the reviewer’s orientations are easy to read into (as likely are mine)—one can tell by tone that speakers in poems ought not to be “oblivious to life,” that “control” is an unquestionably positive value, and that “originality” is a premium divine that ought not to rest on nouning the verb, inverting syntax, and other such forays into the material of language.
It is interesting to compare such values with Stephen Burt’s 1998 review, published in The Boston Review, of Susan Wheeler’s Smokes, which unveils the attributes of the “Elliptical Poets,” and praises the very sort of gesture Biespiel undercuts:
Elliptical poets try to manifest a person-who speaks the poem and reflects the poet-while using all the verbal gizmos developed over the last few decades to undermine the coherence of speaking selves. They are post-avant-gardist, or post-“postmodern”: they have read (most of them) Stein’s heirs, and the “language writers,” and have chosen to do otherwise. Elliptical poems shift drastically between low (or slangy) and high (or naively “poetic”) diction. Some are lists of phrases beginning “I am an X, I am a Y.” Ellipticism’s favorite established poets are Dickinson, Berryman, Ashbery, and/or Auden; Wheeler draws on all four. The poets tell almost-stories, or almost-obscured ones. They are sardonic, angered, defensively difficult, or desperate; they want to entertain as thoroughly as, but not to resemble, television.
This review is relevant not only in showing the differing responses attached to the same kind of gesture, but because Bang is classed by Burt as one of the “Ellipticals.” What can be said of Wheeler can more or less be said of her work. Furthermore, I offer this juxtaposition because Burt’s review differs from Biespiel’s not only in valuing what Biespiel sees as a symptom of what is wrong with poetry, but also differs in the use of making evaluative claims. Biespeil’s work serves to show the ways in which Bang’s book fails to meet a New Critical aesthetic (although he does not say so in so many words, this is the subtext) and to suggest ways in which writers such as Bang could amend their ways. Burt’s review serves to carve a new space for work that does not fit into old categories.
Burt’s review of Wheeler’s work is a landmark piece, for it is here that Burt coins the Elliptical “school” of poetry—a “movement” that had a fairly good run of attention: an essay and special issue or two of American Letters and Commentary devoted to the “school,” lively debates between poets and poetry students about how to “be elliptical,” discussions of what constitutes a movement and what doesn’t. Whether or not you “believed” in the movement, you had to notice that nearly all of these poets were absorbed into the discussions that became anthologies such as The American Hybrid and Lyric Postmodernism. We might call this moment of anthologizing the Ellipticals’ heyday before the movement died, more than a little, when, in a 2009 issue of The Boston Review Burt announced that “The New Thing” had succeeded Ellipticism. Ellipticism is now old news and we are on to the poets of the New Thing who
observe scenes and people (not only, but also, themselves) with a self-subordinating concision, so much so that the term “minimalism” comes up in discussions of their work, though the false analogies to earlier movements can make the term misleading. The poets of the New Thing eschew sarcasm and tread lightly with ironies, and when they seem hard to pin down, it is because they leave space for interpretations to fit.
Biespiel’s review was published in The Sewanee Review, Burt’s in The Boston Review. For many readers, this is all that needs to be said. These readers know that The Swanee Review is/was the seat of the New Critics, who created and solidified the notion of the circumscribed lyric utterance. The ideal lyric is one whose speaker is without history or context—one whose edges are neatly chiseled off, object polished. These readers know that The Boston Review believes in the importance of debates about the political, invests in shaking up notions of identity, voice, and the activist power of art. Such values necessarily throw into question the ideal of the perfected lyric object.
In many respects my rendition this small slice of review-literary-history reads as a bad imitation of Bolano’sThe Savage Detectives. What do I hope to achieve by taking you down this memory lane of reviews and movements? I certainly don’t want to devalue the idea of the review (or the work of Biespiel and Burt), but to remember that any given review is in service of many different things—often including, but not exclusive to, the book. To quote Ray: It is what it is. Except when it’s not.