Elegy

By Mary Jo Bang

Graywolf. 92 pp. $25


Reviewed

by Elizabeth Hoover


In

Elegy

, poet Mary Jo Bang has taken on one of the largest and most difficult subjects in all of literature: loss. She does so with admirable restraint, skating the razor-thin edge between sentiment and sentimentality.

The book, Bang's fifth collection, catalogs the year following her son's death by drug overdose (whether it was intentional remains a mystery), weaving the particulars of this tragedy into a meditation about the nature of loss on a grand scale - from the fall of Troy to the present. The speaker in these poems has a restless intellect, and struggles to confine the runaway emotion of grief within some sort of understandable system by looking to a literary tradition that dates back to ancient Greek drama and searching for an apt metaphor for death. But these efforts constantly fail to contain sorrow, leaving her stuck in another "sad sobbing day."

By looking outward to understand the nature of her own loss, Bang has created a work of startling breadth, one that explores what is essential to all losses.

She is highly aware of the commonness of her experience with grief. She writes in "Tragedy":

The ash box and I bide our time.

This is typical. This is classical.

This is what tragedy was

Always trying to teach us.

Those toga-wrapped torsos . . .

There is something distinctly modern about the ability to simultaneously experience something and comment upon it. The speaker often watches her grief like a spectator at a play. This sense of detachment can, at times, seem clinical, overly abstract, even cold.

But this detached tone also creates a scrim for grief to tear, revealing what is behind the performance. It is when the ability to regard grief from an intellectual standpoint fails and the heartbreaking particulars emerge that this work takes on its greatest force. For example, Bang writes of a particular Wednesday afternoon watching her son getting onto the 6 Train. The vividness of the memory prompts her to ask, "How could I be / and not you?"

These moments of visceral emotion, straining against the formal, regular stanzas of Bang's verse, often arise when the speaker confronts the feeling that she bears some responsibility for her son's death:

The after-sorrow

That will last my lifetime. The hair-tearing

Grief of the mother

Whose child has been swept away

By the needle broom

Of all her mindless errors.

Again and again, throughout the book, the idea of blame resurfaces, with the speaker wondering if she could have done something to prevent her son's death, or soothe his suffering while he lived.

Taken as a whole, these poems are about the intellect's attempts to understand loss as well as its failure to be able to. "There is no pretending to know / What crawls out of the mind lying quiet / By itself in the snow of the grave grass."

Language, Bang reminds us, is not up to the task of understanding or even fully expressing loss. "That's where things went wrong. / Is went into language." In her poems, language constantly goes "wrong," breaking into fragments of sentences, suddenly changing tense, and using pronouns without antecedents. At times, this reads as strangely disembodied, but at others, this fragmentation is highly compelling.

As the book draws to a close, the poems start to coalesce, relying less on fragmentation. The speaker becomes more willing to remain at the level of the concrete. There is a stark simplicity to the pieces in this section of the book.

The role of elegy is, Bang writes, "to put a death mask on tragedy, / A drape on the mirror." But these final poems tear the mask off, leaving us with the bald fact of a mother thinking of her son's heart and crying, "If only / It would say lubdub and be alive."

Elizabeth Hoover's reviews have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the New York Observer, and the Chicago Tribune.