Since the publication of Apology for Want in 1997, the vivid and distinctive poetry of Mary Jo Bang has been praised by critics and readers alike. Her work is characterized by a light rhythm and a playful tone that draw the reader into her unique world of images and sounds. Bang is also recognized, however, as a subtle, intellectual, and crafty poet who addresses ambitious philosophical themes and maintains careful control over the implications of her varied language.

"Allegory," originally published in the Paris Review but included in the 2004 collection The Eye like a Strange Balloon, is a superb example of Bang's balance between playful verse and profound themes. Like the other poems in Bang's collection, it is written in the tradition of ekphrasis, in which a poem is highly visual or makes close reference to a work of visual art. Interacting with Philip Guston's 1975 painting of the same name, "Allegory" brings Guston's imagery to life in a narrative structure and develops a unique reading of the painting's significance. The poem comments on the position of the artist in society as well as other abstract themes, such as mythology, fate, and identity. Playing with quirky language that climaxes at a point of bleak despair, Bang delights readers at the same time as she provokes them to question how artists interact with reality and how humankind approaches death and destruction.


Lines 1–7

"Allegory," which is organized into eleven five-line stanzas and a final three-line stanza, begins with the speaker offering to "console" the reader with music. The speaker's use of the pronoun "us" implies that there is a group of artists behind the creative effort, as at the bottom of Guston's painting, which lists "composer," "painter," "sculptor," and "poet" on what appears to be a wave.

In lines 3 through 5, the speaker begins to say that "we" (probably referring, again, to the categories of artists listed in Guston's painting) are "caught in / this sphere" (possibly referring to the earth) where it does not matter whether Prometheus hears their song. This sentence continues over the stanza break between lines 5 and 6, which is an example of enjambment, a convention in which a phrase continues from one line of poetry to the next.

Lines 8–15

Lines 8 through 11 explain the predicament of Prometheus, a Titan from classical mythology known as a great friend to humankind. After Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to humans, Zeus punished him by chaining him to a mountain in the Caucasus, where every day an eagle descended and ate out his liver (which would regenerate by night). The speaker alludes to this eagle's biting and clawing into Prometheus's back and how it would ache. Then the speaker claims that "Somatognosis," or the awareness of one's own body, is the "sixth sense." In lines 14 and 15, the speaker asks what it feels like to "inch one's way forward," and it is likely that this line refers to Guston's painting, in which a man seems to be painstakingly moving against a pile of objects that appear to be shoes.

Lines 16–25

The speaker begins the fourth stanza by stating, "these are the questions," although it is not entirely clear what the questions are. The speaker then envisions a metaphor, or a comparison in which one object or idea is substituted for another, in which dawn is someone crawling toward knowledge. If "More of us" refers to the artists mentioned earlier in the poem, the short statements in lines 19 and 20 suggest that poets, composers, sculptors, and painters, described as "the adoring," are also "coming," presumably toward knowledge.

In the fifth stanza, the speaker moves from these thoughts into a meditation on identity. Comparing each day to a broken tie on a red shoe and a "Who- / do-you-wish-to-be," the speaker suggests that each day offers the possibility of tying the shoe in any manner and assuming a variety of roles. It is worth noting, however, that it seems to be the same "red-leather shoe" each day. The speaker then states that "we," which again could refer to the artists of Guston's painting, will be content with whichever identity "we" think "we" have, which suggests that the "we" do not know what this identity...

(The entire section is 1184 words.)