(Poets and Poetry in America)

Mary Jo Bang’s earliest work, poems written during and immediately after her years at Columbia, reflects the eagerness of a student of poetry. Bang is interested in experimenting with form to create the something new that all starting poets seek. Her subject matter seldom reflects her own experience—she strives for an impersonal poetry that focuses on language shaped for sonic effect. The poems construct a suggestive scene rather than telling a story or filling in the details. The reader is set down in an operating room, in a lush park, or on a city sidewalk—but without the reassuring narrative structure of character and situation. The work draws on her two professed influences: the quiet subversive vision of Emily Dickinson and the groundbreaking work of the Beat poets, particularly Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and its endorsement of the delight in radical formal experiments.

Bang’s poems are difficult, at times cut with a deliberate ambiguity that leaves the reader suspended just short of clear themes (often the poems play out in a dreamlike ambience); readers are left to savor the lyrical play of language and the rich sense of suggestive imagery. Bang speaks from behind the mask of the poet; indeed the collection Louise in Love is a kind of narrative with distinctive characters, notably a woman and her boyfriend. These are poems ultimately about the work of art itself. The poems are often brief, their free structure a complicated weave of accents and pauses, their rhyme achieved through subtle language devices (prominently assonance and consonance), their lines fragmented and elliptical, and their syntax disjointed and abrupt. They are poems of effect.

After the death of her son, when Bang began writing the poem sequence that would become Elegy, she maintained her investigation into poetic form, examining how such deep and personal sorrow could shape poems that avoid sentimentality and self-pity and how mourning could not become public theater when transcribed into a poem that assumes a reader, a stranger to her private anguish. That balance between grief and art allowed her to produce her most deeply personal poetry while continuing her work with the formal aspects of poetry, in this case how language—word patterns, line breaks, vocal sounds, and even selected images—can record the recoil from enormous pain.

The Eye Like a Strange Balloon

Bang’s fourth collection of poetry, The Eye Like a Strange Balloon, most epitomizes her early...

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