Elegy

Overview

Mary Jo Bang's fifth collection, Elegy, chronicles the year following the death of her son. By weaving the particulars of her own loss into a tapestry that also contains the elements common to all losses, Bang creates something far larger than a mere lament. Continually in search of an adequate metaphor for the most profound and private grief, the poems in Elegy confront, in stark terms and with a resilient voice, how memory haunts the living and brings the dead back to life. Within these intimate and personal ...

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Overview

Mary Jo Bang's fifth collection, Elegy, chronicles the year following the death of her son. By weaving the particulars of her own loss into a tapestry that also contains the elements common to all losses, Bang creates something far larger than a mere lament. Continually in search of an adequate metaphor for the most profound and private grief, the poems in Elegy confront, in stark terms and with a resilient voice, how memory haunts the living and brings the dead back to life. Within these intimate and personal poems is a persistently urgent, and deeply touching, examination of grief itself.

Winner of the 2008 National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"This is our beautiful glimpse of forever. Mary Jo Bang's Elegy is a harrowing, necessary work." —C. D. Wright

"These poems (elegies) are written under the sign of Necessity. They exist because they have to exist. This means they are still burning from the forge, carry pain that is radiant, and cut a guiding path for the reader. Because she is already, before the hour of necessity, a serious and accomplished poet, all that she knows comes to her aid and has the kindness to make these poems great." —Fanny Howe, citation for the Poetry Society of America's Alice Fay Di Castagnola Award

David Orr
This is a tightly focused, completely forthright collection written almost entirely in the bleakest key imaginable. The poems aren't all great…but collectively they are overwhelming—which is both a compliment to Bang's talent and to the toughness of mind that allowed her to attempt this difficult project in the first place…The poet doubts the redemptive power of her own gift while simultaneously using it to find a tone that—in the final line—wavers perfectly between her contempt for consolation and her desire for it. The achievement of art shows the limitation of art, and vice versa. This is the great strength of Elegy. No one will ever bring back the dead by writing poetry; indeed, the only certain result of writing a poem is the poem itself. But as Bang proves in this sad, strange book, the conversion of grief into art may be balanced, if not redeemed, by the transformation of art into grieving.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

In her powerful fifth collection, Bang asks, "What is elegy but the attempt / To rebreathe life/ Into what the gone one once was." Writing to mourn the death of her adult son, Bang interrogates the elegiac form and demands of it more than it can give, frustrated, over and over again, with memory, which falls pitifully short of life: "Memory is deeply not alive; it's a mock-up/ And this renders it hateful."

The urgent line breaks of Bang's fractured sentences build their own drama, as if her precisions might determine whether or not she will cross the fissures between what she wants to say and what she can't. Aware that there is no vocabulary equal to conveying the pain of losing a loved one or the struggle to be faithful to the loss, the poet ruefully admits, "That's where things went wrong./ Is went into language."

Plumbing a world made strange by grief means forsaking the mundane; as a result, there are only a few everyday objects in these poems- an overcoat,roller-skates and Phenobarbital pills. Ostensibly a linear account of a year of sorrow, the structure of the collection suggests rather that grief might be crystalline, the poems accruing around a memory that won't move on: "I say Come Back and you do/ Not do what I want." While the poet must write and rewrite in order to get her subject right, the mother of a dead child writes to fill the a bottomless chasm.

Like Joan Didion in The Year of Magical Thinking, Bang finds no easy consolation, and there is pain for the reader here, too, as when, toward the end of the collection, Bang writes, "Everything Was My Fault / Has been the theme of the song." Calling to mind Sharon Olds's TheFatherandDonald Hall's Without, two other harrowing contemporary book-length poetic studies of loss, Bang offers, if not hope, a kind of keeping company, a way, however painful, to go on: "Otherwise no longer exists./ There is only stasis, continually/ Granting ceremony to the moment." (Oct.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

So many authors writing about a child's death deliver the raw material, as if that were enough. Bang's beautifully compassed work is instead transformative, turning anguish into genuine poetry. A stunning and heartfelt read; this year's National Book Critics Circle award winner. (LJ1/08)


—Barbara Hoffert
The Barnes & Noble Review
Nothing has inspired so much bad poetry as loss. The ineffability of grief, after all, is part of what makes it so awful. The bereft are cruelly left a voice full of recycled sentiments that can only belittle a beloved. But the opposite proves true for Mary Jo Bang's beautiful "Elegy," as she chronicles the death of her son with truly stereophonic horror. Here is the insomnia, the spooky déj? vu, the pharmacology, the amnesia, the nightmares, and the white noise of loss. Bang pours it all into a lyric poetic line that is blunted down, burnished as obsidian:
You left nothing Left to say and yet there is this Incomplete labyrinth

Of finished thought, this Wash of days over energy's uneven rock. This Vault door's hollow closing

Crash behind which I say, Stop,
To the accidental.
Uncle, to the twisty wrist.

No matter how she beseeches, Bang cannot get her wish, and bitter lament follows "The role of elegy is / to put a death mask on tragedy...To look for an imagined / Consolidation of grief / So we can all be finished / Once and for all and genuinely shut up." But loss lets loose a syntactical virus; a supercharged ontological magnet. It warps our sense of time, cruelly fooling. "He lived in her mind / As a limited aspect where time kept circling." And so it is perhaps no solace -- but worth saying, anyway -- that the much-loved son has become immortal in these essential, powerful poems. --John Freeman
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781555974831
  • Publisher: Graywolf Press
  • Publication date: 10/16/2007
  • Pages: 80
  • Product dimensions: 6.72 (w) x 8.80 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Mary Jo Bang is the author of four previous books of poetry, including Louise in Love and The Eye Like a Strange Balloon. She lives in St. Louis, Missouri, where she is director of the creative writing program at Washington University.

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Read an Excerpt

Look at her—It's as if

The windows of night have been sewn to her eyes.

—from "Ode to History"

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