LOUISE IN LOVE
Grove Press ($13)
THE DOWNSTREAM EXTREMITY OF THE ISLE OF SWANS
University of Georgia ($15.95)
by Bonnie Blader
Any single short discussion of Mary Jo Bang's two new books, both published in the Spring of 2001, will only scratch their rich surfaces. Bang deploys her own signature language of perspective, using it so successfully across the span of both books that the reader is invited to intuit its logic and learn to read her. It is "a language / of tongue rolls and lip twists," to borrow from the poem "To Dance the Tarantella," from Downstream Extremity. Alliteration is a fundamental feature; consonants thrust up in her voice stream like stones, turning the current back on itself. "It is from that in water we were from," Robert Frost says in "West Running Brook," "long, long before we were from any creature." Perhaps this explains the appeal of her technique. It invites sensory validation before cognitive sense is even broached.
Nearly a novel in verse, Louise in Love is also a sonic celebration. Sprung rhythms, iambic verse, and created words dance lightly along an upper crust of an invented world. Poems appear mostly in three-line stanzas or flush-left, ragged-right blocks; there is also a single prose poem, named for the title character. The forms affect their emotional density. Bang renders the world of Louise being in, playing with, and suffering love. The arc of her experience is a somewhat surrealistic bumper car journey—a image, in fact, that appears in the book, as does "Yves Tanguy walking a panther."
The collection's cast of characters, one mysteriously called "the other" to whom Louise sometimes turns for grounding or direction, call up an admittedly eclipsed world, one of a "hike to the hillock," "frou-frou," " pretty," "wonder," and "games." This gestured world is evident even in the mannered titles of poems, keeping before us an awareness of artifice that is both a part of the story of love and a part of its hyper-conscious presentation. We invest in the world of the "Dramatis Personae" at the same time we are aware that the story itself is scrutinized. The question of which is most artificial, the created world or the commentary, seems to be an issue the poet herself is happy to raise.
Bang's narrative is remarkably illusive, what the aptly chosen image and apt ear do in collusion. It feels like it's there and it moves: "Lighter, liminal, quite likely / to follow a line completely lacking in depth." ("Like a Fire in a Fire") The three line stanzas that predominate seem part of the narrative illusion, saying beginning, middle, and end repeatedly, but the created world is here thanks to fragmentary images and an achievement of tone created by pace and diction. It is built as if with mirrors artfully set to allow corners to imply whole rooms. So much depends on sound, word texture, and Bang's Hopkins-esque ease: "a hive hum ongoing in the hear ear." She revels in the aural geography of language as formalist painters do in paint, where color is the story, and the stroke composition. From the prose poem "Louise":
Depiction, she said, surfacing in order to say it and fracturing the spell under which they swam in the moment that ended an eon ago. Swans, she said, referring to the needle-neck birds black and white that lined the aisle down which one walked to get to the river on which they were skating away.
Keats is referenced in borrowed italicized lines in a few poems, but it is Woolf who feels more at its heart, as if she is dreaming and this collection is the fragmented warp of her dream. The Woolf-ian sensibility is so pervasive--a line from Mrs. Dalloway even appears in "That Was All, Louise Said, Except For"—that it is a welcome release when Louise appears in one poem with a copy of Mrs. Dalloway in hand.
If narration is at play in Louise in Love, it is perception that is the preoccupation of The Downstream Extremity of the Isle of Swans. On what does perception depend—the ordering/disordering mind or the glimpsed external? The book is divided into three sections, the last not a poem cluster but a high-speed, paragraphed collection of fragments called "Origin of the Impulse to Speak," a biography told in shaping impacts and images. Of course, the subjectivity of the eye is inherent in what one defines as one's life; in the first two sections of the book, among discrete poems, a rough count of words directly referring to sight (see, view, sight, eye) yields 65 instances in 53 pages. Bang is not invested in continuous or traditional narrative (although the poems are populated with personae), but in considering an equilibrium, a territory of influence, between interior and external conditions with the eye—"Poor eye, she said, from the off-center door of her head"—a manipulated vehicle. The eye influences: "the mind is made by eye," and is in turn used, "O the idea of order. It will be seen through."
As in Louise in Love, Bang calls up other poets. Samuel Beckett's "Ohio Impromptu" drives the title; Richard Howard and John Yau loan her lines. But it is a quality in Wallace Stevens's work, his extravagant images, his disinclination for standard narration, and the primacy he grants the imagination over the other reality at its command, that Bang might claim as her tradition. She gives us interior convictions in these poems using artifact images from an exterior reality also, one feels, mostly imagined—"the manhandled grammar of nature," as she says in "Pear and O, an Opera"—as their correlative or proof. What she achieves is no less than a realignment of language to address uniquely felt places. From the title poem:
In the window a jacket cried, Wear me, wear me,
on a street of tall houses, all showing teeth (ash white of ice rut,
of water on rock)—
many their eyes, all shaded by marmalade hoods. O cobra.
I was foreign then, living in a limited range.
Reading across both books, we become aware that Bang echoes herself. Certain images and particular words are repeated. Swans are needle-necked in both books. The word "sliver," usually used in conjunction with light or silver, recurs. One senses a certain insistence on the nature of the natural world on her part, and the press of an idea being offered to us again and again. Bang's aesthetic also conjoins the ancient or archaic with contemporary references: "It's time for the feasting that follows the four men it took / to carry the dead monster's head," begins "Stone, Montana." We hear of pipers, revellers, ringbolts, cigarettes and satellites. We are in all worlds and no known world at once, in all times and no sure time, and must make our own maps as we read. Mary Jo Bang's achievement is in having something wholly there, a language and a philosophy to investigate. Her work teaches us how it will speak. Before we may fully grasp her intricacies, our senses are taken by what is meant.
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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001