Reviewed by Christina Cook
Save for the notable exceptions of Psalm 119 and Chaucer's "Prayer of Our Lady," abecedarian poems have largely earned their fame by teaching young children their ABCs. Although the innocence of childhood certainly plays into the prosody and themes in The Bride of E, Mary Jo Bang's sixth book of poetry, the collection itself could not be more intellectually engaging. Take for example the first poem, "ABC Plus E: Cosmic Aloneness is the Bride of Existence." The very title establishes human existence as a philosophical problem: the "Bride of Existence" is ipso facto not "Existence" itself. In other words, she is non-existent, residing in a pre-marital state of undemarcated nothingness, which actually makes her the perfect match for Existence -- unless he is going to marry himself. But this also sets up an eternal engagement, since non-existence and existence can never, by their very definitions, unite. In this way, the title introduces a challenging, witty, playful poem in which "[t]here was vodka and champagne, both in quantities / Extremely beautiful and nice for getting tight," preventing the dense existential musings at the core of the poem from weighing it down:
They were practitioners, they admitted to the barman,
Of psychological materialism, explaining that they had read both
Sartre and de Beauvoir and believed in the cerebellum,
The thalamus and the lower brain and that between
The lower and the upper parts there must be room for them,
Neant [nothingness] aside.
-- p. 3
"They" refers to the girls whose night at the bar provides both the concrete physical and abstract thematic frameworks for the poem. The girls enter "ABC Plus E" in a dazzling flurry of Bang's trademark tightly controlled, musical language with "A pack of young flirts was patrolling the party." Just as the girls' punchy, unmistakable presence at the party is announced with a proliferation of plosive sounds, the poem closes quietly, gliding into a linguistically and thematically uncertain hang-time with
Post-adolescent dreamers who morphed on the dance floor
That night into naughty boys, echoing the girls' questions
Of "how shall we live," "what shall we do,"
Words without end, without weight.
-- p. 3
The first of these lines couldn't be more full of uncertainty: young people who are no longer adolescents but not yet adults, dreaming and morphing on a dance floor where "[t]he girls [were] lugging their blind-drunk partners," "plunged into almost total darkness" only a stanza before. Moreover, at the poem's end, the "w" sounds lend linguistic weight to a line that speaks of weightlessness.
Fast-forward through the alphabet to "I," and another look at the brain reveals an even closer examination of uncertainty:
To the program: "If you look at the brain..."
Not everyone agrees but it's clear
There is an immense power in uncertainty.
There is a story that goes like this:
You were a crime you didn't know had been committed.
And it's that not knowing, the sine qua non
Of uncertainty, that holds the person in
-- p. 27
The supposition of an innocent crime makes sense in a poem with a title as holographic as "I as in Justice": Simply change the timing of the title's utterance, and a poem about justice simultaneously reveals itself as a poem about injustice. Truth, it seems, lies in the extrapolation between itself and falsehood, in the conjecture and curiosity that occupy the space where one thing meets its opposite.
The existence of this interstice threads throughout the poems in the collection: it shows up in the Ds, in the poem "Death and Disappearance" (p. 14) referring to the physical space "where cells line up / To meet the edge where the car takes the body away," and again in the Gs, in the poem "Ghosts and Grays," where
Separated two moments. Something became a coast
Against which she passed along staring
Into the difference between.
-- p. 22
What is it, exactly, that separates two moments? The answer offered in "Z Stands for Zero Hour" (p. 70) is "[t]he news is this: / Between now and now is a rest." Time is a difficult element to elucidate, so let's consider the same dynamics transposed to music, where a rest is a defined length of silence that shapes the sounds surrounding it. In the same way, rests between moments lie outside of time, yet without them, time could not be demarcated and would therefore be an endless expanse: eternal. What enlightens these ideas is the prosody Bang employs as the vessel for their expression. Note how she creates precisely the rest being referred to by inserting a line break plus the most pregnant of pauses: the colon, in "The news is this:". She then creates no such rest in the next line, "Between now and now is a rest," nor does she lineate it in a way that emphasizes the rests between the "nows," which would be easy enough to do in free verse, with punctuation or line breaks. Additionally, she tucks a string of short, largely monosyllabic words inside a darting meter, and as a result, the line exactly replicates the ceaseless speed of passing moments which renders the rests between them unnoticeable.
So just as Cosmic Aloneness is the bride of an existence she can never join in the first "A" poem, Eternity is the bride of a time she can never inhabit in the last "Z" poem. Part-way between, in "F is for Forgetting," we are given leaden glimpses of time's bride:
-- a silver image
Of a boat that sits and sits.
Time ago is then. Now time
To look at the dummy
At the table, his head slumped over
His cereal bowl. Look at him. He's on a stage.
He is silently sizing up the table he takes in
As he stares down. This is the world
When it's reduced down to a moment.
The mind doesn't halt but goes halfway up
In the elevator and then finds itself stuck.
This is the entirety. Eternity. Made of material
That is unlikely to change.
The eternal, then, is not real. It is only the staging we use in order to measure its opposite, which is, as we see in the "P" poem, "In the Present and Probable Future,"
The dark relative against the brilliance of the last act
Of some staged production. The cast bows. A tape player click, click,
Clicks. Some kind of clock. A unit of measurement.
We wish ourselves back on the boat. Wish for the answer
To the question: When should we walk out
Of the theater into the night? When should we accept that life is only
An exaggerated form of special pleading, romanticized
Beyond saying into moon, stone, flock, and trees?
-- p. 46
The Bride of E, then, is an entity whose selfhood and marriage explore Existence, Experience, and Eternity in, dare I say, infinitely complex ways which are fully fleshed out in this extraordinary book that bears her name.
In an ironic twist, eternity is here seen to be bounded by time as much as it demarcates the moments of time. With her masterful technical control, Bang employs prosody to not only emphasize, but to actually enact this twist. The vehicle for the metaphor used to express eternity is the theater, and the sentences describing its transparent staging are choppy fragments and phrases punctuated by periods and stuttering plosive "k" sounds. Once walking out into the night is suggested, the sentences grow more complete and loop gracefully along for as much as three page-wide lines apiece to convey actual lived experience. In one such line, the speaker addresses the reader directly: "Listen, however events turn out, if we want we can continue to see / The image of moon as an outburst of lyric, a vision of John Keats / and his friends..." No more need be said to invoke Keats' "still unravished bride of quietness" who undoubtedly graces the Grecian Urn to this day, his "foster-child of silence and slow time" whose beauty "cannot fade." As stunningly beautiful as this un-Botoxed bride of existence may be, she is, sadly and cosmically, alone. However, her non-existence is a necessary part of her bridegroom's existence. In the end, the speaker concludes that "Long after we are gone / We can say we were here." When we die, we still will have existed. The significance of this may be a matter of considerable debate among the "pack of young flirts" who "read both Sartre and de Beauvoir" and "their blind-drunk partners" in the book's opening poem, but this poem's speaker assures us that it means "[n]othing is lost. If anything, we gain / Experience." The Bride of E, then, is an entity whose selfhood and marriage explore Existence, Experience, and Eternity in, dare I say, infinitely complex ways which are fully fleshed out in this extraordinary book that bears her name.
Christina Cook's poems, translations, essays, and reviews have appeared or are forthcoming in a number of journals, including Prairie Schooner, The Dos Passos Review, Hayden's Ferry Review, Harpur Palate, Packingtown Review, and The Bitter Oleander. She holds an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts and is a poetry editor at Inertia Magazine. She teaches writing at Colby-Sawyer College, in New Hampshire.
Books mentioned in this post