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Saturday, May 1st, 2004


Louise in Love

by Mary Jo Bang

A review by Jill Owens

Mary Jo Bang (her name, perfect for a poet, must be envied) won the prestigious 1996 Bread Loaf Bakeless Literary prize for Apology for Want, her previous book of poems. Louise in Love employs the same elegant, intelligent language and extends it through strongly defined characters, metaphors and images that stretch across several poems, and a great deal of dialogue. Narrative devices are somewhat unusual in a book of what is primarily lyric poetry, but the conjunction of discourse and personality with tightly packed, even epigrammatic, lines of verse creates a unique, powerful poetic vision.

Louise as a character is irreverent but formal, obstinate perhaps; she is polished and spontaneous, joyful and cynical. Bang gives Louise a living voice, defining her as a woman in love, in near-dream, in occasional sharp boredom. As she moves through the book, her observations, along with the other characters', tend toward a languid cast, contrasting nicely with the dense, incisive language. The dialogue in Louise in Love will make you wish your conversations were as lovely, funny, and exact; the combination of the vernacular with the formal lends an abstract precision to Louise's descriptions: "Surgery, she said, had cured her of an addiction/ to objects."

Bang's language never feels condescending, despite its luxurious vocabulary ("tariffed," "tetched," "sisterenvy," but then also "puky" and "mud-spattered"); her tone has a satisfying defiance, a pragmatic acceptance of the world as it is with an insistence on the presence of the fantastic in daily life. Although her characters dabble in artifice, the poems are far from artificial; Louise and her lover's perceptions about love are genuine and often spontaneous. As an added pleasure, Bang also has a true gift for titles, often enjambed into the first line of the poem; a few of my favorites are "The Story of Small Cars," "Here's a Fine Word: Prettiplease," and "You Could Say She Was Willful, But Compared to What?"

Louise in Love plays, of course, with ideas of love, as well as language, nature, and art, replication and purity. Bang's poems fill in the invisible cracks in the characters' stories; the opposite of a straightforward tale, they jar the reader just enough that when things settle back into place, subtly changed, a shift has occurred, a prism clarified.

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