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.