Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Sometimes the best I can do with a poem is respond to it emotionally and admit that what the writing contained was an element, a sentiment that slipped under the critical sensors and got me the gut. Mary Jo Bang's poem here did just that, stirred up feelings I thought I contained and filed under that vague category called wisdom. The wisest thing may well be to stop assuming that you have a handle on anything wrenching event in your life and to appreciate the fact that you've maintained your capacity to laugh or feel sad despite the cynical disguises. The anniversary of the death of both parents, both in August (although in different years) gives the lie to any idea I might have had about being hard boiled.

You Were You Are Elegy
by Mary Jo Bang

Fragile like a
child is fragile.
Destined not to be forever.
Destined to become other
To mother. Here I am
Sitting on a chair, thinking
About you.
About how it was
To talk to you.
How sometimes it was
And sometimes it was awful.
How drugs when drugs were
Undid the good almost entirely
But not entirely
Because good could
always be seen
Glimmering like lame glimmers
In the window of a shop
Called Beautiful
Things Never Last Forever.
I loved you. I love you.
You were.
And you are. Life is experience.
It's all so simple.
Experience is
The chair we sit on.
The sitting. The thinking
Of you
where you are a blank
To be filled
In by missing. I loved you.
love you like I love
All beautiful things.
True beauty is truly seldom.
You were. You are
In May. May now is looking onto
The June that is
coming up.
This is how I measure
The year. Everything Was My Fault
Has been the theme of the song
I've been singing,
Even when you've
told me to quiet.
I haven't been quiet.
I've been crying. I think you
Have forgiven me. You keep
Putting your hand on my shoulder
When I'm
Thank you for that. And
For the ineffable sense
continuance. You were. You are
The brightest thing in the shop window
And the most beautiful seldom I ever saw.

It's timely for me, since this is the beginning of August and both my parents died in this month, my mother in 1986 and my father in 1994. This isn't to say that August has been a burden of sad thoughts, but there are those days when I pause and feel something akin to what Mary Jo Bang gets across with this elegant, plain spoken lyric; there are all those things that I wished that I said to them when I could have and what is heartening about Bang's poem is how she is able to say those things to her son without an overwhelming sorrow. This is a voice that has been tempered by grief and realizes each thing said and done with someone you love is important, vital to your existence. That the person who has died has become a part of you and thus you are stronger, wiser, for the experience, aware of what's important and what is a waste of one's time. I admire the focus and the simple beauty of this poem, expressing sentiment with out being sentimental, not an easy task one assigns themselves.

As it goes, it was brought to my attention that Bang herself did not have son that died. don't think poets are obliged to write solely from their own experience, since we have to remember that poetry is , above all other considerations, an imaginative craft. There are any number of times that I've written pieces of my own that are based more on an idea and inspiration ; although based or premised on some actual fact of in my life, the details are often fictional. It is the rare poet, I think, who rigorously sticks with autobiographical material who doesn't soon writing the same set of poems over and over until they finally stop writing. The issue, of course, is balance; how much ought to be from real life, and how much should be embroider, enhance, fictionalize?One way or the other in excess can result in dullness or unspeakable bombast. Empathy , I think , is what the poet is after; can he or she write in such as way as to get a reaction from a reader who might empathize?

As it goes, Bang's poem is a strong one all the same for all the reasons I've already said; she is a good writer. Poets , we must remember as well, are writers, and writers tell stories they want readers to relate to in some capacity. Not all the stories they tell us are true, and the worth of the writing lies simply in the work's capacity to get a response from us. In this case, it's visceral.


  1. Anonymous10:46 PM PDT

    "You were. You are
    The brightest thing in the shop window
    And the most beautiful seldom I ever saw."

    I love that so much. It could be a poem unto itself, for me. This entire blog, and the poem itself, are very moving, to me.

    I haven't lost a mother, a father, or a son, but we have all, in some way or another, lost someone.

  2. Of course Mary Jo Bang had a son. I don't think he was necessarily tied to her by biology, but he was her son.

  3. Thanks for clearing that up, Susan. And thank you Keith for your kind remarks.


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