Showing posts with label Mary Jo Bang. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Mary Jo Bang. Show all posts

Saturday, May 8, 2010

The center holds ,and it's crushing us

Poet Mary Jo Bang has the unique ability to write a polemical poem that is both a superb example of straight talk-there is no mistaking her fevered sentiment for anything else--and an elegant sample of exquisitely placed simile and metaphor The power of "After the Fact" comes from the first lines, a narrator setting up the world he/she lives like it were subject to templates from which only tragic outcomes can result. The sin of this all, the source of the outrage, are the actors in the self-limiting melodramas--buffoons peacocks, egomaniacs, narcissists with trigger fingers mistaking the contrived circumstances of their cause for the way things required to go.

Sleep tight, you martyrs.
And you criminals who killed for a narrow share
of power and a few rotten spoils.
Enough is enough.

This is very tough stuff , an indictment with a sting, an x ray to the heart of the matters; while those who wage wars justify their aggression in the many slippery rationalizations that seek "justice" through a rhetorical back door , the results of their righteousness, their efforts to set the world right, only make the tragedies worse. The calamity multiply, the genocides continue, the planet darkens even more and becomes unlivable-the only thing that seems to renew itself is the rhetoric that proclaims a vision of aggressive human perfection, a heaven here on earth, while the heart grow harder, colder. The fatal schemes, the complete waste of what's best in this existence, contracts not just the heart, but makes the universe appear to shrink to a burned out cinder.

The corners converge, causing the globe to grow smaller
than all of time times space divided
by every petty difference.
The center would not hold for Yeats; it contracts for Mary Jo Bang, become a flaming ball of contentious bad faith . It's a simple morality tale, a simple but profound choice that each of us needs to make, to make decisions exclusively on the basis of self seeking, or to help others, create community, cooperation. Bang's poem/polemic provides the profound example of selfishness when it's codified with a language that adopts some of the leaner rhetoric of justice, peace and harmony and uses the terms to rationalize an institutionalized State of War. It is the tragedy of trying to make the mystery of life comprehensible by means of fear-- investigating the life and ways of a Villainized Other is to trade with the Devil.

The girl newly dead on the sidewalk says,
"Excuse me, but—
what kind of moral force is brute moral force?"

The poem can be said to lack subtlety, but a muted message in this instance could be so finely wrought that even an informed reader would miss the point in search for clues among the ambiguities. This has the brilliant, placard bearing power of Ferlinghetti's political poems, particularly "I Am Waiting"; it is a succession of one lines and witticisms that crystallize the crisis and makes it memorable. This is a poem meant to get you thinking about something other than whether it works as a poem. It does just that.

I don't think Bang's poems encourages passive martyrdom of any kind, if I understand your question correctly. It has more the feel of a scaled-back soliloquy delivered in the last act of a Greek Tragedy, the summation presented while the evidence is plainly visible, undeniable, to anyone who might have been involved in debating war and power-grabbing in the abstract. The poem operates under the assumption that the evil doers--politicians, generals, corporations--are shamed to silence while the damnable curses is cast, but beyond this minor suspension of disbelief --politicians, generals and corporations won't reform themselves and seek justice rather than justice as the result of a good scold--we realize the poem isn't intended for the perpetrators of misery, but the citizens who've been seduced by a well-oiled propaganda.

We are governed solely by our consent, and the further implication is that the governed population's failure to hold their representatives to higher , more consequential standard is just as responsible for the grim tales told here. Our songs, our campaign slogans, our policy discussions are geared to assure us that the greatest good is the intent ,and that it surely will be the result. Mary Jo Bang's speech--and that is what this is, finally, a speech--shows the reader that there are leaders elected in our name who are singing of their esteemed virtues while everyone else can see the devastation they leave in their wake.

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.