There are poems about life. And there is life. Pick one.
But what can we do with death? Even to write about it -- when it's already happened to a person whose voice and presence are part of us -- threatens to separate us from our own grief. The distance and perspective that writing demands can blunt the pain and the point. How many poems have you read that said goodbye to a beloved grandmother or a parent?
Mary Jo Bang's son died as a young man, from an overdose of prescribed medication. Whether the overdose was deliberate or accidental couldn't be determined. The certainty instead was in the result: a parent remaining "on earth" without her only child.
To write poems during the first terrible year after such a death (there is no subsequent year that is not terrible, but the first one may be the most shocking one): that's what Bang, already author of four previous collections, chose to do. Her son Michael died in June 2004, and ELEGY, the collection of poems written within his death, was published at the end of 2007 and early this year won the National Book Critics Circle Award in poetry. Every single poem in the book walks into and toward this death.
At first the awareness Bang presents is simple, even ordinary: In "We Took Our Places" she writes,
We're remembering to set an alarm
On tomorrow. We're forgetting the bad
Days of crumbling rocks in our stockings at x-mas.
Someone shook her
Awake and she went on.
But I have five friends right now who live on as parents of a dead "young adult child." And walking into the mornings and afternoons after the funeral is the least of what lies ahead after such a death. In fact, as one friend told me, "The empty place grows larger all the time. With each year, there are more things that your child would have done -- married, had children, celebrated a thirtieth birthday. You've lost it all, and the all just keeps growing."
So the poems in ELEGY probe, like tongue in the gap of the missing tooth, and the horror expands. In "Utopian Longing Becomes More Absurd," Bang says,"Here is the tormented / Arithmetic of one minus one. The zero // In one now hides the other."
Of course, we seek explanations. My friend says she always knew her daughter held the possibility of suicide. Bang doesn't suggest that -- can't even be sure suicide is what happened -- but in "A Place" she reflects on what preceded her son's death:
He'd already slid
Into a depression. Into the state of wishing
To be all he had been which was now a blur.
Haze on the way to becoming a cloud.
Elegy as a mode of poetry came to us in a specific form from the Ancient Greeks. The Renaissance poets -- Ben Jonson, John Donne -- broke it out of that mold. And when Wordsworth, Tennyson, and Whitman seized the mode, it moved even further from prescription and toward the passionate new formations that Dylan Thomas, Allen Ginsberg, and Emily Dickinson crafted. Apart from these one-person, one-death narratives (even if the death be echoing other losses) is Paul Celan's "Death Fugue," embracing a grief comprised of face after face, name after name, so large that life begins to vanish under the mound of losses.
Bang insists on a different balance: one in which the daily wrestling is "Intractable and Irreversible":
A dream bell begins to toll, to tell
Of the intolerable end that keeps going on.
The forms in ELEGY twist and writhe. From strings of tercets, to lines stacked in thick blocks, to neatly shuffled decks of couplets, they become mirrors of the pierced soul and of the missing. I am haunted by one poem where the title feeds directly to the opening couplet: "What If // Fate always had this waiting / In the middle of the road we were riding toward."
What Bang particularly achieves is painting after painting, all different, all linked, and none of them closing off the opening into the cave of death and loss. To the extent that the "end keeps going on," Bang also forges links and chains of a real person, a real relationship, that has no end.
But time does, and a poem near the end of ELEGY is titled "A Year Ends." Bang retraces the questions we ask ourselves, the guilt of survivors: "If she had only done X, / When instead she'd done Y. / Then he would see this / Sun, this rain, this whatever // Light bulb blink as it was / About to go out. Define a day /
For me, someone said to her. / Tragic from beginning to end."
Worth reading? No question: Yes. An assembly of vision, reflections, arguments, mourning -- a living pyramid. Something is indeed going onward, into the next day.