Bang, Mary Jo
BANG, Mary Jo
Nationality: American. Born: Mary Jo Ward, Waynesville, Missouri, 22 October 1946. Education: Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois, 1969–71, B.A. in sociology (summa cum laude) 1971, M.A. 1975; University of Westminster, London, 1987–89, B.A. in photography 1989; Columbia University, New York, 1993–95, M.F.A.1998. Career: Instructor, Columbia College, Chicago, 1991–93; visiting lecturer, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, 1997–98; instructor, The New School, New York, 1998; visiting writer, University of Montana, Missoula, 1999. Since 1999 assistant professor of English, Washington University, St. Louis, Missouri. Co-editor, Columbia Poetry Review #6, Columbia College, Chicago, 1992–93; associate editor, 1993–94, and co-editor, 1994–95, Columbia: A Magazine of Poetry & Prose; since 1995 poetry co-editor, Boston Review.Awards: "Discovery"The Nation award, 1995; Bakeless prize, 1996, for Apology for Want; New Writers award, Greg Lakes Colleges Association, 1998, for Apology for Want; Yaddo fellowship, 1998; Hodder fellowship, Princeton University, 1999–2000; Alice Fay di Castagnola award, Poetry Society of America, 2000.
Mary Jo Bang's Apology for Want addresses desire. The poems remind us that desire is a human condition differentiated from mere animal want or hunger by its insatiability, what Bang calls "the always ravenous hunger" ("Persephone Leaving"). Her poems probe desire with a scrupulous gaze and a willful and unabashed attention that avoid self-pity. In this regard the poems break with that strain of twentieth-century confessionalism concerned with the poet's unique personal anguish, often at the expense of intelligibility. Bang's poems suggest a neo-Metaphysical poetics. Harnessing intriguing metaphors, intricate textual allusions, and elaborate wordplay, her poetics hearken back to a more tough-minded and philosophical poetic tradition, one concerned with understanding universal human needs and fears.
Bang's language captivates us with its suggestiveness. We immediately accept the rightness of her metaphors, even though we cannot pin down their aptness precisely, as when she writes, "once on a backyard swing / I became the sky I meant to be" ("In St. John's Hospital") or in her description of a team of surgeons and nurses standing "like a green sea at the edge of a field of sterility" ("Open Heart Surgery"). Her polysemous metaphors and short couplets, triplets, and quatrains create a tension. Her poems work to temper desire by framing it within the poetic form and by naming it. Desire is "the shrouded want to cheek and shoulder / that arms can't reach, throat refuses to ask" ("In This Business of Touch and Be Touched"). Her figures concretely define objects: "head lamps crawl" ("Chicago"), and "the sea dazes itself" ("Waking in Antibes"). Reverse personification allows a speaker to define herself in terms of the world, adapting a line of Gerald Manley Hopkins: "I am the earth, quartz-fret and sparks of salt" ("The Clairvoyant").
Bang's attention to the possibilities of figurative language and textual allusions suggests a poet concerned with correspondences. Oracular signs and prophetic warnings are part of this order. Whether it is the poem "Waking in Antibes," in which a disfigured baby born in northern India is heralded as the Hindu god Ganesha, or "The Oracle," in which a "ping" announces a kitchen fire, such signs and revelations abound in Bang's cosmos and "can tell you everything you need to know" if you are attentive enough. Bang does not accept these signs on faith alone but subjects them to reason and tough-minded common sense. She suggests that "soon we will understand everything—"why our first breath, when our last"—but warns that "there are few ways / to free the body from desire, all end in anarchy" ("Apology for Want").
For Bang being human means being subject to physical and psychological needs, and she cautions balance. Repeatedly we witness the need for physical connection. In "The Clairvoyant" the speaker vows, "I will be pressed against. Known." In "Ashes" we read, "in the absence of touch—sight / and sound can compensate only for so long." Windows, mirrors, and glass permeate Bang's poems, acting as teasing barriers to the physical contact that might assuage our desire. Bang's barriers, like the poems themselves, set off our wants by framing them. Or worse, they turn on us, reflecting our needy selves. One frustrated speaker complains, the "mirror tells me nothing, nor how / nor why—won't" ("In Order Not to Be Eten nor All to Torne").
Bang's poems suggest that answers are not found in the outer world but are located where "the outer edge imagined meets real" ("In This Business of Touch and Be Touched"). "In St. John's Hospital" contemplates this place. The speaker waits inside a hospital for a doctor's pronouncement, while
Outside, red brick divided
the fabric of late spring. A river limped by
refusing comfort, a cool mere.
By partitioning the landscape, the hospital brick frustrates the speaker's access to the regenerative power of traditional spring images. The river, too, fails to console, as its lethargic limp slows to near stagnation. The stagnant mere reflects back on the speaker, not in ridicule or unfeeling apathy but as a mirror that reflects merely what is.
For Bang life is pain and loss and need. But her poems posit that loss, and the consequent need, defines us. Thus, as in "In St. John's Hospital," an imaginative river provides a mirror that reflects a truer definition of who we are. We are defined merely by our wants, which the speaker only belatedly understands:
All our lives we carry a condition inside.
Too late we realize—dry sand
dust, what might have been a house.
Sand is the material of mirrors. Bang's poem holds out the possibility of a mirror poetics, a space where "imagined meets real."