After Great Pain
Bang's title tells us to expect a formal lament for the dead, and the first blurb lets us know that this is about the "loss of a child . . . an only child who is in the prime of life." The dedication gives us the name, Michael Donner Van Hook, and his dates, as they might appear on a gravestone, "January 17, 1967-June 21, 2004."
This is all necessary information before we actually begin reading the poems, because Bang has chosen a very formal, often deceptively calm presentation to control the grief that would otherwise overwhelm her. "After great pain, a formal feeling comes," Emily Dickinson wrote, rather famously, and Mary Jo Bang has learned that lesson well. The poems in Elegy are placed chronologically in the year following the death of her son from an accidental overdose of prescription pills. An early poem, "Ode to History," shows the poet's search for the language to contain her grief: