There are at least a couple of ways of reading a book of poetry. You can jump around in it, looking for individual gems that move your fancy—or you can read the whole thing from beginning to end, including even the blurbs, the dedications, and the acknowledgements. Mary Jo Bang’s Elegy asks for the latter.
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:
Had she not lain on that bed with a boy
All those years ago, where would they be, she wondered.
She and the child that wouldn’t have been but was now
No more. She would know nothing
Of mothering. She would know nothing
Of death. She would know nothing
Of love. The three things she’d been given
To remember. Wake me up, please, she said,
When this life is over. Look at her—It’s as if
The windows of night have been sewn to her eyes.
This poetry offers no easy cure, either in its making or in the reading. An older and wiser man once told me that if poetry cannot cure, it almost certainly provides consolation. Near the end of Elegy, almost a year after the death of her child, Mary Jo Bang writes:
And now in spite of sorrow unending, the sky is more
Beautiful than it’s ever been.
Blue and night-blue above a string of pale April yellow
Which stands in for incandescent clarity,
Which is heard as if only.
And the beauty becomes real even in the face of that sorrow. It feels like an honor to read these poems.
Mary Jo Bang reads from her poetry at the newly reopened U-M Museum of Art on Thursday, April 16.