Elegy Poems


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Graywolf Press


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1555975402

9781555975401

80 Pages

$15.00

CAD17.00

Request Desk Copy Request Exam Copy
Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award Mary Jo Bang's fifth collection, Elegy, chronicles the year following the death of her son. By weaving the particulars of her own loss into a tapestry that also contains the elements common to all losses, Bang creates something far larger than a mere lament. Continually in search of an adequate metaphor for the most profound and private grief, the poems in Elegy confront, in stark terms and with a resilient voice, how memory haunts the living and brings the dead back to life. Within these intimate and personal poems is a persistently urgent, and deeply touching, examination of grief itself.

REVIEWS

Praise for Elegy

"This is a tightly focused, completely forthright collection written almost entirely in the bleakest key imaginable . . . The achievement of art shows the limitation of art, and vice versa. This is the great strength of Elegy."—David Orr, The New York Times Book Review

"Mary Jo Bang’s fifth poetry collection, Elegy, winner of the 2007 National Book Critics Circle Award, presents sixty-four lyrics written in the year following her thirty-seven-year-old son’s death from an accidental drug overdose. Like the great elegists before her (Milton, Shelley, Tennyson, etc.), Bang enlarges a personal tragedy into a universal one, as she testifies to the powers of memory and poetry to contend with loss. At the same time, she scorns the easy consolations of a traditional religious faith. Bang repeatedly apostrophizes her dead son as if in a desperate attempt to reconnect with him and bring him—if only provisionally—back to life. Her stark free-verse elegies present strange images and startling tropes and are characterized by insistent sound patterns and suggestive enjambment: 'More days // With an off-white ice rink sky / Of winter waiting'; 'A flat gradation of gray // With a hint of silver mirror decay.' The author’s skeptical vision sweeps the poems clean of any faith in the afterlife: 'There is no waking // Up from death. That’s the pity. / The dead leave what could be / Next unfinished.' For Bang, language is a medium inadequate to express our profoundest grief ('Words keep slipping away, so many / Ice blocks in a scene of whiteness'), and yet every successful poem survives as an 'Incomplete labyrinth // Of finished thought' that serves to memorialize, however partially, its subject. Bang tries valiantly to avoid the decline into sentimentality not uncommon in intimate, personal elegies. Nonetheless, she sometimes takes a wrong turn, as in 'You Were You Are Elegy,' which deteriorates into platitudes: 'I loved you. I love you. You were. / And you are.' Finally, the mourner faces her tragedy with a wisdom tempered by resignation: 'How changed we are. / Otherwise no longer exists. / There is only stasis, continually / Granting ceremony to the moment.'"—Robert Schnall, Boston Review

"Elegy is a collection of the poems Bang wrote during the first year after his death. In it, the carefully stitched and textured fabric of her previous poetry billows into a sorrow only a grieving parent truly knows but that all readers will recognize as an essential part of human experience . . . Bang's genius in Elegy is that she never sentimentalizes or tries to constitute a fully arced narrative. Instead, she chooses to present the fragments that profound grief has given her—pieces of ideas, feelings, memories—indeed, pieces of narrative that provide just enough insight into what happened to make the poetry real. The comfort of the collection is equally profound: Even under the shadow of death, it is possible to speak. It is even possible to write poems, and we discover that although life is 'full of sound and fury,' as Shakespeare said, the human voice can give shape to that fury in a way that lets the rest of us know we're not alone."—Aaron Belz, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

"Some poetry collections, when read, defy the written word; instead they paint a world of their own, using images as a paintbrush on the canvas, the reader’s mind. Elegy: Poems by Mary Jo Bang did just that for this reader. Bang chronicles the year following her son’s death in this new collection of poems. Though Bang’s poetry is new for me, she has published four poetry collections and is a Professor of English and the Director of the Creative Writing Program at Washington University. This volume of poetry is rich with vivid imagery. If the reader is looking for a nice, feel-good read, then do not choose this book. But if the reader is in search of a poignant journey that gives them something to think on for days, this is exactly the read that should be chosen. This collection is rich in emotional truth that anyone who has suffered a loss can relate to."—Ann Hite, Feminist Review

"The loss of a child—especially an only child who is in the prime of life—is one of the most painful experiences anyone can have and one, common sense tells us, almost impossible to render in an age of sensory overload. But Mary Jo Bang's Elegy is the grand exception. In its insistence on 'the inexhaustive / Need to be accurate.' Elegy is wholly absorbing. Avoiding all self-pity, false comfort, sentimentality or finger pointing, Bang's terse, oblique poems anatomize grief, guilt, and mourning in pitiless detail. Do things 'improve' by the end of the year whose progress this heartbreaking book charts? Not really, but the reader is transformed. I know of no contemporary elegy that has its power."—Marjorie Perloff

"The palette is drained; the weather chilled. The tone is formal, the voice even; the feeling is scoured out. This is where time stops, breath stops. Every word stands naked, stands alone, facing a door, an opening. 'Wonderful/Awful.' This is where time stops, breath stops. Words are chosen and framed and hung because they must be, not because they make an unbearable loss one whit more bearable, but they position us a step closer to seeing the beginning (of love) and the end (of life). Something. 'Ancient and every and over.' This is our beautiful glimpse of forever. Mary Jo Bang's Elegy is a harrowing, necessary work."—C.D. Wright

"Mary Jo Bang's remarkable elegies recall the late work of Ingeborg Bachmann—a febrile, recursive lyricism. Like Nietzsche or Plath, Bang flouts naysayers; luridly alive, she drives deep into aporia, her new sad country. Her stanzas, sometimes spilling, sometimes severe, perform an uncanny death-song, recklessly extended—nearly to the breaking point."—Wayne Koestenbaum

"Perhaps everyone has a story that could break your heart—the poems that make up Elegy break mine. These poems are astonishing—here is fierce, controlled abandon, here is one of our finest poets utterly in the moment, yet the moment is unbearable. 'Theirs is no waking from death,' Bang writes, and yet each of these poems is fully alive."—Nick Flynn

"In her powerful fifth collection, Bang asks, What is elegy but the attempt / To rebreathe life/ Into what the gone one once was. Writing to mourn the death of her adult son, Bang interrogates the elegiac form and demands of it more than it can give, frustrated, over and over again, with memory, which falls pitifully short of life: Memory is deeply not alive; it's a mock-up/ And this renders it hateful. The urgent line breaks of Bang's fractured sentences build their own drama, as if her precisions might determine whether or not she will cross the fissures between what she wants to say and what she can't. Aware that there is no vocabulary equal to conveying the pain of losing a loved one or the struggle to be faithful to the loss, the poet ruefully admits, That's where things went wrong./ Is went into language. Plumbing a world made strange by grief means forsaking the mundane; as a result, there are only a few everyday objects in these poems—an overcoat, roller-skates and Phenobarbital pills. Ostensibly a linear account of a year of sorrow, the structure of the collection suggests rather that grief might be crystalline, the poems accruing around a memory that won't move on: I say Come Back and you do/ Not do what I want. While the poet must write and rewrite in order to get her subject right, the mother of a dead child writes to fill the bottomless chasm. Like Joan Didion in The Year of Magical Thinking, Bang finds no easy consolation, and there is pain for the reader here, too, as when, toward the end of the collection, Bang writes, Everything Was My Fault / Has been the theme of the song. Calling to mind Sharon Olds's The Father and Donald Hall's Without, two other harrowing contemporary book-length poetic studies of loss, Bang offers, if not hope, a kind of keeping company, a way, however painful, to go on: Otherwise no longer exists./ There is only stasis, continually/ Granting ceremony to the moment."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Reviews from Goodreads

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BOOK EXCERPTS

Read an Excerpt

Mary Jo Bang is the author of six collections of poetry, including The Bride of E. Elegy won the 2007 National Book Critics Circle Award. She lives in St. Louis, Missouri, where she teaches in the writing program at Washington University.

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BACK

ABOUT THE AUTHOR


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  • Mary Jo Bang is the author of four previous books of poetry, including Louise in Love and The Eye Like a Strange Balloon. She lives in St. Louis, Missouri, where she is a Professor of English and Director of the Creative Writing Program at Washington University.
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