Jul/Aug 2018  •   Reviews & Interviews

A Mingling of Voices

Review by Carole Mertz

A Doll for Throwing.
Mary Jo Bang.
Graywolf Press. 2017.
ISBN 9781555977818.

The Bauhaus, founded by Walter Gropius in Weimar, Germany, in 1919, forms the backdrop of the prose poems in this latest collection from Mary Jo Bang. The poet earned an array of awards including Guggenheim and Hodder Fellowships, and a Berlin Prize Fellowship from the American Academy in Berlin. She is professor of English and creative writing at Washington University in Saint Louis. Her award-winning Elegy (published in 2008) followed the accidental death of her son in 2004.

A throwing doll (from the German "Wurfpuppe") is a creation designed by the artist Alma Siedhoff-Buscher, a student at the Bauhaus School. This doll bore a wooden head, with limbs of woven fibrous material that allowed it to be thrown and always land upright. Other creations of this early 20th C. discipline, particularly in architecture, were to be chiefly functional and made of plain line. (Mies van her Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright were pioneers of this new International Style.)

The unifying elements in this volume of Bang's work are more difficult to comprehend than the simpler unifiers of her earlier The Bride of E, an abecedarius published in 2009. Content of the poems, in fact, can rarely be gleaned from the titles Bang consigns to them. She writes from an avant-garde position that presents a composite figure, running throughout the work. This figure derives its voice from the early 20th century attitudes toward art, beauty, style, and toward men and women, and creation itself. This voice speaks at once in a contemporary vein, as well.

The composite voice is part of the genius of this work. Bang has created for herself a means. Within this particular means, she is enabled to present the messiness of life, which she has truly experienced, in deliberate, energetic, and masterful style. She speaks, most frequently, through this historical figure and sometimes, directly through her own contemporary voice. Here's an example from "The Mirror":

My hair is held back by a barrette, the tree
in the background is green. Out of sight,
birds talking on the right, to the far left and
almost too far off to be heard, a dialogue
between two men. I wish I could break in
two and be formless, one half listening in,
one half thinking about nothing but the fact
that the nape of my neck is too warm. The
express train flashes past, followed by a
crashing silence. I've rejected the milk-mild
smile. It's married to the risk of fossilization.

It concludes with...

                There is no moment that isn't all
spectacle. The theatrical silence is the sun.
The gray stage is winter. The circle is pure
dilation: the shock mouth of me looking back
at an avalanche of broken glass.

In this poem she refers to an isolated world where it is always morning. I find so much of Bang's contemporary self within it. Things are held in place, but the rejecting is also happening. Things still glitter, but they might become fossils. Granite, though men may have bled into it, remains granite. The poem seems to transcend time, place, and, to an extant, human experience. The Bauhaus was dedicated to new beginnings, hence the rejection of the "milk-mild smile" and the call for something that will not harden.

"Signs and signifiers can be subtle or not," Bang states. She tugs us forward into regarding imaginary signifiers as still lifes. In "Still Life with Glasses" (p.11), she cites the French word for "glass" and a Japanese word that signifies either a castle covered with snow, "a white porcelain dish decorated with a Snow White scene and/or a watch-crystal smokescreen over a long-night chrysanthemum sun." This last phrase, I believe, is the invitation into the ongoingness of the event, i.e., a sun that endures the long night only to rise again, yet a sun firmly fixed in our imagination as a still life.

(The title given here actually refers to a silver gelatin print, dated 1930-39, created by the Japanese artist Iwao Yamawaki. The work, done at the Bauhaus, depicts transparent tipped-over drinking glasses.)

We discover Bang's humor in "Self Portrait of a Photograph of a Platter" (p.5), where she uses the voice of the photographer, Lucia Moholy, who married Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, a master at the Bauhaus School. In the poem, she writes, "A platter can embody a wish to be simple."

An image stands for the thing that is taken. I
am taking everything I see. This is how I see
myself. The platter is very flat and somewhat
lasting. You or I might even say I made it last.
Circum/ambient: as more or less to be around

This poem first appeared in The Best American Poetry 2017 (Lehman and Trethewey, editors).

In her complex "The Doll Song" (p.25), the poet sets a stage, of sorts. "In time you see she's a she who has moved from the edge to the desk to elsewhere." Then something morphs into Madame Butterfly. "There's a ship on the lake, a god in the house. A man is going away. The woman is here to stay. We all want her to be more than just a lovable glass-eyed facsimile..."

But in another reference to woman as woman, we find in "The Shattered Marriage" (p.35): "The enterprise requires some license, the same as the absurd. Not disorder so much as a solidly soullessly matched set of batteries. Or a bored audience held captive by some terrible unforeseen on-stage disaster."

Is this Bang's direct voice, or the voice of her "composite?" We can't know for sure. (In her disclaimer at the close of the collection, Bang quotes Emily Dickinson: "When I state myself, as the representative of the verse, it does not mean me, but a supposed person.")

"A Ballet Based on the Number Three" (p.34), is another tantalizing poem in which we can't be sure a human or an automaton is projected. It opens with "We are three: me, he, and she. I am a pocket, he is a needle, and she is the pinprick that can reset the elements." And proceeds, "I'm outside now, having left eye, brain, grid, and graph behind in order to become an auto-self-selection machine that allows a whole person to disappear."

After reading this surrealistic passage, we recognize anew Bang's craft at depicting the nearly unimaginable. Her imagery repeatedly causes us to think beyond our normal avenues of experience. Bang herself sums it up for us. "...facts are meant to reflect what can't be computed by storytelling alone, which is said to be subjective and therefore inaccurate. In many cases, the story is filled with complex details, which only one person knows" ("The Game of Roles," p.27).

This latest volume offers so much to ponder. Bang's contemplation of the Bauhaus artists projects their craft, and her own, so positively into our modern era. Will future collections tell us more of what only she knows?


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