Lofty ‘Elegy’ alienates with ambitious poetry

Even critics have to like something – or at least say so about a quota of titles, even if just to keep up appearances. The National Book Critics Circle exists for any professional critic, publisher or student, and each March, they herald the best in fiction, general nonfiction, biography, autobiography, criticism and poetry.

Mary Jo Bang won 2008’s poetry category for her fifth collection, Elegy. I tore into this mother’s autobiographical collection of poetry that recounts the year following her son’s death. Bang’s modern odyssey crosses a choppy sea of memory, fights with substance abuse and reaches a dubious resolution. The author seemingly addresses the reader along with her dead son in a collective, magnetizing way. Titles like “Hell,” “February Elegy” and “Curtains of Emptiness” set the locale and mood and help readers dive into each piece.

Bang’s poignancy is heady, so skimming isn’t fair to the reader or the author. A rereading or two can untangle you from the literary snare, satisfying and properly saddening the diligent. It’s worth the mental effort, though this might not be a good map for a stranger to lands of verse.

Fifteen pages into Elegy, you will forget what snared you on page two, possibly flip back for reference and then start all over. Unless you are a saintly connoisseur of high art, this grates on the brain. I came up for air with the pure prose of “Blue Sky Elegy” and enjoyed “fantasy and scientific fact, death and its problems, cases of trance mistaken for death.”

I admit I have a personal problem with free verse this – free. Though rhyme is far from a necessity, subject must hold the poem together. In Elegy, you will race over the stream of consciousness and stumble over poetic Tourette’s. Drug use and crippling grief explain some of this away, but clanks of gaudy verbiage can drown out understanding, casting a work in a self serving light. The writing won’t always guide the story as smoothly as Bang usually shows she can, and the monotonous grief of the plot doesn’t take you beyond the writing. Style at times weighs down the pursuit of what the reader wants to know. Your eyes may roll away in disgust if the writer. Does something. Like. This: “You left nothing/Left to say and yet there is this/Incomplete labyrinth/Of finished thought, this/Was of days over energy’s uneven rock. This/Vault door’s hollow closing/Crash behind which I say, Stop,/To the accidental./Uncle, to the twisty wrist.”

After a hundred lines, you too will say “Uncle.” Bang packs in imagery faster than a reader knows what to do with, especially since quantum leaps replace transitions in plot. Most of the language turns out to be original, if not memorable. A less renowned writer would face accusations of melodrama and obtuseness, unless they clung to the defense of imitating the great Bang.

This collection is worthy because a topic that has so impacted the author takes bravery to project. There are worse kinds of grief therapies than the baring of one’s soul, or reception by an empathizing reader. Also, this exemplifies academic poetry. I do want to call for more accessible collections, though. I can’t quite understand how books like this hang around No. 28,898 on the sales rank.

Critics and readers alike can pick up Elegy and see modern poetry as it surfaces for fresh material and format. Players in the poetic game can learn that substance and style are important, but must not overpower the link to an audience.