Meaningful Disorientations: Joanie Mackowski Reviews Books by Mary Jo Bang and Peter Campion


The Bride of E by Mary Jo Bang, Graywolf, 2009

The Lions by Peter Campion, University of Chicago Press, 2009

Photo by Mark Schäfer

One common dictum about poetry, often heard in creative writing classrooms, goes like this: “You can’t write about senseless experience with senseless poems,” or substitute any undesirable adjective for “senseless”—say “meaningless” or “disorderly” or “boring”: a boring poem doesn’t productively make the reader feel an interesting kind of boredom. There can however be good poems about boredom; a poem might convey a speaker’s sense of boredom in a way that the reader finds interesting. But the common dictum argues that a poet who wants to write about boredom or loss of meaning must bend to the orders of poetry; the vision must adapt to the lens.

The dictum is problematic because it confuses intention and effect. If someone has written a meaningless poem, she hasn’t achieved her aim to write about experience. And the dictum also implies that the orders of poetry are stable presences, that they balance and cohere whatever experiences a writer filters through them.

But poetry’s organizing mechanisms refract—just try to develop a logical argument, or a police report, in heroic couplets; there are reasons that verse essays haven’t been tried much since Pope. Poetry’s mechanisms cohere the physical properties of language—sound, rhythm, visual theme (as in a sequence of metaphors) syntax—while exerting a centripetal force on logical progression. Poetry makes order, yes, but only after pulling intention through its dis-ordering, re-ordering mechanisms. In this sense, then, poetry is the perfect medium for conveying experiences of incoherence or disintegration: the method of writing a poem is inherently disorienting; it pulls whatever the writer “wanted to say” into something else.

Mary Jo Bang’s new book, The Bride of E, is a disorderly book. It’s disorderly in a fascinating way, though: it’s a fractured abecedarian. An abecedarian is like the dictionary, that most orderly of books: sacrificing everything—plot, character, thematic arc, etc—to the unrelenting order of the alphabet. An alphabet, then, is writing with order but no sense. Most abecedarian books do not so exploit this inherent potential for senselessness, but Bang’s new book works this potential artfully and resonantly to convey a life devastated by meaninglessness and disorientation. It’s a strange, difficult, and beautiful book.

The subject of the book—destabilizing loss—is itself displaced. For the book is overtly playful, distracting with its off-kilter abecedarian order. My first impulse when picking up a book usually isn’t to start counting the poems and trying to figure out what order they’re in, puzzling over the table of contents. But puzzling over contents page is inevitable when reading The Bride of E: the title of the book and titles of individual poems (“A Equals All Of A Sudden,” “And As In Alice,” “B Is For Beckett,” “Beast Brutality”) wave the alphabet before one’s nose, but strangely. While the usual abecedarian has 26 poems, one for each of A – Z, Bang’s new book includes 54 poems. They’re arranged alphabetically, and each riffs on a letter or concept. But for some letters, there are three poems, for others, two poems, and some letters only get one poem, and there’s no apparent pattern to this distribution. Also, the book’s in two parts: part one has 49 poems, and part two, five poems—oh, the vowels, one thinks. But these last five aren’t ordered AEIOU; they’re GJLSU. Immediately, the book coaxed me into its lateral, suggestive project: presenting its unhinged orders through the contents page, preparing me for the disorienting material of the poems.

Following Bang’s previous book Elegy, The Bride of E seems its companion; indeed, “the bride of elegy” comes to mind. Elegy centers on the life of Bang’s son, who died in 2004 at age 37, and, with Bang’s chiseled, spare verse, Elegy wrests coherence from overwhelming grief. The Bride of E, however, follows the shattered thoughts of the writer, and it hangs by a mere thread of coherence. Here’s an example of the resonances between the two books. Elegy’s poem “Worse” describes, in passing, the poet’s agitated thoughts:

. . .

Think of a hive made of glass, all the bees, Theoretically at least, describable but not all at once.

That’s my mind and you

Are doing all the things you ever did at once . . . .

While the poems and subjects in Elegy cohere about the figure of the “you,” The Bride of E conveys no stable sense of a “you.” Rather, the mind’s glass hive has broken open, and all the “bees” or thoughts it once contained and ordered now disperse, scatter: the poems seem to have no stable purpose or focus. As the poem “L As In Look” has it, The Bride of E is “a book of details / Of all the moments when knowledge is acquired,” and these moments appear randomly, without apparent shaping or hierarchy. Here is “L As in Look” in its entirety:

At a book of details

Of all the moments when knowledge is acquired.

A sort of expanded balloon

Sighs and says, “We are what came before.”

“The storm in the window of the mind,”

The sleeping sister says while she’s walking around

Wonderland watching

A cat touching down and talking.

Not a car in sight. A cemetery seen from the air.

All the obelisks you could ever ask for.

Along with “L As In Look,” other poems in The Bride of E include unattributed quotations—the quotations just drift in. These overheard voices and moments “when knowledge is acquired” flicker through the book as an affecting static. And the line between “spoken” and quoted is sometimes so fine that it almost seems as if the speaker could be quoting herself, referencing herself in a cold third-person, this lends the poems an eerie, dissociated sensibility:

A blackout occurs and then we return to routine:

The inhumane blather on the screen.

The light glares in, illuminating each shadow.

“Do you feel it?” “Those sad mysteries?”

The bells are ringing, indicating

An original longing has been transformed

Into a pitch too high to hear.

Now an unsettling magician’s girl comes on stage

And plays herself . . . .

In these lines, the “original longing” is “too high to hear,” and the cumulative effect of the poems is that emotion itself is out of reach of the speaker’s perceptions.

And poems include references to films, books, and TV shows—news, sit-coms, cartoons—they sift through the poems with a dispassionate, disembodied quality, cumulatively creating the sense of a hollowed-out, emotionally disengaged speaker-recorder. But I find the book emotionally engaging—very much so. Here’s another version of The Bride of E’s fractured perspective, from “The Wake Was A Line And We Watched”:

. . .

. . . Imagine

The “I” as a camera turned on

To a mirror. Where the face in the mirror

Isn’t that of the one looking in

But of Jacqueline Onassis

Or someone else famous

Beyond saying.

A full fifteen minutes.

It’s in the nature of looking

At the future while married to the moment.

It’s Disney’s Mickey

And the Broken Mirror Mishap

All over again.

The jagged glass reforming

Into a narrative where

The core event keeps clicking into place

As a great, a terrible, shattering.

The Bride of E details no core event but, rather, enacts over and again this clicking and shattering. And the speaker’s brain is on the verge of shattering, unraveling, also, as in “Reminds Me of Ramona”:

A plate glass veranda,

A pool with a deep end ending in an alloy ladder,

Our brain case perpetually agape—a rubber band mass

About to unravel . . . .

In this constantly breaking mirror, broken-open brain, and broken-open alphabet, these poems do examine the speaker’s life and the ways she makes meaning—as, in this book, poetry itself, that engine of meaning-making, is made to demonstrate meaning’s disintegration.

In addition to the broken abecedarian, there are other formal matters to read. While many poems in the new book employ Bang’s signature free verse—free but with chiseled stanzas and sonic richness—others seem to begin with a formal pattern of meter and rhyme, and then, as the poem progresses, they slough off the pattern; it’s like watching the poems come undressed, scattering their clothing randomly across the floor. And the five poems in the last section: these are rambling, freely-associative, confessional prose poems that reject the chiseled impersonality of verse altogether, along with all its other devices. The book’s daring formal unraveling and scattering present a corollary to the fractured thinking and imagery; there’s no exit from this sensibility come undone.

As death is the ultimate personal disintegration, I believe that The Bride of E references suicide. Elegy, in an aside, addresses it. Here’s a passage from Elegy’s “Once”:

Now Now is a terrible ongoing and some-

times I consider the alternative. Yes,

The x on the ash box says,

I know what you mean . . . .

And The Bride of E, which chronicles the “terrible ongoing” after Elegy, seems, in part, an implicit meditation upon “the alternative”: or, rather, it’s a formal meditation. The idea of suicide is in part raised via a direct reference to Sylvia Plath. The Bride of E quotes from two poems, acknowledged in notes at the back: Robert Browning’s “Pauline,” Browning’s earliest published poem (published anonymously in 1833, when Browning was 20) and Plath’s “Sheep in Fog,” which appears as a phrase in “The Electric Eventual”: “And now there’s no going back. / Except to see sheep in fog. Sheep in fog. / It’s all you see.”

In Plath’s poem, one often read as a foreshadowing of her suicide (and one of the 14 that Ted Hughes added to Ariel) the speaker confesses that the exterior landscape “threaten[s]/To let me through to a heaven/starless and fatherless, a dark water.” Throughout The Bride of E, I hear other echoes of Plath’s poems, imagery in Bang’s new book picks up on Plath’s “The Ghost’s Leavetaking,” “The Munich Mannequins,” “Tulips,” and, particularly, “Edge,” that famous and chilling third-person description of a dead mother, perhaps Medea, with her dead children beside her. Plath’s poem begins, “The woman is perfected.” And that perfection is death.

As The Bride of E chronicles the “terrible ongoing” of life, and as it breaks free of meaningless, ongoing formal constraints—those of the abecedarian and of verse itself—the book considers sloughing off another formal restraint: the body. When we unloose from our bodies, we break free of the world of suffering, the world we live in. But to free oneself from such a formal constraint is, at the same time, to adopt a new one: one effects a closure, ends the line of one’s active production as a poet or individual.

In a sense, then, this book takes Plath as a tutelary spirit, and it gently and thoughtfully revises her. For this book considers that greatest and surest of ordering principles: death. And I believe that The Bride of E rejects death, that formal perfection, in the same way as it ultimately rejects the constraints of the abecedarian and of verse. One learns from the first title in the book: “ABC Plus E: Cosmic Aloneness is the Bride of Existence.” While this book movingly and insightfully chronicles cosmic aloneness, it’s my hope that, at last, it declares itself to be the bride of existence, releasing and revising a way of being and thought that leads to a final and terrible perfection. This speaker, at the end of The Bride of E, seems to be beginning a new way of writing, a new way to think about poems.

Peter Campion’s second book, The Lions, follows a formal experiment akin to Bang’s in The Bride of E. Campion’s book also conveys a decentered and at times dissociative speaker—one rendered helpless and small in the face of contemporary realities about war and ecological damage. The book is startling too in that while the poems are masterful, they also question the sheer useless luxury of poetry: what use is poetry to confront the urgencies presented in these poems? The poems offer no consolation or certainty. In its very elegance, the book indicts poetry itself. It presents the near helpless pleasure of reading (and it seems to present the writer as succumbing to writing poetry, that urgent yet helpless pleasure): and this helplessness meets another, a hollow yet dazzling apathy, the speaker’s sense that the world’s terrors unfold beyond any individual’s power to alter them. This is a strange place for poems, and a smart and moving one.

The poem “Embarcadero” may offer a microcosm of the book’s project:

Bliss and anger fear and

wonder            they revolve so fast

there must be

somewhere beyond them

some landscape whose

contours arrive and sharpen

in lucent particular . . . .

Yes there is such a landscape: it’s in poetry, and these poems seem almost to stumble into this lucent, unreal landscape again and again. Yet, as with the pointed disorder of Bang’s new volume, this stumbling is no accident: these poems convey purposeful and illuminating disorientation.

Some of the poems in The Lions begin with unassuming lines, as if the speaker’s first impulse is to make an argument, to hold to “reason” and not slip into the luxurious helplessness of poetry. For an example, here’s from the opening of the first poem in the book, “In Early March”:

It happens in our ignorance.

Fringing the steep calderas and

and sinkholes

the blacktail deer descend.

Trembling. All systems on alert.

While the concrete banks of the reservoirs

then corridors of power lines

fall to this circuitry . . . .

But after such declarative lines come transfixing ones—they transfix me, and convey the speaker’s slide from objective logic to rapt loss of control—and they convey it seemingly effortlessly. Here’s how the poem continues:

this chain

like the channels through silicon.

Though our estrangement from

nature means nothing to them.

And past our mist of sentiment

they also are barest presences.

Ancient and ahistorical with sunlit

mucous dribbling off their snouts

they hold us in their vitreous

unblinking eyes however long . . . .

After identifying the “mist of sentiment,” this speaker is in the mist, and the “vitreous/unblinking eyes” seem as much the speaker’s as the deer’s. So here, we’re pulled from a meditation on “our ignorance” into pure fascination, into linguistic and visual dazzle, where all worry about what we know or don’t drifts away. And as the book glides from observation to quiet rapture, it’s also about blending: how categories such as human or animal, past or present, art or life are ultimately irrelevant. Here is the end of the poem “Embarcadero”:

billboards for bacon and

cell phones glisten:

beautiful people

bound by the bright clothes

the animal of them

seems about to break from [. . . .]

The brain power in these poems is refreshingly strong: the ecological poems here are deft, informed, and pointed. As Robert Lowell worked to hone a political poem that implicated the speaker as well as the subject, these ecological arguments succeed where other supposedly environmental poems don’t. Campion’s poems don’t fall into the trap of objectifying nature as a beautiful yet exterior otherness, of “using” natural imagery to argue we “save” nature. Rather, the speaker of these poems views the natural world as “indifferent” to and from human existence, and human life and flora and fauna alike are laced with electric, mechanical imagery. In these poems, nature and machine are so interwoven that one cannot read “current” applied to a river without at the same time thinking of electric currents. In one poem a ladybug has “helicoptered past the sill,” while the next poem opens, “Shot from a helicopter over Cairo….” There’s no escape here from either nature or its (and our) degradation. And any “pulses” in this volume belong to radio waves and magnetic fields as much as they do to hearts and blood. As the natural world is indifferent to human life, so are we indifferent and self-absorbed. And even if we’re lucky to be as smart and graceful as the speaker of these poems, we’re bestial.

The political arguments are devastating and real: we see a speaker here bombarded with the news, insightful into the situations behind the bombardments, and registering a pervasive, resonant anxiety: a sense of being powerless in regard to overwhelming complexity—that knowledge is no longer power (indeed was it ever). And the mechanical, indifferent force of culture is figured in these poems as nothing new. In a poem that’s based on a scene from The Odyssey, a conversation between Odysseus and his father at the bank the river Lethe, one reads:

First the heavens and earth, then lakes and oceans

then the resplendent globes of the moon and sun

and stars are infused with spirit: all bound

by the same intelligence that blends them.

From Spirit flow all men and animals.

And birds. And even those monsters with scales

and fins beneath the marbled ocean surface.

Fire is the force that falls from upper air

and charges them with life: however much

brute random matter doesn’t leach from them

or else their earthbound frame detract from them

and so they fear and crave. Rejoice and mourn . . . .

This chain of relatedness, which is also the chain of helplessness, extends through history and reaches through poetry. Even as a rippling, repeating, chambered structure is a beautiful thing, it’s also an image of horrifying replication—crowding, overpopulation, materialism, the abundance of “stuff” in a life, weighing one down.

And art itself is implicated as a force generating apathy and denial, tying us into its chambered structures, in “1989: Death on the Nile,” which is among the most stunning poems in the book. This poem describes what seems to be a either a horrific half-buried memory, or an active imagination that shields the child from actual horrors: the speaker as a child is in a lush Cairo hotel with his mother, a US dignitary or ambassador, sometime after Anwar Sadat’s assignation. Lines flit among different points of view; here they seem to pass from mother to son: “Yes it’s a privilege to travel. Yes / we’re guests of the Egyptian government. / Portraits of Hosni Mubarak follow us.” This poem (like the title poem, “The Lions”) registers the overlap between art, memory, life, and personal and political—a convolvular endeavor—with disarming, unsettling simplicity:

even my body seemed to freeze away

the present, as my shallow breathing trickled

its supplies to its distant client states.

Right now, the pool sends sunlight crumpling

Across the pages of my mystery.

But in the sentences, Hercule Poirot

in his labyrinth of death and Art Deco

seems more real. Even slapping the book down

and loafing back to the little Europe

of our hotel (past marble columns, djellabas

and sharp Chanel) I can almost replace

the present. Fantasia of passageways . . . .

And The Lions is a “fantasia of passageways,” its themes and images weaving to build a substantive resonance.

These are daringly beautiful poems, an astounding second book. It’s been suggested that, with today’s “market,” a “first” book of poems is usually more likely the second or third, and etcetera. No matter how many books Peter Campion has written or published, The Lions makes clear his enduring contribution, and I’ll be looking forward to the next one.

About Joanie Mackowski

Joanie Mackowski’s collections of poems are The Zoo (2002) and View from a Temporary Window (2010). She received a BA from Wesleyan University, was a Stegner Fellow in Poetry at Stanford University, and received a PhD from University of Missouri. She is the winner of the 2003 Kate Tufts Discovery award, and the 2008 Writer Magazine/Emily Dickinson award.
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One Comment

  1. Wonderful reviews. I read The Bride of E a number of times, but could not record the experience in such composed words. (I’m still ambivalent about it, but it made an impact, and your review is excellent.) I’m buying the Campion from Amazon right now!

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