Brigid Hogan, Class of 2016, Curates Exhibit on Poet Mary Jo Bang

November 10, 2015

Mary Jo Bang, c Matt ValentineBrigid Hogan, UR ’16 (English: Creative Writing, and Anthropology), in conjunction with Rare Books, Special Collections and Preservation, curated an exhibit on poet and recent Plutzik Reading Series author Mary Jo Bang. The exhibit features Bang's work as well as a reflection by Hogan, found below. The exhibit will be viewable through Saturday, November 14th, and is located in the hallway just outside Rare Books and Special Collections, Rush Rhees Library 225.

Reflections by Brigid Hogan, Exhibit Curator

The best descriptor I can give for Mary Jo Bang’s newest collection, The Last Two Seconds, is “constellational.” She pulls thin connections from different worlds and ties everything together in a package that is no less vivid or substantial for its dream-like quality.  There is a quality of disconnect to her work, which manifests itself in a near metaphysical way, creating a new and unlikely whole from disparate parts. As I read the collection, I had a sense of looking just to the side of center, keeping the topic in my periphery, but focusing in on its edges and tangents. Her craft has a distance to it, a removed stance that allows you to look at the whole, draw patterns, and ultimately see what is at the heart.

The Last Two Seconds has a bleak awareness of the passing, temporal quality of the moment, indicated by the title itself. Bang has a knack for pacing and line break, and there seems to be a sly strategy in her pauses that gives the reader the opportunity to draw multiple meanings. Although her work is tight and has a distinct energy, it gives us these lingering, liminal moments to look behind and ahead, and to consider how the meaning is altered by the fracture. The fragmentation allows brief moments of a pensive stillness—sometimes a little lost feeling, and at other times painfully self-aware.

The opening poem, “The Earthquake She Slept Through,” sets the tone for much of the collection. It follows the subject into the aftermath of the earthquake. Preoccupied by thoughts of death, she sees hints of it everywhere, in a cockroach, the concrete, wisps of smoke, and a comic opera, filling me with a haunting sense of something like the Russian toska:  melancholia without focus or direction.

“The day after, she called a friend to complain about the bugs.
From a distant city, his voice low and slightly plaintive—he said,
‘Are you not well? Is there anything you want?’”

While the collection opens with this sense of dispirited aimlessness, Bang eases the reader into an acceptance of the unanchoredness poem by poem, moving us along her constellational sequence to pointed social and political critiques in poems such as “The Storm We Call Progress.”

“A revolution goes right, then wrong. The right falls
in love with an icon. They force the landscape into a box.
They lock the box with the key inside. The aristocracy
is an improbable agent of change.“

The focus on time, its passage, and its consequences throughout the collection brings us to an awareness of what is elapsing all around us, and the hopeless but precious sense of the fleeting moment. It is simultaneously funereal and anticipatory. It mourns for events and experiences as they pass, with pieces like “Reading Conrad’s Heart of Darkness” and celebrates them with growing expectation, in poems like “The Circus Watcher”. Mary Jo Bang turns her readers into participant-observers of our own timeline in this rich and vibrantly aware collection. The closing lines of the last poem bring a sense of sighing resolution:

“A clock chimed and
as the others were audibly counting backwards
from five to zero, I thought  I heard someone say,
‘Now let go of this morbid attachment to things’”