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The Art of the Sentence: Mary Jo Bang
You are wrong she says. You don’t wear your cape.”
—Mary Jo Bang, “Mrs. Autumn and Her Daughters”
The poem, which can be found in her collection, The Eye Like a Strange Balloon, is an ekphrastic piece named after the art by Sigmar Polke that inspired it. Her book functions to deepen the connections between visual art and poetry, as she reinvents what ekphrastic poetry can do. Each poem in the book flitters and flicks and nags at the art that inspired it, but of course does what all great poetry does—goes beyond it into its own visual and sonic space.
My favorite lines and sentence(s) of the poem come at the end and are part of a conversation between Mrs. Autumn and one of her daughters (the speaker of the poem). An admonishment of sorts, Mother Autumn tells the misbehaving daughter, “to throw more snow” and the daughter rebels in her own way, as she can’t “help thinking/ There is more to being than erasure.” To which her mother corrects her, “You are wrong she says. You don’t wear your cape.”
It is an amazing proclamation on so many levels. Of course, there is the sense of being that Bang and the speaker refer to, which is the beingness of human consciousness we all have felt throughout our lives. I am struck each time I read the poem how lonely I feel to be anything at all. For I too want to feel there is more to being than erasure, despite all of the physical proof to the contrary. Then there is the sense in the lines that by reading the poem we have caught a glimpse into the metaphysical. That there really are these seasonal beings, who exist to throw the snow each winter so as to erase the newness of the seasons just passed––to start again. And then on the language level, there is the fact that Bang says so much without any commas (and that the only way we know to read it is through our sense of speech) and with such a sparse palette, so that the only words that are rich in the lines are mother, snow, being, erasure, and cape. Which seem to be the only words that matter anyway, as the lesson of the mother is to cover the hope of being anything at all with one’s cape—a potent swath of cloth (somehow vivid even in its colorlessness) in the story of the seasonal women, who come to make all the details of life go away, erase, blend into one another.
I’m probably cheating by selecting a couple of sentences for this section, which is devoted to the love of singular sentences. I guess that it is hard for me to find one sentence that does not hinge in some sort of dialogue. So many statements in literature seem to be on the surface of conversation itself and muddled about within life. Bang’s dialogue unearths more of this speech tension, while still keeping things full of longing and tight balance.
I must say also that emotional ephemera drives my affection for the lines. I first read the poem while on a love trip in Southern New Jersey (I know that sounds funny to some but I find New Jersey extremely romantic), trying to bloom a relationship that was doomed to fail. I remember putzing around on the computer by myself for an hour during the trip and finding that poem by accident while looking for Mary Jo Bang poems to read (I’ve been an enormous fan since college). The intensity of my feelings that day cut into the bleakness of the lines. It was, as Dickinson reminds us it should be, as if the top of my head had blown right off.
Even though the days since then (and my romanticism) have begun to fade into pale age, these lines still resonate for me. When I read the poem again, I still feel that sense of longing for there to be more to being than there seems to be. I guess that the poem makes me feel that cynicism is not the only way to feel. Even as Mother Autumn admonishes me, too, for thinking such silly things, I feel like anything in life is possible. And although time wears away the vibrancy of my feelings, when I read Bang’s lines, I feel cool and wild again, ready to fight these women who live only to erase my dreams, my dreaming.