Loads of Learned Lumber

Monday, June 8, 2009

Mary Jo Bang, _The Eye Like a Strange Balloon_

A VOLUME OF ekphrastic poems -- though these poems do not describe works of art so much as they use them as points of departure. The journey thus inaugurated often rambles far and wide. Perhaps we should call them oneiro-ekphrastic poems, as they seem to be not about specific works of art, but about dreams inspired by those works of art.

The title poem, for instance, somehow started out from the famous Odilon Redon lithograph of the same title, in which a giant eyeball/hot-air-balloon lifts above the horizon, but the poem has no eyes, no balloons, but instead a disjunctive almost-narrative both precise and vague, directional and desultory, enigmatically exact:

Molecular coherence, a dramatic canopy,
cafeteria din, audacious design. Or humble.
Saying, We ask only to be compared to the ant-
erior cruciate ligament. So simple. So elegant.

I didn't compare each poem to the work of art that served as its starting point (although a helpful list at the back of the book permits the curious reader to do exactly that), as it soon became clear the poems were quite able to stand alone -- indeed, just about insisted on standing alone.

What I think I'll remember from the book is not the images, be they original or derived from paintings or photographs, but Bang's voice, its skittery syntax, its audacious (or humble?) leaps, its humor of a dryness so rarified it can feel scary.

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