rev. of Apology for Want by Mary Jo Bang

Issue #74
Winter 1997-98

Apology for Want 
Poems by Mary Jo Bang. Middlebury College, $25.00 cloth, $11.95 paper. Reviewed by Susan Conley.

There is quiet anarchy in the spare poems of Mary Jo Bang’s haunting first collection,
Apology for Want. The terrain is decidedly American and familiar one of shopping malls and consumption in the “flinty age of materialism” (“The Desert on Hand”). But the voice is subversive and unsettling, the syntax wholly unique and invented for the dark, ephemeral region of longing this book inhabits.

Apology for Want, desire is all-consuming. Again and again we want to possess “what is ours, the graffiti / we know:
Nut House, Weasel, Chucky Love” (“Waking in Antibes”). With such appetite, we cannot escape the carnal, nor the hankering for the bone. In the title poem, the die is cast: “Want appropriates us, / sends us out dressed in ragged tulle.” We’re junkies, these poems purport just like the heroin addict we watch “push a needle’s beveled edge / into the bend of her arm,
antecubital fossa, / / injecting the balm of habit and hit . . .” (“The First Room Is a Woman”).

With a cool, distanced eye, Bang explores how desire humbles us, fills our waking, and presses on our sleep eventually leading us to offer apologies. But there is no use, Bang argues: even in our highly technological age, when “. . . Soon we will understand everything: / why our first breath, when our last . . . There are few ways / to free the body from desire . . .” (“Apology for Want”).

What I marvel here most is Bang’s economy. She’s a poet of stealth and answers Marianne Moore’s challenge to get in and out of the poem as quickly as possible, while the poking iron is still hot. Bang writes such an immaculate line so fierce and ardent one is compelled to take notice, to move closer when she whispers: “It’s safe to speak here. / To call love by a name other than vengeance” (“Electra Dreams”).

How refreshing to read a poet inhabiting the realm of pathos who does not venture into self-pity or inflated song. These poems often clip themselves, just as they gain speed and begin to spread out. They leave us slightly stunned each time by their impact and exactitude daring to ask the very largest of questions: “Why indelible hunger? Why insatiable need?” (“No Talking”).

There is melancholia here but not mourning. Bang’s unfettered “I” is not interested in self-indulgence instead the view is more encompassing. At turns the poems are surreal and elliptical: “Once on a back yard swing / I became the sky I meant to be” (“In St. John’s Hospital”). But there is also a constant assessment taking place a vigilant addition and subtraction of our secrets and failures of the heart. Bang tries to pin desire into corners, naming and renaming it as “the shrouded want to cheek and shoulder / that arms can’t reach, throat refuses to ask . . .”(“In This Business of Touch and Be Touched”).

The voice is resilient: “. . . Survival lies in resisting, / in the undersides of the leafed and delicate” (“Apology for Want”). Near the end of the book, Bang points to a plausible if compromised way to endure: “. . . where house, where dog / where a thin layer of glitter / covers years of shamed wear / and loss is now what you live with” (“Like Spiders, Step by Step”). The poems largely succeed on the strength of their anti-romanticism and in their confidence in probing the unknowable. They reveal themselves as dire warnings, which we receive thankful Bang dared put them to language.