Louise in Love by Mary Jo Bang
(Grove Press, 2001)
Of the many important things to say about Mary Jo Bang’s book of poetry, Louise in Love (Grove Press, 2001), is to note a wistful photo of Louise Brooks on the cover It makes the reader assume the content is about Louise Brooks, or that the Louise of the title has something in common with the enigmatic film star of the 1920’s-1930’s. The book has nothing to do with the star excepting to use her as a visual clue to the writer’s 81-page puzzle. The photo coupled with the book’s design, detailed by use of an Art Deco typeface for the poem titles, make her book quite visual. It evokes the fashions and lifestyle popular at the time of Brooks’ fame in the mind. Her references to water, beach and trees, as in “Belle Vue”: “The party wanted the night / sand to swallow their prints so they drove to the beach.” (pg 6) provide a New York/Long Island art deco ambience, a sense of Gatsby.
This book is the antithesis of the image and facts of Louise Brooks, a rebel who ran off to Europe to star in some of the early 20th century’s most notable films, and due to varied excesses and a loss of contact with the public, died in obscurity. The book’s Louise offers us none of the rebellious spirit or élan of the real Louise; this character is an upper class lockjaw caricature with a limited emotional range. We imagine Kate Hepburn, and hear Dorothy Parker. In only a few instances does the character’s underlying passion and intensity spring forth. In Captivity, the image of a woman caged shows her existence is a trap:
“At any moment, an arm can reach up
and show the wrong side of the dice…then
where will they be? Children again
before boredom and invention awaiting some birthdom…
the skeleton dreaming of its body back to a particular
limit – a lovely skin, a mind that knows nothing
of boundaries, the erotic singsong of motion.
The happy little cage" (pg 54).
Bang pays homage to several genres. She starts with a Dramatis Personae page seen more often in plays. The major theme in the book is movement from scene to scene -- as in a play -- from the beginning of a love affair as well as the beginning of life. It continually streams from page to page and poem to poem like a person traversing -- no, gliding through -- a great house, with many rooms -- knitting ideas and people together but clearly showing a beginning through a middle to an end. I had the feeling of being in the middle of a Dorothy Sayers' Lord Peter Whimsey story (set in New York not in Cambridge, England, as Ms. Sayers’ pieces) with no plot; again, as in a play; or a 1930’s Art Deco film loaded with visual clues to tuxedos, flowing costumes, high society faux English accents, and quick cinematic cuts making for dramatic entrances and exits.
In the everworld of art…
suspended between dissolves. Eye and idea
She was held --
not by the text, but by the pretty pictures.”
she writes on page 7, also in “Belle Vue.” Here, also, is an atmosphere thick with “O’s” and other indications of earlier, more renowned English and American poets. These gestures are flanked by idioms from the period in which Bang has placed her play. She uses: “lovey-dovey” (pg. 76) to really contemporary images like “puky little sun…” (Pg. 3) of today’s music. She also references Ibsen quite clearly in “The Painted Chiaroscuro”: “‘You are rehearsing for what play part?’ she asked. The doll’s house / gleamed in the small room until the lights were turned off” (pg. 34).
Bang is clearly the queen of alliteration, using it in multiple formations in almost every sentence. She also uses rhyme, mixing the two quite deftly, as in the aforementioned poem. Its first line reads: “The acrobat on the rosinback circled the track thrice, then threw her a kiss” (pg 34.) The flat “a’s” are comical, but clever, and followed by “th’s” all in a neat little row. She is without question a poet driven by sound, and though sound is certainly one of the key elements of her work, there are the visuals of which she is so very fond. When vocal alliteration is not attainable she gets your attention by seeing the repetition of letters over and over again; throughout each poem, and in an understated thread throughout the book. There are moments, though, when the repetition of sound starts to feel like a migraine headache, partly because at times there seems to be no substance behind the rhyming schemes.
Louise appears as if a woman trapped, but she barely mentions it. Some things she says are cloudlike, fluff, insubstantial and emotionless. The poem “Time Speeds Said Louise, When A Fever Rises” shows us this: “She was now in high dudgeon. What she needed, she said, / was caprice and a cocktail shaker” (pg 18), then
“To Louise, the conversation seemed all too familiar—
I feel, she said to the other, like a sheet grown soft
With the deadweight of difficult sleep.”
The other, Ham responds “What you are…is beauty. We more clearly see the trap as she replies “Empty, she said. No inbreath, no eyeblink” (pg 22.)
Later, she surprises with a very forward and overtly sexual passage, “Neck nape a curve becoming infinite abyss extended to wish, wish, wish…a stunning result” (pg 36). This is where Bang is more alive, more palpable -- where the writer comes out to play without hiding behind dreams and remote states of being. “The intangible drifted out beyond the vast until it could no longer be seen but was still vaguely perceived” (pg 37). Her sense of foreboding and danger from the book’s signature poem “Louise in Love” leads us to her fears -- of being scratched, cut, of bleeding, dying and showing humanness beyond the pose:
“...cat’s paw from under the bedskirt,
dainty wile, frayed thing,
The character is introduced at her birth, figurative or literal, during an eclipse, which is the telegraphing of those fears of death and loss throughout. A clairvoyant (from the French: one who sees clearly) appears later on page 22, in, “That Was All, Louise said, Except For” reminding us of that birth, that eclipse -- a thing to block in darkness, or an object to hide behind. The love affair she starts with the character Ham could well be rebirth, or a birth of feeing, but even in that piece,
“Specters (ghosts) they would be
rooted eighty-two years in the same spot waiting
for another…one by one
(which is the way death takes us, he said)
they took their shadows…
into the house.”
Harbingers of death are all around this book. The shadows from the eclipse image seem like denial. When faced with “real” death, the reader finds that all the sorrow and grief expressed by the characters Bang’s “play“ may very well have been a dream. In the next “scene”, Lydia, the twin sister, comes bounding back to the beach house after being away for a day. The compelling question -- is it her own death Louise/Bang has dreamed, questioning her own mortality as she does in so many of the poems here? The Star’s Whole Secret asks, “Without fear what are we? the other asked” (pg 8). Fear and drama create tension, which beget this art of Mary Jo Bang.
The moon seen from windows inside and from the outdoors; threads of color (blue, green, lavender) are woven into poems for different reasons (moss climbing a rock is the “same shrill color” of her coat); animals of all kinds but especially swans, who mate for life, and varied breeds of dogs (terriers, Dalmatians, and others); a discussion of the sense of sight is present among these recurrent themes. Subtlety molded twists are more visual clues with which to solve the puzzle, letting the story evolve, giving it dimension rather than a simple, obvious answer. Bang also plays havoc with clichéd figures of speech “that pillar, that post” (pg. 6 in Belle Vue), and nursery rhymes “hey diddle diddle” incorporating images of both the moon and the childlike. Her being a twin is intimated at first, then openly pointed to as they embrace -- unclear if sisterly or sexual -- related to what is implied in the poem immediately prior, as the death of a person close to them -- a mother, father, grandparent? We are not told.
Bang is fun to read but she has to be read aloud to best comprehend the games and extraneous puzzles within the larger framework, and the feelings, which indicate a smaller range than one might assume from the title. That key theme follows through the book as an entire love affair down to boredom and the moment when one recognizes separateness from their significant other; when the affair is falling apart, and one must decide to remain because one is supposed to, or liberate oneself to another day/another love because one is trapped inside a gestalt-like box not in a living, breathing relationship -- “the air was gin-clear. On closer inspection the flowers were artificial…”
A single line is the access in to the imagery in some poems, and could by itself contain the entire reason for the poem’s existence. One of my favorite pieces, Exquisite Corpse, a piece of a sextet at the book’s end, is the segment that tells us Louise’s twin is dead. It also makes clear the purpose of this book so filled with oblique language and word play -- “…but knowledge was missing. Nothing was missing…But no note. No terrible note noting particular sorrows. No cannot go on. Mystery and a miss who was now carried out…but no one knew where they would taker her” (pg 70). We have no clue. Maybe like life’s basic mystery, we are not meant to know, merely hear. Or, maybe her adulation shows her intent:
“for dessert: pie, a structural lemon,
cloud-coated with a Corinthian cap
formed of feathers standing at wistful attention.
There was no see deeper than this.”
Wendy Lynn Cohen is a writer and editor currently living in Los Angeles, California. Cohen is a graduate of Antioch University Los Angeles baccalaureate Creative Writing program in 2002. She continues to freelance for multi-disciplined commercial writing/editing/design projects, while executing varied creative fiction and non-fiction projects. In 2007, Cohen edited, The Devil Made Me Do it, a memoir of a renowned 1970’s film actress. She aided the self-published author in designing the book, its cover, and marketing its initial launch in mid-2008, garnering a coveted NPR interview and book signing at Book Soup, one of LA’s foremost independent book stores. Though not specifically a poet, her love of poetry was greatly heightened in an all-involving “…reading-poetry-is-reviewing course…[whose] syllabi were recognized by [the] National Book Critics Circle as innovative courses.”