The Last Two Seconds

In her seventh collection, Mary Jo Bang returns from translating Dante’s Inferno with a newly tempered voice to elucidate contemporary sins. A retro-futurist vision “where blown-glass kitsch figures / were excavated from a pit,” The Last Two Seconds is alive to impermanence: “Every last scene lasts for no more / than a second; some ceramic panther / stands in for the extinct.” Charting terrains of economic disparity, pollution, and nuclear threat, the startling question of the collection becomes “Is it today yet?” There is recurrent imagery of clocks and a dissociative narrative of an unnamed “she,” which contribute to the uncertain, ominous, and sometimes cheeky tone of some poems. Yet if Bang’s tongue is sometimes in cheek, it’s also worrying a broken tooth: “Death, said the cat, as it lifted a souvenir / trinket mermaid castle from the fish tank, // is day plummeting / behind a cruise missile set for a mid-sized city.” Echoes of Eliot (“You know, don’t you, what we’re doing here? / The evening laid out like a beach ball gone airless.”) haunt Bang’s testimony of our climate-changed times. Although Eliot asserted that the world ends not with a bang but a whimper, this particular way of shoring an era’s fragments against emotional ruin, by adding lyrics to “a song of no mercy,” begins and ends with Bang.

This book review originally appeared in American Poets, Spring-Summer 2015.