Costumes Exchanging Glances
The rhinestone lights blink off and on. Pretend stars. I’m sick of explanations. A life is like Russell said of electricity, not a thing but the way things behave. A science of motion toward some flat surface, some heat, some cold. Some light can leave some after-image but it doesn’t last. Isn’t that what they say? That and that historical events exchange glances with nothingness.
About this Poem
“Bertrand Russell said, ‘Electricity is not a thing like St. Paul's Cathedral; it is a way in which things behave.’ And it's not ‘they’ who say, but Walter Benjamin who said, ‘Things are only mannequins and even the great world-historical events are only costumes beneath which they exchange glances with nothingness, with the base and the banal.’ In September, 1940, Benjamin died under ambiguous circumstances in the French-Spanish border town of Portbou, while attempting to flee the Nazis.”
—Mary Jo Bang
Mary Jo Bang
Mary Jo Bang was born on October 22, 1946, in Waynesville, Missouri, and grew up in Ferguson, which is now a suburb of St. Louis. She received a BA and an MA in sociology from Northwestern University, a BA in photography from the Polytechnic of Central London, and an MFA in creative writing from Columbia University.
Bang is the author of several books of poems, including A Doll for Throwing (Graywolf Press, 2017), a translation of Dante’s Inferno with illustrations by Henrik Drescher (Graywolf Press, 2012), and Elegy (Graywolf Press, 2007), which won the 2007 National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry and was a 2008 New York Times Notable Book. Her books Louise in Love (Grove Press, 2001) and Elegy both received the Poetry Society of America’s Alice Fay di Castagnola Award for a manuscript-in-progress. Her first book, Apology for Want (Middlebury College, 1997), was chosen by Edward Hirsch for the 1996 Bakeless Prize. Her translation of Purgatorio is forthcoming from Graywolf Press in 2021.
About her collection Elegy, which traces the aftermath of her son’s death, Wayne Koestenbaum writes: “Mary Jo Bang’s remarkable elegies recall the late work of Ingeborg Bachmann—a febrile, recursive lyricism. Like Nietzsche or Plath, Bang flouts naysayers; luridly alive, she drives deep into aporia, her new, sad country. Her stanzas, sometimes spilling, sometimes severe, perform an uncanny death-song, recklessly extended—nearly to the breaking point.”
Bang’s work has been chosen three times for inclusion in the Best American Poetry series. She is the recipient of numerous awards, including a “Discovery”/The Nation award, a Pushcart Prize, a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation, and a Hodder Award from Princeton University.
Bang was the poetry coeditor of the Boston Review from 1995 to 2005 and the director of the creative writing program at Washington University from 2003 to 2006. She lives in St. Louis, Missouri.
A Doll for Throwing (Graywolf Press, 2017)
The Last Two Seconds (Graywolf Press, 2015)
Inferno by Dante Allegheri; translation (Graywolf Press, 2012)
The Bride of E: Poems (Graywolf Press, 2009)
Elegy (Graywolf Press, 2007)
The Eye Like a Strange Balloon (Grove Press, 2004)
The Downstream Extremity of the Isle of the Swans (University of Georgia Press, 2001)
Louise in Love (Grove Press, 2001)
Apology for Want (Middlebury College, 1997)
Date Published: 2014-04-07
Source URL: https://poets.org/poem/costumes-exchanging-glances