Elegy is a poetic journal, comprised of 64 short poems, describing the year following the poet's son's death. Ms Bang's 37 year old son, Michael Donner Van Hook, died in June 2004 in lower Manhattan of an overdose of prescription medications. Giving herself a year to write the poems in Elegy, Ms Bang submitted many of them individually and then published them in the current monograph form in 2007.

The elegy is a poetic form going back over 2500 years and originally consisted of elegaic couplets, alternating lines in hexameter and pentameter. Traditionally they were initially used for lament. Since the earliest Greek and Roman poets, many poets have written poetic laments, very few of them any longer in elegaic couplets. The most famous elegies in English have been Milton's Lycidas, Shelley's Adonaïs, and of course Tennyson's In Memoriam. Modern poets writing elegaic poetry include Heaney, Hardy, Stevens, and Plath, the last particularly when writing about her father. 

Ms Bang's Elegy, written for her son, is a powerful collection of individual poems, not a long flowing poem of parts; it consists of mainly short poems rarely exceeding a page in length, with the exception of "The Opening", four pages long. She often addresses her son directly.  All the poems depend on tropes that recur frequently, e.g., clocks and numbers to discuss hours and time, the cycle/circle of past/present/future (in this case, a non-future) time; the irony of the cyclical nature of memories but not the physical presence of her son's ashes in a box; many Classical mythical figures; dreams; the sea; and the interplay of vision, glass and mirrors.


Although Ms Bang is clearly a major poet, for this reviewer, Elegy was a disappointment as a coherent whole. Ms Bang clearly felt a compelling need to try to capture her grief in any and every way possible. The result is a  frustrating - for the poet, but equally exasperating for the reader - circumnavigation about her grief from every angle trying to pin it down and elucidate it with metaphors and similes galore, often in the same poem. This effort and consequent style remind me of my experience of reading dozens of book reviews by John Leonard, whose prose was characterized by occasionally brilliant aphoristic successes, surrounded by many more mundane and sometimes only marginally associated analyses. In this regard I always considered him analogous to a home run slugger, whose home runs out of the park were sandwiched on either side by the proverbially high number of strike outs that home run hitters enjoy when they are not connecting squarely with the ball. Just so Ms Bang.

I found the often jarring conglomeration of mixed metaphors distracting, constantly reminding me, as in "A Place" (in which we start out with a seabed, progress to clouds, to "rounds in the ring" to a castle and "riverward rat" to fire, air, tin and ending with "Lethe water") of the lack of a smooth and organic inter- and intra-textual consistency one has come to expect of poets of Mary Jo Bang's talent in a thematically united collection of poems. Although these were individually written over a year, even as stand-alone poems many of them fail to cohere.
Certainly there are many poems that are unqualified successes, e.g., "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus" about a visit that mother-poet and son made to the Met; "November Elegy"; and "Goodbye is Another Word for Not" (the titles in Elegy are often exquisite), about the experience of watching a movie - these are powerful poems, to be sure. If Susan Hill's In the Springtime of the Year is a phenomenological exploration of obsessive grief in prose, Elegy is a poetic anatomy of grief in highly emotional and cerebral verse. And those that deal with permanence, change and "stasis" ("Evidence", "A Year Ends", and "Anniversary", among others) allow us to witness the poet hesitantly (emotionally, albeit in a very skilled way, poetically) walking, back and forth, continually, the tightrope of ambivalence about her willingness to accept the permanence of her son's death as opposed to the unchanging nature of her memories of him - these were for me the most moving poems in the book. And there is an almost unending parade of quite memorable lines, such as the beginning of "Tragedy":

It begins to sink in. Dead
Is dead, not just not
Here. ...


Elegy won the 2005 Alice Fay di Castagnola Award from the Poetry Society of America for a manuscript-in-progress and the 2007 National Book Critics Circle Award. Background information about Elegy is on-line at:  and at



Graywolf Press

Place Published

Saint Paul, Minnesota



Page Count