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Mary Jo Bang

Six poems


The Diary of a Lost Girl

Four diphtheria deaths, then fire, now five named lakes
with tranquil looks. Yet rampantly mad.
A lunatic shriek from a ruffian

child. One oar wrestled a mob of shore fringe, another,
the wet underbirth. And madness,
was it afflicted by daemons? Or stricken of god? Or vision,

thrown on an empty mirror, and there you were?
Later, upstairs — the lakes packed away
in pearly cases, the coppery spin of a high skyward

arrayed against a leaded window — the chiasmic
question recurred. She recalled shy little lessons
from a girl named Renee on the unattainable freedoms

of the flesh. In the dining room, they would crumple
over the table like paper angels
if anyone raised an eyebrow.

Otherwise, they leaned against scenery — looking down
at their Bonniedale shoes
as if they were in love with nothing else.


The Penguin Chiaroscuro

The acrobat on the rosinback circled the track
thrice then threw her a kiss.
She could see how well he’d been taught.

He still practiced, he said,
in order to better deserve his burnished fate.
You are rehearsing for what

play part? she asked. The doll’s house
gleamed in the small room until the lights were turned off.
Then sweet sweet sleep and the street

lamp gave up a glimpse of a carnival larger than life.
The carousel’s rotal motion took on speed then halted.
The lights were turned off. Someone was herding

the bumper cars into the stream,
eyes bright in their fendered faces.
The day was dry. The eyes were locked

in their sweet little coffins. The mind was struck
by needlespray. A cool soon (someone was speaking).
A change of clothes? the dreammaster asked.

Yes. She would be a blue new, the terrain of now,
a nice never waiting, one destined
for pleasure in that place between a small pinch of dusk

and the hey diddle diddle of dawn.
The kiss arrived just in time.
A breeze blew a window open on a distant afternoon.


The Medicinal Cotton Clouds Come Down
    to Cover Them

To smother their smallness
in felt. Unsatisfied folds, filmic
emotion — remote, pale and impalpable.
Each with their own secret
inflection of want.
There was no debate on this but merely a mood
shift when certain words were mentioned.
Inane nexus of speech, never quite capturing
the what invoked.
She slid her panties down over her hips.
The broidered hue of illusion,
idea drunk in the delicate gloom.
The picture of a hand becoming
a hand. Whose? Yes. Desire reworked stepwise,
a would weep. A was told and lying very still.
Was allowing just so to happen
to her. Neck nape a curve becoming
infinite abyss extended to wish, wish, wish,
and righty-o, a stunning result. Isn’t that nice?
Rosey-o, rosey-o. She woke, took one look:
Oh, it’s you. Yes. I thought I dreamed you.
Siren girls sang somewhere. Nice, she said. Nice.


Dark Smudged the Path Untrammeled

The room was warm, sugar sweet, and wormwood bitter
with radiators trimmed in half-shell

heading cast columns looking unlikely
to support their visual weight. How easy,

said Louise, it is to be crushed.
They were twelve at the table, six on each side.

A tableau untainted by paint, an even jury
sitting in judgment.

She could hear music — was it the spheres?
Planets passing Adam’s sarcophagus, bowing down in what?

Honor? Or relief that they were diviner matter,
a test doctrine as yet unbested. It was time

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 — the very sight kept them submerged

and they swam like skylarks straining to locate
a star without the help of the sky.

To the one on her right, Louise said, no, she would not sit
for his dog — a taffy-toned poodle with a puppy cut

that answered to the name of Roy.
She would be away that week, grazing a coast

before entering a sea, taking a sloop, sipping her tea.
Adrift. Besides, she said, she could never be anyone’s

My Dear Girl. She would never respond
to a call from a telephone held to a distant, indifferent ear.

She was, in a word, not-his-type, and then she turned
to her left, a sinister shift, and in her best whisper

she asked to be taken home. Bye, they said. Bye-bye.
The late hours were arriving, car after car.


A Hurricranium, He Said

Rain on the outside, horror on the in.
That wind could cause such
alases and sighs but there was no resignation, no.

Knee deep in distant duck honk. What a waterway.
What a what would I have done in that one’s space?
It was an anniversary of sorts of the sound

of song sung once in a bitty chapel far over seas.
O ’twas England. This isn’t Eden, she’d said. Eat or be eaten.
And he put it to music. O ’twas

BEAUTIFUL. O ’twas a song for all reasons. ’Twasn’t it?
Now he was silent. Has the cat got your whether? he asked.
And indeed, she had seen a cat, bedraggled as a rock badger

fresh from the stream between two fallowed fields.
Now there you go again, he said,
relying on Nature. A lie, she said. Menteur.

He turned his head and half-hid behind his hand
because who could look — the tall trees swished like Death
batting its lush purple lashes.

The very sound was wearying. They were the inside
wishing to be out. Would the rain fade, finally, and allow them
to state alas at last? And sing again.


Speech is Designed to Persuade

I

Here we are, my dear, so near we could touch
if touch were what was wanted. A pleasant event
accruing. A view into leaves will move the mind
back slightly. Dunderheaded hindrances.
They kept us apart. Is this what you meant
to have happened? I have taken up bad habits
in your absence. I have taken the tablets
you left on the dresser. I have dressed myself
in feathers fit for flight. I am flight but did not not melt
as some do when they try too hard to fly. A fraction
of four is only saying a small thing oddly.


II

Fine then, they said, let the tree be Knowledge. Let the leaf
be Nature. Let the dog take a name we give it — Pupper.
Let the string be knotted on its linear axis.
And now the sun comes up. The machinery hum
of a pheasant flutter. They were galled by the gift
of a clock, its inconsistent clatter. They looked over a book
of prints taken from frescoes, decorative specimens.
Smitten, relaxed, they took a shower, using only a cup
of water. Uppermost was bliss’s peculiarity.
Six was a cipher, although didn’t they eagerly agree
to let numbers mean nothing?


III

Eventually the text began to explain itself.
Written out, the code was easier to decipher.
They devised a strategy, frequent division,
occasional subtraction. One fragment kissed another.
A sexual innuendo of sorts. Distance was not kind.
They understood the adage that omissions can be cruel
so a system of substitution was concocted. A three was used
to connote a blank space. A blanket was thrown
over the bed but only because it was very, very cold.
It was all in an evening’s amusement.
All a moment’s distraction.


IV

Now then, she said, come closer. He allowed her
so little. And she made do. That can be said in her favor.
She was his favorite. He said so.
She dragged her nails along the surface soundless.
No abominable chalkboard emanation. In the quiet,
a clock. A dog scratching resignedly at a door.
That night she dreamed she lived in a laundry
where everything came clean. She was all
she was going to mean. Let touch be a time-tested image.
Let speech be designed to persuade. Let fragments hold a space.
Let the bell for waking keep breaking in.


Mary Jo Bang




Mary Jo Bang
is the author of Apology for Want and poetry coeditor of Boston Review. She is on the permanent faculty at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. Her poems have appeared in New American Writing, Paris Review, The New Yorker, The New Republic, Denver Quarterly, Harvard Review, and elsewhere. Her collection Louise In Love is forthcoming from Grove Press in January 2001; University of Georgia Press will publish The Downstream Extremity of the Isle of Swans in the spring of 2001.
Photo by Yuri Marder.


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