An Abecedarian Marriage: Mary Jo Bang’s The Bride of E

The Bride of E

The Bride of E
BY Mary Jo Bang
(Graywolf Press, 2009)

Save for the notable exceptions of Psalm 119 and Chaucer’s “Prayer of Our Lady,” abecedarian poems have largely earned their fame by teaching young children their ABCs. Although the innocence of childhood certainly plays into the prosody and themes in The Bride of E, Mary Jo Bang’s sixth book of poetry, the collection itself could not be more intellectually engaging. Take for example the first poem, “ABC Plus E: Cosmic Aloneness is the Bride of Existence.” The very title establishes human existence as a philosophical problem: the “Bride of Existence” is ipso facto not “Existence” itself. In other words, she is non-existent, residing in a pre-marital state of undemarcated nothingness, which actually makes her the perfect match for Existence — unless he is going to marry himself. But this also sets up an eternal engagement, since non-existence and existence can never, by their very definitions, unite. In this way, the title introduces a challenging, witty, playful poem in which “[t]here was vodka and champagne, both in quantities / Extremely beautiful and nice for getting tight,” preventing the dense existential musings at the core of the poem from weighing it down:

They were practitioners, they admitted to the barman,
Of psychological materialism, explaining that they had read both
Sartre and de Beauvoir and believed in the cerebellum,
The thalamus and the lower brain and that between
The lower and the upper parts there must be room for them,
Néant [nothingness] aside.

— p. 3

“They” refers to the girls whose night at the bar provides both the concrete physical and abstract thematic frameworks for the poem. The girls enter “ABC Plus E” in a dazzling flurry of Bang’s trademark tightly controlled, musical language with “A pack of young flirts was patrolling the party.” Just as the girls’ punchy, unmistakable presence at the party is announced with a proliferation of plosive sounds, the poem closes quietly, gliding into a linguistically and thematically uncertain hang-time with

Post-adolescent dreamers who morphed on the dance floor
That night into naughty boys, echoing the girls’ questions
Of “how shall we live,” “what shall we do,”
Words without end, without weight.

— p. 3

The first of these lines couldn’t be more full of uncertainty: young people who are no longer adolescents but not yet adults, dreaming and morphing on a dance floor where “[t]he girls [were] lugging their blind-drunk partners,” “plunged into almost total darkness” only a stanza before. Moreover, at the poem’s end, the “w” sounds lend linguistic weight to a line that speaks of weightlessness.

Fast-forward through the alphabet to “I,” and another look at the brain reveals an even closer examination of uncertainty:

Then back
To the program: “If you look at the brain…”
Not everyone agrees but it’s clear

There is an immense power in uncertainty.
There is a story that goes like this:
You were a crime you didn’t know had been committed.
And it’s that not knowing, the sine qua non

Of uncertainty, that holds the person in
Place.

— p. 27

The supposition of an innocent crime makes sense in a poem with a title as holographic as “I as in Justice”: Simply change the timing of the title’s utterance, and a poem about justice simultaneously reveals itself as a poem about injustice. Truth, it seems, lies in the extrapolation between itself and falsehood, in the conjecture and curiosity that occupy the space where one thing meets its opposite.

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