Poetry Sunday: “The Role of Elegy,” by Mary Jo Bang


The Role of Elegy

The role of elegy is
To put a death mask on tragedy,
A drape on the mirror.
To bow to the cultural

Debate over the aestheticization of sorrow,
Of loss, of the unbearable
Afterimage of the once material.
To look for the imagined

Consolidation of grief
So we can all be finished
Once and for all and genuinely shut up
The cabinet of genuine particulars.

Instead there’s the endless refrain
One hears replayed repeatedly
Through the just ajar door:
Some terrible mistake has been made.

What is elegy but the attempt
To rebreathe life
Into what the gone once was
Before he grew to enormity.

Come on stage and be yourself,
The elegist says to the dead. Show them
Now—after the fact—
What you were meant to be:

The performer of a live song.
A shoe. Now bow.
What is left but this:
The compulsion to tell.

The transient distraction of ink on cloth
One scrubbed and scrubbed
But couldn’t make less.
Not then, not soon.

Each day a new caption on the cartoon
Ending that simply cannot be.
One hears repeatedly, the role of elegy is.


First published in Pleiades. From Elegy by Mary Jo Bang. Copyright © 2009 by Mary Jo Bang. Reproduced with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota.



Mary Jo Bang is the author of seven books of poems, including Louise in Love, The Bride of E, The Last Two Seconds, and Elegy, which received the National Book Critics Circle Award. A Doll for Throwing is forthcoming in August. Her translation of Dante’s Inferno, with illustrations by Henrik Drescher, was published by Graywolf Press in 2012. She’s been the recipient of a Hodder Fellowship from Princeton University, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a Berlin Prize fellowship at the American Academy in Berlin. She studied Sociology at Northwestern University, photography at the Polytechnic of Central London, and has an MFA in Poetry from Columbia University. She teaches creative writing at Washington University in St. Louis.


Poet’s Note

Following a death, I’d been writing poems that felt—in spite of my best efforts to create a reasonably worked rhetorical surface—quite raw and unworked. I kept asking myself why I was writing as I was. Sometimes I would watch my mind seesaw back and forth between trying to distract myself by writing and falling into a chasm where I could hear nothing but the dim voice of Emily Dickinson promising that “after great pain a formal feeling comes.” In the background, I could occasionally hear someone telling me to “make it new,” but that voice sounded so unfeeling and so far away, I tuned it out. One day I realized that the poems I’d been writing were elegies, a form poets have used throughout time to chart their minute-to-minute adjustment to the crushing fact that what they love “most best” is never coming back. So, I thought, that is what an elegy is—the poem you write while staring at the devastation that follows the realization that from this moment on, whatever else happens, you will forever be destroyed.

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  • Cara October 15, 2017 at 9:30 am

    Lovely poems from lovely women
    Why did it take so long for me to find you
    Perhaps it is true
    I was hiding behind my self-built curtain

    Love your work! How do I submit a poem?

  • Dianne Alvine September 26, 2017 at 11:25 am

    This is an amazing site.