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

The next unconventional line break occurs in stanza 1’s last line, “to bow to the cultural.” When we read on, we see that “cultural” is an adjective modifying the next line’s noun, “debate,” but the line break allows “the cultural” to function also as an abstract noun denoting something like “the culture.” As a result, we are given one meaning about how rituals, like elegies, make us pay deference to cultural norms; then, when we read on, another about how they make us pay deference to an aesthetic debate within that culture. Proliferation of meaning is a positive consequence of well-chosen line breaks and one that enriches today’s poem, again helping it to transcend personal grief into the larger realm of universal human suffering.

If you read through the rest of today’s poem with an eye for line breaks, you will see some falling on natural or punctuated pauses, and others that are less expected. The second line of stanza 2 also breaks unconventionally, separating the adjective “unbearable” from the noun it modifies (“afterimage”). This permits a reading of “the unbearable” as a collective, abstract noun, enlarging its function beyond a simple descriptor of “afterimage” and adding another layer of meaning. We see it again in stanza’s 2’s last line, which drives a hard line- and stanza-break wedge between “imagined” and “consolidation,” encouraging us to read “To look for the imagined” differently and more broadly than it would otherwise be read. Stanza 3 has several interesting line breaks that proliferate meaning:

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

The first break, on “grief,” completes the prepositional phrase and is conventional. The second, “finished,” allows us to read that line at least two ways: one, we can be finished with grieving springing from specific, concrete memories expressed in that wonderful metaphor, “cabinet of particulars,” and second, in “we all can be finished,” in a larger sense of not continuing, perhaps even dying. “Shut up” in the next line works much the same way, denoting what we do to that cabinet of memories or connoting a desire for us all just to cease talking and crying already.

From here until the poem’s end, line breaks occur at punctuational caesuras or where a reader might pause to take a breath. There are sentence fragments, to be sure, but syntax is regular and the line breaks do not call attention to themselves. In the poem’s last line, though, we find another unconventional line break: “One hears repeatedly, the role of elegy is.” Besides returning to the words that opened the poem, this line enacts what the speaker is feeling: an ongoing, never-ending expression of bewilderment and reiteration of a question (what is the role of elegy) that expresses the relentless continuation of human grief following the deaths of those we love. As with most successful poems about personal grief, this one dwells less on the particulars of this speaker’s loss than on something more universal: the nature of suffering and the utter inability of our carefully compiled rituals to dispel it. And also of the inevitable human impulse still to try.

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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.