ON THE LAST TWO SECONDS BY MARY JO BANG
GRAYWOLF PRESS, 2015
REVIEW BY MERIWETHER CLARKE
The follow-up to her critically acclaimed Elegy, Mary Jo Bang’s The Last Two Seconds is a brilliant collection exploring the ravages of time in a world plagued by both manmade and natural doom. With sharp imagination and brutal honesty, Bang paints a vision of human history that is unflinchingly honest in its reversion from the optimistic. The language of her poems is as intense and wry as her subject matter—irrefutably arguing that the past, no matter how recent, is man’s most unforgiving reflection.
As a disciple of history, Bang is interested in the complexities of experience, in the multitude of perspectives—both just and flawed—that populate our world. The collection begins with “The Earthquake She Slept Through,” a seven-tercet lyric rife with allusions to Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. The poem narrates the experience of a woman waking up after a destructive earthquake in Spain to a day “full of dead things” (11-12). Bug corpses litter the floor of her apartment, including a cockroach in the bathroom whose “dead / antennae announced the future by pointing to the silver mouth / that would later gulp the water she washed her face with” (5-7). As the day continues, the poem’s central figure concedes that “the idea … was to remain awake,”(9) though she maintains a desire to avoid the surrounding devastation until it disappears, as well as the thought of aftermath—a possibly deadly natural disaster. Throughout the collection, Bang’s speaker shows little interest in crumbled buildings or ravaged streets, an action she characterizes as people’s tendency to “think of themselves as a picture that matches an invented longing” (14). Unable to find empathy for those whose lives are affected by the disaster—who were, figuratively and literally, awake during the earthquake—the reader is presented with the painful truth that human narcissism allows us to pity ourselves above all others, even when surrounded by deeper suffering. This sentiment is echoed by the poem’s final tercet:
The day after, she called a friend to complain about the bugs.
From a distant city – his voice low and slightly plaintive – he said,
“Are you not well? Is there anything you want? (19-21)
The poem’s placement of its central figure as one who complains and of the friend as in a “distant city” immediately puts the two at odds with the characters invoked by the final line (“Are you not well? Is there anything you want?” (21) – Gregor and Grete Samsa. The inclusion of this line, originally spoken through a closed door, by empathetic and loyal Grete to her selfless bother Gregor (who has, of course, been transformed into a cockroach, yet still worries for his family’s ability to care for themselves), is a purposeful irony set alongside the deeply selfish behavior the poem narrates.
The duality of experiences—those who suffer and those who escape, those who remember and those who forget—is a consistent thread throughout the collection. Bang deftly uses the image of a dividing line to evoke the complexity of human interactions with history’s most destructive phenomena, from climate change to industrialization to gender inequality. While she makes no secret of her contempt for these trends, what Bang finds the most fault with is our individual perceptions of them. In “The Numbers” a knife draws a “dividing line down the center. This is mine. This is yours” (9-10) as an overt gesture toward the meaningless selfishness plaguing societies who forget their history. “A Calculation Based on Figures in a Scene” characterizes nameless “festivals on Fridays” as “the divider in the center of the wasteland” (2-3). The two scene’s figures, a “doll doctor” and a nurse are both robotically obedient, despite the fact that nothing but “flesh” and “an iron claw” surround them (4). “Here’s What the Mapmaker Knows” brilliantly mocks the human tradition of dividing land, noting that in “an empire of uncommon horror” humans remain most interested in their own experience—in the false, selfish, and sadly common truth that “every moment all that matters is me”(16).
At the center of the collection is the gorgeous six-part poem “Let’s Say Yes,” which reflects on Virgina Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. Comprised solely of words in Mrs. Dalloway, the poem expands on a motif of mutual interest to both Woolf and Bang: time. Bang’s speaker shares some similarities to Woolf’s protagonist; both carry intuition with them like a heavy stone, and both feel the world pass by before them as if they are not active members of it. The latter of these is heightened with Bang’s sharp eye for the boundaries of experiences, as the lines that define our world dissolve and disentangle throughout each of the poem’s sections.
Similar to Woolf, Bang’s speaker investigates what lies beneath the surface. In part 4 of the poem, “To Write a History,” the reader is bluntly told, “The answer is to go beneath life: / here was the door opened, the door ajar. And outside was history: engraving of a sofa, a factory, violin sound” (8). This echoes Clarissa Dalloway’s intense preoccupation with objects of the every day as symbols of deeper meaning. However, where Dalloway’s journey into the dark heart of the world ends with a renewal of life, Bang’s—perhaps unsurprisingly—follows a different path. In the poem’s final section, aptly titled “There She Was,” the speaker stands at her window and can only think images of death: “She would really only / be remembering a garden, trees, wallpaper … Death without life. Fear. Disaster. Punishment. Profound darkness. Evening. She walked to the window: sky, / clouds coming into the room. How odd, she thought, to be” (27). Unlike Dalloway, whose sensitivity ultimately allows her to rediscover her purpose, Bang’s speaker remains uncertain of the ability to perceive meaning leads to anything but misery.
Though Mrs. Dalloway is only one of the many works Bang references in The Last Two Seconds, her message is clear: if human experience is inherently selfish, art is where we go to find some respite, to learn, that other lives are different from our own. The need for this has existed throughout all of history, yet generation after generation neglects it in favor of material objects, superficial happiness, and personal comfort. As Bang herself writes in the collection’s prophetic last line, set against the doomsday clock’s final five seconds, we must “let go of this morbid attachment to things” (“Filming the Doomsday Clock,” 32).
The Last Two Seconds
by Mary Jo Bang
Graywolf Press, 2015
$16.00 paperback, ISBN: 978-1-55597-704-7
Mary Jo Bang is the author of six previous poetry collections, including Elegy, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award and a New York Times Notable Book. She has also published an acclaimed new translation of Dante’s Inferno. Bang has received a fellowship from the Guggenheim Foundation, a Hodder Fellowship from Princeton University, and a Berlin Prize Fellowship from the American Academy in Berlin. She is a professor of English and teaches in the creative writing program at Washington University in St. Louis