“The cinema has no boundary,” Orson Welles said. “It is a ribbon of dream.”
A Film in Which I Play Everyone (Graywolf Press) is the ninth poetry collection of celebrated American poet Mary Jo Bang, a poet and Professor of English at Washington University in St. Louis. Although the collection is quite thin, it possesses disarming heft: in poems that channel her signature lush imagery and mastery of formal control, Bang manages to explore themes of autonomy, authenticity, and reality. Her work addresses ontological and epistemological concerns that challenge the reader to look at the world through a more sophisticated lens.
The poems in this collection characterize reality as both wondrous and dangerous: while the narrators tend to possess a certain degree of innocence when approaching the world, this is partly due to the fact that reality often bleeds into the uncanny. To complicate matters, the limits of the narrator’s knowledge is juxtaposed by the sense of an overarching, omnipotent force. This sentiment is not necessarily religious; rather than alluding to the divine, Bang identifies the ordinary world as its own system of Foucauldian disciplinary power.
However, Bang is interested most in how people navigate the handicaps to their freedom to retain their interiority. This is how Bang opens her poem, “Four Boxes for Everything”:
In the background, music. In the foreground,
The kind of thinking a mirror appears to do,
Giving back the unexpected, depending on
How it’s positioned. We thought the world
Would change and we would make our own
Oval empire out of cameo profiles.
The world of cinema mimics the logic of our own reality. The production of film relies heavily on dimension: the boundary between reality and film is determined by the camera’s eye. Yet, film is a two-dimensional product. Bang connects this paradox to the perceived two-dimensionality of her life as captured in her own mirror image. When the camera determines her interiority based on “how it’s positioned,” how can the narrator seek out her own power? Suspended as it is in metaphor, this question illuminates the commonplace horror of grappling with life’s circumstances.
The cultivation of one’s interiority can be seen as a means of working through the oppressive forces of the world. In one poem, Bang writes “…The touching world / kept putting its hands on me.” In another: “to be forever inside the revolving universe / has never been my dream and yet / while I was here I wanted knowledge. / I knew I could see inside myself / but no one else could.” To know oneself, to love others, and to retain consciousness through choreography all become manifestations of freedom.
Mary Jo Bang’s poetic style echoes the linguistic precision of veteran poets such as Margaret Atwood, Catherine Barnett, and Tracy K. Smith. To me, this capacity for stylistic constraint is more attractive than the emotive informality of many modern poets, who chase authenticity through abandoning style. However, as Bang demonstrates through this stunning collection of poems, as well as the capacious oeuvre that she has amassed over several decades, great control in writing enhances, instead of obviates, the personal. The surrealist elements of her work have both existentialist and absurdist implications, and recall the “nausea” that Jean-Paul Sartre mentions in his brilliant novel of the same name. However, to be disconnected from one’s reality does not mean to live less actively in it.
“This is real, I would say / when trying to tease apart what was / inside my mind and what was happening / outside,” Bang writes in “The Actual Occurrences.” “I treated anything I could see, no matter how transient, as if it were / a treasured possession, a gift from a friend.”
Mary Jo Bang’s collection has infinite layers, with poems that work together to discover and uncover the fantastic in our own mundane existences. Its dynamism, heart, and intelligence will stay with you for months. This is one of the strongest poetry collections to come out in recent years. For all of us who are searching for ways to understand the life given to us, A Film in Which I Play Everyone parses that endless mystery.