Bang to the heart

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First Posted: 3/9/2015

There have been many retellings of those who, in the last moments of life, saw something. What they did or did not see varied, but the question still remains. In the finality of our life, what will be the last thing we experience? Esteemed poet, Mary Jo Bang, answers such a question in her latest collection, “The Last Two Seconds.”

The work, which follows after her 2007 collection, “The Bride of E,” focuses on many somber themes keeping to Bang’s previous writerly traditions. For any newcomers to Bang’s writing, her work is largely considered postmodern, quite often keeping to her name. Bang’s words, both stunning and quick, shoot with precise intention straight through the heart.

The collection, which includes over 50 poems, touches upon everything from to natural disasters and Wall Street to Franz Kafka’s unfinished novel, “Amerika” and Joseph Conrad’s postcolonial novella, “Heart of Darkness.” Somehow, even considering the diversity of topics, two themes manage to pulsate throughout the collection: art and pain. Both of the selections become mutually exclusive, paying heed to Henri-Frederic Amiel who expressed: “You desire to know the art of living, my friend? It is contained in one phrase: make use of suffering.” Indeed, Bang makes use of such suffering well, ultimately showcasing to readers that the best experiences are often the ones that have brought out the worst in us.

Overall, the collection is an exquisite and fast-paced read, but one cannot help but play favorites. Top pieces, which evoke both serious and dark humorous undertones, include: “Practice for Being Empty,” “Except for Being, It Was Relatively Painless,” “Studies in Neuroscience: The Perpetual Moment,” “The Last Two Seconds,” and “Filming the Doomsday Clock.” In the latter poem Bang writes: “We were told that the cloud cover was a blanket / about to settle into the shape of the present / which, if we wanted to imagine it / as a person, would undoubtedly look startled— / as after a verbal berating / or in advance of a light pistol whipping. / The camera came and went, came and went, / like a masked man trying to light a too-damp fuse. / The crew was acting like a litter of mimics / trying to make a killing. / Anything to fill the vacuum of time.”

Readers conclude the work feeling slightly better that while the end is nigh, we still have the ability to make the best of our mortality.