Once, years ago, I visited the home of a family whose son had died in childhood, and watched a video tribute the parents had made to the life of their child. Weeping, I resolved not to buy a camcorder myself until my children were grown. I don't even carry their photographs. "I'm a writer," I tell people. "I'll describe them to you." But when a child dies, the most ordinary detail can detonate unexpectedly, even in the hands of a professional. In "Death Be Not Proud," the 20th-century journalist John Gunther described his son, Johnny, who died of a brain tumor in his teens: "He was very blond, with hair the color of wheat out in the sun, large bright blue eyes, and the most beautiful hands I have ever seen." It's easy to imagine even the prolific Gunther, author of more than two dozen books, knocking off for the day to pour himself a stiff one after typing out the line about the hands.
Verbal description and visual depiction have their place in memorials, but they lead us down the petal-strewn path of sentimentality. Compare them with "Elegy," by Mary Jo Bang, which recently won the National Book Critics Circle award for poetry—a collection written in 12 months after the author's son, Michael Donner Van Hook, died of an overdose of prescription sedatives. Here is the nearest thing I could find in Bang's book to what Gunther wrote about Johnny:
Well, she would think him beautiful, but the passage, pivoting like a steel cell door on "unchangeable," tells you nothing in particular about Michael. Bang's subject is her own inner state. Her task is to distill tragedy to pure, shockingly potent grief. What difference does it make to you, the color of his eyes?
The poems grew out of jottings in the days after Michael died, in June 2004, alone in his New York apartment. Bang, aware of her son's addiction problem, spent the day calling him from St. Louis, where she teaches creative writing at Washington University. Michael, her only child from an early, failed marriage, was 37, an aspiring artist with the easy charm of the addict. Bang noted the bas-relief at the entrance to the morgue where she identified Michael's body, which became a leitmotif, framing an unspoken question: who, in some remote bureaucratic age, had bestowed this decorative touch on this grimly functional room? "I was embarrassed to be doing it," she says, "because it showed some kind of remove that I didn't have, to be observing. But I'm a writer, always recording the world. That's how you train your mind to work."
And in the months to come her vision turned to "the screen at the back of the mind," where dreams and waking memories interpenetrated, where dialogues of guilt and forgiveness played unstoppably. Michael's death was ruled a suicide, although she believes the overdose was accidental, facilitated by a doctor who with criminal negligence wrote a prescription for 300—300!—phenobarbital tablets. But she was, and is still, tormented by the thought that she had let him down. Should she have flown to New York and dragged him into a hospital?
The poems in "Elegy" were not written for publication, but when editors asked her for new work, this was all she had to show them. To her amazement, they were a success. "What does it mean, they 'loved the poem'? I was talking about wanting to kill myself. What made these poems acceptable? T. S. Eliot taught us you can write about your nervous breakdown, but call it 'The Wasteland' and make it big and crazy enough to hide behind. I'm not hiding behind much here." "Elegy" stands outside the avant-garde tradition in which Bang had worked. Contemporary poetry is often just about language itself, a syntactical shell game in which the reader never gets to uncover the "meaning." "My critical self would say, you can't write these poems. We disdain the whole confessional thing now, the romantic poetry notion that I stand at the center of the world and I can speak for you, because I know how things are. Earnestness fails. Earnestness looks like a distillation of the wrong part of suffering, so what was I doing, weeping on the page?" But out of her misery, she wrote:
She was living as two selves, the suffering mother who yearns for the oblivion of sleep, and the poet who observes her suffering and then pulls back to where she can see night falling. It's not Bang's fault she is such a good poet, but when "Elegy" was published and became what passes for a minor sensation in the world of serious poetry, her reaction was confusion and discomfort. Was the poet self outstripping the suffering self? Had she managed to create, out of the death of her child, a personal triumph? These are not easy questions for her, even now. She takes refuge in the knowledge that Michael was proud of her success. He was an aspiring artist himself—an abstract expressionist, wouldn't you know—and one of his paintings serves as the cover art for "Elegy." When she does a reading, Bang says she feels Michael's presence on the stage with her.
It is now almost four years since Mary Jo Bang walked under that bas-relief that said MORGUE and made a mental note of it to use later. As time went on she resolved to stop her exercise in elegy after a year, because otherwise, she says, how would you ever know when to end, except by your own death? So she wrote a poem called "C Is for Cher," which will go into her next collection. She no longer weeps on the page, at least not visibly. But she still weeps, just as Gunther, no doubt, went to his grave thinking about those beautiful hands.