A Review of Mary Jo Bang’s A Film in Which I Play Everyone

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A Film in Which I Play Everyone by Mary Jo Bang Graywolf Press, 2023. 97 pp.

In her ninth book of poems, A Film in Which I Play Everyone, Mary Jo Bang continues her exploration of thought itself, asking the most vital questions about the self and its nuanced elaboration of truths. As is typical of her work, she shares with the readers of A Film her authoritative and incisive scholarship of art and literature as well as her stark yet whimsical sense of exploration and erudition. In the poem “A Miniature,” the speaker boldly asserts, “I’m a version of a self. I speak the truth.” Then, she immediately qualifies this seemingly simple claim with a nod to the deeper realities of selfhood, saying, “As if speaking French. Haltingly. / Fast-forward and it’s me asking air / to save me from the synaptic patterns // that dictate who I am . . .”.  The earnestness of the words bespeak the self, and yet the speaker wants to preserve some ineffable aspect of “air” apart from the renegade language of self-assertion. Like the apparent inchoate nature of the unconscious and its manifest symbols, Bang’s monologues are an insistent vernacular of the buried self that emerges through symbolization and self-extravagation, much like a dream.

The collaged sense of self that Bang explores in A Film resonates importantly with our cultural moment where the self—or more popularly, one’s identity—is ever urgent and explicit. In Bang’s various constructions, the speaker appears fluid, as if recreating herself impromptu, on the very edge of existence. Bang’s artistry lies in the fact that the intelligence that guides her investigations is consistent and sure. She never risks sacrificing truth—or, perhaps, her tolerance of alternative truths—for an easy version of a world merely reified by language. She insists on exactitude despite  language’s slipperiness—something that a seasoned translator would be especially attuned to given that her task is to make a choice in language that targets truth, or the most approximate truth.

The poems in A Film can be read in many ways as a series of studies of the mind. Through the lens of Bang’s particular poetics, we gain glimpses of the self as it is exposed to frank questioning and even the threat of erasure. As she expresses it in “The Fable of a Fabric Woven with Resistance,” “One way to see it is: the self is infinite / and circular, like problematic thoughts . . .”. From poem to poem, there is a scattered chronology of events flowing forward and backward, always starting over again, with an intelligence grows sharper even as it inevitably encounters the accidental. At the end of “A Miniature,” the speaker offers, “I am saying no more except to say / that the scale is tilted toward / accident. The accidental. The absolute is.”

Part of the wonder of these poems, with their emphasis on color, music, and the use of masquerade, resonates with the carnivalesque theories of Mikhail Bakhtin, a Russian linguist and literary critic writing in the first half of the twentieth century. He referred to the “carnivalesque” as a characterization that depicts the destabilization or reversal of power structures through humor and irony, beginning with an analysis of characters in Dostoevsky. In “Here We Are All with Daphne,” Bang yet again lets us know that she is a self speaking to a self as she writes: “We are all dying but some more than most, / / so says my interiority. It talks to me / as green fills the screen.” The motif of the film’s screen in which we watch our own lives continues throughout the volume.

In contrast to what Bang might consider the heroic continuity of the singular egoistic poet of the mid twentieth century, each contribution to A Film works to erase the self of the prior poem and start anew with a blank slate; indeed, to continue the analogy of film, every poem is spliced together as is a life. Every poem is also searching for the ontological questions haunting the persona, or as Bang puts it “The Wallpaper Behind the Day,” “Calm down. I tell myself. / Come down to the earth based science. / The random at-rest fire that chars / the inside of braincase gray.” This poem energetically offers the reader an insight into consciousness. This insight continues even as she keeps exploring in “No Questions,” writing, “Blast zone, shock wave, viral progression / until there you are, no longer you / but what you’ve been made into. . .”

The poem “Part of a Larger Picture” reflects the speaker’s memory as a televised film scene:

The terrible secret self stayed by where she was, behind the curtains. Lashed by an onslaught of echoes, rain slid down the window while a televised woman

dissolved into the acetate tears of a flickering film. Mother died, then father. Brother quickly came to be dead to me. Sister lives on the opposite side of

a see-through resin door. She occasionally waves me over. Once inside, I speak to myself. And of another.

The final line resonates with Rimbaud’s famous statement “je est un outre” (I is an other) suggesting like Hegel before him, and Merleau-Ponty after him, that the inner self is constructed, and subject to the perspective of the other. Our self-representations emerge from a perspective of the world in which we recognize others as non-self and see ourselves according to others. As self- identity evolves, there are successive re-integrations of selves in an ensemble of roles that also receive social recognition.   It is clear that Bang is not simply fastening herself to a literary or philosophical theory, or a cultural construct, or even a critique of Western metaphysics. Her thoughtfulness and craft are far more powerful. In A Film, she has produced an intellectually engaging and nuanced collection of poems that seem to be pursuing a type of thoughtfulness that is simultaneously both exquisitely realistic and artfully fabricated. In Bang’s poetry, the distinction between authenticity and invention is continually, and often happily, blurred.

A Film is a fascinating and challenging study of being, but it is also a social one. The “I” is like a self-perpetuating mirage upon which we base how we imagine others see us, and therefore social in its very foundations. Bang gives us a glimpse into the mind as it is recurrently contemplated, listened to, doubted, explored, lost, and reconfigured. No longer bounded and fixed, the self comes alive once it is indivisible from speech—and paradoxically, Bang’s unique mastery of language is the very means through which she allows us to see her vision of the self. Her success in this regard may stem from  her work translating Dante, given the Thomistic centrality of the logos to ontology in the Commedia. Her book offers an appreciation of the “jouissance” and the poetic power it embodies. Above all, A Film should in this sense  be read for its celebration of the mind faithfully in dialogue with itself, trying to get to the answer of what being is. In “This is what you are, the self says to the self” Bang defines the self as a “ a spectrum, an immeasurable gradient, during and after which / the places where you were can be tracked over a sprawling landscape / / but to what end? It is always a vast sea of ketamine green, lace at the at the top of the breakers.” The poem goes on to these still moments locked inside memory, an inventory of thoughts as the speaker speaks to herself, unable to choose that particular frieze in which the self is not in doubt. “Play acting is only one way to say what you want.” The speaker concludes: “There are numerous other methods. Not a spectrum. Not a gradient. / But a constant complication. Desire ever-watchful, an insomniac eye.”

Bang’s observation of the plasticity of poetic intelligence, too, is transformed by the presence of the imagined other. By conversing with it, confronting it, the speaking self is temporarily assured of its own self-certainty. This is a book that keeps the reader vibrantly engaged and deeply moved.