I found this poem by Mary Jo Bang in my in-box this morning, thanks to the wonderful daily poem sent by the Academy of American Poets. (Sign up for their “Poem-a-Day” service — it’s a lifesaver for writers, poetry lovers and seekers!)
What a wonderful way to wake up my mind and heart. Reading Bang’s explanation of the sources of her poem, you can see that she is translating some of the more esoteric cultural innovators and philosophers into a whimsical turn on being and nothingness, perception and play, historical events and the clutter of daily life and objects, greatness and the ordinary, meaning and meaninglessness. (I wonder what connections you see in this short wonder of a poem!)
Enjoy! I hope this poem inspires you to take a risk in your own writing, to translate something larger-than-life into the precious, magical, deceptively small container of words available to you as a writer.
Costumes Exchanging Glances
by Mary Jo Bang
The rhinestone lights blink off and on.
I’m sick of explanations. A life is like Russell said
of electricity, not a thing but the way things behave.
A science of motion toward some flat surface,
some heat, some cold. Some light
can leave some after-image but it doesn’t last.
Isn’t that what they say? That and that
historical events exchange glances with nothingness.
Copyright © 2014 by Mary Jo Bang. Used with permission of the author.
About This Poem
“Bertrand Russell said, ‘Electricity is not a thing like St. Paul’s Cathedral; it is a way in which things behave.’ And it’s not ‘they’ who say, but Walter Benjamin who said, ‘Things are only mannequins and even the great world-historical events are only costumes beneath which they exchange glances with nothingness, with the base and the banal.’ In September, 1940, Benjamin died under ambiguous circumstances in the French-Spanish border town of Portbou, while attempting to flee the Nazis.”
–Mary Jo Bang