book The Downstream Extremity of the Isle of Swans

reviewed by Rachel Barenblat

Published in Issue No. 50 ~ July, 2001

If poetry volumes were ranked like ski slopes, I’d list Mary Jo
Bang’s The Downstream Extremity of the Isle of Swans as a
black diamond: it’s not for the poetry beginner. Bang has some
exquisite lines, and if you like associative poetry, you’ll
adore her. On the other hand, the poems can feel frustratingly
internal, like they’re designed for a club of insiders to which
you, the reader, may or may not belong. This may be the kind of book
that makes non-poetry-readers decide to stay non-poetry-readers.

Reading this book is like looking through a kaleidoscope. The world
appears in stunning fragments: vivid colors, absurd juxtapositions,
occasionally something recognizable in the shifting jumble. Depending
on my mood I found Bang’s kaleidoscope either exhilarating or
frustrating. Sometimes the poems flowed in through my eyes and exited,
uncomprehended, through the back of my head.

I should be up-front and admit that associative poetry is not my
favorite thing. The poets to whom I most often return are primarily
narrative poets — Jane Kenyon, Elizabeth Bishop, Naomi Shihab Nye.
Bang’s style is about as far from these poets as one can

If you enjoy Lucie Brock-Broido or John Ashbery, you’ll probably
like Mary Jo Bang. Like their poems, Bang’s poems reward a
slant-reading. Let the delicious images and phrases wash over you; let
whatever elements seem meaningful be meaningful; but don’t try
to force the poems into the kind of narrative sense you may be
accustomed to finding.

To ground my comments, here’s one of Bang’s poems in its

Head-Heavy on Its Snakestalk, the Tulip

Agile in motion — but glacial, too syrup to see…

Or a salt, caustic and small scale, leans to an edge —

Water perhaps, or a quarry dressed in dovegray and pinstripe.

(I wished for that edge once. And more. Then not. For a while.)

Between us, there was always white flannel or any old thing:

Why I only wear this when I don’t care how I look.

This said, then the hair not so much tossed as…

The hair flipped, small-scale, mannered.

We show our true selves: naked, skin gently rewound,

circuits exposed, minor quibbles

a clock will iron smooth. Decisions: whether dessert

with the meal. Or shortly thereafter. Wanting it all. At

Something between us. Water, a caustic salt.

Not so much tossed as flicked from the shoulder

with the back of a hand. Impossible to show the true self,

while turning a head. Why, I only wear this

when I don’t care how I look. Agile in motion.

water, truth, naked, rewound. Tuliplike. Leans to an edge

but never loses control. Or leans, and falls.

Then rises. No, rose. No end.

I love the idea of a tulip on a snakestalk. (But how can something
be both agile and glacial? Forgo the need for narrative sense, I
remind myself.) I like the jerky syntax of “I wished for that edge
once. And more. Then not. For a while.” I like the way the poem
seems to correct itself in mid-sentence: “then the hair not so much
tossed as…/The hair flipped[.]” As if we were listening to
the Bang’s interior monologue, unedited.

I love the phrase “skin gently rewound,” even if I don’t
understand exactly what it means, and the way the comma placed in
why I only wear this…” changes the whole sense of
the line. And the ending, with its hint of redemption: “Or leans,
and falls./ Then rises.” But is the “No, rose” telling us
we’re in the past tense, or telling us we’ve been
comparing (something) to the wrong flower? And what of the “no
end” — does the poem have no end, or is it the life of the
flower (or whatever the flower represents) which is endless?

There’s a lot that I like in “Head-Heavy on its Snakestalk,
the Tulip” — but it leaves me with a lot of confusion and
questions. In that way, it’s an apt synecdoche for the

The title poem, like the rest of the book, is beautiful and
baffling. Some lines leapt out at me: “I was foreign then, living
in a limited range.” (What a perfect description of living in a
country that isn’t your own, navigating the safe places
within culture shock.)

But there were also parts I couldn’t parse:

What was you that I stood waiting for sky

to become chintz over swiss — dot after dot measuring an
immense span

of glass — mouth tasting the burnt sun, the black sea.

Heart thumping behind its insensible hoof.

The images of sky as chintz over swiss, the heart thumping
behind its insensible hoof, are stunning. And yet I can’t
figure out what to do with “What was you that I stood
waiting for,” and part of me can’t seem to get beyond that

I found the second part of the book easier to read than the
first, although I’m not sure why that is. Maybe by the
time I reached part two I was settling into the way Bang’s
poems need to be read; maybe it was because I finished the book
on a cloudy day. Maybe it’s easier to focus through the
poems on cloudy days. Because ultimately that’s what I
think this book requires: focusing through the poems.
They’re like the 3-D images which you can’t see
unless you let your eyes go out of focus. Looking directly at
these poems is confusing, but if you look just past them, just
through them, meaning may begin to accrue.

A rare few of the poems have unified subjects throughout. For
instance, “In a Spacious Chamber.” The people in it seem to
shift, but the poem’s definitely about sex. Somehow Bang
manages to be both frank and oblique. “She pressed herself
against him./ She was close” the poem begins. And, later, “Of
course he was the father// to her fantasy of after school
encounters/ in a cloakroom./ A pleated skirt raised/ to expose a
petite derriere.” The poem’s…naughty. Not graphic,
not raunchy, not explicit, but soaked with innuendo.

A bare little cry parsed from the parting of lips.

The barter of a mouth bent to an ear.

She was telling such tales.

She was the night nurse

turning off the low lamp and kissing his neck.

I love the sense of role-playing, the way “he” and “she” are
never identified, the way their shifting makes their sexual
tension universal.

Some of the poems affected me more than I expected. For
instance, I found “Small Hospital for the Insane” crushingly
sad, despite the fact that it, like the other poems in this
collection, elides its subject. “How fierce the latch looks
but motion is hope./ The little one waves. Three faces at a
window loom large…” There’s a sense of
imprisonment, of being held in. And of mysterious
disappearance: “The one at my left is gone now./ I grew used
to him, didn’t I? And now he is used/ as example to us
all. How safe it is to be gone.”

“Speech is Designed to Persuade,” a set of four eleven-line
poems, may be my favorite thing in the book. I’m not
sure who is speaking, but the voice carries through the
shifts of perspective: “Here we are, my dear, so near we
could touch/ if touch were what was wanted…”
Bang’s pleasure in the sounds and turns of language are
evident throughout these small poems. Here, as in the rest of
the book, she pushes the boundary of narrative, reminds the
reader not to trust the texts we are given.

Is this what you mean

to have happened? I have taken up bad habits

in your absence. I have taken the tablets

you left on the dresser.

I like the repeated sounds of “habits” and “absence” and
“tablets,” the way the tablets line reminds me of “This is
Just to Say” by William Carlos Williams (“I have eaten /
the plums/ that were in / the icebox…”) I found
myself thinking that these poems would make fine
hypertexts, that I’d love to see what referents Bang
would attach to her phrases.

In another of the “Speech is Designed to Persuade” poems,
Bang highlights the arbitrariness of names and values.
“Fine then, they said, let the tree be Knowledge. Let the
leaf/ be Nature. Let the dog take a name we give
it — Pupper.” Who are “they,” who gives things names
and associations? A critical question, and one I think
Bang wants us to perennially be asking.

The book closes with a long poem, several pages in
paragraph form, called “Origin of the Impulse to Speak.”
The way she strings images together reminds me of
Joyce’s Ulysses. Here, even more than in the
verse poems, there is a sense of gaining access to the
unedited contents of a remarkable and confusing brain. I
think I could write a thousand words about this poem alone
and still not scratch more than its surface; rather than
doing it the injustice of a gloss, I’ll leave it for
you discover.

I’m ultimately impressed with Bang’s vision
and skill, and frustrated by her poems’ obscurity.
All of the poems have at least lines or phrases that I
love; some of the poems struck me in their entirety.
Don’t come to this book if you’re expecting an
easy read, something you can put down and return to later,
something you can read bits of before falling asleep. But
if you’re looking for a complicated read that
rewards a little digging, The Downstream Extremity of the Isle of Swans
may be for you.

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Rachel Barenblat is co-founder of Inkberry, a literary organization in the Berkshires. She holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars. A chapbook of her poems, the skies here, was published by Pecan Grove Press (San Antonio) in 1995. Learn more at