on the mantel. The gun represents
the fact that whatever’s on stage
must be used by the end of act three,
scene something. And yet, there we were.
Neither of us would ever see the other
again except in that film that never ends.
From “In the Movie of My Unraveling Mind”
A Film in Which I Play Everyone is a remarkable and sweeping collection of poems that turn inward again and again, each participating in a broader narrative of self-actualization. Mary Jo Bang proves herself intensely introspective, rooting each poem in the first person as she unpacks everything from the most minor memories to the most obviously life-altering events. The much-lauded author reasserts her mastery of the genre throughout her ninth collection, writing with measured grace and patience, yet never sacrificing the urgency inherent to explorations of the self. This book is indeed cinematic, but it contains far more than a film could ever hope.
Bang opens the collection with “From Another Approach,” which presents a scene which centers on the growing space between a man and a woman. The speaker addresses the men, noting that “The line between the two blues, water/and sky, you and I, is no longer as fine/as it once was.” The growing chasm implied in this image permeates the collection, which returns often to speakers who grasp at meaning and identity in the wake of separation. The next poem in the collection, rooted in the mythos of Daphne, features a speaker who recalls a man who tells her, “‘isn’t all this for the better? You with no mouth/to speak of?’ By you he meant me.”’ Near the end of the collection, the speaker in “I Could Have Been Better” laments, “I wanted to say/I love you but each time I tried,//the past tense pushed through,” finally arriving at a sense of finality around the separation that has so haunted the pages.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of A Film in Which I Play Everyone, for me, is Bang’s ability to filter complex scientific and psychological concepts into everyday moments. “On the Nature of Hardwiring,” for example, draws on learning “that when a mouse was ‘put under’ ‘the ultra-slow/waves persisted’ ‘but with the direction…reversed.’” In the moment, the speaker takes this “to mean, even unconscious one continues.” The self-reflective nature of the poem, however, allows the speaker to assign greater meaning to her persistence in life, explaining,
…I thought I would go on
and thinking made it possible. Which surprised me.
I’d found a way to go to the bottom of the world,
See the earth without me, then come back up changed.
Elsewhere, Bang evokes Joyce’s “The Dead” and presents an argument that “staying is a form of haunting.” Again, the speaker is incapable of speaking: “I love you, I wanted to say/to the girl, but silence kept sounding//its silver bell.” The poem ends with yet another realization about the persistence of life as the speaker imagines “She who once loved being me” telling her, “It’s difficult to believe now/that you once wanted to belong to never.”’
Structurally, the collection is separated into five sections, each numbered. This, coupled with the many allusions to modern psychology, invites readers to consider the book as a movement through the stages of grief. While each poem embodies a separate speaker, there are frequent echoes of a shared emotional space and the sense that the underlying sense of self moves ever closer to acceptance and resolution. This is one of the strongest elements of the book, as it creates necessary movement between superficially disparate speakers and events, propelling the reader through the most difficult moments of anguish rather than leaving us to find our own way forward. In the final poem, “Once Upon a Time,” Bang appears to re-contextualize all that has come before, less as fantasy and more as definitively in the past, as a series of memory palaces “waiting to be built/alongside a suspended high-wire antenna/set to receive the unending message: this is/what is meant by your one and only life.”
A Film in Which I Play Everyone may take its inspiration from an offhand remark from David Bowie, but it proceeds with extraordinary precision and insight. Bang perfectly balances quiet resolve and the frenetic urge to define oneself at each new stage of our lives.