Perfection and Precision in a Poet’s Miniature Worlds

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“O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.” Thus speaks Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2. Rosencrantz has just suggested to the prince that Denmark is “too narrow for your mind.” This may be why I always picture, at this juncture in the play, half a walnut shell upside down: a makeshift model of a human brain.

Isn’t there something perfecting about the miniature? Think of those intricate rooms behind glass at the Art Institute of Chicago, a chandelier dangling from crown molding at 1:12 scale. The paintings within paintings of 18th-century neoclassical art. A baby’s fingernail. I remember being fascinated by my mother’s old Barbie collection as a child. That stuff had a real realness; it wasn’t all pink plastic. There was a kitchen hutch made of wood, painted white, within which you could place a tiny can of peas. These toy-size things — toys are so often just regular things, but smaller — produce a powerful sense that the world is not as it seems to us, mere humans. We become godlike in relation to the miniature.

In her ninth collection of poems, A FILM IN WHICH I PLAY EVERYONE (Graywolf, 101 pp., paperback, $17), Mary Jo Bang assumes a directorial stance, “the view of an angel,” perched a little above the action. Each poem feels like a scene from a life re-enacted on a dollhouse movie set, a scaled-down world. “In my numb mind, a little leather jacket,/the sleeve no bigger than a thumb drive,” she writes, in “A Miniature.” “In that diminished instance,/I light a cigarette. I put on lipstick.” The thumb drive as an object of comparison is better than a thumb or a stick of gum because, like the mind, it’s a storage device. Memories are necessarily small in these poems, but not reduced because the details are lost, exactly. They’re small because they’re stored in cells, in our nutshells, our mental microfiche.

The work of miniaturizing a life is painstaking, and Bang’s poems have a characteristic clockwork precision — they tick and spin like mechanical music boxes. Listen, to these first lines of the title poem: “In scene two, silence is a sleeve, I’m an arm in it./In an outdated Hollywood magazine, I found a photo/of someone wearing my hair. How can that be?” The rhymes are regular but slantish, internal: sleeve, zine, be. The rhythms seem to get inside me, like a virus, or a secondary heartbeat. And here’s the opening of “A Set Sketched by Light and Sound”: “Outside, there’s barking. The radio’s on/loud but no one is talking. The long day/is darkening. Two silver stars are parking/at the curb, a long silent line.” Same effect but more so, to an almost hyperbolic degree.

That stanza is crowded with rhymes, and this book often feels crowded, like certain scenes in “The Wizard of Oz” (the film of this book would have long credits) or like “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” by Hieronymus Bosch — crowded with selves (“I’m a version of a self”) and with others, mini memory people. (And clowns, and a lion, and the Minotaur.) They’re all shrunk to fit, like “the therapist” who “lives now/inside a synapse.” (Poets tend to have favorite words that they somewhat lay claim to. I associate the word “brain” with Emily Dickinson, “jilted” and “brute” with Sylvia Plath. “Synapse” is a Bang word.) And shrinking the self, or selves, hurts — cuteness hurts: “A pain/the size of a toy dog left on a rowboat/adrift in a mist.”

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