“Overcoming timidity. Overlooking consequence. Finally ending with the future. Take comfort. You were going nowhere. You were not alone.”(91) Mary Jo Bang’s book of poems The Eye Like a Strange Balloon is a book of ekphrasis poems. All of the poems are based on a form of art whether it’s a mixed media painting or a movie. The poems within the book are filled with enough imagery so that it would help the reader see beyond what is inside the work of art. The poems give the reader of the poems a chance at reading a story that maybe within the artwork, almost as though the speaker of the poem was within the artwork, or was the subject of the art itself. Even though it may be confusing to the reader if they did not know that the poems are based off of artworks. The poems are very linear with almost no sporadic spaces or line that being in off areas, yet they’re filled with images of people who are speaking to the world even though their thoughts, memories, or moments in a particular space of time. What makes some of these poems interesting is how they create a world within a still form of art and the images created by Bang bring out what makes the art magical to the person who would only see them for what they are. What is interesting about some of the poems within the book is that they all have a theme of wonderland even if this wasn’t intentional by Bang, even if it’s not the story of Alice it follows that of a story that is not completely normal in the real world.
The title of the book is from a painting by Odilon Redon titled L’oeil, comme un ballon bizarre se dirige vers l’Infini which translates to “The Eye Like a Strange Balloon Toward Infinity”. The art is a balloon which also happens to be an eye floating across a field, the eye is looking up towards the sky. Bang’s poem shows a different side of this image almost as if the speaker of the poem is the eye itself overlooking the countryside as it floats around. The eye sees everything around and notices what the buildings are doing and asking. There could be a person piloting the eye but the eye is what is looking across the land seeing “A building overlooking an estuary, inspired by a lighthouse. Always asking, Has this this been built? Or is it all process?”(90) The eye on the balloon is seeing these things hearing these things. If this were set inside of Wonderland or a place such as a cartoon the balloon wouldn’t have problems communicating with others whether they’re people or objects.
Mary Jo Bang also uses a lot of art work from artist Sigmar Polke the most catching one is “Alice in Wonderland” the art is mixed media on patterned fabric, though the book can also be referenced by the read for this poem because it’s a classic by author Lewis Carroll. The speaker of the poem is also the narrator of the story within the poem. This isn’t something that the reader could catch onto at first but it becomes clearer if read though more than once. This is the same if the reader were to look at Polke’s art because the image of Alice isn’t clearly visible at first because the fabric the painting was done on also has another image on it. As though the image on the fabric is also what is clouding the mind of the speaker of the poem who is Alice sleeping on a bed in clinic. The imagery used by Bang in the poem so that the speaker is clearly identifying what is happening to the reader is that of Alice moving from wonderland though random thoughts to then seeing herself lying on the bed, “she was dreaming again in a sleep-clinic bed.” This goes further into the speaker’s thoughts about falling and death “Another fall. Dying must happen quite often, said Alice.” This image is that of the speaker falling into their death sleep, they could still be alive but it’s something that won’t really be known by the reader.
Another form of Wonderland comes from the poem “The Tyranny of Everyday Life” which is based off of Ken Warneke’s painting. The painting itself is surprising when someone first looks at it, the image of a man’s head connected to what looks like a bee hive with images of everyday life coming out of all areas of his head and his hive of a body. The poem though paints a different picture that of a hive of busy workers with Alice looking at them from the outside only to finding herself in a place where she doesn’t know what to do and everyone asking questions “Stand up, sit down like LittleMissPriss. Do you want a bit of sweetness? Or nothing?”(29) Alice is trapped within the place and cannot do anything to get out in the end she finds herself thinking of work like those within the hive. The images that may form in the reader’s mind is that of worker bees within a bee hive and Alice peeking only to get caught in the same trap.
Wonderland in particular Alice makes an appearance in another poem in the book, the poem “Rock and Roll Is Dead, The Novel Is Dead, God Is Dead, Painting Is Dead” the artwork of the same name is by artist Bruce Pearson. “In their off hours, they conjure up Alice who pours tea for eternity.”(1) The painting itself is very hard on the eyes and if it wasn’t known to the reader or even a person seeing it the title of the painting is etched into the Styrofoam that is was painted on. Though like the poem it weaves a story of a moment in time the moment is that longer than a few hours and is put together of life, of the speaker of the poem moving through these moments until they go to bed but even in bed other things are happening. The poem according to Publisher’s Weekly the poem “ponders the place of art in the postmodern age.” Yet the poem also answers the question because Bang created the poem itself from the painting. She answered her own question, because by writing the poem she created art from art.
Although Wonderland doesn’t make more central appearances though out the book like with “Rock and Roll Is Dead, The Novel Is Dead, God Is Dead, Painting Is Dead” it again makes an appearance in the poem “Spots” which is also based on a painting by artist Sigmar Polke. Though this time it’s an image of Wonderland that appears “we could clearly hear the caterpillar badgering Alice,” (37) that one line in reference to the phone ringing. Though it’s only a reference the poem itself is like it’s made of spots on the pages of an ordinary life. The view of the life of this one man named Lindh and his wife Holly. The poem is written as an echo of their lives, the small things that they do and how they face the world together. Although it’s only connected to Wonderland in that one part of the poem if it’s looked upon as a part of wonderland it could be that one part of the poem is a reminder of the story put into everyday life.
The theme of Wonderland isn’t something that is clear throughout the whole book but it is intentionally done by the author. Though it’s not specifically picked up by the reader unless read though several times the theme is clearly there even if it’s just a small part of the whole written work. Bang said in an interview with superstition [review] “I think my attraction to Alice has to do with her frustrated amazement at Wonderland's pervasive irrationality. I can also take her out of Wonderland if I need to and introduce her to a new set of circumstances. She'll still have her way of looking at the world because all worlds have their “wonderlandish” aspects. Ultimately, however, Alice, and all of the characters, are another form of masking.” This shows that Bang had a fascination with Wonderland even though it’s not the central theme of the whole book of poems because she draws inspiration from other sources as well. Bang’s work is full of imagery otherwise that would help the reader create worlds from her words and the works of art that they come from. Bang also says "Art/ is the depth of whatever has deepened/ an abbreviate existence," (PW) Since it’s an abbreviated existence, to Bang it’s also a point where art whether it’s a character from a storybook, a cartoon characters, or the image of a painting it has a deeper meaning within it that can transcend through one form of art into another one. The images she sees as a writer become a catalyst into another work such as Alice transcending from book or painting and into her poems.
Bang, Mary Jo. The Eye Like a Strange Balloon. New York: Grove Press, 2004. Print
Pearson, Bruce. “Rock and Roll Is Dead, The Novel Is Dead, God Is Dead, Painting Is Dead.” Acrylic on Styrofoam. 2003
Polke, Sigmar. “Alice in Wunderland (Alice in Wonderland).”mixed media on patterned fabric.
Polke, Sigmar. “Flechen (Spots).”oil on fabric. 1984
Publisher’s Weekly. The Eye Like a Strange Balloon. publishersweekly.com. PWxyz, LLC 18 Oct. 2004. Web. 15 Dec. 2013
Redon, Odilon. “L’oeil, comme un ballon bizarre se dirige vers l’Infini (The Eye Like a Strange Balloon Mounts Towards Infinity).” Charcoal on paper. 1882
Superstition Review. Mary Jo Bang. superstitionreview.asu.edu. superstition [review]. Web. 15 Dec. 2013
Warneke, Ken. “The Tyranny of Everyday Life.” oil and acrylic on Masonite. 1990