“Beast Brutality,” The New Yorker September 8, 2008
What I like about this “Beast” of Bang is its characters’ distance from each other, a key tonal and contextual element. The story of this five-couplet lyric is this: the speaker is looking at pictures of a friend’s fallen-apart marriage. Perhaps they’re on the couch, sipping Irish coffee, contemplating the meaning of life in context of this debilitating experience. Whatever the setting, it’s—at least for the woman—an intimate moment, or it has potential to be so, one friend opening up to another about a relationship gone sour.
But Bang’s sound play undercuts this potential tenderness. The first instance is in line three: “The prompt queen sat with her crown on.” Prompt queen is obviously a play on prom queen, providing some backstory for our lonely heart. Perhaps she’d lived a good life in high school, married her sweetheart, and dreamed good dreams that, for awhile, must have seemed livable, sustainable. Alas… The consonance crunch of “prompt” and “crown” also undercuts this notion of the good life. Not only does each word begin with a growl, each has monosyllabic punch. The entire line does, hitting the reader quick and fast, a double-whammy since the play on prom queen is funny, too, as a demeaning slight. Bang’s occasional rhyme also undercuts the alleged seriousness of this woman’s plight, particularly “measure” with “architecture,” which echoes of “Gothic arch”: “The insets between each Gothic arch providing a measure // Of what can be // Done with architecture.” It’s slightly limerickish here both in rhyme and rhythm.
As for the woman’s language, let’s just say she ain’t the prompt queen her friend might prefer her to be. Her words are rather laconic, as though she’s speaking in a vacuum, as though she isn’t sharing couch space with anyone but herself. This is a nice contrast to the speaker’s poeticisms, illustrating the characters’ separation rather than union. This separation physically manifests in the poem’s last couplet. Bang writes, “And then she looked away. / “And then we looked away.” There’s no eye contact here, and there’s no originality either. The speaker’s heard this sob story before.
So who’s the beast? What’s brutal? Could be the dream of husband/wife, kids, car, house, all of which could be construed as something akin to the dog that bites the hand that feeds it. Could be the dog—that emblem of fidelity—the woman and her husband stand beside in the picture. Could be the woman or the husband, or both. Or, it could be the poem’s speaker. In fact, because she plays the part of concerned listener, she gets my vote as this poem’s beast, doing what she feels must be done: listening quietly.