A Doll For Throwing


A Doll for Throwing by Mary Jo Bang
Graywolf Press, 2017.  76 pp.
Reviewed by Allan Johnston

“I’ll begin by saying that objects can be unintentionally beautiful.”  The first line of Bang’s A Doll for Throwing underscores this book’s power while giving voice to the Bauhaus aesthetic of functional beauty and geometric simplicity. Framed around the biography of Bauhaus photographer Lucia Moholy, Bang’s collection pursues the vicissitudes of history and gender politics, pushing the speaker toward an increasingly objective focus. This speaker remains unidentified until a poem like “Last Name First Name Last,” invites the possibility of shared experience:


[Last name], [first name].  Born [father’s surname] in [place]....
First name, last name, studied subject, subject, and subject....


Enter any place in this book—at the opening line “Avoidance of boredom drives the body forward,” for instance (“Portrait as Self Portrait”) and you find intersections of beauty and object, personal and impersonal—qualities that underscore Bang’s exploratory biography.

Distance, grace, and structure define the work. Distance is achieved in poems that abstract from the personal by meditating on principles of existence. In “Portrait as Self Portrait,” the personal emerges while retaining non-specificity: “I eat.  I sleep.  I enter a lightless room.”  The actions remain remote even as they pin us in the particular. Grace appears in the form of alliteration, consonance, rhythm, and assonance: “Avoidance of boredom drives the body forward.” Notice how the strong trochaic pattern after the word ‘body’, and the tonal repetitions in the words ‘boredom’, ‘body’, ‘forward’ propel the poem’s sound and sense.  

Even in an intimate poem like “Two Nudes,” where the I experiences the particularities of a life,  there’s a moment that  surpasses individual experience, proffers possibility, and joins history:

I was working in a bookstore and as an antidote to the twin torment of exhaustion and boredom, one day I went with a friend on a walking tour.  We made it as far as Berlin and there I met the man I would move with to a boarding house, then to furnished rooms in the flat of a civil servant, and from there one morning in January to a Registry to be married.  We then moved to a studio apartment and two years later from there to where boys returning from the war would remove their collars and sew them back on with red thread to demonstrate the end of their allegiance to the cruel and fastidious past.

The above may well be an account of  Lucia Schultz’s marriage to Laszlo Moholy-Nagy as well as the return of soldiers from the First World War.  But the collection deliberately effaces biographical underpinnings, focusing instead on themes of artistic emergence, survival, and endurance as framed by this window into Lucia Moholy’s life. 

The book’s Bauhaus-inspired structure manifests in architectural prose block units, Sans Serif text, and the book’s predominantly black-and-white cover with subtle reds, yellows, and oranges. Bauhaus elements of line, shape, geometry bring to mind the black cargo-hold edifices of the Illinois Institute of Technology, stark against the snow.

Bang’s title refers to the Wurfpuppe created by Bauhaus artist Alma Siedhoff-Buscher, “a flexible and durable woven doll ... which if thrown, it was said, would always land with grace.” With obsessive attention to detail and elegant structures, A Doll For Throwing  gives the curious reader a window into Bauhaus aesthetic, the life of Lucia Moholy, and the undercurrents of history and gender politics that amplify the work. Like the Wurfpuppe of its title, these poems land with grace wherever thrown.

Allan Johnston is the author of two full-length poetry collections (Tasks ofSurvival, 1996, and In a Window) and three chapbooks (Northport, 2010; Departures, 2013;Contingencies, 2015. His poems have appeared in Rhino, Poetry, Rattle, Poetry East, and many other journals. He teaches writing and literature at Columbia College and DePaul University in Chicago. He is also co-editor of JPSE:Journal for the Philosophical Study of Education, and has published scholarly articles in Twentieth Century Literature, College Literature, and several other journals.