How to Make a Möbius Strip: or, a Review of Bianca Stone’s The Möbius Strip Club of Grief
by Katie Miller
Bianca Stone’s third poetry collection, The Möbius Strip Club of Grief, is dedicated to—and grows from—the death of Stone’s grandmother, the late poet Ruth Stone. But to call this collection of poems merely a canvassing of loss would be akin to dipping a bucket into a bottomless well and then declaring it depleted. For as much as these poems encircle loss—the ways in which it is never-ending, infinite, universal—so too do they grapple with all of the ways in which grief transcends the self; all of the ways in which grieving is not so much an impediment to living as it is a prerequisite, a necessary and inevitable process of bearing witness to life’s myriad absences.
The first time I read Stone’s collection, I was circling the edges of my own loss. The second time I read it, I started making Möbius strips.
The complexity of grief in these poems becomes even more pronounced when you consider the breathtaking singularity of the Möbius strip itself: its elegance, its closed-loop infinity. Discovered by the German mathematician August Möbius, the Möbius strip has captivated mathematicians, scientists, and artists (see: M.C. Escher, Bach) alike since its discovery in 1858 by “open[ing] up new ways to study the natural world.”
Making your own, I learn, is easy. First, cut a strip of paper—the internet tells me a one-inch width works best, but this seems, to me, an arbitrary suggestion—and label the edges:
From here, you need merely to bring CD to meet AB—except, unlike with a run-of-the-mill paper loop, in which the AB and CD edges would both face upwards, give the strip a single twist, so that one set of letters is facing downwards. Finally, secure the ends with scotch tape.
Admittedly, I’m no mathematician. Shapes disintegrate into useless fragments inside my head: cylinders like the half-full, sugar-free Redbull cans I find scattered around my grandmother’s house; cubes like sugar dissolved into endless cups of milky Keurig coffee, as visitors floated in and out and in and out; spheres like the decades-old ornaments dangling from a plastic Christmas tree, still up, now, in mid-May.
But perhaps this is why I am especially captivated by the Möbius strip, especially awestruck by all of the ways in which it resembles grief. Here, I return to my elementary-school, paper-and-scotch-tape Möbius strip experiment: with a pencil, try drawing a line down its middle, rotating the strip as you go. Unlike with a traditional loop, with which you will never reach the other/(in)side without picking up your pencil, with a Möbius strip you could draw forever, tracing and retracing your pencil-lead steps.
As Stone writes in “All the Single Mothers”: “A Möbius strip has a surface / with only one side, / only one boundary—it cannot be / its own mirror image.”
Stone both captures and explodes the image of the Möbius strip in her portrayal of grief. Take, for example, the image that binds these poems together: that of the Möbius Strip Club of Grief (or MSCOG) itself. Here, as Stone writes in the Introduction, you will find “Grandma...gorgeous with a shook / manhattan, and murderous with a maxi pad.” Grief, in Stone’s hands, becomes vivid and electric, equal parts hilarious and devastating. For if grief is so often portrayed as isolating, as a backwards-facing removal from society and an inability to move forward, Stone turns grief on its head to convey all of the ways in which grief binds us together, all of the ways in which grief is a fundamental byproduct of bearing witness to unavoidable loss. I turn, here, to a moment in an early poem entitled “A Brief Topography of the MSCOG,” in which the speaker notes:
Over the door there’s the iconic ice-pick in a human heart. You
have to show a scar to the bouncer to get in: the old suture
holes, a common kneecap, the shy smile of a cesarean,
spattering of long-gone acne—any scar will do. And you
have to tell a story about your mother. Something she
suffered through. But once you’re in, you’re in forever.
I am struck by this particular passage for a few fundamental reasons: first, Stone’s reference to “the iconic ice-pick” seems a direct allusion to her grandmother, Ruth Stone’s, poem “The Möbius Strip of Grief,” in which (Ruth) Stone writes: “When I went into the room where you waited, / you said you were not staying here with me. / Angry, I went back to get an ice pick / where a large block of ice lay on the stairs.” A small and largely contextual detail, perhaps, but, I think, a significant one: here, it is as if the two women converge, suspended together in a grief that transcends them both, that transcends time itself. For, as (Bianca) Stone notes, the sheer act of living inflicts sufficient wounds to enter the MSCOG (“any scar will do”), to admit one into the forever-space that is communing with the dead, that is grief.
And at certain moments in the collection, Stone goes even further, collapsing the binary between the living and the dead—and, by extension, between the act of living and the act of grieving—altogether. In “Client,” for example, she writes:
I’m here, watching the dead spinning.
The dead are twerking and jiggling in my face.
The dead are goddesses, walking around the room
of wasted imbecilic dudes from Wall Street: the Living.
The living are so obliterated, they can barely see.
The dead are shaking our very foundations with their boobs.
And they’re real—every part of them.
I imagine myself filling my small apartment with all of my clumsy Möbius strips. Then, I imagine filling my grandmother’s house with them, hanging them from the limbs of her fake Christmas tree, from the doorknobs of the rooms she no longer likes to enter.
But, then, I am reminded of a moment in the aforementioned poem, “A Topology of the MSCOG,” in which Stone’s speaker notes: “Farther in the cavernous club / where the bend in the strip fakes an edge, / I engrave my lunatic memorial: / I WAS HERE!” If grief is universal, then—if everyone we have lost is just as real, every part of them, as we are (and, perhaps, more real than any “wasted imbecilic dude from Wall Street”)—the communion it offers is a fraught one. For in this moment, it is as if the speaker is a dazed tourist lost inside of her own grief, tricked briefly into believing that she has reached a turning point, that there are turning points to be found in the endlessness of loss, that she can declare in past tense that she “WAS HERE!”, that someone else might stumble upon this “lunatic memorial” and know they are not alone. Like the Möbius strip itself, there are no landmarks to point to, no path through, no edges to delineate progress.
I keep my lunatic memorial to myself.
But if the speaker’s desire to memorialize her presence in the MSCOG is a futile one, it is also an apt representation of the act of transcribing the boundaries of grief: like dropping a pin into shape-shifting fog, there are no coordinates to point to. Stone’s brilliance, then, lies in her deft ability to observe grief in all of its amorphousness, even as the source of this grief yawns ever outward to encompass generations’ worth of women’s loss. In “Hunter,” the speaker notes: “I can’t tell anymore for whom I grieve. / Something bigger / and more catastrophic has died.”
And it is in these moments, it would seem, that even the MSCOG—even the Möbius strip!—is no longer an ample container for the speaker’s grief. In “The Dark Ages, Revisited,” for example, the speaker mourns as “Donald Trump…oils his way across the world,” and wonders why she is “writing this psychosexual opus to the mind of my women” in the first place. She goes on to lament: “The club is closed for the week, ran out of solace. // The smell / of bleach in the air.”
What do you think will happen, an elementary school step-by-step guide prompts me to consider, if you cut a Möbius strip right along the line you’ve drawn (and re-drawn and re-drawn) through its middle? Will you be left with two Möbius strips? Or something else altogether?
I learn that you’re left with a “single long twisted piece”: just paper with the expected amount of sides and edges, no longer a Möbius strip at all.
But it is also in these moments—in these moments that Stone cuts open the Möbius strip, departs from grief, confesses that carrying its load is too much, that sometimes it must be let go—that, paradoxically, the most profound act of bearing witness takes place. For in the face of a shared burden that knows no bounds, all that there is left to do is press ahead; or, as Stone’s speaker notes in an earlier poem, “I was prepared to do something drastic / to live and live and live.”
Katie Miller holds a BA in English from Vanderbilt University. She lives in Tucson, Arizona, where she works at an independent bookstore.