Louise Bogan (1897-1970) grew up in rather mean circumstances in the mill towns of New England but lived in New York City from 1920 to her death. She moved in literary circles and was poetry reviewer for The New Yorker for many years; indeed, her reputation as a critic sometimes eclipsed her standing as a poet. Honorifics did come to her, but they came late.
Bogan’s first husband died after just a few years of marriage, though she had already pronounced the marriage a failure. A second marriage ended in divorce. Her affair with the younger Theodore Roethke remains an intriguing literary item; she is the one who taught him “Turn, and Counter-turn, and Stand.” A fascinating life, though one marred by disappointment and depression.
Almost exclusively, Bogan wrote lyrical poetry in strict metrics, a bold stance that bucked the modernist tide; neither was she swept into the communist fervor as were so many of the literati in her circle. While I would not argue that Bogan is a major voice of the 20th Century, I recommend her poems for their tight craft and for their shrewd blending of the lyrical and the enigmatic.
KnowledgeNow that I know
How passion warms little
Of flesh in the mould,
And treasure is brittle,—
I’ll lie here and learn
How, over their ground,
Trees make a long shadow
And a light sound.
Last Hill in a VistaCome, let us tell the weeds in ditches
How we are poor, who once had riches,
And lie out in the sparse and sodden
Pastures that the cows have trodden,
The while an autumn night seals down
The comforts of the wooden town.
Come, let us counsel some cold stranger
How we sought safety, but loved danger.
So, with stiff walls about us, we
Chose this more fragile boundary:
Hills, where light poplars, the firm oak,
Loosen into a little smoke.
The Crossed AppleI’ve come to give you fruit from out my orchard,
Of wide report.
I have trees there that bear me many apples
Of every sort:
Clear, streakèd; red and russet; green and golden;
Sour and sweet.
This apple’s from a tree yet unbeholden,
Where two kinds meet,—
So that this side is red without a dapple,
And this side’s hue
Is clear and snowy. It’s a lovely apple.
It is for you.
Within are five black pips as big as peas,
As you will find,
Potent to breed you five great apple trees
Of varying kind;
To breed you wood for fire, leaves for shade,
Apples for sauce.
Oh, this is a good apple for a maid,
It is a cross,
Fine on the finer, so the flesh is tight,
And grained like silk.
Sweet Burning gave the red side, and the white
Is Meadow Milk.
Eat it; and you will taste more than the fruit:
The blossom, too,
The sun, the air, the darkness at the root,
The rain, the dew,
The earth we came to, and the time we flee,
The fire and the breast.
I claim the white part, maiden, that’s for me.
You take the rest.
Baroque CommentFrom loud sound and still chance;
From mindless earth, wet with a dead million leaves;
From the forest, the empty desert, the tearing beasts,
The kelp-disordered beaches;
Coincident with the lie, anger, lust, oppression, and death in many forms;
Ornamental structures, continents apart, separated by seas;
Fitted marble, swung bells; fruit in garlands as well as on the branch;
The flower at last in bronze, stretched backward, or curled within;
Stone in various shapes: beyond the pyramid, the contrived arch and buttress;
The named constellations;
Crown and vesture; palm and laurel chosen as noble and enduring;
Speech proud in sound; death considered sacrifice;
Mask, weapon, urn; the ordered strings;
Fountains, foreheads under weather-bleached hair;
The wreath, the oar, the tool,
The turned eyes and the opened mouth of love.
Evening in the SanitariumThe free evening fades, outside the windows fastened with decorative iron grilles.
The lamps are lighted; the shades drawn; the nurses are watching a little.
It is the hour of the complicated knitting on the safe bone needles;
of the games of anagrams and bridge;
The deadly game of chess; the book held up like a mask.
The period of the wildest weeping, the fiercest delusion, is over.
The women rest their tired half-healed hearts; they are almost well.
Some of them will stay almost well always: the blunt-faced woman
whose thinking dissolved
Under academic discipline; the manic-depressive girl
Now leveling off; one paranoiac afflicted with jealousy.
Another with persecution. Some alleviation has been possible.
O fortunate bride, who never again will become elated after childbirth!
O lucky older wife, who has been cured of feeling unwanted!
To the suburban railway station you will return, return,
To meet forever Jim home on the 5:35.
You will be again as normal and selfish and heartless as anybody else.
There is life left: the piano says it with its octave smile.
The soft carpets pad the thump and splinter of the suicide to be.
Everything will be splendid: the grandmother will not drink habitually.
The fruit salad will bloom on the plate like a bouquet
And the garden produce the blue-ribbon aquilegia.
The cats will be glad; the fathers feel justified; the mothers relieved.
The sons and husbands will no longer need to pay the bills.
Childhoods will be put away, the obscene nightmare abated.
At the ends of the corridors the baths are running.
Mrs. C. again feels the shadow of the obsessive idea.
Miss R. looks at the mantel-piece, which must mean something.
The DaemonMust I tell again
In the words I know
For the ears of men
The flesh, the blow?
Must I show outright
The bruise in the side,
The halt in the night,
And how death cried?
Must I speak to the lot
Who little bore?
It said Why not?
It said Once more.
The DragonflyYou are made of almost nothing
But of enough
To be great eyes
And diaphanous double vans;
To be ceaseless movement,
Link between water and air,
Earth repels you.
Light touches you only to shift into iridescence
Upon your body and wings.
You split into the heat.
Swift beyond calculation or capture
You dart into the shadow
Which consumes you.
You rocket into the day.
But at last, when the wind flattens the grasses,
For you, the design and purpose stop.
And you fall
With the other husks of summer.
NightThe cold remote islands
And the blue estuaries
Where what breathes, breathes
The restless wind of the inlets,
And what drinks, drinks
The incoming tide;
Where shell and weed
Wait upon the salt wash of the sea,
And the clear nights of stars
Swing their lights westward
To set behind the land;
Where the pulse clinging to the rocks
Renews itself forever;
Where, again on cloudless nights,
The water reflects
The firmament’s partial setting;
In your narrowing dark hours
That more things move
Than blood in the heart.
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