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Contemporary Poetry and Poetics




In the world of these poems, such anxieties seem
to generate denial, or a search for oblivion
through sleep or altered states.  In this troubling world,
human interconnections are generally threatened with loss
or alienation, and “freedom” consists in darkness and silence.

In April of 1964, the state of North Dakota assumed a key role in the Cold War.  One hundred fifty intercontinental ballistic missiles, each secreted in an underground silo somewhere around Minot Air Force Base, became operational.  Upon the President’s order, a missile operator could instantly send ten nuclear missiles more than five thousand miles, deep into Soviet territory.  Though North Dakota remained a quiet, sparsely-populated land of farms and ranches, churches and general stores, life was now shadowed by the silent presence of mankind’s deadliest weapons.
    Such silent menaces permeate Deborah Bogen’s first full-length collection of poetry, Landscape with Silos.  The title poem depicts the repressed anxiety of children living in a land with “no maps / to the silos where men tended missiles so big / we didn’t even dream about them.”  Another poem, ”The Poem Listens to Its President on TV,” invokes a more contemporary anxiety over a President whose manner brings to mind a budding tyrant, the young Hannibal, who “was a boy mad for power / who loved elephants and feared / slave girls.”  Most of the poems, however, investigate personal rather than geo-political anxieties.  In “Long Distance,” the narrator hears the news of her friend’s diagnosis with a devastating illness.  Ignoring the friend’s search for emotional comfort, the narrator responds with a knee-jerk litany of prescriptions: “Have you checked with your pharmacologist?”  “You can’t be adjusting your / meds.  You need to be under a doctor’s supervision.”  In the world of these poems, such anxieties seem to generate denial, or a search for oblivion through sleep or altered states.  In this troubling world, human interconnections are generally threatened with loss or alienation, and “freedom” consists in darkness and silence.
    A theme of Bogen’s book—the refusal or failure to see or experience—sounds like a drumbeat in the collection’s early poems.  In “Moving the Moon,” the speaker/painter/dreamer creates a landscape upon which a stubborn horse repeatedly intrudes, despite the painter’s attempts to banish it.  Her response is to ignore “the stupid white horse” and turn her attention to something she can manipulate: “I can move the moon, divide it, / put it back together. / I can draw any face on it / I like.”  This denial seems to work; despite the horse’s continued presence, the speaker feels contented with “this quiet,” and she pledges allegiance to silence and darkness:

        I prefer moonlight,
        I like the green to be almost black.
        I like a lot of space

        with nothing going on.

    Humor, though often dark, appears frequently in these poems.  “Learning Italian” pokes fun at middle-class adults who preoccupy themselves with a fantasy.  Coveting the excitement and prestige of travel abroad, they settle, instead, for the ostentatious study of a language they never plan to use:

        Even riding a bicycle to and fro

        in the cool shade, a book tucked
        under your arm, French or Polish

        or Chinese, is something, but most
        of our friends have chosen Italian

        which they practice diligently
        at lunch tables where only Italian

        may be spoken.

    The book’s fourth poem, “Four Truths about Anesthesia,” explores the altered state of a surgical patient under the mask.  A number of poems explore similar terrain: the world of sleep, dreams, and death.  Sometimes, as in “Landscape with Silos,” the poems seem to critique such suppression of reality.  In other poems, however, the speaker seems to welcome, even seek out, oblivion of one kind or another: “This poem’s about the cold / pushing me back into bed, / into—darling sleep” (“The First Message”).
    The book does not spend all of its time asleep, however.  Bogen’s poems range across a variety of topics and poetic forms.  In the first of the book’s four divisions, “Learning the Language,” Bogen makes a lyric exploration of beginnings—moments from childhood or moments of sudden awareness.  In the poem “Living by the Children’s Cemetery,” observance of small graves and headstones makes the speaker aware of a shared grief:

        I want some kind of consolation.
        I want wisdom.
        And you do too,
        you there at the kitchen sink in Sioux Falls,
        South Dakota,
        In Billings, Montana and Casper,
        Wyoming.  And you up late in Vermont
        and you in the black hills of Tennessee.
        How do we accept the soil
        that fills their mouths?

    The book’s second section, “The Poem Ventures Out,” comprises a surreal sequence in which “The Poem” is personified, sometimes as a thin disguise for the poet herself, sometimes as a demon-like seducer or bodily invader, sometimes simply as the occasion for a jazz-like riff, as in “The Poem Sits in with the Band,” in which white space disrupts poetic lines and syntactic rhythms, creating a jagged, jazz-like syncopation of language itself.
    The book’s third division, “Visitations,” returns to the lyric quality of the book’s opening, but presents a mature viewpoint, one familiar with death, illness, and separation.
    The book’s final division, “Within the Porcelain Theater,” gathers snippets of dream states and highly elliptical, disjunctive meditations.  The division’s title poem is a surreal play-as-poem that again reiterates a fascination with sleep and oblivion.  Take, for example, the set of this “play”: “White walls, white ceiling, white floor, / rectangular and like / this luminous sheet of paper restfully / blank.”
    Formally, Bogen’s poems range from disjointed surrealism, to flowing free-verse lyric, to metrical verse.  In “Sepia Print,” iambic tetrameter takes on the lilt of a nursery rhyme, as the speaker ticks off mementos of a family’s heritage:

        We called the child “she loved the doll.”
        The name of the mother is likewise gone,
        but they’re our fabled ancestors,
        we know they crossed the oceans.

    After more family details and a central couplet, which acknowledges, “by now the churchyard stones are smooth. / By now the records are kept by mice,” the poem retraces its steps, earlier lines reappearing in reverse order.  When the poem’s first line is recast as its finale, the poem fully acknowledges the fragmentary insufficiency of ancestral knowledge:

        Oh, we love that they crossed the water,
        our heroes, our daring ancestors,
        but no one can tell me the mother’s name
        or claim the girl who rocks that doll.

    Iambic tetrameter is less successful in “Bedtime Story,” where shifted line breaks can’t disguise the wearying, repetitive thud of the meter. 
    As a whole, Landscape with Silos is a provocative book, formally adventurous, occasionally jarring, often pierced with wit or sorrow.  The book highlights the dark, often unacknowledged menaces of twenty-first century life.  The speakers in these poems, however, respond not with urgency or rage, but with denial or a longing for escape or oblivion—a troubling response, true enough, but one, it might be argued, that mirrors an American culture where silent giants still lurk beneath the prairie. 

Landscape with Silos, Deborah Bogen.Texas Review Press, 2006. ISBN: 1881515931  $12.95

© by Jana Bouma


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