Landscape with Silos
by Deborah Bogen
Texas Review Press 2006
Reviewed by Scott Hightower
Landscape with Silos is a first book. It garnered the 2005 Texas Review Prize for Deborah Bogen. No wonder. It is a smart, sharp book, brimming with accomplishments.
Landscape is divided into four distinct sections. The first unit, “Learning the Language,” is comprised of poems reflecting the landscape and the aural wonder of childhood. There is at least a horse, an owl, and a cow:
I prefer moonlight,
I like the green to be almost black.
I like a lot of space
with nothing going on.
A few white words
and the rim of the milk pail polished
and fine in my dark.
(“Moving the Moon”)
The particular landscape is North American, somewhere in the Dakotas where the received language of adult quotidian and childhood wonder swirl into the poet’s inner ear. The poet’s youthful observations lead off from the main road to “another eye, another way to see things.” People study foreign languages and may one day go somewhere to use them. The poet will find her way through observation and language, too.
There are strangers in the landscape as well. In some provincial American landscapes, the interlopers would be seasonal deer hunters. But in the Dakotas, the foreigners amid the locals are more carefully pressed and are connected to the Federal government. A myriad of small things differentiate them from the locals. One is that they do not take their meals at home’s table:
One nail sticking up in a pile of boards,
air bladders from fish brought home for supper,
sugar in green glass bowls,
We drank water from old pipes,
picnicked under windbreaks, peach pits,
and eggshells, and in the glove box
roadmaps to the river, to the reservation
to Fargo and Minot.
And later in the same poem:
… But no maps
to the silos where men tended missiles so big
we didn’t even dream about them.
They didn’t scare us, those missiles,
not the men either who rose like bankers,
sat calmly at the counter, starched and pressed.
Keys jingled on their belts.
They ordered root beer and blackbottom pie.
(“Landscape with Silos”)
The second section of the book, “The Poem Ventures Out,” is an ars poetica series. Here are some of the poem titles: “The Poem Takes the GRE,” “The Poem Enters the Talent Show,” “The Poem is Put Under Surveillance,” “The Poem Goes to the Kitchen to Empty the Dishwasher But Ends Up Praying”:
Why can’t you forget the wallpaper
by the bed where you dreamt of the golden girl
feeding her father’s ducks. No one cares
about that. Forget the skate key, and the way
the evening sky invented surgeries,
carving its space in you.
You’ll never enter a darkness as whole
and strange as your mother’s breath after the party
or feel heat like her palm searing you as
she brushed the bangs from your face.
But you love it there, half-light, half-opened door.
And the poem knows that.
(“The Poem as Tease”)
In the third section, “Visitations,” the disturbances of lives move to the center of each poem. Family histories corrupt and eventually slip away. Bodies and minds slide toward disorientation, diagnoses, medications, and therapies. The poet observes individuals experiencing physical and emotional disorder. The poems, like the lives they reflect and like the poetic voice that renders them, stay grounded and independent. Each life is an individual compendium of individual perceptions. There is almost always another order into which things can be assembled. Ordination and authorship emerge as central subjects:
Seismologists say things are stable
but we know different.
Feel the new laws?
They dog the heart like hunger
at the offramp, like drunks
at Union Station,
like rain that chants
no money. No money.
… Some say hardness of heart can
shake the earth. Some say it’s coming.
It’s coming. It’s coming.
If your house has a candle, light it.
If the baby cries, pick her up.
(“L.A.’s Millennial Love Songs”)
In the last section “Within the Porcelain Theater,” Bogen pushes much further toward the “phantoms the tick-tock brain concocts.” Mystery resides in a theater. The theater could be a human skull or a human institution. Some might even see it as a correlative for a toilet. There are images of walled gardens, prison wards, slanted mirrors, sanitariums, lunacy, and fluid sexuality. And the notion of taking flight from such a state. When the question of Insanity is put to the Poet, the response is clear, but rendered in prose:
In here we write of marshes,lurid dreams, water
flowing out of control. Many of us have translated
Chinese poems full of orchids, drunkenness and
(“Four Answers to QuestionsAbout Insanity”)
The Poems close with:
What I will not see, sees me.
(“Dreams after Jean’s Reading”)
Bogen’s poems are grounded. Adornments are deliberately fundamental, not heroic. The shapes of the poems range widely… but not the quality or the merit. Throughout, Landscape with Silos is at once agile and rigorous:
Grace must be like this sunstreak
on the linoleum,
this unexpected elegance,
a rope of gold up which we pull ourselves
amazed, having thought it gone
that thing which penetrates,
which chooses us,
which illumines one moment
so that the book of hours opens
to a single letter, loved
and labored over,
lavished and extravagantly gilded—say
a mystic vowel embellished in blue,
a hint of scarlet and in the center
the white suddenly framed. . .
(“The Poem Goes to the Kitchen to Empty”)