Go with Me Little Pools: Zach Savich on Don Bogen’s An Algebra

An Algebra, Don Bogen, University of Chicago Press, 2009

The poems in Don Bogen’s fourth collection, An Algebra, often speak from contained spaces: “The plane is a room / sliced out of time” (68); “I am in this tunnel / in a car” (17). We see these spaces because Bogen’s voice—the thing contained—touches their limits; speech, cast forward, reveals the shapes that absorb it. This act illuminates the tender and attentive consciousness at the heart of Bogen’s poems but also disperses it, like paint that lights a wall, yet empties the brush.

There is an algebra of loss in this approach, a balancing act in which the self expends itself to show its surroundings, that suits the “companionable ghost” (19) who “pretends to be alive” (18) whom Bogen presents himself as. Because “anything that happens is too fast to see” (60), this ghost is equally interested in the act of seeing itself, as though by noting what we can observe, we can deduce the rest. To help this goal, Bogen often constructs frames that aid focus—or which bring the world closer by obstructing sight: “frost not curtains but veils / skittering over wavetops” (53); “my hand across my face” (47); “my face: / skull box with the skin pulled over it” (71).

In “Wants,” one of several more discrete lyrics among An Algebra’s longer, serial poems, space is depicted by the objects in it; they obstruct or absorb our view, so we can understand the one looking, showing that vision itself is a frame “you can’t see out” (66). This poem’s concluding nod to escape has less to do with transcendence than with transference. You can get away because, now, these objects possess all that can be had of place, time, and personality:

There’s nothing anyone could want
A yard sale where the private past is suddenly on display
Brought up from storage, dazed and blinking
Drugstore lamps, dessert glasses, AM clock radio
The two-speed bicycle you stripped down over the years
Worth more if it still had its tank, fins, and handlebar streamers
What moves and what doesn’t—you can’t sell it all
On card tables old desires transpose into objets d’art and junk
The basement empties like the hold of a freighter
So you can get away

In this poem, you are not the freighter, lightened and able to drift to farther seas, but the man who has unloaded it. At the final line, you may wander through the mess on the docks, into whatever city, whatever century, with a freedom that is less consequential than the things you are leaving. An Algebra often establishes contained spaces to allow this kind of liberating drift, the camera suddenly elastic, detaching, showing the tree still shaking after it has shaken off all its fruit. In “A Cage,” the “ghost” finds himself “kindly” at “the party’s edge / nursing– / rage? despair?– / absurdly in a plastic cup.” The next lines shift from this conjured space; once you see an edge, you can lean a little to get outside of it:

Time went on blanching him:
a voice, thinning,
that might sparkle
amid the chorus a moment,
another voice fixed
in the empty cage of ink.

Get this down now
so it will last,
drink this and disappear.

The intricate pose in this final moment is masterful—for a thing to last, you will disappear—and echoes Bogen’s frequent references to how loss inflects art: “A dancer’s instrument / sags in its time— / so the art is loss” (42); “the house of childhood sold, / or razed– // not lost but / softened, distended” (72). I appreciate how the uncertainty of “sold, or razed” comes to the particularity of “softened, distended,” as though each cause has the same result, one that resembles the distensions of a dancer’s body. In “Have To,” Bogen explicitly addresses what happens to art over the long-haul, investigating life at an edge he often names “what you can’t see across” (23):

What do you have to give away
One note—you break it open again and again
A braid of tones inside the one tone unraveling
As it drowns in air like all tones
Same mind, same wrist, same hand, same white key like a chisel
Repeated, a moment thickens
Focus clears out what’s messy and unimportant
The deeper you listen the more you hear the limits
There is no world this infinite and pure

I love how this poem shows a body in time—“same mind, same wrist, same hand”—that finds deeper, more precise limits in the one breaking note that extends from it; the self is obliterated, here, but also better known, as the “moment thickens” and its voice “drowns in air like all tones.” An Algebra is full of such moments, which are less about loss or disappearance than of conservations of matter and mind. They are often motivated by the fatality and release of “have to.” I’m most startled and pleased when these conservations pause on difficult presences, their brief stability more touching because the work so quickly metabolizes transformation. The end of “Vaporizer,” for example, a lovely, ethereal memoir of “who could have worn / that pruple coat / cartwheeling in the grass,” emerges into pure presence: “Moss edging the garden wall, / little flags on the clothesline” (32).

This conservation also breeds conversion: at times, we don’t just see the “consolation” for loss that Bogen calls “everything” but a remainder that exceeds the simple equations. Such moments bring to mind a boy who has failed at balancing his algebra, but who finds a small drawing of a cat near the x’s and y’s he has been laboring over. Bogen shows us the astonishment in such realizations: in “Swim,” his consideration of some who are “swimming in a book” moves to a description of “two stick pens on the yellow pad.” Marvelously, their ink comes to echo the “glint as of crystal off the faceted surfaces / Inside, veins with drying traces / Streaks in a wineglass / residue of streams”—that is, this ink, its art, is the water where the swimmers are and their bodies in it. The poem ends by addressing this water itself, treating as real what it has just now imagined, showing us that the loss which produces art is itself a kind of presence, to which we can say, with Bogen, balanced in the imperative between departing and uniting, “Go with me little pools.”


Zach Savich is the author of Full Catastrophe Living, winner of the Iowa Poetry Prize, and Annulments, winner of the Colorado Prize for Poetry.

The Dialogue of Origin and Ear: Zach Savich on Joshua Harmon’s Scape

Scape, Joshua Harmon, Black Ocean Press, 2009

In the next century, the broad-minded technicians who assemble their Museum of Prosody—animatronic renderings of Nathaniel Mackey and Gjertrud Schnackenberg helping tour groups tell rhetorical emphasis from metrical stress, meaning from manners—will be interested in Scape, Joshua Harmon’s first book of poems. Even in lines that initially seem “muddy-roaded, / in dithers” and “window-perplexed” (19), as though stitched with too-thick yarn, Harmon’s torquing and burbling barrages of sound spool his sleeve-pulled scarves into cat’s cradle mandalas that thrum in the tree limbs around him. The pleasure of such vivacious melapoeia is immediate—“These scabbed leaves loosely north, / landslipped: otherwhorled in vacancies / of bough-bladed stripling” (56)—but does more than sweeten one’s ears with raspberry jam: Scape’s high-voltage sonic pulse needles through the personal and the pastoral to uncover ore-flexed sorts of “kneeling exactitude to fathom” (23). It forges a realism of performed, purposeful digestion, not posed reflection.

As Andy Frazee notes in The Quarterly Conversation [http://quarterlyconversation.com/scape-by-joshua-harmon-review], Harmon’s poetry, in which music and cosmology blend (“within, a name says what a saw was” (51), showing “the dialogue of origin and ear” (23)), echoes Hopkins and Zukofsky, while using modes of seriality, variation, and language-as-enacted-dowsing-rod you can see in contemporary poets such as Dan Beachy-Quick and Andrew Zawacki, both of whom have recent books that extend our notions of the bucolic. For Harmon, the naturalistic extends, in part, by how his poems’ speaker burls through the thick of things, wanting to “molest a field, fondle its fronds, tickle fallen leaves, finger its weed and hummocks, pull up some roots, scrape away a little dirt, see what was hidden” (24), as though a landscape can be known best by the burrs it leaves on your sweater. This full-bodied involvement of the personal lets us know who is holding the paintball gun with which Harmon depicts his scenes:
I hazarded a ravening twang:

the rough drafts of laundry-lines
a ballad for the daylight,

the dusty coherences
of getting better (25)


I’ve always lacked such tendencies: so if
new weather replaces these needs with loans

of billowed geometry, ribcage-raw,
remanent: or if life daggers us most

thoroughly in its suspended moments,
grant me a witness: let my injuries

bed down amid the bungled like slow-mo
pleasures shaken from troubled instruments— (18)

Shades of comedy in the above passages—the ambivalent attitude about “getting better”; the flat contrition of a poem that begins “I’ve always lacked such tendencies”—resemble the frequent dry, self-deprecating moments in Scape that contrast thrillingly with Harmon’s loftier flights: “(I’ve forgotten my lines again)” (32); “Whatever leftovers of night I might / claim” (12); “I can’t outlast the outdoors” (43); “I’d prefer a recording of silence” (11). Such statements do not guffaw, but help portray the “brittle self” (43) which needs its “shyness [to gain] coherence” through exchanges with nature. More than just responding sensitively to the world, however, Harmon’s speaker has a task: by showing the “rustle [that explains] the underbrush in a gum-snapped metrics” (43), his poems give coherence back when the “landscape can no longer / hold itself together” (43). His rough-shod lines perform a kind of cobbling.

Harmon receives psychic coherence; Harmon provides musical coherence—while this treatment of nature is Keatsian, Harmon’s articulation is not based in how “Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft, / The red-breast whistles from a garden croft,” as in “To Autumn,” but depends on a more wily binding of seeing and speech, as though some flowers are held together by nothing but a scrap of electrical tape or a single verb:

Nothing betrays nothing, nor
truss of lipread nothing-
in-particulars, rustic
and numinous:
velocity’s skin-split souvenir,
pistilled hymns
in gunglinting profile
to disarm oneself further
from hallowed mistake. (31)

This poem—one of the untitled verses in Scape’s central sequence—goes on to note “the habitual limits / of summoning,” an acknowledgment of language’s failing that is key for this insistently fluent poet. But I’m more interested in the above stanza as an example of innovative fluency, not as a demonstration of linguistic loss; like with much of Harmon’s work, a closer look shows that his lines make enlived sense, not just sensation. To paraphrase them may be treasonous to his poetic intent, but is doable: this stanza shows “pistilled hymns”—a kind of off-kilter short-hand for blossoms—in “gunglinting profile,” providing a “rustic / and numinous” relief to one’s humanly “hallowed mistake.” The poem’s meaning—about how particulars can tease us out of thought—is not muddled but bursts juicily against one’s palate.

Despite their hospitality to some interpretation, Harmon’s poems don’t ask for close reading but for re-reading. They reward it with clarity that reduces nothing, shimmering between types of focus, so you can see how “snow snooze-buttons // the day” (4); “a furl limns tips split, a sleaving” (51); and “Ten leaves amidden mast the hammering / yaws. Ware wind their color: florid stipple, / trebly grain.” Such mouthful phrases are vivid, strong as a shark on your line, and mindful of the “origin” within the “original.” They give a dream of language that is inseparable from sensory perception, even as its syntax and reasoning veer between receiving the world and transforming it into human speech.

Frazee and other reviewers have discussed Harmon’s poems’ connection to his prose (he is the author of a novel), to experimental poetics, and to traditions of landscape and epistle, but I’m most excited by how Harmon refreshes traditional rhapsodic gestures through his singe-browed use of the “ineluctable / tangent” (20), much as Roethke invigorated his nature poetry with nonsense, associative lunges, and song. For Harmon, repeated, oblique jabs echolocate the outline of something like the human heart, showing how “rivered eyesight” follows from (and reveals?) “some vast affection // of unexpected presences” (30), as “day parachutes / and settles” around a “bewildered sun-sick bulb.” In the space between neologism and archaicism, we see “singular tatters” (34). Such laser-show brilliance may not seem like part of nature, at first, but neither do the Northern Lights.

Purchase Scape