on An Algebra, poems by Don Bogen (University of Chicago Press)

In “The Moon in the Water,” a poem in Don Bogen’s third book Luster (2003), an actor playing Tarzan “jogging half-naked through the arboretum / is the relic of an Olympic swimming star.” The speaker holds himself above “the soggy domestic comedy of a jungle bungalow” played out by Tarzan, Jane and Boy. Language throughout Luster is a reasonable buffer, a locus where a fully-formed “I” describes, assesses, reflects, satirizes and mourns, speaking within the parameters of trained sentiment. How pretty are the opening lines of “Stucco”: “Morning sky, San Gabriels amazingly visible: / eggplant and faded butter tones lumping on the horizon, / the pale khaki dot of a yucca and, higher, / a green line of scraggly firs.” The lines tend to reflect credit on the discriminating eye of the sincere observer.

Now, six years later comes An Algebra, a collection as remarkable as it is unexpected. The jogger in “Run,” the opening poem, is now the speaker, a person whose verbalized thoughts are strange to himself. Suddenly Bogen’s language has become more invested in enactment than in comment. The podium has been removed. “Run” begins:

Wanted solitude, feared it
Wanted to run, always somewhere new
Blank streets of the poor blocks, front yards with chain-link fence
Hospital buildings sealed, monumental
Wanted no faces in the windows, no visitors coming with roses

BogenCover.jpgAn Algebra is a book of deep breaths, long strides, and late disavowals. The points of departure and arrival have been forsworn; time itself loses its linearity: "the past / a net of roots finding / no hold, / the present endless / writhing in the net" ("A Cage"). But the runner's path may be a loop: phrases are repeated throughout, as if telling us that words don’t yield to the world so willingly. “Wanted nothing known, all to be imagined.” The final poem, “Could Not Speak,” begins, “Could not speak but only arrange.” The words seem to be there a priori, in advance of analysis. “Could not speak but was everywhere / Maker of what is made.” This jogger, managing breath and spending energy, is everywhere, too, ranging through memory, the urban landscape, and the spaces of domestic life.

The organization of An Algebra is best viewed from a height, since at ground level one moves between eight multi-part sequences, short poems grouped together, and a few mid-length pieces, while the entire production is divided in two main movements. One begins to feel that an intricate intention may be at work. But Bogen wants “all to be imagined” here, and that includes the significance of the order. By book’s end, the structure seems arbitrary yet stable, insofar as Bogen’s algebra thrives on a formula that returns the same result wherever one lands. In the sequence “An Algebra,” he spells it out, more or less:

An algebra,
its shifting equivalents:

numbers with their stated values,
and letters, italicized, interchangeable,
rippling in the balance pans.

The trick is
that nothing’s lost.

A magical innocence.
This operation sets the bones
to reunite the broken parts.

An Algebra risks its soul in “this operation” – cutting narrative loose from its moorings to drift, allowing the poems to assume protean shapes, and relying on the persistence of echoing phrases as more than sufficient evidence of a fully imagined life. The sequences are smitten by the thrill of the jump as if they had just discovered their legs, especially when memory is the material.

The short poems work to reconsider the associational progression of the sequences. They compress the tumbling force of the longer poems into clarifying sprints – without violating the mission of the project. “Have To” speaks to the core impulses and techniques of An Algebra and describes the entire enterprise, yet it is miraculously complete in itself. The poem’s effect – its terse illusion of illuminating the process -- is to give confidence that one can finish the longer run alongside the mind speaking here:


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

Yet when not teasing imagery out of memory, Bogen plunges into the one world at hand. His marvelous sequence “A World” begins with a woman stuck in a traffic jam on the way to the airport, considers the computer, sweeps through the hi-tech manufacturing floors of Korea and the prison at Gitmo, and finally ends on board a commercial flight where “Nobody moves / and the world slides away.” But before we get to the end, Bogen launches this critique:

The American plan – no
breakfast, no free lunch,
just husks of great cities, withering.

The ripples pulse outward,
detritus at the core:
skeletal towers jagging a stubble field,
shell-crater parking lots,
your car
out on the windy avenues,
adrift among the middens,
the myriad slash and burn.

Bogen.jpgIn An Algebra Don Bogen makes the surprising decision to choose a new shape over a renewed self and achieves the latter as a result. “A braid of tones inside the one tone unraveling” is what one hears – uncertainty, scorn, affection, wonderment. He writes in “Proteus,” “To take, / like water, / whatever shape you flow through, fill, or rest in. // And to choose that shape.” The reader flows through An Algebra and becomes “the thing done.”

[Published October 15, 2009. 77 pages, $18.00, paperback]

Poet at Mid-Career

This is an under-appreciated & under-noticed book and I'm so glad to see you saying what needs to be said about it. It's unusual to find a poet at mid-career doing what D Bogen is doing in Algebra. When you read these poems, you're literally listening to a poet work out his most critical personal and artistic issues in a language he hasn't tried out before. Even if he isn't doing things that haven't been done before, the fact of his own new-ness to broken up narrative and linear forms adds something unmistakably his own. There is a set of thought-lines in Algebra, themes, that accrue as you go along. Sometimes his progression seems wilfully vague. But he's also trying to be true to the quality of memory and not forcing a complete image when there isn't one to be had. Keep up the fine work at your Seawall.