Spare, thoughtful, direct, musical — when asked to describe the kinds of poems I like, these are some of the first adjectives I come up with. Reading this book, I kept finding the same words to describe Don Bogen’s writing. Immediate Song, his recent fifth poetry collection, is so far up my alley it sometimes felt a little strange to be reading it — am I still an impartial reader if I’m part of the target audience for the book? Regardless, I found this to be an undeniably masterful collection of smart and beautiful poems.
There are lots of kinds of poetry, which means that as readers, we don’t have to choose. Instead of breaking a mold, this book feels like an original from which a mold was made. (Not the only original; not the only mold.) Rather than chasing after newness, these poems reassure themselves and the reader that sometimes just waking up and paying attention to life is enough. Why not be quiet for a few minutes and pay attention to what is happening around us in addition to what’s happening inside us, or instead of what’s happening to us?
The writing is designed to fill that observational space — or rather, to recreate it on the page. These poems marry order with intensity so well I was forced to slow down as I read. It’s like walking in a garden and finding yourself stopping constantly to take a closer look at an impossibly gorgeous or strange plant. It’s impressive that Bogen so ably dictates the pace at which his ideas are processed.
Mixing formal tools with repetition, lineation, and even grammar, he knows what he’s doing. The end result is one of simplicity that feels distilled instead of basic or impenetrably dense. He guides us through each poem’s movement in the simplest accurate words. When accuracy trumps simplicity, I’m not bothered, but your mileage may vary. For example, “A Citizen” contains some of the book’s more polysyllabic vocabulary, longer lines, and extended phrases. It isn’t a typical poem of this collection, perhaps, but it’s an important one that shows Bogen’s linguistic facility at work. In the poem we learn of the title character’s country, his people. Here are the last couple of stanzas:
At the outposts, war on small war–
so many, when I think back I lose track of them,
incursions in the forests, seizures of islands,
fiefdoms defended or toppled among odd sects in the desert.
We took our reports from the centurions
and, when we weren’t too busy or tired of it all,
discussed the day-to-day triumphs of the legions abroad.
We knew the most important concerns are close to home.
Our vineyards were narrow but well cultivated,
our marriages reasonable.
Faced with confusion, we were content to wait through it.
We placed our trust in character and good management.
Like others, we had our gods and offerings,
our games of chance, the oracles with their mysteries.
When we thought about the future, we saw our goals
as shimmering ideals, simple and universally shared
except by those who wished to do us harm.
We were a generous people and kept our hearts open.
From the language (“centurion”) it’s clear we’re meant to think of an ancient citizen, Roman perhaps — at least on the surface. But arriving at, “Like others, we had our gods and offerings,/ our games of chance, the oracles with their mysteries,” we necessarily ask how different we actually are from those Romans living their lives so long ago in a different, faraway republic. Couldn’t the spare details we do have in this poem not also be applied to England and America, to all empires and all colonizers?
The language might be a little more complicated here, but it’s not trying to obfuscate or dazzle. Because of the generalized tone that avoids specifics, the effect is resonant, not bland, instead embodying the eternal, timeless, cyclical nature of our important, impossible questions as human animals. Bogen is a master of resonance, brushing away literal specificity for a more interesting accuracy, and through his particular, selective detail allows larger shapes to begin to appear.
The poetry itself and the book as a whole are strong in a sturdy way, complex without being complicated. Clear description is never sacrificed for effect — in places where the language isn’t colloquial, the poems are still easy to read aloud. Bogen isn’t trying to break syntax or conduct an experiment, shuffling it like a deck of cards. It’s more like the words are strung together so that they can each (re)sound properly, each poem a windchime of notes.
Sound is integral to this book, and the effort toward clear language helps its music shine. The shorter a word is on the page, in a way, the closer it is to its spoken sound — long words take longer to read, even for the eye to run across the letters and send its coded messages to the brain. The word “O” you see and hear all at once. Careful choice of words (often Latinate, often short, often assonant) help make each poem come alive in the ear, even when read only on the page. Someone who didn’t understand English would still recognize these as songs; the sound and rhythm is too intentional and clear to miss.
From the poem “Sick Song,” this stanza is a good example:
I tried it on my tongue
I breathed it in my lungs
And went on making it
More clear, more wrong
Understanding the sense of the words as I do, though, I still think the vowels and consonants are arranged to their best advantage, and metrical movement is clear without being pedantic. The even-clearer-than-usual formal elements (rhyme, iambic trimeter) are nonetheless incorporated naturally, and in service of what the sense of the poem is trying to express.
Similarly, the architecture of the book is both intelligent and appropriate. Immediate Song is in five parts, all about the same size. The first is a long sequence called “On Hospitals.” Each of the four sections that follow contains its own odes, songs, elegies, and other poems, and each seems to be at a different (nonspecific) point in time. Each section feels like its own room with its own mood and focus. From beginning to end, there’s a shift from the tangible, physical sense of “immediacy” at the beginning into more theoretical spaces. There I felt closeness to the song through following each word extra-intently to avoid missing any steps in the metaphysical staircase.
Immediate Song isn’t a desperate, triumphant cry out of silence — it’s a declaration against the idea of silence. Luminously musical, this book of poetry knows its projects. It’s not urgent, but it’s immediate; this is what it’s like to be there. It goes by almost like birdsong, as a series of patterned vocalizations. I compared the book to a garden earlier, and Bogen has a gardener’s sense of time unfolding, of diligence and care; of wonder and bounty. This is a lush, dense, sparkling book.
POETRY – BIOGRAPHY
By Don Bogen
Published March 25, 2019