A short post on an even shorter poem, and the resiliency of fleshly existence–Louise Bogan’s “The Alchemist”

As Louise Bogan both admits and examines in poem after poem, passion is a basic human need, an essential characteristic, the drive of the body (as it works out its contracts with spirit and mind) to survive and claim yet more and more territory.  As she writes in the later poem “Rhyme,” in speaking poetically to the ghost of a former lover, “What laid, I said,/My being waste?/’Twas your sweet flesh/With its sweet taste,–/.”  She progresses through the poem pointing verbally to the things which should be our meat and drink, such as the water of springs, or the bread we ingest.  She insists that “no fine body” “Should force all bread/And drink together,/Nor be both sun/And hidden weather.”  Her final conclusion to this poem, however, after she avows repeatedly the things that should content us with our lot, is “But once heart’s feast/You were to me.”  This is her usual emphasis on the things of the heart and flesh, which insist with us and have their own ways of forcing themselves into our awareness when we think we are most and best protected.

It wasn’t just in her late poetry, however, that Bogan explored this conundrum.  In her early poem “The Alchemist,” she speaks of the way in which we often isolate ourselves and explore our capacities for self-discipline, and the sometime failure of the effort, which ends in a strange contradiction.  As she relates in the first stanza, she follows what she regarded as the “science” of purification, attempting to conquer the pain and confusion of love and its frequent aftermath, grief:

“I burned my life, that I might find/A passion wholly of the mind,/Thought divorced from eye and bone,/Ecstacy come to breath alone./I broke my life, to seek relief/From the flawed light of love and grief.”

As often happened when the historical alchemists tried to transmute lead to gold, however, at least those who were making a literal attempt and not those who were attempting a change of the soul or being, the poet finds that flesh is stubborn, and has a firm reality perhaps as noble but certainly as constant as the mind.  As she concludes in the second stanza:

“With mounting beat the utter fire/Charred existence and desire./It died low, ceased its sudden thresh./I had found unmysterious flesh–/Not the mind’s avid substance–still/Passionate beyound the will.”

Thus, even though the poet figure is attempting the alchemical transformation of the life into a “passion wholly of the mind,” the natural physical world (and its concommitant reality, the “flawed light of love and grief,”) is too powerful to allow of its being dismissed and transmuted into something too ethereal, unrooted, or perhaps only insubstantial to feed the basic wholeness of the human being, the healthy whole that should be left to exist and engage in the interplay of its parts.

Though Bogan often poetically regrets love affairs and warns of the tangled emotions which result from the attempt either to subdue love or to hold onto love, sometimes, that is “scheduled to depart,” she participates fully in the consciousness that love and passion and the life of the flesh are more than just basic human experiences; more, the awareness of love, she seems to suggest, is at the very least a human obligation.  We refuse the obligation to submit our hearts to some form of love at our peril, she suggests, even though it is likewise at our peril that we do so.  It’s love’s trap that Bogan writes about in this manner most often:  we are damned if we do, damned if we don’t, to put it in the common colloquial.  For myself, I’d rather suffer from a “sin of commission” (from doing something that might cause pain to myself and accidentally and coincidentally to another) than a “sin of omission” (refraining from action and staying in a cowardly manner within supposedly “safe” bounds where while nothing is risked, nothing is gained either).  What is your view of Louise Bogan’s trap of fleshly existence?  Are you more likely to risk something and regret later, if necessary, or are you a “cowardy custard,” who likes to play it safe?  (Though I have expressed my own views, there really is no right answer to this question–the term “cowardy custard” can best be retaliated against, if you are of the “play it safe” persuasion, by referring to people of my ilk as “dangerous dipshits,” or “incautious idiots,” or other terms of abuse.)  One thing we can all be sure of, though:  Louise Bogan saw the issue from both sides, and would have appreciated the traumas (and dramas) inherent in both our perspectives.

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Filed under Articles/reviews, Literary puzzles and arguments

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