June 16th, 2008
Review by Cati Porter
LANDSCAPE WITH SILOS
by Deborah Bogen
Texas Review Press
Sam Houston State University
Huntsville, TX 77341-2146
71 pp, 2007 $12.95
Winner of the X.J. Kenedy Prize
In Deborah Bogen's debut collection, Landscape with Silos, the surfaces of things often conceal their inherent danger. Fitting, considering that in an interview with Belinda Subraman, Bogen tells us that the serene North Dakota countryside she so often turns to in her poetry was once considered the most heavily armed geographical spot on the planet. The region is laced with silos--agricultural above, missile below. This dichotomy of perceived safety and latent peril is a trope that is carried throughout.
The collection is divided into four titled sections: Learning the Language, The Poem Ventures Out, Visitations, and Within the Porcelain Theater.
The opening poem presents the speaker (and the reader) with a parade of images, all from "an old landscape, / one I've hidden from myself / because it's stupid." This concealment of loaded memories mirrors the concealment of the deadly weaponry below the fields. In image after image we are presented with the potential for danger:
a nail sticking up in a pile of boards
air bladders from fish brought home for supper
sugar in green glass bowls
Bogen's style is plainspoken but shimmering in its description of men, women and children rising daily to lives that bristle with the shock of living, and with the undeniable truth that this living is only temporary.
Interested in exploration rather than excavation, we are given a window through which we may peer at what has been buried without fully uncovering it. In Living by the Children's Cemetery, originally published in her ByLine Press Competition-winning chapbook of the same name, the speaker asks:
How do we accept the soil
that fills their mouths?
How do we ever go inside again?
Coming as it does, as the last lines of the poem, we are offered no room for answers. Instead, what the poem offers is a meditation on a particular form of grief.
In Learning the Language, the last poem of the first section, Bogen uses evocative phrases that you can almost taste:
There was a pile of words out by the shed,
another spit from the combine's teeth
and words that Ethel said would fuel the nation
in its fight for something large and metal.
Aunt Trini whispered voodoo words as silent
John backed down the drive, and Gram
knew words as bright as rhubarb jam
and brown wet words awash in the Missouri.
Kids heard barge words, baseball words,
the strangled words of wet sheets groaning
through the ringer. There were stately Sunday
words swinging from steeples like flags
in a thunderstorm, but they were lost mostly
among the snickers of the school boys,
their pussywords, those ritual recitations
meant to conjure what was missing.
Bogen enlivens the landscape with words that emit a sort of kinetic energy, driving us through. The section titled The Poem Ventures Out intrigues the reader with titles like The Poem Listens to Its President on TV, which is political without being preachy:
O, it wants to be beautiful,
to be naked and necessary, it
gestures toward sparrows,
hums under its breath, but
the poem's picking up brutish
habits, bared teeth in the bathroom
mirror, a vaguely Caliginous grin.
Using the persona of The Poem, Bogen explores the various ways The Poem infiltrates The Poet, the poem sneaking in and asserting itself at inopportune times. A segue into the denser, more emotionally rich material that follows, this section provides some levity in what is otherwise a fairly serious collection.
The section Visitations begins with the epigraph: "My father took me as far as he could that summer". Bogen journeys past that point to show us that even the flattest of landscapes harbor depths.
Cati Porter is the editor of Poemeleon: A Journal of Poetry and associate editor (poetry) for Babel Fruit. She is the author of a chapbook of prose poems, small fruit songs (Pudding House Publications, 2008) and a full-length collection, Seven Floors Up (Mayapple Press, 2008). Her poems have been anthologized in White Ink: Poems on Mothers and Motherhood (Demeter Press/York University, Canada), Bedside Guide To No Tell Motel – Second Floor (No Tell Books), and Letters to the World (Red Hen Press). She lives in Riverside, California, with her husband and two young sons. Visit her on the web at http://catiporter.com.