In 1930, at the age of thirty-two, and in response to an increasing depression that would eventually result in hospitalizations in 1931 and 1933, Louise Bogan, who had long been in the habit of keeping a journal, began using it for a new purpose. Describing the impetus for this change, her biographer, Elizabeth Frank, has written that Bogan “recognized that she was in the grip of an emotional and creative crisis, and, despising passivity, felt that the task ahead was nothing less than total artistic and psychic reconstruction. First and most important, she would teach herself to write all over again.” Not having been introduced to Rilke’s poems yet, for that influential encounter was still almost five years away, Bogan would not have known how much her own reconstruction would resemble his when he came under the influence of Rodin and set out deliberately to move away from the highly wrought Romanticism and allegorical density of his early poems, to making poems out of careful and scrupulous observations of the immediate world, resulting in the New Poems, in 1907 and 1908.
During the 1920s Bogan had kept a journal but it had been destroyed, along with most of her other papers and letters from this period, in a fire that leveled the country house she shared with her second husband, the writer Raymond Holden. This early journal, however, was of a different sort than the one born of her depression. Bogan’s description of it indicates what she felt she lacked as a poet and writer at the time and what she hoped her new journal might lead her to. Bogan writes, “The diary kept in Vienna in 1922 was without any real descriptive power. Then, I could only describe through a set of symbols—poetically, lyrically. Straight rendering completely baffled me; I remember this. So inner, so baffled, so battered—even at 24—that I noticed practically nothing; or if I did notice it, I could not put it down (in prose) with any directness.”
In teaching herself directness of style, or “straight rendering” as she called it, Bogan hoped to find “the awkwardness of maturity and truth, in a style as hard as a brick.” The language of symbolism, which she referred to as “the language of dream,” was a mode she no longer wanted to employ. It had cut her off from the difficult truth of her experience and permitted her to live on the fierce energy of her talent and ambition, but at the age of thirty-two, she found herself feeling dead and empty. Her reinvention began in simplicity: “I saw the clear afternoon, casting the shadows of chairs one way in the room, so that the season was as clear within a house as out of doors. The shadows had the time of day written into them, as well as the look of autumn.”
After a year of forcing herself to pay attention to the ordinary things around her, Bogan felt she had made good progress on her reconstruction. “I cannot yet put down all the truth as I see it,” she writes, “but I shall train myself and sometimes this thing will come out truly, in detail, alive possessed, understood, first; thereafter written out. My own angers, my own despairs, therefore—and all the matters before which I now fall silent.”
In this self-appraisal we hear a confidence of accomplishment that will rise and fall over the decades. In order to restore her belief in herself as a writer and to help her pass through the “dead areas” of work and feeling, Bogan will continue to seek out the unobserved space her journal offers. In a 1953 journal entry, twenty-five years after her initial “reconstruction,” she reconfirms her commitment to the power and necessity of “straight rendering.” Bogan writes, “And I think the only thing to do, in these dead areas, is to put down something that one has noticed, and not experienced actually. A bird’s-eye or mouse-eye view. Told with the most careful detail and feeling for truth. Then the truth will be bearable, because the truth always comes out quite queer. It sounds so distorted and improbable that the writer’s interest is kept, in spite of himself.”
The personal crisis that Bogan experienced in the early thirties was not only precipitated by her tumultuous marriage with Raymond Holden and her own inclination toward suspicion and paranoia, it was also a crisis over how to come to grips with a traumatic childhood that she had long kept hidden. Elizabeth Frank saw Bogan’s situation this way: “For a long time she had looked at herself and seen an intoxicating portrait of a precocious, gifted, and beautiful young woman, a reckless bohemian and inspired seeker of art and freedom.” This self-image would crack under the strain of a dissolving marriage and its aftermath, but while Bogan was not able to keep herself from a physical and mental collapse, she was able to retrain herself as a writer. As a result, when she is released from the hospital, she had a new method of working to fall back upon.
Along with the journal Bogan worked on during the 1930s, she started reviewing poetry for the New Yorker, a job she would hold for thirty-eight years. These activities didn’t completely answer all of her artistic and intellectual needs, and so at about the same time she began earnestly to write short stories. Between June and December of 1931, she published five of these in the New Yorker. Using her recently developed style of observation in these stories, Bogan began exploring events and details from her past, but she still found it difficult to openly approach the events and incidents that most profoundly affected her. In her journal of August 1932, she notes, “The continuous turmoil in a disastrous childhood makes one so tired that ‘Rest’ becomes a word forever said by the self to the self. The incidents are so vivid and so terrible that to remember them is inadequate: they must be forgotten.” And yet memory is the very thing she can’t deflect, and she soon undertakes the torturous process of writing a memoir, “Journey Around My Room,” which takes as its starting point the very room Bogan was living in at the time at 306 Lexington Avenue.
The memoir, which owes its imaginative framework to Xavier de Maistre’s Voyage autour de ma chambre, begins with a paragraph inviting the “traveler” to start the journey from the “most advantageous point” of the room, which is the bed; at the most advantageous time, which is midnight with moonlight lying “upon the floor,” or in the early morning whose “bleak opacity . . . serves the traveler . . . as sun brightens the brick wall of the house across the yard, and sheds a feeble reflected glow upon all the objects which I shall presently name.” Nevertheless, Bogan delays naming the objects in order to locate the room in relationship to the rest of the apartment, the apartment in relationship to the building, and then the building in relationship to Lexington Avenue and the Empire State Building. Once the points of the compass are taken care of, and yet still from the most advantageous point of the room, the bed, she describes the architectural features of the walls, floor, ceiling, fireplace, and the mantelpiece that bears the first solid objects: a group of seashells, above which hangs a Japanese print.
The print depicts “Russian sailors afflicted by an angry ocean, searchlights, a burning ship, and a boat-load of raging Japanese.” This image of violence and catastrophe causes Bogan to pause and make an authorial intrusion, and as if to let herself consider her own reason for taking the journey, she remarks, “The initial mystery that attends any journey is: how did the traveler reach his starting point in the first place? How did I reach the window, the walls, the fireplace, the room itself; how do I happen to be beneath this ceiling and above this floor?” She responds with an irony and exaggeration that matches the drama of the Japanese print: “Oh, this is a matter for conjecture, for argument pro and con, for research, supposition, dialectic!” As she makes fun of the impenetrability of her own ontological processes and shows herself to be much less prepared than Livingstone (“on the verge of darkest Africa”) to find her way, “some step,” “some reasonable explanation for my presence here,” she comes to this memory from her childhood: “One morning in March, in the year 1909, my father opened the storm door leading from the kitchen to the back steps, on Chestnut Street, in Ballardvale, a small town in Massachusetts, on the Boston & Maine Railroad.”
With the discovery of this memory, although she is still securely “moored” to her bed, she exits the light-softened dimension of her room to enter what has been the sealed-off universe of her past. The memory of her father opening the door is so vivid and the locating details of street, town, and railroad so specific that Bogan seems to be embarking on a journey every bit as real as Dante’s, which is the literal journey of the mind’s eye.
The importance of this memory is that it takes place on the day Bogan leaves Ballardvale—the third and perhaps most important of her childhood homes—with her family to start a new life in Boston. The memory ends when “the conductor lifts [her] up to the step” of the train car, and at the same time she returns to the survey of her room, a survey that is now palpably different, more descriptively minute and intense. She lists the titles of books on the bookshelf, the contents of an armoire, the folds of the sheets and pillowcases. We move with Bogan through her room until she returns to he point she started from, the memory of leaving Ballardvale, which called the “invariably” occurring “catastrophe of the journey.”
Located in a dream, the catastrophe manifests itself more fully in the sound of Ballardvale’s mill, and the “mill dam, fuming with water that weights itself into foam against the air, and . . . the rapids at its foot that I must gauge and dare and swim.” “O death, O fear!” she exclaims. “The universe swings up against my sight, the universe fallen into and bearing with the mill stream.” In her dream, Bogan witnesses as all of the objects in her room swirl around and are swallowed up by the turbulent water, as if they were caught up in a battle as real as the one depicted in the Japanese print. At the end of the memoir, she comes to the see that “All these objects, provisional at best, now equally lost, rock down to translucent depths below fear, an Atlantis in little, under the mill stream (last seen through the steam from the Boston train in March, 1909).”
“Journey Around My Room” is the first of three short autobiographical pieces that she wrote for the New Yorker between January 1933 and October 1934, and as such it marked the beginning of a project Bogan hoped to complete but never did. The writing of these pieces must have come at a great cost to her psyche. During the composition of “Journey Around My Room,” she sent several letters to Katharine White, at the New Yorker, apologizing for the tardiness of the memoir. That Bogan borrowed de Maistre’s elaborate and imaginative conceit is an indication that at least initially she needed to find an indirect way of approaching such difficult and painful material from her past. The past represented “death” and “fear” and “catastrophe,” and because these things “invariably occur,” for her they carried the force of fate.
Although Bogan emerged from her depression of 1930, her recovery was incomplete. The fact that she had acquired the artistic tools to “put down all the truth” as she saw it, did not give her the emotional or physical stamina to keep the darkness at bay. After the hospitalizations of 1931 and 1933, she realized that her journey toward recovery was one she would have to take by herself—and it required leaving Raymond Holden. The disruption caused by her separation and divorce from Holden brought the writing of the memoir to a halt. The last piece of autobiographical prose she worked on was the story “Letdown,” published in the New Yorker in 1934. She would not return to her memoir until June 1953, and when she did, she again approached it in an indirect fashion by working on it a piece at a time, event by event. Many years earlier, Bogan had concluded that she was no longer a practicing poet, that poems came to her seldomly and mostly all at once, as gifts, though it wasn’t as if she didn’t have something to say or the desire to say it.
Similar to her dilemma of the early thirties when she needed to reconstruct her life and art, Bogan in the fifties found she needed to write toward the most important, destructive, and cruelest scenes of her life. She felt that her poems had absorbed the crucial essence of these scenes through the process of repression. In a journal entry from the sixties, she writes, “the poet represses the outright narrative of his life” and as such “absorbs it, along with life itself. The repressed becomes the poem.” She finishes this idea by saying, “Actually, I have written down my experience in closest detail. But the rough and vulgar facts are not there.”
Part of the reason the outright narrative must be repressed is that it is often made of details that are only half understood, distorted by the distance of years. In her memoir “Dove and Serpent,” she recalls overhearing a vile and ugly neighbor, named Old Jack Leonard, tell her mother, “We must be wise. We must be wise as the serpent and as gentle as the dove. As the serpent, as the dove.” Bogan’s final paragraph of that memoir reads: “These words now lie in my memory as inexplicable. . . . I did not know what they meant then, and I do not know what they mean now. It is such memories, compounded of bewilderment and ignorance and fear, that we must always keep in out hearts. We can never forget them because we cannot understand them, and because they are of no use.”
In her journal of June 10, 1959, she writes, “The child lives in a region it knows nothing about. So that whatever memory of childhood remains is stable and perfect. It cannot be judged and it can never disappear. Memory has it inexplicably, and will have it forever. These things have been actually ‘learned by heart.’ Perhaps one of the reasons why I hesitate to write of it is that in writing I feel I shall lose it forever.”
But it is not simply a fear of the imperfect memory or fear of losing what she calls the quotidian essence of a scene by writing it down, that makes her hesitate. Bogan also believes that the facts are made vulgar by self-pity and remorse, and by bitterness and sentimentality coloring the event. The difficulty here is that an event may well be too awful, too terrible to approach in any manner, or any conceivable manner, and that it is only by traveling a long and torturous path that we are brought to it.
It is just such an event that Bogan wishes to explore in the fifties when she refers to her journal as “This ‘long prose thing,’” which she hoped would restore her to “pure writing . . . to the capable and free setting down of ‘memory and desire’ . . . of what I have become and what I know. —It has been so hard for me ‘to make a fullbreast.’ . . . perhaps by spring, I can square up to the task, instead of writing cross-handed, as it were, and cross-seated, at a table.”
The hope that she can “square up to the task” and freely “set down . . . what I have become and what I know” is typical of the self-determination Bogan believed was necessary in order to change her art and life, as if it were merely the lack of will or strength that would prevent her. Throughout her journals, Bogan used this kind of ruthless optimism to cajole herself into action and to establish distance between herself and the chaotic emotions she experienced. She had survived severe episodes of depression in the thirties and overcome the turmoil and deprivations caused by her childhood. These victories she attributed partially to her writing, which she called a “life-saving process.”
One of the recurring themes in the journals that begin in the fifties is her triumph in outlasting the dreary “old brick hotels and brownstone lodging houses” of her childhood, those places where she had always feared her life would end. In one of her journals from the fifties, she writes, “I used to think that my life would be a journey from the particular squalor which characterized the world of my childhood to another squalor, less clear in my mind, but nevertheless fairly particularized in my imagination.” These places with “a milk bottle and a brown paper bag on nearly every windowsill” and “the light of a gas mantle making their dark green and brown interiors even more hideous with the melancholy of their torn and dirty laced-curtained windows intact” were the very image of failure and death for Bogan. She succeeded in avoiding them, (although once in the thirties she was evicted from her apartment), but nevertheless, they still haunted and threatened her, and rightly so, for they were the stages for the cruelest and most violent memories of her childhood.
The disturbing power of her later journals derives from the anguishing fact that while Bogan had managed to escape the material poverty of her past, she could not outrun the psychological and emotional damages that lay behind it. The lessening of the literal fear of these places only made the internal fears and apprehensions more forceful and prevalent. The force of these came at a time in Bogan’s life when she felt her physical stamina waning and her artistic energies declining.
When Bogan comes back to her journal in the fifties, after a twenty-year hiatus, she does so by acknowledging the lateness of the hour, as we can see in this passage written June 26, 1953:
The best time to write about one’s childhood is in the early thirties, when the contrast between early forced passivity and later freedom is marked; and when one’s energy is in full flood. Later, not only have the juices dried up, and the energy ceased to be abundant, but the retracing of the scene of earliest youth has become a task filled with boredom and dismay. The figures that surrounded one have now turned their full face toward us; we understand them perhaps still partially, but we know them only too well. They have ceased to be background to our own terribly important selves; they have irremediably taken on the look of figures in a tragi-comedy; for we know their end, although they themselves do not yet know it. And now—in the middle-fifties—we have traced and retraced their tragedy so often that, in spire of the understanding we have, it bores and offends us. There is a final antidote we must learn: to love and forgive them. This attitude comes hard and must be reached with anguish. For if one is to deal with people in the past—of one’s past—at all, one must feel neither anger nor bitterness. We are not here to expose each other, like journalists writing gossip, or children blaming others for their own bad behavior. And open confession, for certain temperaments (certainly my own), is not good for the soul, in any direct way. To confess is to ask for pardon; and the whole confusing process brings out too much self-pity and too many small emotions in general. For people like myself to look back is a task. It is like re-entering a trap, or a labyrinth, from which one has only too lately, and too narrowly, escaped.
This passage helps to illuminate why Bogan had such a difficult time finishing her memoir. While Bogan’s mistrust of memory makes her ambivalent toward it, she nevertheless recognizes that particular memories “can never be forgotten.” The constant encounter with them, however, does not lead to a resolution or understanding about what they represent to her. In “Dove and Serpent,” when she says that memories “are of no use,” she means not that they are useless and unproductive but that they are no use in solving the mysteries and enigmas of the past and they don’t effect the reconciliation they are seemingly meant to achieve.
At the same time Bogan was coming to accept the limits of memory, she was also coming to understand that her own physical and artistic energies were weakening. What moved me most when I first read her journals almost thirty years ago was the terror that filled Bogan as she contemplated the waning of her powers and the courageous but hopeless way she tried to keep the terror at bay. On September 21, 1961, she writes, “It is too late to either pour it out or to reconstruct it [the past], bit by bit. What mattered got into the poems. Except for one or two stories, which I may be able to tell, it is all there. With the self-pity left out. . . . And the poems depended on the ability to love. (Yeats kept saying this, to the end.) The faculty of loving. A talent. A gift. ‘We must always be a little in love,’ Elizabeth M[ayer] said to me (at 70!) . . . Yes, but it becomes a difficult task. One that must be dissembled. Surrealism bores me. My gift depended on the flash—on the apercu. The fake reason, the surface detail, language only—these give no joy. Jimenez kept on with the little flashes to the end. One can only remain open and wait.”
A portrait of Bogan’s good friend Elizabeth Mayer, written January 17, 1958, shows that Bogan had been preoccupied for a while with the gradual diminishment of her abilities. “Elizabeth Mayer: at age seventy-five she never for a moment either thinks she is old, or projects her age in mood or word. She is gradually thinning down, fading out, in her body; she shows no sign whatever of aging, in her mind or emotions. The books lie on the table; the piano is open and has music on it; she is going to the library tomorrow . . .” Near the end of her journal keeping, Bogan can do little more than maintain a log of the medication she takes and rail with bewilderment at the unhappiness that visits her each morning. Bogan’s objective, direct rendering allows little room for self-pity, but rather it describes how the inability to love or to find a source in which to place love drains off the will to live.
On June 22, 1959, she writes,
Those nearest the heart drain off the first pity. How lovely they are, and how vulnerable! Their flesh, their very being draws out the misty love like a thread: over and over it wraps them round. Today they live; their names exquisitely clean and lies bright on their foreheads. They are young. Their bodies and their wishes will come to nothing. It is our purpose to wrap them round until they live inside a cocoon of this soft emotion which is part dread.
They cannot see nor hear nor feel the love that pours out to them. Soft and delicate as fright in the dark, over and around them it goes. They sink into it. The heart pulls them down. “Forgive me; forgive me,” the heart says, “You are beautiful and you will die. You are not really young, happy, or beautiful. You are appearance.”
Although it’s terrifying enough for her that her energy for work is fading, what terrifies her more is what lies behind the diminishment: a loss of faith or belief in anything. The first entry of the late journals describes the faith she had as a child in the meaning of things: “The difficulty was, in my childhood, that I expected everything to mean something. I believed in the pack of cards. I examined different packs with care, because the King, Queen, Jack were always different, under the unvarying signs of heart, club, diamond, and spade.” Later she recalls, “Within the rooms of houses, seen as a child from the outside, I thought that something must be going on: that people must be achieving something to assail the dreadful monotony of day after day. I trusted them to be doing something. Whatever it was, was as yet closed to me, but these fronts of buildings, with afternoon light falling upon them with such terrible, dramatic effect—these certainly were important. Within in them, life burned, a life in which I as yet had no part. I believed this; from my soul I believed it.” As if anticipating the approach of her own overwhelming doubt, eighteen months earlier she wrote, “What a pleasure and relief to have a faith or superstition of any kind! I should think that believers would dance with joy in the streets!”
If her waning artistic and physical powers made it difficult for her to hope and believe in a future, it was also leading her toward a confrontation with the person who was most responsible for having created Bogan’s sense of hopelessness, her long-dead mother. She first recalls her mother in the hospital recovering from an unnamed operation. “The operation,” she writes, “marked a kind of limit to my mother’s youthful middle age, and brought in the worse hopes and lessened energies of a distinct later period.” She remembers the hospital as being “private” and “Yankee” and probably the result of a Dr. X who was one of her mother’s lovers. The most important aspect of her memory, however, is the epiphany it produces for her when she recalls a vase of marigolds in her mother’s hospital room. In contrast with the dozen pink roses sent to her by Dr. X, the marigolds, or “weeds,” that passed for flowers from the uncultivated plots of her mill-town childhood, gave her “such a shock that I lost sight of the room for the moment. . . . Suddenly I recognized something at once simple and full of the utmost richness of design and contrast that was mine. A whole world, in a moment, opened up: a world of design and simplicity; of a kind of rightness, a kind of taste and knowingness, that shot me forward, as it were, into an existence concerning which, up to that instant of recognition, I had had no knowledge or idea.” Coupled then with the awareness of her own mother’s diminishment is Bogan’s awakening to a life of insight. The entry continues: “A garden from which such flowers came I could not visualize: I had never seen such a garden. But the impulse of pleasure that existed back of the arrangement [of marigolds]—with its clear, rather severe emotional coloring—I knew.”
It might be a stretch to say that this scene marks a moment of transference between Bogan and her mother, with the mother passing on, unconsciously, whatever physical power and spirit she possessed to her daughter. It is probably safer to claim that the late journals reveal, in scenes such as this, how Bogan was wrestling with the fact that like her mother, she too has passed over the threshold of vitality. Unlike the threshold she crossed over in the thirties, when she tore herself down both as a poet and a person and reconstructed her art and life, the threshold crossed in the fifties leads to bleakness and despair. The late journals describe Bogan’s constant struggle to reassure herself about the gains and achievements she has made not only as a poet but also as a person who is capable of love.
In this process of reassurance Bogan finds a terrible likeness of herself in her mother: “Something which she thought ridiculous and unfinished in her face—as though part of her had stopped living or had not lived enough; and now, when resistance in the nerves or in the mind, or hope in the heart, was growing less, these unfinished things came out, in her face.” And yet, at the same time she finds her own unfinished ambitions, her own emptiness mirrored in her mother’s—in her memory of her mother—she finds, too, the flash, the aperçu, the occasion for a poem: “My mother had true elegance of hand. She could cut an apple like no one else. Her large hands guided the knife; the peel fell in a long light curve down from the fruit. Then she cut a slice from the side. The apple lay on the saucer, beautifully fresh, white, dewed with faint juice. She gave it to me. She put the knife away.”
In another journal entry, this one from June 8, 1959, after ruminating about the process by which we remember our childhood, she is lead to a memory of her mother with the same suddenness from which the marigolds appeared. “People lived in intense worlds beyond me,” she writes. “So that I do not at first see my mother. I see her clearly much later than I smell and feel her—long after I see those solid fractions of the houses and fields [these are of Ballardvale, etc.]. She comes in frightfully clear, all at once.” And this fright is associated with the “incredibly ugly mill towns of my childhood, barely dissociated from the empty, haphazardly cultivated, half-wild, half-deserted countryside around them.” The flash or suddenness with which Bogan sees her mother, set against the familiar and ugly mill towns with their chaos, disorder, and dysfunction, is not entirely new to the journals. What is new, however, is the recognition that violence and trauma marked her early life. Later in the same entry, she writes, “I must have experienced violence from birth. But I remember it, at first, as only bound up with flight. I was bundled up and carried away.” This passage serves as an introduction to a longer passage that details, with Brueghel-like vividness, her memories of Milton, the mill town she lived in before Ballardvale, where “men and women bore ugly scars—of skin ailments, of boils, of carbuncles—on their faces, their necks, behind their ears” and where the “howl and whine of wind rose in the night.” Bogan makes her deepest association with the violence and trauma of her early years, and with her mother, by noting how the mill flume was a primal source of fear: “The flume cascaded down the rocks, with bright sun sparkling on the clear foamy water. My mother was afraid of the flume. It had voices for her: it called and beckoned her. So I, too, began to fear it.”
As if the mere recognition of having learned her fear of the flume from her mother is enough, Bogan ends her entry, but two days later, haunted by what she has remembered, she returns to finish recording the central and crucial scenes of childhood trauma. She writes: “But one (and final) scene of violence comes through. It is in lamplight, with strong shadows, and an open trunk is the center of it. The curved lid of the trunk is thrown back, and my mother is bending over the trunk, and packing things into it. She is crying and she screams. My father, somewhere in the shadows, groans as though he has been hurt. It is a scene of the utmost terror. And then my mother sweeps me into her arms, and carries me out of the room. She is fleeing; she is running away.” In the recollection of this scene, Bogan identifies a moment in which some of her own desires for freedom and love “had been early assassinated: shot dead.” Bogan’s prose is clear and objective and as such it carries no blame toward her mother nor does it ask for revenge or justice. In fact the writing shows great sympathy and understanding for her. “I never truly feared her,” she concludes. “Her tenderness was the other side of her terror.”
Although the image of the violent and dreadful mill towns, especially as they were represented in the old boardinghouses and rooming houses, persisted throughout her life, it was the emotional and psychological violence inflicted on her by her parents, especially by her mother, that she would be incapable of coming to terms with. The scene of flight, in which she realizes her desire for freedom and love had been “shot dead,” is only a prelude to the most potent scene that Bogan records of her childhood.
The late journals represent a complex and even cautious activity. They begin on June 26, 1953, and end on July 28, 1966. During this thirteen-year interval, Bogan records twenty-eight entries. Twice she breaks from activity for almost four years. Several of the entries are long and rival in length and intensity of focus the three memoirs of the 1930s. Part of Bogan’s cautiousness stems from her understanding of memory’s effects. She writes on January 12, 1954: “The extraordinary thing about the revived experience [is] its power to bring back the moments in time, in place—the vignettes of pain, placed in a series of settings. Also the same sense of being trapped—of being used, of being made an object.”
Although this entry is in response to her rereading of a series of letters Raymond Holden sent her during the summer of 1933, when Bogan traveled to Europe by herself on a Guggenheim Fellowship, as well as letters from Holden following the breakup of their marriage, the position it takes with regard to her past is consistent with what she comes to understand about the painful and traumatic scenes from her childhood. Both the early and late journals show that whenever Bogan begins to approach an incident from her past that is particularly difficult, she finds it necessary to write an extended qualification about the dangers of the “revived experience.” In the aftermath of a particularly painful time in her childhood, she writes: “The secret family angers and secret disruptions passed over my head, it must have been for a year or so.” And then without warning, “for two days, I went blind. I remember my sight coming back, by seeing that flat forked light of the gas flame, in its etched glass shade, suddenly appearing beside the bureau. What had I seen? I shall never know.”
If events in her childhood had been so terrible that it resulted in blindness, she wondered how memory, with its opacities and occlusions, might penetrate to discover the truth. Bogan’s dilemma was a complicated one and she wrestled with it courageously. In a June 8, 1959, entry she states: “One should set oneself the task, in full maturity, to fix on paper the bizarre, disordered, ungainly, furtive, mixed elements of one’s life.” But then a year later, September 17, 1960, she is less certain: “We must not bring back and describe ‘the bad mother’—‘the Dragon mother’ in order to justify ourselves. Only to understand. —To hold the portrait of this evil figure unresolved, into age, into madness. It should be resolved in late youth.” She ends this portion of the entry by referring to this unresolved evil figure as “the last Chinese box.”
Throughout the late journals, Bogan is uncertain that she can reconcile herself to her mother, the tender yet terrible woman whose large, strong confident hands could peel an apple with elegance and eloquence and yet, in a moment, they “could tear things to bits; put all their soft strength into thrusts and blows; they could lift objects so that they became threats of missiles.” Finally, it is another memory of her mother’s hands that opens the way for Bogan to get as close as she ever will to opening up the mystery of her mother. The memory is of the Ballardvale house, which she thought of as “the happiest in my life,” a place of joy and order. The entry is from June 22, 1959: “In the hot afternoon she sat, by the parlor window, which was now striped with light. She put up the blind, and opened the shutters halfway, so that she could see and not be seen. She could look down over the sloping lawn to the sidewalk which ran beyond the maple tree and the fence. . . . She sat, shelling peas into a yellow bowl, or hulling strawberries. Sometimes I would sit in her lap, and smell the violet smell which was her own.”
In Milton, where Bogan lived before moving with her family to Ballardvale, the mill-dam flume represented the danger and darkness of the family’s psyche, but in Ballardvale, in the relative order of their house on Oak Street, the danger lay in the small mill town itself and the trips her mother took to it. Continuing her entry of June 22, Bogan moves from her mother’s “violet smell” to recalling that “When she dressed to go to town, the fear [Bogan’s fear] came back. She could not dress without scattering things about the room. . . . She was careless . . . about the order of a room, but carefully elegant about her own person.” The activity surrounding her mother’s dressing for town finds its focus for Bogan “in a bottle of Peau d’Espagne. How I hated this perfume!” she exclaims. “It meant going to the city; it meant her other world; it meant trouble.”
Trouble took a specific form as she and her brother became the object of their mother’s anger. “Sometimes, when she was getting ready for church or for town, she would stand for long minutes, when she was already late, becoming more and more angry, the line of anger deepening between her eyes. . . . She was always late. She blamed everyone but herself for her lateness. We had made her late. A dreadful chill came over our hearts.”
The purposes for her mother’s visits to town were not always clear, and once she disappeared for “some weeks. No one knew where she had gone. Then suddenly she came back, thinner, as I remember, in totally different (shabby) clothes.”
Out of the mixed and contradictory memories of Ballardvale, however, Bogan puts together a composite portrait of her mother that suffices as a partial antidote. She also comes to recognize some or her own character traits mirroring her mother’s. Again, this is from June 22: “A terrible, unhappy, lost, spoiled, bad-tempered child. A tender, contrite woman, with, somewhere in her blood, the rake’s recklessness, the baffled artist’s despair . . .”
The entries of June 1959 are as close as she comes to dealing with the darkest details of her childhood. The effort she puts into her journal at this time is the most concentrated and sustained in the period between 1953, when she returned to her journal, and 1966, when she died. These entries occupy the greatest number of pages, but unlike the coherent and burnished nature of the early journals and the memoirs, they signal a shift to a broken and fragmented syntax—a notational approach—that she uses until the end.
The June 1959 entries conclude with a recollection of her learning to read, and how the contents of her first reader, Heart of Oak, “were as delicious as food; they were food; they were the beginning of a new life. I had partially escaped. Nothing could really imprison me again. The door had opened, and I had begun to be free.”
After setting this down, she does not return to her journal for more than year. When she does, on September 17, 1960, it is to warn herself away from bringing back the “bad mother.” The entry about the “bad mother” ends with a short disquisition on the purpose of different disciplines and the role of past: “The artist must resolve into art . . . the man of action into action . . . the philosopher into ideas. After a certain age one should glimpse it [the past] most often as a dream—or v. infrequently in consciously evoked meaning.”
Curiously, the journal ends on September 17 with an unfinished paragraph about “the great kindling power of passionate love” in old age, and how age creates inhibition to such love especially in women. The fact that the unresolved portrait of the “bad mother” and unfulfilled feelings of passionate love appear in the same entry speaks directly to the complexity of emotions Bogan was trying to sort out as well as to how much of her own passionate and sensual needs she identified with her mother.
The next day she copies out a passage from C. Day Lewis’s The Buried Day and then quits her journal for another year, returning to it on September 7, 1961. Between September 7 and September 21, she makes five entries, all of them brief, telegraphic, and fragmentary. Reading these entries one detects a hesitancy and reluctance in Bogan to face the memories that are pushing forward, but the hesitancy results in a very slow movement toward what she in fact wants to avoid. On September 21, after a night of “Terrible dreams!” she describes the “lovely wind and rain” that arrive with the “tail-end of a hurricane.” And she wonders, “Why do these storms come so far north? In the nineteenth century they kept to the southern tip of the continent.” And then in an observation that can be understood as a metaphor for her own predicament, she says, “The earth has shifted infinitesimally on its axis.”
What follows Bogan’s comment about the weather and hurricane is the passage I quoted earlier in which she describes how the repressed material of the poet’s life “becomes the poem.” This attitude about the relationship between art and life appears in her journal, like an avoidance-approach technique, whenever she comes into the range of a particularly vivid detail from her past or a difficult memory. Instead of going on to meet the memory, she hides behind the insistence that the “poet represses the outright narrative of his life. He absorbs it, along with life itself. The repressed becomes the poem. Actually, I have written down my experience in the closest detail. But the rough and vulgar facts are not there.”
Inside of this aesthetic stance we can hear Bogan arguing with herself, saying, on the one hand, a poet must repress the outright narrative of his life while claiming, on the other hand, that she has written down her “experience in the closest of detail.” What she fails to recognize but what a reader of her journals can see fairly easily is that the repressed details cannot stay repressed. They keep floating to the surface, buoyant with their own urgency.
Finally, near the end of the September 21, 1961, entry, Bogan seems to break this approach-avoidance pattern, although it happens almost inadvertently. After she puts down a short quotation by Chekhov, “And all things are forgiven, and it would be strange not to forgive,” she writes: “Forgiveness and the eagerness to protect: these keep me from putting down the crudest shocks received from seven on. With my mother, my earliest instinct was to protect—take care of, to endure. This, Dr. Wall once told me, is the instinct of a little boy . . . Well, there it is. I did manage to become a woman.” Forgiveness, protection, endurance are the noble, self-sacrificing, as well as self-denying, attributes that Bogan has used to distance herself from the trauma of her childhood and to redeem it, as well as the “bad mother.” Although Bogan has long been aware of these self-preserving mechanisms, there is something about confronting them now, perhaps at a point in her life when she feels there is nothing left to lose, such that she can admit, “Now, in my later years, I have no hatred or resentment left. But I still cannot describe some of the nightmares lived through, with love. So I shan’t describe them at all. Finished. Over.” But not quite over, because now she writes the most shocking and indelible of the memories of her mother: “The door is open, and I see the ringed hand on the pillow; I weep by the hotel window as she goes down the street, with another; I stare at the dots which make up the newspaper photograph (which makes me realize I had not yet learned to read). The chambermaid tells me to stop crying. How do we survive such things? But it is long over. And forgiven . . .”
Yes, forgiven, but not forgotten, not ever to be forgotten, although constantly repressed.
After she records what she has only moments before said she “shan’t describe,” Bogan eloquently provides a corrective to the crude shock of having witnessed her mother’s adultery at an age when Bogan had not yet begun to read. The fact that she couldn’t read is significant given that Bogan marks her first emancipation from the depravations of her childhood with learning to read. Witnessing her mother’s adultery came at a time when she had not yet acquired the means to escape from her surroundings through books and language and as such the image of mother’s hand on the pillow, the wedding ring drawing her attention, lay deeply repressed but smoldering with lifelong intensity. As if to make up for setting down that which she pledged not to, Bogan writes, “The regions and countries of the dream. The unconscious makes its repeated mistakes; it has not seen the reality; it has sensed it merely . . . A reflection; a distortion . . . And it repeats its mistakes, as though it had learned them by rote.”
As she comes to the conclusion of the September 21 entry she muses about love and another familiar theme, the lateness of the hour in her life. But this is only a pause before she pushes on to her final understanding, her final antidote: “How can we explain the places where we finally land, after the inexplicable journeys, long boring holidays, years of misapprehension? How do we finally find them—or do they find us, like a happening coming after a dream which follows the dream’s speech and action, so that we say it is our ‘dream out’ . . .”
When she finishes the September 21 entry, she will stay away from her journal for another four years, and when she comes back to it she is in the grip of a depression equal to the one that held her thirty years earlier.
Reading Bogan’s journals it is sometimes easy to forget that, especially from 1953 to 1964, she is active as a reviewer, teacher, lecturer, letter writer, and poet. The struggle the journals reflect is one that takes place almost entirely within her. From 1964 until the time of her death, however, her depression debilitates and imprisons her almost completely, and though she struggles to keep up her literary activities and fights to remain open to the muse’s visits, the extreme isolating effect of her depression makes it difficult for her to stay engaged. In fact, a very strong impression we derive from the last journal entries is that while Bogan has not literally landed in one of the fearful boardinghouses of her childhood, she is a prisoner of the mentality of those places. Witnessing the disintegration of Bogan’s physical and emotional state, I am pained to remember the determined woman who sought in her journal of the early 1950s a way to “the capable and free setting down of ‘memory and desire’ . . . of what I have become, and what I know.” Thirteen years later, it is nearly inconceivable that she could write: “The mere feel of the pen moving across the paper should be curative. That and some attempt to listen to music. —Who have I become? What has me in hand?”