Ruth Limmer describes as a mosaic the life of Louise Bogan she fits together out of notebook, journal, parts of letters, stories, criticism, poems, and the text of a lecture. The embedding grout and frame consist of an introductory chronology, captions from the poem “Train Tune” plus Bogan photograph insets as chapter headings, and excerpts from a Bogan story, “Journey Around My Room,” a “meditation” after the 18th-century Frenchman Xavier de Maistre—all in all, a too-elaborate format for one who was so wary of excess as Louise Bogan. Somewhat questionable is Limmer’s grouping of related material—a few lines, a paragraph, pages, a story, written at different times. “One must not manipulate—it shows”—though Limmer is at pains to bear this Bogan precept in mind. Her mosaic is all of a piece in its devotion to the poet’s own words. Beneath the pieced-together surface the depths shine through, and the appearance of this book about a remarkable woman and poet is most welcome.
Limmer fashioned her portrait from scant autobiographical material. A fire destroyed most of Bogan’s papers for one thing, and for another, she kept a tight lid. There are not many dated entries, a spate in 1933 and again in 1954—66, generally when the poet was having a bad time; otherwise, the directly personal barely intrudes on her writing. Among the published books of poetry, criticism, and translations there is The Journal of Jules Renard she translated with Elizabeth Roget—no journal or diary of her own. “Temptation toward the inconsequential detail, the vaporous idea, and the self-regarding emotion is always present and can become overwhelming.” What matters is “getting at the quotidian essence.” Bogan considered herself a note-taker. “But whatever I do, apart from the short cry (lyric poetry) and the short remark (journalism), must be in the form of notes. Mine is the talent of the cry of the cahier.”
A decade before she wrote an afterword to the book for New American Library, Bogan wrote: “V. Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary: usually done “in fifteen minutes before dinner”—What a monster of egotism she was!” (Not that she didn’t appreciate Woolf; she cites her for a few novels and mostly for literary essays.) She always thought it “a little vulgar to open up.” Temperamentally, as well as by tenet, she found it difficult “to make a full breast”; the confessional mode was beyond her. She felt the closest she could come to truth was in poetry, and she was suspicious of all other forms of writing. She was held back or held herself back even when it was crucial to psychic stability. Doubting she could “tell the whole truth. . . I never have even to Dr. Wall,” is a recognition of an “emotional festering that began far back.”
Born in 1897 in Livermore Falls, Maine, she spent her “poverty-stricken youth in Ballardville, a small town in Massachusetts on the Boston & Maine Railroad,” the years between 1904—09 before she acquired her “severe New England classical education in the public schools of Boston.” A recurring preoccupation in her notes is the memories of Ballardville and the struggle to write about them. They comprise a fair section of the book. What makes them so amazing is their uncanny childhood vision, wide angle and pinpointing at the same time, of herself and the world. “The grain in a plank sidewalk certainly came through more clearly to me at first than anything grown ups, or even older children did.”
In straining, as a child does, after what she did not see or know, 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. . . .” There are recollections of the town, the house in which at first she was happy, of “people who lived in intense worlds beyond me,” of her father, brother Charles, and in particular, her “Dragon mother,” with her romantic rootlessness and mysterious vanishings— for a year once, during which Louise was clapped into a convent which “civilized me: I used to go up to the attic and throw things: they broke me of all that.” And of old Leonard, who filled her with dread:
“The peel fell to the floor and old Leonard closed his knife with his thumb. . .”We must be wise, ” he said to my mother, “wise as the serpent and as gentle as the dove”. . . These words now lie in my memory as inexplicable as the doll and the sword. 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 our hearts. We can never forget them because we cannot understand them, and because they are of no use.”
The stories stand with the best of Bogan’s poems, but they are disturbing—I was quite unstrung by their penetrating echo of my own consciousness of childhood, its nameless shadows, terrors, and joys.
“The Flume,” an eight-page poem, a departure from her short lyrics, draws on the central obsession, her mother, and is preceded by the poet’s discussion of its success and failure, to which she appends “the “facts” are false, at the end”—an evocation of her fundamental premise concerning the inevitable falsifications of literature. “How preposterous, how unbearable is reality dished up in a phrase. . . .” At one point Bogan and her editor talked of a book: “The thing should be a play of sensibility over the mill-towns of my childhood”; that the idea was abandoned is regrettable, and it is commendable that the stories Bogan did write are reprinted in Journey Around My Room.
It was during her thirties, “the best time to write about one’s childhood before the juices have dried up,” that the first of her breakdowns occurred. “I refused to fall apart and so I have been taken apart like a watch.” Chapter Nine focuses on the experience. It contains the 1933 New Yorker story “Coming Out” and a 1938 poem “Evening in the Sanatarium,” and dated entries which cast light on her second marriage to the poet Raymond Holden. She had separated from her first husband by whom she had a daughter Maidie. Most revealing are the notes on her relationship with Holden and the “mental anguish in which I lived like a fish in jelly for so long.” Just previous to the breakdown, she began reviewing poetry for The New Yorker, an association which endured for 38 years.
Shortly before Bogan’s death at 73, still closed in with memory and still hoping to write “the long prose thing” about herself, she comes to terms with it. “Whatever mattered got into the poems with the self-pity left out. . . . And the poems depend on the ability to love. . .a talent, a gift.” Her poems last appeared in The Blue Estuaries (Poems 1923—1968), and it is a pleasure to read, with notations, some of them once more.
About poetry she had “no fancy ideas.” She said, “I hate every minute of it.” She was a slow writer. “Anything is more fun than literary composition.” The learning of a Mozart sonata was really “letting yourself have some fun to keep from going mad.” In a lecture on women writers reprinted in the book, she says: “So far as form is concerned. . .women can be and have been superb technicians.” Louise Bogan was. The French poets, “the simple expression, deep insights, deep joys” of Rilke and Yeats influenced her. “At the hour between the dog and the wolf, is it her heart that speaks?” In Journey Around My Room it does.