An Algebra

An Algebra

by Don Bogen

from Bagatelles



mere gestures

                        in dry air,

each pluck a dot,

strokes marked on silence

reaching into the dark. 

Beauty is strict,



from Bagatelles



mere gestures

                        in dry air,

each pluck a dot,

strokes marked on silence

reaching into the dark. 

Beauty is strict,

                          it passes: 

an echo, a wedge

of harmony, sudden,

broken—Who goes there?

An Algebra is an interwoven collection of eight sequences and sixteen individual poems, where images and phrases recur in new contexts, connecting and suspending thoughts,   emotions and insights. By turns, the poems leap from the public realm of urban decay and outsourcing to the intimacies of family life, from a street mime to a haunting dream, from elegy to lyric evocation. Wholeness and brokenness intertwine in the book; glimpsed patterns and startling disjunctions drive its explorations.

An Algebra is a work of changing equivalents, a search for balance in a world of transformation and loss. It is a brilliantly constructed, moving book by a poet who has achieved a new level of imaginative expression and skill.

Praise for After the Splendid Display

“In his best work . . . conscience and craft fuse seamlessly, and the result is original and arresting."—The Nation

Editorial Reviews

D. A. Powell

“Don Bogen is a wise and playful poet who manages the political and the personal with equal aplomb. He takes hold of poetry, the shape-shifting god, and in his hands it twists, morphs, relinquishes. Bogen reinvigorates the art by defining its limits, then pushing bravely past.”

C. D. Wright

“A private, clarifying testimony refracted by sensuous moments and clawed reflections of a speaker shedding everything that isn’t wanted or needed—everything except the intoxicating pull of the past bound to the deep desire to be ‘always becoming.’ The subtle operation of these skillfully interset lyrics makes for a consummate reunion of broken parts, an algebra.”—C.D. Wright

James McMichael

An Algebra registers a series of unrelenting impingements upon a sensibility that may in more guarded moments find ways to deflect them.  What comes through are only the essentials, pared down to the force with which they insist on being taken account of.  The movement from poem to poem is headlong but strangely not rushed.  The lines are short, the diction a model of clarity, and the rhythms impeccable.  It’s one of the most compelling books I’ve read in years.”

C.D. Wright

“A private, clarifying testimony refracted by sensuous moments and clawed reflections of a speaker shedding everything that isn’t wanted or needed—everything except the intoxicating pull of the past bound to the deep desire to be ‘always becoming.’ The subtle operation of these skillfully interset lyrics makes for a consummate reunion of broken parts, an algebra.”

Poetry Foundation - Alice Fulton

“As I reread Don Bogen’s An Algebra, I’m struck by the subtle use of abstraction and adroit sense of the line. ‘Algebra . . . uses mathematical statements to describe relationships between things that vary over time,’ and this protean process is a trope throughout. Bogen’s fragmentary lines suggest restless dichotomies, but things don’t remain autonomous for long. The poems also consider liminal spaces where life and mechanism blur—the virus, the robot. When they speak to memory or our attempts to freeze the frame, the lines, like rulers, hold their edges rather than enjamb. Bogen’s syntax is sometimes disjunctive, sometimes painterly, rich with ‘flesh music.’ I keep discovering new valences in this cerebral, beautifully realized book of ‘shifting equivalents.’”
Library Journal
Described on the back cover as "a work of changing equivalents," Cincinnati Review editor Bogen's fourth poetry collection attempts, as the title suggests, to explore "the properties and relationships of abstract entities…manipulated in symbolic form." "Wanted to run, always somewhere new…// at places to turn back, kept going," the first poem announces. The poems that follow read like interior monologs harnessed to ordinary questions of everyday loss: "Who will drive the car/ to the hospital/ after the cancer has metastasized?" We enter a life we all know—the sick child, the room befogged by vaporizers and fear. There are both sequences and individual poems, playful forms like the bagatelle and the barcarole, explored equivalencies like those between the sea god Proteus and a bacterium with the same name. VERDICT Bogen's language is discursive in every sense of the word, for better and worse. One wishes that some of the poems had turned back and taken a longer look at themselves; they feel too much like "a ghost [that] pretends to be alive." At his best, Bogen provides a multilayered lyric adventure for anyone interested in the directions of contemporary poetry.—Susan Kelly-DeWitt, Sacramento City Coll., Univ. of California, Davis

Product Details

University of Chicago Press
Publication date:
Phoenix Poets Series Series
Edition description:
New Edition
Product dimensions:
5.30(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.30(d)

Read an Excerpt

An Algebra



Copyright © 2009 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-06313-3

Chapter One


    Wanted solitude, feared it
    Wanted to run, always somewhere new
    Blank streets of the poor blocks, front yards with chain-link fence
    Hospital buildings sealed, monumental
    Wanted no faces in the windows, no visitors coming with roses

    At places to turn back kept going
    Wanted the loop larger, taking more in
    Small abandoned factories that made boxes, candy, soap
    Soot-fuzzed louvers, glass underfoot
    Wanted the lungs to tighten—three, then two steps to a breath

    Wanted solitude, kept turning off the big streets
    Found loose dogs growling in driveways, car parts on porches
    Sidewalks swallowed in weeds
    Gravel—wanted the slide of gravel at sudden dead ends
    Having to turn back uphill

    Wanted to slow but would not stop
    Wanted to come back some different way
    Yellow lamp glow of other lives
    Old parking lots, the closed-off stories of cars
    Dreamed up over and over

    Wanted nothing known, all to be imagined
    Glint of winter sunlight off windows
    Late streets empty, echoes muffled on brick
    Feared solitude but wanted the loop larger
    Wanted everything breath could hold


    To take,
      like water,
    whatever shape you flow through, fill, or rest in.

    And to choose that shape.

      * * *

    As: Brian, become a gangster,
    six feet from my face.
    Voice no longer a caress
    but a sharpened projection,
    belly a ram in a buttoned vest.

    The whole body shows
      the thing done:
    goat-song in the rites of a god,
    transforming, starting to speak now
    through him
      as he walks on stage.

      * * *

    Remember when you turned
    into moonlight, the bark of an oak,
    an orange going to shreds
    in your own cold palm?

    Everything you saw
      you were,
    and you saw everything.

    No choice.
    That face light gnarled around a tree
    was your face.

      * * *

    Flesh is approximate.
    We clothe it in dreams,
    wrestling with our eyes closed
    down through layers:
      thug, wraith,
    chieftain, devouring angel (held
    by my shoulders I
    am trying to make you
    stay put) daddy mama breath
    balm a man a woman in
    separate desires

      * * *

      cautious enough
    to disguise himself as a woman,
    the voyeur peeks at the rite.

    Women, leaping, mothers and daughters—
    their rapt beauty draws him out.

    The god
      has tricked him:
    they will tear him apart.

      * * *

    As: a virus.
      Never alive,
    but a frantic mimicry of life
    to pierce the cell, make over
    its orders, move, repeat itself, mutate
    in sped-up mini-evolution—
    now it swims the blood, unravels
    in light, never alive, now
      it floats on air.

    Lost in the host a thousand years,
    inert chemical mechanism
    asleep in a rain-forest cave.

      * * *

    To mime—
      not a statue
    or a gray accountant picked from the crowd,
    but a robot.

    Steel jumpsuit and boots,
    greasepaint turning the eyelids

    This hand a crank, this grin
    the edge of a disk,
      I am Mister
    Silver Mister Silver
    loop syncopating
    over the drum machine.

      * * *

    As: a child's toy,
    its intricate language of joints and swivels,
    creature within creature:
    the robot
      a wolf on silver feet,
    in his boxy jaw
    the tiny half-robotic
    head of a man
      who will drive the car.

      * * *

    Who will drive the car
      to the hospital
    after the cancer has metastasized?

      * * *

    These knots rising in my palm—
    look, in the photo album,
    he grips the mower like a sad hawk.

    Grandfather, father, son—flesh
    tightens, branching genes
    send up more
      of the claw each year.

    After the operation
    skin comes back thick as bark.

      * * *

    A boy, a lion, wild boar,
    snake no one will touch
    holds the changes.

    Dream he is a sea god,
      and he is.
    Dream he is a stone, a bull, no,
    a tree
      rippling over
    the waves' quick light, he is
    shape always becoming, he is a flame
    and the stream that drowns it.

    A Cage

    Tunnels through black earth, through
      goldfish fat as biscuits
    probe the bulged veins,
    chambers of cartilage,
    in one a scarred pike
      in a knot.

    Dreams in this grotto
    of foreign dark—I can't
    unpack them.

    Betrayal? Guilt?
    This was about something I'd

      * * *

    Intricate, web-sticky
    texture of regret:
      the past
    a net of roots finding
    no hold,
      the present endless
    writhing in the net.

    Wrestling, blind
    wrestling—the nest
      into itself,
    sticks, brown leaves, dry stems
    enumerate old themes.

      * * *

    Why does the lake still
    rim my dreams?

    Beach, small breakers, sandbars—
    layers of horizon
      the moon keeps remaking,
    a border through years of sleep.

    Always a comfort, that blue-gray lip
    under cloud fields. It
    blocks off the east,
      seals what's passed.
    The edge is something you can't see across.

      * * *

    Dusk on a boulevard,
    wet snow thickening nostalgia.
    That bottle-green light from a showroom,
    blurred, enticing,
      in all the objects
    lined up on the walls.

    Car parts? Or plates?
    Or door chimes?
      Row on row—
    drive on, there's nothing anyone could want.

      * * *

    I am in this tunnel
    in a car, driving back from some talk,
    pneumonia still wrestling my lungs.

    Memory has garnered,
    the swoops and stacked interchanges,
    neon in the gleaming tubes
    extending and bending
      cool orange light—

    but not the talk, grit in my cough,
    whatever mall we stopped at.

      * * *

    Each cold
    another step to deafness.

    Fog gathers
    around the fast delicate consonants
    of talk in a crowd, a whispered joke,
    the single cricket
      I watched making sound.

    Invisible distance
    year on year deepening,
    slow retreat—

    a ghost pretends to be alive.

      * * *

    A frame makes a window
    you can't see out.

    Bars, locks,
    steel-colored button shapes to press,
    and the comforting illusions:
    time a quaint archaic hourglass,
    motion a scroll at your control.

      your life infinite layers
    where everything is flat.
    Point, shrink, and close till the screen goes blank.

      * * *

    Old people falling,
    people forgetting,
    they fell.

    This skeletal box—
    aluminum tubes like the bed rails,
    black rubber caps on its rocking
      a walker
    that helps you walk
    toward the door, your
    helpless son and daughter,
    a memory of them.

      * * *

    Found himself kindly,
    a companionable ghost
    at the party's edge
      rage? despair?—
    absurdly in a plastic cup.

    Time went on blanching him:
    a voice, thinning,
      that might sparkle
    amid the chorus a moment,
    another voice fixed
    in the empty cage of ink.

    Get this down now
      so it will last,
    drink this and disappear.


    There's nothing anyone could want
    A yard sale where the private past is suddenly on display
    Brought up from storage, dazed and blinking
    Drugstore lamps, dessert glasses, AM clock radio
    The two-speed bicycle you stripped down over the years
    Worth more if it still had its tank, fins, and handlebar streamers
    What moves and what doesn't—you can't sell it all
    On card tables old desires transpose into objets d'art and junk
    The basement empties like the hold of a freighter
    So you can get away


    Air as lost time
    Voice of a cloud, of a ghost crowned with nimbus
    Smack-thin, it lingers forty years
    I thought it came from the jeweled world we'd seen
    Everything stuffed, urgent, glittering alive
    But it was just pleasure, blank and sure
    Now what is there to sing
    From speakers, the tune folds and fades in waves
    Earphones drive it through your head


    Broken—who goes there
    A Christmas innocence watery with nostalgia
    Burnt herb smell blurring the years
    War has its long fingers, love its old haunts
    That ice-cream shop, her paisley skirt
    The purple commas swirling as if animated by sight
    Full-body armor of a tingling cloud
    Encased, I pictured tracer rounds as a light show
    Sweet smoke, what are you singing
    The boy almost a man who'd be a child


    The edge is something you can't see across
    Burnt-out refineries on the rim of a winter city
    Trainyards, coal piles, empty pre-fab warehouses
    No people but a clutter of abandonment
    Against a straight blank sky
    Fixed now, pointed toward abstraction, the scene waits
    You stare at what you've made and keep seeing more
    White space mirrors a mind of ice
    Snow only suggests the distances and threats


    What do you have to give away
    One note—you break it open again and again
    A braid of tones inside the one tone unraveling
    As it drowns in air like all tones
    Same mind, same wrist, same hand, same white key like a chisel
    Repeated, a moment thickens
    Focus clears out what's messy and unimportant
    The deeper you listen the more you hear the limits
    There is no world this infinite and pure


    They are swimming in the book
    Two stick pens on the yellow pad where I left them
    The random now suddenly purpose, configuration
    An almost-V catching a moment's light
    Glint as of crystal off the faceted surfaces
    Inside, veins with drying traces
    Streaks in a wineglass, residue of streams
    Under the long-visored caps a black reservoir, a blue
    Go with me little pools


    A charm,
      a dream of protection.
    Gurgles hold the night light's glow.

  A stream of clouds
      misting the branching tubes.

    Water, in fog, a tub, plug to
    wire in the wall saying

    Okay, it's okay all night.

      * * *

    School, a door closing
    he opens:
      haze of playground French,
    the five names for different kinds of marbles,
    games, bullies he wandered among
    while I was staring at the sea.

    Shut off,
    not my past,
      nothing I could do—

    I keep making up
    all the world he lived.

    His new name, intricate drawings of aliens,
    long tunnel of lunch
    (Mais il ne mange rien monsieur)—
    school hours shadows
      that smother my days.

      * * *

    Burnt-out hills:
    char and velvety ash
      along the dropped limbs,
    magpies, new gullies.

    A dry time clears the ground.

    He was standing where the road split,
    arms spread, a small x
    straddling the crack.
    That bird call a slash, then,
    on the edge of things.

    He was standing,
      behind him
    the green blue of ocean, the white blue of sky.

      * * *

    The house of childhood sold,
    or razed—

    not lost but
      softened, distended:
    diaphanous linked chambers springing from

    a lightshaft or a varnish smell,
    the way a floorboard aches,
    a scrap of wallpaper
      tunnels the heart.

      * * *

    A film of
    tiny collisions, tracks of light
    in the bubble chamber—you'd scan
    for hours (smell of formica, rock headsets,
    eyes going furry near four AM).

    This celluloid memory now
    your memory, coursing
    chemical fissures in the brain.

    Matter split like time,
      thinner and thinner parings—
    Anything that happens is too fast to see

      * * *

    There the sky kept reeling as she ran—
    wisps, then puffy clumps,
    then rain—
      the park spread low
    beneath the blanketing.

    Who could have worn
    that purple coat
    cartwheeling in the grass?

    It grows
      as I look at it,
    puts on pillowy layers.

    Now the coat wears memory,
    warms a ghost.

      * * *

    Wind off the world's top,
    whipped clouds over hedgerows:
    Girton, that one year
    twenty years away.

    He learned to walk, she started school,
    read, slowly,
      the first book Red.

    Moss edging the garden wall,
    little flags on the clothesline.

    A Language

    Thirty years swept open—
      transfigures the field.

    How she changed him,
    he her,
      a bird cry
    defining the territory.

    Possession, of the past,
    of place—those hills,
    that coast—
      of the nest:

    she marks him,
    he her,
      seizing distances.

      * * *

    This music of scenes
    we shuttle between us,
    ever more interwoven
    as measures blur over time:

    a walk,
    yes, I, then
      a meal, rush
    and slow of ocean through
    drawn shades
    somewhere when—
    held, grouped, changed, repeated,
    overflowing the score.

      * * *

    Loops and swirls I know
    from messages on the phone table—
    page after page of them
    now your hand is ink.

    The story grows:
    facts, dates, events—
      I don't
    need the news but
    a sigh
      breathing hieroglyphs,
    my fingertips reading
    the scroll of your back.

      in the mind,
    I want your wet mouth,
    not this paper
    that rattles in the wind.

      * * *

    Eyes too
    that pale look they take on
    with your glasses off.

    A thin blue
    fragile, almost violet
    in the moon shell,
      lip at the rim,
    softened pupil that can't read
    my too-close face.

    Study me now,
    focus the dark.
    when my tongue speaks you are slits.

      * * *

    A call of flesh,
    a lesson learned
    to re-learn—
    are you saying each
    moment I need
    to hear again

      our hands
    listen, mouths
    pushed open as the point drives home.

      * * *

    Your hair
    shades of wheat at first,
    of oak,
      now more soft ash
    each night we burn.
    My forest, my playground, my nest.

    Delirious waterfall—years
    swirl in my hands,
    moonlight flooding
      a darkened room.

      * * *

    Metaphors: she
      is damp earth
    and I the plow, drawn
    to the source of this old noun

    No, to sighs,
    mere sounds—

    not sounds merely but
    a language of shifting
    touch where she is
    limb bud fruit trunk blossom


Excerpted from An Algebra by DON BOGEN Copyright © 2009 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Don Bogen is professor of English at the University of Cincinnati. He is the author of three books of poetry, most recently Luster.

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