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Don Bogen’s latest volume, Luster, takes on everything from bullhorns to the cultivation of olive trees in poems that are sharp-edged and open to surprise. They capture not just things themselves but the essential contexts—history, power, the personal and the social—that give them meaning. The stylistic dexterity and range of approaches here make the book as rich as the world it engages. Luster includes evocations of place and memory, character studies of figures from Coleridge to Tarzan, a verse epistle, and an extended meditation on machines in our daily lives, all within an overarching vision. From racehorses to waterwheels to great cities, Bogen illuminates “things that go,” in both their dynamism and their inevitable decay. Luster traces the sheen of human activity that clings to the world around us: imperfect, irrevocably marred by time, but always gleaming.
for the mouth.
It sleeps in a drawer,
dangles, ready for work,
off the lead cop's belt
by the nightstick
and black can of mace.
Big metal nipple
with a mesh
you put your lips up to,
battery in the handle.
or stenciled on
mark who owns it
and what it will defend.
It clears its throat
with a click,
are in violation ... Not
a bull's sloppy bellow,
not a horn either,
like that tenor sax
singing under the bridge,
but the dry slap
claimed from a distance.
At times it seems
a neutral tool,
heroic even, calling out
to the lifeboat
or reaching up into
a smoldering sixth-floor room.
A searchlight in rubble,
its shout awakes
the nearly dead.
always makes you jump:
a half-displayed threat
of force, like
the grille of a truck.
The assistant principal
scouts the halls,
her finger on the trigger.
she will get to bark.
Epistle to Dr. Venturo
Throw down your books, you've planned enough for class.
Your students won't be dazzled any less
for time you might spend picking up the news
of happenings where little ever does.
What are friends for? To call you from your work,
recalling friendship with each brief remark,
to fill you in, and fill in the details
of spots unchanged and changes time reveals.
If classic poets, turned away from Rome,
could hold forth on the world from one small farm,
then our provincial outpost might provide
some light-and lines you get to read, not grade.
My theme is cities, how they rise and fall
by laws of nature or by loss of will,
by planning and good sense, or dollars and cents,
by history's dictates or the whims of chance.
Whatever occurred, a city seeking growth
will clean its past and package it as truth.
Take this one: river trade, then pigs, then soap,
a creekbed lined with factories sprouting up,
a booster spirit fattening each year,
dressed now for market in a dream brochure.
Venturo, come discover our new line,
a hint of chic enlarded in each claim.
See Rome on the Ohio, or at least
the San Francisco of the Middle West.
A city does not blossom-it is built.
Its body is geography and wealth.
Where hilltops rise above a sick morass
a city view becomes the best address.
To see, not smell, catch light instead of smog
requires a Jaguar and a Persian rug,
a wine rack, wet bar, shelves of gleaming loot
that complement the claims of real estate.
When cities age, their history grows dear:
the heights become antiques, the pits obscure.
Old names, old top spots in this city's past
are what her newest suitors value most.
Thus Clifton (i.e., Cliff-town), Indian Hill,
Mt. Airy with its promise never stale,
Heights, Peaks, Runs, Parks, assorted Terraces,
and Mt. Healthy, the most ingenuous.
A mountain-or a molehill's-a safe bet:
where burghers feared to tread, the ground was flat.
They left the basin to escape disease;
the new escapees glide by on freeways.
The past lies all before them, where to choose
well tended slopes that help investments rise.
Now let's descend for local atmosphere.
Breathe deeply. There is something in the air.
It drifts through ozone, floating on a breeze
of hydrocarbons, mist, suspended grease,
past rib pits, rusting playgrounds, parking lots,
a scabrous billboard hawking cigarettes,
Chevies on blocks, one skittering brown dog,
street kids, and drunks awake enough to beg.
Collected, dense, familiar, it will rise
into the convolutions of the nose,
then drop, then spread out as it speeds along
to graze the fragile blossoms of each lung
and ride the blood until it finds its own
niche in the chemical storeroom of the brain.
Thus great Pollution sweeps past every eye
to stir the heart and take our breath away.
But stay downtown, Venturo, and look up
where tax abatements gather all our hope.
As aging streets, like bodies, thrive or rot,
some buildings fall-and some rejuvenate.
A tenement turns condo, news reports-and
tenants load their goods in shopping carts.
A wall is stripped, fine plasterwork revealed,
officials paid off, old contracts annulled,
old ceilings shown, old residents shown out,
floors newly sanded and new closings set.
While gilded doormen scan the lowering street,
art-deco elevators trace the height,
the broadening suites, the dear amenities
expanding as the asking prices rise
till at the top, glassed, staring at the sun,
gleam pools, a jogging track and health salon.
The ski machines, the splendid rowers shine,
and sweat glows like a polish on each tan.
What's steep stays clean. A rich aerobic food
scours the narrow passageways of blood,
beats back the years, builds confidence anew
and helps the highest ever still to grow.
A city learns to lift its searching eyes
and tune its voices upward into praise:
0 brave repurchased Eden, looming clear,
cloud-spanning aerie, palace of pure air,
where bright, forever young, gods of the hill
may sport at their own sweet will!
Cocktail Party, 1953
And the Republic summons Ike,
the mausoleum in her heart.
Zero hour-he pours.
Wet fire splits night from day,
a ribbon of red gold
cutting its road again
between the hills of ice:
white blocks, then chunks of glass
with tittle cracks, at last
amorphous rounded lumps
Now he loosens his tie
and paces among the suits
and stiffbras, past the buffet,
the ash trays on chair arms
and end tables, blurred drops
spattered across blond curves.
His brain is a jewel in flames
revolving, pulsing light
long after the nation's asleep.
His heart is an underground test,
his drink missile fuel.
Ideas flare through the rooms
like meteors above
the luminous city below.
That critic slashing air,
historian on the rise,
hot editor, the host
of a dozen scenes like this-he
moves from star to star,
the fever of their talk
simmering his dreams.
Cold-war ambitions flit
among the gossip and smoke,
the snack cart, the help,
a wife set off on the couch
like a glazed tulip.
The best minds of an age
are sparring here. Aglow
inside the brilliant ring,
he rattles ice and start
his preemptive strike of wit.
No need-she shows her hand:
a melting stare, plump lips
burnished gleaming red,
the chalice of her dress
where he would sip.
The Moon in the Water
How can a guy climb trees, say, "Me Tarzan, you
Jane," and make a million? It was like stealing.
That man jogging half-naked through the arboretum
is the retie of an Olympic swimming star.
His amplified yowl swings through arroyos of yucca
like a demented cry of triumph or a curse.
Rich, flat, comfortable in black and white,
he poses before invisible charging rhinos, talks to chimps,
and seems a bit lost in his voluminously stylish suit
when he dines at the Brown Derby after work.
He is not, after all, the articulate slumming aristocrat
of the books. His character's a sack of air,
and the pidgin English he is made to blurt nails him
to a cliché. The bad natives, all spidery body paint
and dangling skulls, are undoubtedly more civilized-hence
corrupt. On the other side, he is elevated
above those good but dumb packbearers
by his instinctual cunning and astounding white skin.
In the tank scenes he resembles a furless otter
and is most at home. Frolicking with Boy
or miming a furious breast stroke with a knife between his teeth,
he looks as if he could hold his breath forever.
His sleek thighs glisten among the treasure chests
and drugged alligators. His feet seem webbed.
Free inside the glass-walled river, he is able to transform sport
into his own kind of performing art.
When he breaks the surface and crawls to some convenient rocks
there is a moment of primitive beefcake he has to enjoy.
Then Jane calls. The soggy domestic comedy of a jungle bungalow:
servants monkeying around, minor annoyances at mealtimes,
and today problems with the vine-and-pulley dumbwaiters
that make the whole house work. Ungawa! he sputters
at the pygmy elephant tangled in his bamboo harness,
Ungawa!-a frustrated husband blowing his top.
These carefully rehearsed explosions titillate:
eyes a charming smolder, hands caught in a half-clench-then
at last the relief of a long dream swing
across the processed screen. Tension and release, confinement
and escape. But the main theme is greed.
Ambitious Cockneys, spider women and proto-Nazis
scramble for the rhinestone in a plaster idol's eye,
then fall off cliffs or get swallowed in the ubiquitous quicksand
again and again. Old Janes and Boys gone whiskery circle his chest
like asteroids. A slough of Wagneroid mood music muddies
his classic lines. In the hectic late films he finds himself drawn
to the opulent simplicity of the elephants' graveyard.
When they take him at last like King Kong to the big city,
he responds with a thirty-five-second swan dive off the Brooklyn
Watch now: his street clothes are sinking in the East River,
his pale arm arcs like a slice of moon.
Old closed-down schools. Hardly monuments,
these chipped limestone and scaly brick eyesores
loom over their asphalt lots like dinosaurs
in tar pits. An air of squat self-importance
still wraps them in its bad smell. Their doors
festooned with oversized padlocks, chain-link fence
girding a down-at-heels magnificence,
they look as if they expected something more.
What could they want? Their teeming century
built them to resemble overgrown ruins-and
now that's what they are. The flood of children
who filled their castle gates and galleries
with whispers, shrieks, and babble is a thin
murmur in the suburbs. Their dignity
erodes like those stolid nonentities
whose names snooze over porticos in the sun.
Harrison, McKinley, U.S. Grant-how
have the mighty fallen? The busts and portraits,
even the doilies with their silhouettes
have left the halls. Face down, the President
presides in the attic near a cabinet
of stacked, decaying readers. Curled and faint
history lessons yellow toward parchment
on open shelves. School boards meet in chests.
Beneath a still unfashionable ceiling fan
order reigns at last in the classroom.
No talking now, no straining hands, no problems
on the blackboard. Clamped to their rails, four trains
of oak and wrought iron desks align the gloom.
Who would have thought this was their destination?
It's sad how long these neat rows have retained
the threadbare certainties that bolstered them.
I love the gargantuan simplicity of the thing:
a piece of furniture with a whole room built around it,
fat as an ocean liner, obsolescent as a department store,
massive and layered like a vast apartment complex twenty floors high.
The drawers are a study in multiplicity,
each nearly identical but for the odd nick or stain,
the calm grained surfaces darkening variously with the years
and the different amounts of light passing down from high windows.
Each has its little plate, its round pull like a doorknob-Knock,
knock. Who's there? The residents keep changing,
but they all have exotic names like Abs-Axi or Rib-Rica.
They get a lot of mail, all postcards.
Such ponderous decorum. The sheer bulk of the whole
settles into even its smallest parts:
wood boxes in wood troughs that drag and creak as you tug at them,
as if to remind you that this is all hard work,
the drawer impossible to balance in one hand, the clunky pull-out shelves
clattering as the box is shoved onto them,
stiff white cards and a brass rod to anchor each stack.
Once you're finally set up, a fluid ease comes in.
I like to dabble with my fingers.
Flip, flip-titles flicker across my eyes,
registering, filing, cross-referencing, replicating and hiding themselves
in the swampy catalog of my head.
I wish I had a memory this clean!
Still, I make the most of the journey,
the numbers and letters like roadsigns decorating the corners,
the special directions in red-See also, See under-that can lead you
mysterious bibliographic abbreviations, hand-printed fists of years on a
fading back from felt-tip to ballpoint to fountain pen.
Each card has its story:
some dog-eared, ripped or smudged with thumbprints,
others so pristine I want to skirt around them delicately
so as not to wake them up.
When I come across, as if by accident, a card with my own name on it,
I feel a kind of embarrassed responsibility,
as if I'd stumbled on a snow-covered plot of ground I inherited years ago
and now am obliged to tend.
Excerpted from Luster
by Don Bogen
Copyright © 2003 by Don Bogen.
Excerpted by permission.
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.
Epistle to Dr. Venturo
Cocktail Party, 1953
The Moon in the Water
La Carte Orange
Rilke in Paris
Coleridge at MIdnight
In the Middle of Europe
Look Out for My Love
Five Runs in France
From a Daybook
Meditation on a Line from Whitman