The Known World
Wesleyan University Press, 1997
Turning bare description into a luxuriance, The Known World looks at the relation between past and present, creating energetic juxtapositions between different historical periods and our own. Short pieces in the book cohere around the long title poem, which explores the nineteenth century through some thirty sections in different voices and styles, including lists, mock letters, brief narratives, and lyric passages.
One of the most remarkable and unsettling aspects of The Known World is the way in which the wonderful and odd events Bogen describes about the nineteenth century slowly, inevitably, begin to sound like events of the present century and how they echo the dark details of our particular lives.
How much, by now, Bogen has made himself the poet of things, how many fruitful and even fretful collisions there can be between the questing mind, the receiving heart, and those objects out there . . . Emerson was right about things being in the saddle--but Bogen holds the reins!
Excerpts from the title poem of The Known World
Progress as the history of wheels:
endless tethered circles round the gin pit,
the measured creak of leather, harness clank,
clops, and pulley whining the day's lumps up:
heat in a horsecart, its wood rims nicking
on cobblestone. Or millstone grinding
the corn you rolled to the mill, the millwheel churned
in the swirls of the millrace. Paddlewheel
cutting steps in froth. Phaeton, brougham,
the singular conveyances of squires--
his light whip, your lordship, barely a question mark
before the iron arm jerks on its axis,
wrenching a grooved wheel over cinders,
spikes, the ties that bind lines for the wheels
of commerce: black funicular tugging hands
from the pit, the wheel to her very own treadle,
my dear, in the long hall, wheels of ships, and hidden wheels
that shut the vault's door or lift a glittering
chandelier over the wheel of heads that turn
the hopes of the world: Empire, a massy wheel
fixed on the summit of the highest mount,
outposts, colonies, explorations that thrust
a brave torch into the cave--and its walls are lined
with diamonds--the wheel hefting our white
burden, its dark spokes pulsing with goods, fleets
belting horizons, within its rim
round faces, food, fuel, nations, all debts
forgiven, your one mad whirling dynamo and
We are in a dark place. We
see dawn only in thinning
shadows, sunset in high streaked
clouds. Time is flat. It circles
the cobbled square. Colonnades
stare at each other. Behind
the facade our galleries
wind to chambers. Consider
the walls' cool sweat, layers of
breath, nook, ledge, and bench--these our
furnishings. habits claim them
like a moss. Sit. Listen. Forks
nicking on tin, a chair leg
wrenched across the floor--the dulled
murmur of families seeps
from the ducts. Nothing echoes
in these little rooms. Mirrors
fog with your breathing. Will you
tell us at last what we owe?
Tell us what we owe.
a. The bachelor logician adores little girls.
b. All logical propositions are true.
c. Some of the pictures in the photograph album shock nannies.
d. Every nanny takes care of children.
e. Some little girls float in punts on the gentle river.
f. The book about the little girl shows that nannies are always wrong.
g. All men are mortal.
h. The girls in the gasworks have big wrists and cannot read.
i. All of the pictures in the photograph album are of little girls.
j. The bachelor logician is a man.
k. Nannies do not have children.
l. Some of the girls in the photograph album have narrow wrists, trim ankles, and pale thighs.
m. All true books confer immortality.
n. No one in the gasworks has a nanny.
o. The bachelor logician photographs all girls who float in his punt on the gentle river.
p. Nothing in the book about the little girl is true.
1. Who takes care of the little girl?
2. Who is immortal?
3. Which pictures in the photograph album are true?
In moonlight who can tell
shepherdess from swan?
The shadows blur to one
grand wash. A grayish hill
flattens out within
the false proscenium
of elms. And now the spell
has fallen on the stunned
party. Revels done,
the costumes start to pale,
their hushed glimpses of skin
cool, shrink, and dim.
Is this antique style
so easily undone?
The nice distinctions
of each chosen role
are fading. Peasant, queen,
and gameskeeper have no station.
Smiles turn vague, eyes dull,
their hinting half-forgotten
or lost behind a fan.
Time stills. Old masks reveal
new ones. The hollow strum
of the lute disturbs them.
They don't know what they feel,
or if this is a scene
on stage, or if that fountain
sobbing with a will
so clear among the stones
it seems almost to shine
in ecstasy distills
everything they sense.
Their lives are painted on
a landscape. Light is still,
Wholesale transformations. As thus: your home
becomes a villa, the mill that built your home
a castle, the workers vassals disguised
as free agents selling their health disguised
as labor. What? Try again. That retreat
looks like a peasant's cottage: thatch to retreat
under in mild rain, big fireplace, crude pans
on the wall. Who gets to use the pans?
Note the subtly hidden servants' quarters.
Diverse obfuscation in other quarters
as well. Sorry. Now consider this church--
or is it a town hall hunched under a church
steeple? But it's not a steeple, is it?
It's an ornate medieval bell tower and it
came from Venice. Now it's here on the grounds.
Need I mention that these well appointed grounds
resemble a museum collection of town halls?
Gothic, Romanesque, all sorts. The halls
are named for industrial magnates and men of science,
some of whom, because of their work in science,
become industrial magnates and thus could pose
as squires. Students here are able to pose
as classless, free, devoted to reason.
Confusing, yes, but useful. One reason
few students are afflicted with consumption
is that their digs only look like mines. Consumption,
rather, of knowledge of the world, of history
cooked up all around them--the history,
say, of Pre-Raphaelite art confusing
the history of painting, the confusing
study of historical fads in the housing
of squires, mills, mines, mine diseases, housing
for millhands. You understand. New masks to mirror
the past seen in the present, which is a mirror
of the past, masked and hence exotic. Thus the new
science of archaeology making the old new.
Go on, dig it up. Set the whole temple
inside the museum designed to look like a temple
and study it. Study bricks, dust, the museum
of lungs, the man studying in the British Museum
the wholesale transformation of the known world.