PUBLICATION of Louise Bogan's autobiography promises the arrival of a fascinating and thoughtful book. Hers was a full and ultimately triumphant life. Author of six fine books of verse, poetry critic of The New Yorker for 38 years, friend to Auden and Edmund Wilson, mentor and brief lover of the young Theodore Roethke, she exerted -- as poet, critic, literary friend -- a three-sided influence on American poetry from the '20s, when she first began to publish, to her death in 1970. As critic, she could be taxingly severe, but it was always, as the pared slimness of her collected poems suggests, most demanding on herself.
Journey Around My Room: The Autobiography of Louise Bogan is indeed a fascinating, thoughtful book, although misleading, for this is not a true autobiography, and little of it's compiler Ruth Limmer, a "mosaic," a mix of "journals, notebooks entries, poems . . . sentences and paragraphs from her critisism, portions of letters, a lecture, answers to questions . . . short stories, recorded conversations, scraps of paper." "Bit by bit, this mosaic becomes the portrait of a temperament, the mental lineaments of a woman of candor, tenacity, and catholic intellect. That this mosaic does not, despite its variety of sources, have makeshift, tessellated feel attests to Ruth Limmer's craftsmanship.
Bogan's short story "Journey Around My Room" has been cut into sections and used as a "frame," opening and closing the volume. The choice was an apt one. The story's subject (the baffling casual links between one's past and present) and imagery (the mind equated to a room) are the subject and imagery of much of the book. The story's narrator asks herself, "How did I reach the window, the walls, the fireplace, the room itself; how do I happen to be beneath the ceiling and above this floor? . . . Some step started me toward this point, as opposed to all other points on the habitable globe." In search of these buried influences, Bogan turns repeatedly throughout the book to the turmoil and privation of her childhood, and to childhood complementary store of comforts, particularily those of vanished light. She resurrects mornigns when the kitchen "was floating in sunlight," towns where the sun "falls incredibly down through a timeless universe to light up clapboard walls." Bogan writes convincingly of childhood, conveying without self-pity or any distancing solemnity its terrors and solaces and anguished appetites.
Her walk one afternoon through a childhood neighborhhod, and the conjectured links between this visit and a depression for which she was institutionalized, provide the book's most affecting reading. At the age of 67 she returned to the Boston neighborhood where she'd lived more than a half-century before. It had turned slummy, its colors had shifted, its vistas were blocked. She entered the branch library where she'd found sanctuary as a child. "No book of mine was listed in the catalogue. (A slight shudder passed over me.) -- I felt the consuming, destroying, deforming passages of time; and the spectacle of my family's complete helplessness, in the face of their difficulties, swept over me."
Much of this book derives from Bogan's journals. When excerpted in 1978 in The New Yorker , the entries were presented chronologically. In this volume, Ruth Limmer has grouped them thematically, and here and there has unobtrusively added or altered a phrase for clarity. Of course any alteration of a writer's journal must carry attendant losses. In this case Limmer has paid for greater coherance and cumulative power by sacrificing some of the journal's quietness and haphazard grace. The exchange nonetheless proves a profitable one. Bogan has been respectfully and sympathetically served.
Enjoyable as this volume is (and I would recommend as companion piece What the Woman Lived, her collected letters), it is through her poems that Bogan's achievement must be tested. In poetry, the boundry that separates the old-fashioned from the timeless is often unclear, and it is in this hazy region that many of Bogan's poems lie. Her neat rhymes, her taste for quatrains and palpable meters her poetically inverted phrases -- these suggest the trappings of a spirit living in a former poetic age. Yet working with these tools she was capable of a forthrightness that makes distinctions like "modern" and "old-fashioned" seem frivolous and inexact: in fear of the rich mouth i kissed the thin, -- Even that was a trap To snare me in. ("The Frightened man") and your infatuate eye Meets not itself below: Strangers lie in your arms As I lie now. ("Man Alone") These stanzas also capture something of the vulnerability, the need for solitude, the longing for and distrust of love, that tug so poignantly throughout this book. CAPTION:
Picture, LOUISE BOGAN IN 1952