Poet's Pick April 2
Louise Bogan: "The Alchemist"
Selected by Jacquelyn Pope
National Poetry Month 2014

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Jacquelyn Pope's Poetry Month Pick, April 2, 2014

"The Alchemist"
by Louise Bogan (1897-1970)

I burned my life, that I might find
A passion wholly of the mind,
Thought divorced from eye and bone,
Ecstasy come to breath alone.
I broke my life, to seek relief
From the flawed light of love and grief.

With mounting beat the utter fire
Charred existence and desire.
It died low, ceased its sudden thresh.
I had found unmysterious flesh—
Not the mind’s avid substance—still
Passionate beyond the will.

*Jacquelyn Pope Comments:

I remember picking up a copy of The Blue Estuaries, decades ago, in an undergraduate lit class. The instructor had been carrying it around for weeks and I was drawn to its steel blue cover, but not, it turned out, to the poems inside. Too quiet, I thought, too smooth. In retrospect I’m certain I was quite incapable of appreciating all that roiled and wrestled beneath the imperturbable surfaces of Louise Bogan’s poems, as well as being unable to appreciate the control with which they were handled. Fortunately, a real introduction to her work came years later, when life had opened my eyes. I’ve kept her poems close ever since. There is a “yes, but:” or an “and/yet” at the core of Bogan’s poems that is powerful. Her willingness to engage contradictions, and her suppleness in handling them, strike me as an admirable approach to life as well as to poems.

“The Alchemist” is compact and elegant, and its power seems to derive in part from its compaction, the opening phrases falling into lines, the lines themselves simple declarations recounting utterly impossible actions. I burned my life—I sacrificed my life, but it became fuel for my investigations; that I might find—so I could discover possibility as I examine remains; A passion wholly of the mind, / Thought divorced from eye and bone, / Ecstasy come to breath alone—ah, the mind/body problem, but not the usual one. Or, not presented in the usual way: mind and thought are held to be superior, ecstasy is ennobled by being transmuted to a spiritual plain, and flesh is unmysterious, but flesh persists. Here it survives fire and supersedes the will. Desire is charred but remains essentially unchanged, since it is essential. Sacrifice is supposed to be ennobling, but Bogan inverts the terms of sacrifice, makes the one who sacrifices an actor, not the one who is acted upon, with the caesuras emphasizing agency—“I did this, I claim my action.” I broke my life, to seek relief / From the flawed light of love and grief. The flawed light contrasts with the burning of the “utter fire” of passion and reflects that in the dwindling from fire/desire, thresh/flesh to still/will.

These are metaphors, but they are also the aims and statements of a “difficult woman,” headstrong enough to transmute her own life, to make it fuel the ongoing experiment of living, through her senses and in full possession of her mind and her powers. Yet the clear eye she casts is not cold; it is lit from within by compassion, derived from the knowledge that suffering brings. That knowledge, of having been bereft, makes “The Alchemist” more than an elegant structure, more than a brag—it animates the poem, lets it burn in the mind.

About Jacquelyn Pope:
Jacquelyn Pope is the author of Watermark, published by Marsh Hawk Press. Her poems and translations have recently appeared in The Common, Poetry International, and Salamander.

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