Poet's Pick April 4
Louise Bogan:"Medusa"
Selected by Elizabeth Gramm
National Poetry Month 2012

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Elizabeth Gramm's Poetry Month Pick, April 4, 2012

by Louise Bogan (1897–1970)

I had come to the house, in a cave of trees,
Facing a sheer sky.
Everything moved,—a bell hung ready to strike,
Sun and reflection wheeled by.

When the bare eyes were before me
And the hissing hair,
Held up at a window, seen through a door.
The stiff bald eyes, the serpents on the forehead
Formed in the air.

This is a dead scene forever now.
Nothing will ever stir.
The end will never brighten it more than this,
Nor the rain blur.

The water will always fall, and will not fall,
And the tipped bell make no sound.
The grass will always be growing for hay
Deep on the ground.

And I shall stand here like a shadow
Under the great balanced day,
My eyes on the yellow dust, that was lifting in the wind,
And does not drift away.


* Elizabeth Gramm Comments:
Louise Bogan was probably not thinking of Istanbul when she wrote “Medusa,” but she was writing, in a way, about the old Romans. About their stories, and the places created by those stories.

Today, visitors to Istanbul race between wonders—dazzling, cavernous ceilings, painted tiles of abandoned palaces, Chora Church, Süleymaniye Mosque, the Blue Mosque, Ayasofya. These mosques are immense, alike in their brilliance, flocked with chandeliers in which even the light bulbs are elegant. School children sit on the floor beneath the chandeliers and listen to stories their teachers tell. Sunshine streams in, shining over the shoeless crowds, over blue scarves borrowed by female tourists, over the sections still reserved for prayer.

But a traveler might go from the impossibly open domes (“sheer sky”) of the mosques, down to the subterranean dusk of the Basilica Cistern, a large underground reservoir built by the Byzantines in the sixth century to provide water for the palace of Constantinople. Underground, the chatter of tourists and school children are muted and the sound of dripping water takes the place of the light of the houses of worship. The Basilica Cistern contains 300 thick marble columns, reclaimed from all over the empire. They are spot lit, subdued but magnificent, and the sensation a visitor has is very much like entering Bogan’s “cave of trees.” A boardwalk snakes through the area, and over the side one can watch giant koi move slowly through two feet of water, from light to light.

Every few yards a posted sign says “Medusa,” and an arrow points to one corner of the cistern. A little pilgrimage, in dim green light. In that corner, there are two more columns, almost lonely in their separation. Their bases are enormous Medusa heads. At the bottom of one column, the Medusa rests on her chin, and her forehead sinks into the shallow water. And the other—half seen, as though “Held up at a window, seen through a door,” for that is how we see across time—lies sideways, and her eyes are open.

Does the pillar hold her down in the water or does she hold the pillar up? There are theories, of course, about where the Medusas came from, and why they are placed as they are, but the answers are only more mysteries. Visitors dumbly click photos, but they can’t capture the sight, not really. They can only just make out what they see. Water drips constantly in the cistern. We know the columns must be eroding, but they are still solid, and will stand as they have all these years. They are always there, always in the midst of becoming something less. Water and darkness and a frozen stone face slowly dissolving.

Bogan’s poem makes me think about making out a face, or an image. By making out the image—“The stiff bald eyes, the serpents on the forehead”—the face itself is frozen and the whole scene with it. “This is a dead scene forever now,” the poet says, and she means the scene, proper, but also the poem and its writing. “Medusa” is a way to try and halt time, which, of course, keeps moving. To see, to name, and to describe is to make; to make is to freeze some little drop of time. Bogan puts it more strangely, and, I think, more perfectly: “The water will always fall, and will not fall.” 

About Elizabeth Gramm:
Elizabeth Gramm’s poems and reviews can be found in a chapbook, Proving Ground (Vassar Kenyon chapbook series), and in Salt Hill, Boston Review, and Poetry Daily. She earned an MFA from the University of Michigan where she was awarded a Zell Post-Graduate Award and a Hopwood Award. She has received scholarships and grants from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Norton Island Residency Program, and the Fulbright Program. She teaches in eastern Turkey.

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