Louise Bogan, “Knowledge”

Bogan opens with knowledge from pain. Now she knows “that passion warms little of flesh.”

She did not know this before.

A relationship gone wrong was a trial, in which indulging desire and being desired failed. It failed to properly warm, to provide for a most basic need.

Still, her claim she knows now is just that: a claim.

Knowledge (from Poetry)
Louise Bogan

Now that I know
That passion warms little
Of flesh in the mold, 
And treasure is brittle,

I’ll lie here and learn
How, over their ground,
Trees make a long shadow
And a light sound.

In Cory Taylor’s “Dying: A Memoir,” I read this about a married man with children, going through his personal hell:

“My father’s breakdown had been less dramatic. I was just old enough to remember him taking to his bed and refusing to get up for days and days. Perhaps I took him up a sandwich occasionally, leaving it on the bedside table for him to eat when he woke up. I seem to remember him always asleep, his hair unwashed, his jowls covered in dark stubble, his sheets stale. Jenny, who was visiting us in Sydney at the time, recalled him sending messages to my mother via a piece of string lowered from his bedroom window to the kitchen below.

“He’d tie a note on the end,” she told me, “requesting a cup of tea and a biscuit.” (Cory Taylor, “Dying: A Memoir” 60-61)

Depression should not be confused with the inadequacy of passion. However, so many believe finding someone and building a family will bring happiness and stability not known before. It isn’t pleasant to think about how it could all fall apart, how pointless everything might seem, how irrelevant you might feel to the world you created.

How do I know “passion warms little of flesh?” With my unwashed hair, irregular sleeping schedule, and dark stubble poking me as I wear my mask, I have to believe I know something. What I do know: “passion warms little / Of flesh in the mold.” “Flesh in the mold” strikes me as a peculiar phrase. It speaks to how we shape ourselves, build the self in accordance with ambition. Expectations collided with passion and ended a relationship. Recently, a featured few said that insisting on self-actualization in a relationship ruins it. Love demands less lofty goals, they said.

I’m not sure about that personally. I’ve dealt with a lot of people for extended periods of time who could care less about what I do or make. It’s tough work talking to them. Every issue circles back to their emotional needs, and there’s a lack of basic respect I find difficult to discuss. It isn’t simply a lack of appreciation for titles or knowledge. It’s more like your existence feels optional.

*

Maybe love demands self-actualization, maybe it doesn’t. Either way, Bogan concludes that “passion warms little / Of flesh in the mold” and “treasure is brittle.” This might strike a reader as strange. Aren’t material goods a step down from passion? Don’t children know that treasure is brittle?

We adults, in our adulting, know that money is the only thing we have. Seriously. If we don’t leave anything to our heirs, we’ve failed as parents. Money is a legacy. If we don’t have money to support ourselves, we’ve failed as individuals. Money is freedom. If we don’t make money with every waking moment, we’ve failed as citizens. Money is virtue.

Against that, how is it even possible to know “treasure is brittle?” I think, for Bogan, this traces back to the self-actualization. Falling in love, for her, did not quite match with her ambition. So she turned her ambition into doing or making out of love. You build your treasure. As I say that, I realize the issue isn’t that what you make eventually goes to waste. That we know and anticipate: we keep trying anyway.

The real struggle lies in the brittleness of process. The moments spent making are rewarding up to a point. There’s a time for all of us, failing or succeeding in what we do, when we wonder what we’re losing. I can conceive of good moments writing and researching. Were those the best moments? Usually, the more I like what I’m doing, the more mediocre the product.

Some might take this to mean that one needs tragedy for art. That’s a bit facile. Consider this situation: What if you were trying to recover from a serious injury? What if your life had been shattered? It’s not art you would make as you tried to find joy again. Your efforts would be superhuman in your reclaiming what is human, but there are no awards or honors or recognition for dealing with trauma and finding purpose. Life isn’t only art–that’s why “treasure is brittle.” It can only, at most, speak to a part of us or our experience. It can only speak a part of our pain.

*

“I’ll lie here and learn / How, over their ground, / Trees make a long shadow / And a light sound.” This convinces me, and I need to explain why.

Recently, I read some poems which bubbled with enthusiasm over seeing birds and being out in the woods. That poetry felt more of a draft than a finished product. A successful writer, having finished teaching a semester and published essays and books, finds the natural world with a capital N. There’s no accounting for their own lives or the world they inhabit. There’s just nature, capital N implied, with purity and transcendence and godliness, awakening innocence in those who might imagine themselves, at some point, naturally innocent.

I’m trying to better identify this lack of sensitivity as I teach in a Great Books vein. If I say “this is the issue as the text presents it,” and then invite debates about the text, I have to be clear that the literary world is just that: the literary world made from literary constructs. If I say the text has historical value, that must be established. The consequences of words need to be spelled out.

Bogan ends by inviting us to a moment where it’s hard to tell whether she’s moping or recovering. She tells us that over their ground, trees make a long shadow and a light sound. What could possibly be learned from this? She implies that they take possession of what they have–of their space–when they present themselves in the world. They cast long shadows, against the light. They make noise, against silence. Each tree stands independent, each tree has ground it covers. That seems to be the lesson, that “passion” and “treasure” are already over and beyond oneself. They’re the product of expectations alien from what one already has. What do we have that’s lovable, that’s worthy, independent of what others think?

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