Nina Bogin | Thousandfold | Carcanet: £9.99
There is a lot of snow towards the start of Thousandfold, Nina Bogin’s fourth collection. And even when there isn’t snow, there’s snow, as in the beginning of ‘The Dream’ part 1, of Bogin’s sequence, ‘Visit to a Friend’, ‘I take a snow shovel, a laundry rack and my older daughter, / and on foot we struggle along the beach to reach the town. / There’s no snow, but the sand makes walking difficult / and it takes a long time to cross the cove.’ And this tension between presence and absence permeates Thousandfold. When the narrator of ‘The Bees’ witnesses a swarm passing her by, she later comments ‘as if I too / were part of the air // and would arrive/ and disappear // with no more claim / on the passage of time / than a dust-mote / or a drifting seed’. And the poem which follows, ‘Saintpaulia Ballerina’ begins, ‘Because we can’t / write this poem / together, you and I, / who didn’t like / each other, / I must write it / for you – who / will never read it.’
Snow, and presence and absence suggest a kind of quiet, but almost gelid, tension inhabiting Bogin’s writing; a description that might portray these poems in a negative light, but actually that is not the case. One of the things that snow does is to dampen the sound of the landscape and that is sometimes the case here. As we can see from the quotations above, Bogin’s writing is always sparse and unadorned and that quietness of style releases the work of the poems; work which is to present the world lightly and quietly but with a fierce focus. That focus is not only present in the ‘Saintpaulia Ballerina’ quotation, which fixes an enmity in the need to preserve it in writing. But the focus is also in the sense of the narrator’s sense of their own self in the presence of the swarm of bees, which passes her by, ignores her, even.
The sense of absence in presence occurs towards the end of the volume in Bogin’s poignant, moving poems about the descent of her husband into dementia. And here the metaphor of snow applies to the dementia which affects Bogin’s relation with her husband, settling over his brain and showing a personality in relief but not in detail. As Bogin puts it in a poem entitled, ‘Dementia’, ‘Now your gaze is veiled, / you wear someone else’s smile.’ Although, underneath that veiling, things can be awry and even spikey; the poem continues, ‘Your voice wobbles, / anxious, edgy. / You’re fidgety, crotchety. // Where’s my flashlight, / my shoe horn, my book?’ When the husband asks after his carte vitale, and carte d’identité, his wife concedes that, ‘Yes, husband, your identity / has been misplaced, / mishandled, misshapen, // slowly crumbling / like your old ski boots’. Again, what is noticeable here is the quiet, unadorned precision that Bogin uses to show these disintegrations.
If snow is a recurring metaphor in this book, another notion which animates this book (pun intended) is Bogin’s empathy with animals. This empathy forms a bridge with the dementia of her husband in the poem ‘The House Shrew’. In this poem, a tiny house shrew creeps inside the house, and is immediately territorial, aggressive and, of all things, loud, ‘bared its little row of teeth. / It wouldn’t be coaxed / or appeased.’ Of course, ‘The door was open / but it wouldn’t leave. / There was no reason for it to flee // because the shrew was me.’ Another such poem is, ‘Evenings with Mika’, Mika being the family cat. The poem depicts the husband and wife sitting quietly together, with the cat on the wife’s lap. It ends, ‘Is she truly a cat? / Yes, and a little bit more, / but that’s a quirk // only cat lovers will admit. / You think I exaggerate. / I’m sure you’re right. / You doze in your armchair. / I stroke our cat.’ There is interaction between the couple and gentle disagreement. But, at the end, it is the narrator who is in the interaction with something which belongs to the couple, whereas the husband is asleep. Such poems allow Bogin not only to place her own emotions in the disintegrating marriage. They also allow her to create an imaginative bridge between depictions of the marriage from the inside and a broader, more open sense of how these emotions might be represented.
by Ian Pople