Mary DeShazer

Mary DeShazer: On "Cassandra"

A solitary silence is implicit in the fate and voice of Cassandra, the female prophet of Greek mythology punished by Zeus for insubordination by being awarded a gift of prophecy to which no one would listen. In "Cassandra" Bogan treats the plight of this female figure as a metaphor for that of woman poet. . . .

Cassandra's stance as a female prophet dissociated from other women and from other prophets parallels Bogan's view of herself as a woman poet, alienated from other women and their "silly tasks" as well as from male poets. Like Cassandra, doomed by her own plaintive cry, the poet is isolated by her poetic gift, at once a debilitating and an empowering force. Neither the poet nor Cassandra chooses her gift of isolation, and both are ambivalent toward this power imposed by forces beyond their control. Cassandra's song literally attacks her, tearing through her breast and side; its source, madness, overwhelms its unwilling victim again and again. Ironically, then, both strength and weakness lie at the root of Cassandra's gift of prophecy. She is chosen for divinity yet not saved from suffering, empowered with song but ignored by all. Yet from this same song she derives her power.

Cassandra's mad, screaming voice provides a significant contrast to the deliberate predictions of other prophets from mythology--the blind Tiresias, for example, or Isaiah. Instead, her warnings might be likened to those of the oracle of Delphi, whose riddled prophecies often went unheeded because their complexity defied mortal interpretation. Cassandra's plight and its attendant powers recall the conflict which Bogan describes in "The Daemon," as the poet is forced to recount repeatedly "the word ... the flesh, the blow" to "the lot who little bore." Clearly Bogan perceives herself as a modern version of Cassandra, plagued and yet empowered by an insistent muse to speak not in a bardic voice, but in an oracular one. In "Cassandra," Bogan shrieks her seer's truths through the potent voice of a woman twice disenfranchised: by the madness which "chooses out my voice again, / Again," and by the alienating yet restorative silence which receives her unheeded cries, turning them back upon themselves.

From "’My Scourge, My Sister’: Louise Bogan’s Muse." In Coming to Light: American Women Poets in the Twentieth Century. Ed. Diane Wood Middlebrook and Marilyn Yalom. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press., 1985. Copyright © 1985 by the University of Michigan.

Mary DeShazer: On "Medusa"

Silence also forms the core of "Medusa," a poem in which Bogan directly confronts her own demonic aspect in the guise of the terrifying Gorgon, who according to classical myth turns onlookers into stone. Rather than being a totally debilitating encounter, however, this confrontation enables the poet to assume some of Medusa's frozen, silent power. The poem begins with a description of the awesome meeting, which occurs in a "house, in a cave of trees," under a "sheer sky." As the poet encounters Medusa, a whirlwind carries the reflection of house, trees, and sky into the poet's range of vision. This image of reflection is especially crucial, since according to legend the Gorgon's hideous face must be viewed only indirectly, lest the observer be petrified with fright and cast into stone. Significantly, however, the poet confronts the "bare eyes" and "hissing hair" directly. This act of boldness recalls the male quester of another Bogan poem, "A Tale," who finds endurance only "where something dreadful and another / Look quietly upon each other"; and it also anticipates later poems such as "March Twilight," in which a watcher gazes into "another face," only to see "time's eye"; or "Little Lobelia's Song," whose childlike speaker sees reflected in her own face the image of a potent other. As these other poems suggest, this eye-to-eye encounter between speaker and "shadow," that other self both frightening and recognizable, is crucial to Bogan's poetic imagery and to her perception of the poet-muse relationship. Only by looking squarely at the "beast within," Bogan believes, can the poet come to terms with her own hidden powers.

The last three stanzas of "Medusa" describe a scene transformed, as both time and motion are suspended in the wake of the Gorgon's power: "a dead scene forever now," in which "Nothing will ever stir." Medusa has exercised her powers of transformation by recasting her surroundings into silence and stasis, a state which parallels the perpetual suspension of the scene on Keats's Grecian urn. Surprisingly, however, the poet's resolute voice emerges from this silence. Although Bogan calls this a "dead scene," life flourishes amidst the stasis ("The grass will always be growing for hay / Deep on the ground"), and her description conveys a tentative resolution. As the poet stands "like a shadow / Under the great balanced day," she becomes a new Medusa, a potent and demonic goddess capable of controlling herself and her craft, of "killing" life into art. Medusa's silence provides Bogan a powerful, if static, stance from which to speak. The poet's usurpation of the goddess's strength recalls Yeats's enigmatic question at the end of "Leda and the Swan."

Did she put on his knowledge with his power Before the indifferent beak could let her drop?

Unlike Leda, who was forced by Zeus into female subservience, the poet confronts her goddess as a same-sex equal, and that makes all the difference. Bogan assumes both the knowledge and the power of Medusa, her demonic muse, and through this power she redefines stony silence as vital creative energy.

From "’My Scourge, My Sister’: Louise Bogan’s Muse." In Coming to Light: American Women Poets in the Twentieth Century. Ed. Diane Wood Middlebrook and Marilyn Yalom. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press., 1985. Copyright © 1985 by the University of Michigan.