Song for the Last Act
by Louise Bogan
Now that I have your face by heart, I look
Less at its features than its darkening frame
Where quince and melon, yellow as young flame,
Lie with quilled dahlias and the shepherd’s crook.
Beyond, a garden. There, in insolent ease
The lead and marble figures watch the show
Of yet another summer loath to go
Although the scythes hang in the apple trees.
Now that I have your voice by heart, I look.
Now that I have your voice by heart, I read
In the black chords upon a dulling page
Music that is not meant for music’s cage,
Whose emblems mix with words that shake and bleed.
The staves are shuttled over with a stark
Unprinted silence. In a double dream
I must spell out the storm, the running stream.
The beat’s too swift. The notes shift in the dark.
Now that I have your voice by heart, I read.
Now that I have your heart by heart, I see
The wharves with their great ships and architraves;
The rigging and the cargo and the slaves
On a strange beach under a broken sky.
O not departure, but a voyage done!
The bales stand on the stone; the anchor weeps
Its red rust downward, and the long vine creeps
Beside the salt herb, in the lengthening sun.
Now that I have your heart by heart, I see.
Not all knowledge is welcome knowledge. There are discoveries that we resist (then we are said by psychoanalysts to be “in denial”) or that we find difficult to harmonize with an already existing body of knowledge or expectations (resulting in the vertigo and rationalizing that Leon Festinger might call “cognitive dissonance”). Once, in an apartment where I lived in the Hamilton neighborhood of Baltimore, a stray bullet passed through the ceiling while I was working at my desk. The acoustic ceiling had acted as a type of silencer, and I didn’t know that anything had happened until I noticed that a hole had opened in a glass tabletop. Small chips of safety glass were pouring into the widening aperture at the center of a web of cracks. In a few seconds, the sheet glass dissolved from its frame. I could not understand why this had happened. Instinctively, I looked around for a rotund calico that often jumped from a tall shelf onto the table. Then I noticed the bullet hole in the ceiling. My principium individuationis had been violated by an off-duty security guard cleaning his weapon in the apartment upstairs. If I had been sitting at the table instead of my desk that morning, we’d no longer be talking about one of Schopenhauer’s concepts.
Some events are so out of character with the universe we think we know that it is difficult to make sense of them. Some discoveries may threaten us or be potentially painful, and comprehension may take more time. I have often thought that Louise Bogan’s “Song for the Last Act” feels like a series of deliberate false starts meant to suggest the octaves of Petrarchan sonnets—or a poem, at least, that aspired to a sonnet-like state but couldn’t turn in an earlier form—and so the poem pushed onward until it evolved into something else. In fact the poem does seem to have had an earlier, far shorter form; William Jay Smith claims that Bogan “had originally set down four stanzas, inspired by the etchings of Claude Lorrain, the seventeenth-century French classical painter…”¹ By most accounts, the poem was revised between 1946 and 1949, and experienced crucial bouts of development after an encounter with Eliot and some discussion of the poem with Bogan’s close friend Rolfe Humphries. In its final form, “Song for the Last Act” resists turning until its last movement. The lover does not want to wake up from the dream of the beloved, perhaps, or this poetic voice does not want to think about what is to come in the next phase of her life.² But after a long confrontation with its own painful truths, the poem can no longer avoid the conclusions of its final section.
In “Song for the Last Act,” there are three, eight-line rhyming stanzas that are very close in pattern to the octave of the Petrarchan sonnet, but there is also a marked resistance to the type of volta that one might expect to find after the Petrarchan octave: the turn as the discovery of an obstacle, a shift in the speaker’s situation or perspective, or as a resolution to the poem’s tensions that is initiated by the discovery of the impossibility of the speaker’s desires. Through much of Bogan’s poem, such discoveries are avoided—but ultimately, only delayed (though such possibilities are, in fact, hinted at by images that the speaker does not dwell on for too long. The octave-like stanzas are dense with such fulgurations.) The long stanzas are framed by refrain lines that reveal the speaker’s attempts to get things “by heart,” or acts of memorization: a type of learning that comes through repeated actions and encounters. Such acts may also reveal a desire on the speaker’s part to keep those aspects of her world unchanged. But it is only through her repeated actions and growing knowledge of another that this speaker can make her discovery, and the poem can make its final, liberating turn.
Like the other refrain lines in Bogan’s poem, the first line of the poem, “Now that I have your face by heart, I look,” has different implications in its enjambed form and end-stopped form. As the enjambed first line of the poem, it leads to the contemplation of that face. The face metamorphoses into a garden with “lead and marble figures” who possess a type of “insolent ease…” The figures lack empathy for a clinging season not unlike Keats’s Autumn—but that season after the apples have been harvested, and “the scythes hang in the apple trees.” Yet even after the speaker has realized the coldness of the garden’s figures, she cannot give up her vigil: “Now that I have your face by heart, I look.” Habit is still stronger than reason.
But the speaker is beginning to realize the discrepancies between what seems (i.e., the beloved’s face) and what is (the lead and marble figures), and these sorts of differences are examined further in the second part of the poem. The enjambed refrain line, “Now that I have your voice by heart, I read,” gives rise to a stanza that conflates images of music and language, and contemplates the location of actual presence at the heart of either act. Music is not present on the page; it is present during its own performance or in the dream in which Bogan’s speaker tries to transcribe it in the midst of a storm. What happens within the “staves” themselves is an attempt at capture, but the music of this poem “is not meant for music’s cage.” It can only be represented within the staves by “emblems”—and therefore, substitutions—making this music quite different from language with its “words that shake and bleed” as they emanate from a living human body. The blending of words and music cannot last beyond the moment of their union in song. For all her attempts at transcription, the speaker cannot capture the music itself. Yet the beloved’s voice—as well as the speaker’s attempt to get that voice “by heart”—has taught her to “read” her universe and recognize difficult truths, and she is more ready to acknowledge the coming separation.
In the final section of the poem, the line, “Now that I have your heart by heart, I see,” leads to a vision of “wharves” where slaves and cargo are being unloaded from tall ships. The staves of the poem’s second section have become the “architraves” of the masts and “rigging,” and this is a reversal. Once the speaker tried to capture the music of the beloved’s voice within staves; now she realizes the captivity and dehumanized state of those who have been carried within the holds of these ships—possibly including herself (or even the beloved). At last, in this third section, the delayed volta arrives—its force intensified by earlier strictures and delays in comprehension—and it is articulated and amplified through the discoveries of the poem’s final act. These captives have arrived at a “strange beach under a broken sky”—their universe has been shattered and is alien to them—and this is not to be a “departure, but a voyage done!” Even the anchor seems to “weep” blood, emphasizing the suffering associated with trying to stay in this place of bitterness; even the “lengthening sun” of late afternoon seems to open up new distances. Separation is becoming inevitable. But the poem resists its great, encompassing discovery until the final line, “Now that I have your heart by heart, I see.” At last the speaker possesses both sight and insight into face, voice, and heart. With this understanding of the difference between what seems and what is, she is able to give up her longing at last.
¹ The Streaks of the Tulip: Selected Criticism. New York: Delacorte P, 1972. 399.
² In “Imagining Release: The Later Poems,” Lee Upton suggests that “[t]he tone is elegiac, and yet while Bogan focuses on ‘the last act,’ the accumulated meaning of a life, its images do not foreclose upon one another.” (137) For Upton, “the last act” of the title may refer to the last stage of the poet’s life.
Carol Quinn’s poetry has appeared in Western Humanities Review, The Cincinnati Review, Pleiades,River Styx, Colorado Review, and elsewhere. Acetylene, Carol Quinn’s first book of poems, was the winner of the 2008 Cider Press Review Book Award. She teaches in the English Department at Towson University in Maryland.