“Song for the Last Act” — Louise Bogan

“Song for the Last Act” — Louise Bogan

I’m not really sure how to start. Much as I hate to admit it, this poem was basically one big confusion-followed-by-clarification drama, so forgive me if the post turns out similarly (but maybe without the clarification, let’s be honest). It’s relatively often that one can read through a poem without having the slightest idea of what it’s about –at least, I hope it’s not just me– but what is less common is reading a poem, thinking you’ve GOT IT DOWN & SUSSED IT OUT JOB DONE, only to be refuted by every other critic out there. What makes the whole situation even more embarrassing is that not only 1) did I have completely the wrong end of the stick, but also 2) I apparently understood the exact opposite of the poem’s intended meaning. It’s not too often you can say that, eh? Yes, this is false bravado and my life is actually a lie.

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.

(first 4 lines of stanza 2)

The Big (or slightly reduced depending on how eager you are) Scoop

It would be humiliating enough merely to have arrived at the conclusion that clearly I cannot read, but what makes it even worse is just how blindingly obviously wrong I was. The title is “Song for the Last Act”, for goodness’ sake! How could this poem be about anything other than the long-overdue end of a relationship? But, for the sake of making myself feel better objective academic interest, I am going to go through both interpretations and see what conclusions I can dredge from the gloaming of my own idiocy.

I don’t know about you, but any face that I personally “have […] by heart” is usually one that inspires strong emotion, and hence the first stanza starts promisingly, possibly lending credence to the supposition that it is love in its prime that is being described here, as opposed to the recognition of its end. In conjunction with the extreme light and dark imagery that characterises this first verse –the contrast of “darkening frame” with the vivid “yellow as young flame” is intentionally highlighted by their shared rhyme–, the lexis of theatre conjured by “last act” and “watch the show” hints a fading artificiality: the harsh incongruity of reality (“scythes”) beginning to pierce an ideal “summer”. Arguably, this acceptance of a truth alternate from what was thought previously can be read in two ways; given that whatever element of performance and “show” there might be at the start of a liaison must end at some point to give way to real life, this moment might either represent a shattering of the rose-tinted glasses and thus the end of a relationship, or the beginning of the ‘true’ one, in which neither party have to pretend any longer.

Certainly, as the poem continues, there is a vague suggestion of superficiality giving way to something deeper –the narrator is able to “look”, “read” and “see” beneath the surface of “face”, “voice” and “heart” respectively–, and I initially assumed that the gradual darkening of the metaphors was due to an ageing process; having watched a few too many romantic comedies in my time, the trope of ‘growing old together’ was too hard to resist. However, the final stanza presents a problem with this interpretation, for there is an undeniable sense of an ending (and not just because the poem is ending, smartarses), or “a voyage done”: and curiously enough, despite this finality, there is an almost literal light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel moment created by the “lengthening sun” actually finishing off the entire thing. So it’s not that anyone’s died, because it’s not sad (and anyway, it is stated that this is”not departure”, and therefore cannot be a physical absence of anything that has been there before).

It was at this point that I started to realise something was wrong. The image of an adorable old couple (think Pixar’s Up) who had reached the stage of their life together where neither needed to put on a charade was unceremoniously crushed, and replaced with an growing horror that maybe, just maybe, this poem wasn’t all flowers and fairies and eternal love. After all, the lack of interaction between the “lead and marble figures” –these materials in themselves don’t exactly indicate tenderness or affection– and the “summer” is notable, since they only “watch” “in insolent ease” while it struggles to decide whether it should “go”. Again, the life and fertility of the “quince and melon”, of the “garden” and the “dahlias”, belie their ultimate transience which all natural things possess.

Within an exploration of the nature that features so heavily in the first and final verses, the man-made quality of the second one seems almost out of place. Where there is initially and ultimately “flame” and “sun” respectively, the middle holds only “black chords” and a “dulling page”, and dwells mainly “in the dark”. Through the synaesthesia created by combining a stanza about the absence of “voice” and “music” with this clear lack of visuality as well, it is a complete lack of any feeling, a total numbness that is fully impressed upon the reader. “Music that is not meant for music’s cage” is a collection of sounds that seem to fashion the beauty and power with which “music” is associated, but does not quite fit its definition, or “cage”, because it doesn’t move the listener emotionally as “music” must and should; the “voice” of the person being addressed is mere “unprinted silence”, as he does use words (and thus the “silence” isn’t “[]printed”, or obvious to those who are not yet familiar with his “voice”), BUT they lack meaning.

“I must spell out the storm” is the reluctant declaration of the narrator, and this more than anything reveals an underlying unwillingness to accept what is known, however subconsciously, to be the truth: that this “voyage” is “done”. Structurally, the fact that the lazy tone of the first stanza is followed by the frenzied rush of the second, and then that final, sinister stillness of the third, is reminiscent of a disease’s inevitable advance; the effects are gradual at first, but soon overtake the body and destroy it.

In presenting this slow slipping away of love as an illness, a physical debilitation of one’s very frame –the “face”, “voice” and “heart”– Bogan fuses the responses of mind and body in a manner not dissimilar to the reader’s own reaction. After all, who DIDN’T get goosebumps?

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