Benjamin Vogt, Indelible Marks, Pudding House Publications, 2005
Imagine Walker Evans' photographs, like those in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, mixed with the sounds of rusty windmills and hands beating on overalls to get the dust off. And fields, fields that "grow crows and sparrows by the hundredfold." These are the things of Indelible Marks by Benjamin Vogt.
The line above comes from "Section 117, Plot 21," Vogt's poem of broken farm life. There are many meditations on rural life throughout this chapbook. The fascinating thing about Indelible Marks is the way it presents the timeless problems of rural life. Before there were the problems of dust bowls and foreclosures, now we have industrial farms and genetically engineered foods. Before, farmers lost their land to the bank (which, of course, is still a problem), now there is the loss of family farms, the reliance on government subsidies, and the need (as was recently profiled on NPR) for large amounts of farmer's insurance. These issues all lurk behind the beginning poems of Vogt's text. In the title poem of Vogt's book, he writes "nothing moves/Wind no longer sees/but is just shad in a mirage/God cannot take you from this place/even after you have left it." We often forget the ways in which we are connected to rural life, farm life, and Vogt does a good job of helping us remember our mothers and fathers and their mother and fathers, dusty handed, sad, happy, waiting.
However, there is a shift in the middle of Indelible Marks. A shift from meditation and analysis to a place of winter love, a garbage man, a theatre-going, a soul enclosed. This shift feels odd—in all of my readings and re-readings, I had trouble with these four poems. To the end of the book, after these four poems, the tone shifts back to the midwest, the geography that is so central to the beginning of the book. The reading experience is like turning the dial of a black and white TV, encountering white noise and fuzz, and returning to receiving a station in color. These four poems are the white noise and fuzz. The narrator is too self-consciously there. This narrator "offers drinks, a seat a dozen/sideways glances" ("A Winter's Invitation"), or contemplates what is the beginning or end of a driveway ("Garbage Man"), or hears "voices like hands on [his] shoulder" ("Awaiting the Performance"), or imagines his love encased in a diamond so that he can "finger/you even when you are not there, or here" ("Still Life Refracted"). They are all strong poems in their own right, but in this collection they feel off, especially as we return to a narrator who is visiting a parent in Oklahoma, or observing a dock caught in a frozen lake in Minnesota.
Even the picture of suburbia, "A Suburban Affair," feels just that—as if examining a picture. Vogt is at his best when he is like that art-loving friend of yours who takes you through a museum pointing out things you are not used to seeing: a glance, a touch, the way the wind moves or doesn't. The Marxist art critic, John Berger, writes that "Seeing comes before words." It is Vogt's work that is a testament to that transition from sight to a semiotics of black and white photographs, farmhands, a plea for a parent not to die "like the hiss of logs/settling into a fireplace in January."