On "The Dragonfly"
In "The Dragonfly," . . . written sometime in the fall of 1961, she worked with short free-verse lines in a delicate line of Thoreauvian naturalism. Its inspiration was a picture postcard of a dragonfly Ruth Limmer had sent her from Detroit, but she wrote the poem on commission for the Corning Glass Company--wrote it to order, that is!--and a piece of Steuben Glass was carved to illustrate it. She was fond of the poem, which, she informed Miss Limmer, was completely "based on FACT."
from Louise Bogan. Copyright © 1985 by Elizabeth Frank
It is important that Bogan wrote often of the body--bodily appetites, bodily knowledge, bodily resistance to inchoate or complexly organized coercion. Yet in her late poems the body is diffused, made benignly strange, at times a source of symbol in retrospect.
[. . . .]
In "The Dragonfly," for instance, the insect's body is "made of almost nothing / But of enough / To be great eyes / And diaphanous double vans." The body that she chooses to describe is translucent and finally a "husk," emptied out by having fully spent itself in its environment and through the short span of its allotted lifetime.
from Obsession and Release: Rereading the Poetry of Louise Bogan. Copyright © 1996 by Associated University Presses
Meg Boerema Gillette
The aggressive opening line of Louise Bogans 1963 The DragonflyYou are made of almost nothingseems almost an elaboration of the opening line of her 1923 WomenWomen have no wilderness in them. By their aggressiveness, both lines announce their poems oppositional climates. Though forty years and (of course) different topics separate The Dragonfly from Women, the poems resemble one another by their poetics of counter-assertion. In his headnote to Bogan, Cary Nelson describes Bogans deconstructive project, arguing Women mounts its feminist claims as counter-assertions, written against the grain of (and at work within) every patriarchal cliché about femininity (378). Like Women, Bogans The Dragonfly also performs a poetics of counter-assertion, here, writing itself into romantic discourse to undermine it from within.
The commission from the Corning Glass company, as reported by Elizabeth Frank, need not be the only impetus to The Dragonflys inception. Bogans poem also borrows unambiguously from Alfred Lord Tennysons 1833 poem of the same name, The Dragon-fly:
"Today I saw the dragon-fly
Come from the wells where he did lie.
An inner impulse rent the veil
Of his old husk: from head to tail
Came out clear plates of sapphire mail.
He dried his wings: like gauze they grew;
Thro' crofts and pastures wet with dew
A living flash of light he flew."
Bogan's poem repeats the husk and light imagery of Tennyson's poem: the "old husk" (line 4) of Tennyson reappears in the "with the other husks of summer" (line 21) of Bogan, and Tennysons "A living flash of light he flew" (line 8) echoes in Bogan's "light touches you" (line 10) and "you rocket into day" (line 17). These repetitions do more than suggest Bogan's familiarity with Tennyson's poem, they announce Bogan's poem as in dialogue with its forerunner.
But Bogans poem refuses the stability of Tennysons poem, rewriting the poetic utterance as one, not of reflection, but of production. In Bogans poem, there is no deliberate "Today I saw the dragon-fly" (line 1) steadying the speaker as strict observer. Instead, Bogans poem insists upon the instability of the speakers relationship to the dragonfly. While in Tennyson, the dragonfly has mass ("plates of sapphire mail" (line 5)), surface ("veil/Of his old husk" (lines 3-4)), and unity ("from head to tail" (line 5)), in Bogan, the dragonfly is translucent, "diaphanous" (line 4), and "made of almost nothing" (line 1). For Bogans poem then, there is no dragonfly outside of the production of the poem. The dragonfly is discursive, not material; the end of the poem is the end of the dragonfly as the poems end and the dragonflys death are simultaneous.
Insisting upon the dragonfly as a discursive construct, Bogans poem resists a romantic model of a reflective poetics since, in Bogans poem, there is no dragonfly outside of the poem for it to reflect. Instead, the dragonfly of Bogans poem is not an object to be represented by the poem, but is analogous to the performance of poem itself. By its apostrophic address, Bogan's "The Dragonfly" draws a comparison between the dragonfly it describes and the reader of the poem it creates. The addressee of the poem--the "you" of the poem--is at once the dragonfly nominally described, and the reader of the poem necessarily present. By the double valences of the word "you then, the poem's description of the dragonfly reads also as a description of the reader. The "great eyes" (line 3) are both the eyes that dominate the dragonfly's appearance and the eyes that allow the reader's performance. Its "design and purpose" (line 19) speaks both to the vitality of the dragonfly and the reader's interpretative experience. Likewise, the dragonflys correlative performance as a "Link between water and air" (line 8) applies both to the dragonfly's aquatic and terrestrial attractions (note: the dragonfly lives at the waters edge) and to the reader's double presence in and necessary negotiation of fiction and reality. To be a reader of this poem then is to be like the dragonfly, "to be ceaseless movement" (line 5), "twice born" (line 12), "split" (line 13). Hence, by the double valences of the word you, Bogans poem performs the very indeterminacy of movement that the poem describes, producing a reader who, like the poems dragonfly, has no place to land: "Earth repels you" (line 9).
Refusing the existence of a non-discursive dragonfly and emphasizing the indeterminacy of the poetic experience, Bogans The Dragonfly refuses the stability of Tennysons romantic subjectivity. In Bogans rewriting of The Dragon-fly, discourse does not reflect but produces. For Bogan, the dragonfly *is* the poem: not only is the dragonfly produced by the poem, butin the poems most emphatic insistence upon discursive productivitythe dragonfly is even made equivalent to the poetic experience itself.
Copyright 2001 by Meg Boerema Gillette
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