Catastrophe in Verse

In the latest installment of our poetry month series, a new poem from Dana Goodyear is paired with a classic by Louise Bogan. Both wrestle with natural disaster.

04.21.11 4:47 PM ET

Dana Goodyear and Louise Bogan share a fascination with nature’s catastrophes. Earthquake, forest fire—these two poets report with deceptive dispassion on the quotidian disasters unfolding around them.

Bogan, an American Poet Laureate who died in 1970 after winning every major poetry prize, and Goodyear, one of the country’s leading young poets (also a friend and colleague) whose second collection of poems will be published next spring by Norton, are among the most relevant poets of our time.

Los Angeles, in Earthquake Light, a new poem from the forthcoming collection, foretells a barren afterlife. Goodyear never scolds, she doesn’t moralize in her doomsday predictions. The poet remains coolly detached: a circumspect observer in the face of cataclysm. In her measured verse, Bogan also asks what the fuck, as she explores the fragile boundary along which human beings choose to live. Her poems, like Goodyear’s, mine the ground beneath the false comforts on which we build our lives.

Reluctant sibyls, these poets don’t tell the future; they don’t answer easy questions. They simply point to paradox and self-deception with sharper eyes than tongue.

Los Angeles, in Earthquake Light

The black pit bubbles up a princess
every now and again. One has bound
hands and a wildflower diadem.

The desert creeps at the rate
of fingernails; the abbreviation for street
is the same as that for saint.

In the doctor’s waiting room, a young man
screams into a telephone “What the fuck?”
which is exactly what everyone else is wondering.

On the periphery, tents
pitched under overpasses
cant against the dirty wind.

Congratulations, baby. You are rich
enough to drive your own limousine
to your own funeral.

All sashay together on the count of three.
Chandelier, swimming pool, patient EKG,
Abracadabra, you are free.

—Dana Goodyear

Last Hill in a Vista

Come, let us tell the weeds in ditches
How we are poor, who once had riches,
And lie out in the sparse and sodden
Pastures that the cows have trodden,
The while an autumn night seals down
The comforts of the wooden town.

Come, let us counsel some cold stranger
How we sought safety, but loved danger.
So, with stiff walls about us, we
Chose this more fragile boundary:
Hills, where light poplars, the firm oak,
Loosen into a little smoke.

—Louise Bogan

Last Hill in a Vista from The Blue Estuaries by Louise Bogan. Copyright © 1968 by Louise Bogan. Copyright renewed 1996 by Ruth Limmer. Used by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.