by Jennifer on April 29, 2008


Women have no wilderness in them,
They are provident instead,
Content in the tight hot cell of their hearts
To eat dusty bread.

They do not see cattle cropping red winter grass,
They do not hear
Snow water going down under culverts
Shallow and clear.

They wait, when they should turn to journeys,
They stiffen, when they should bend.
They use against themselves that benevolence
To which no man is friend.

They cannot think of so many crops to a field
Or of clean wood cleft by an axe.
Their love is an eager meaninglessness
Too tense or too lax.

They hear in any whisper that speaks to them
A shout and a cry.
As like as not, when they take life over their door-sill
They should let it go by.

1923. Louise Bogan. from Body of This Death.

Before I found this poem, I hadn’t heard of Louise Bogan. Since then, I have read a little bit about her life and her writing. She was at times critical of her own gender, in this poem and in others, and writes her disapproval of the ways women immobilize or tie themselves down through their choices. She wrote in a different time, but I wonder if she would write this poem all that differently today? Maybe, since women have so many more choices than they did in 1923. But she also would not find herself without a target for her words, or an audience.

I want to read more of her work, because I feel that lying just under her criticism, there is also understanding.

Lately, I feel like her reproach lands dead center, if I am the target. I will turn 40 later this year, and I am more conscious than ever of time unspooling faster and faster. There are things I want to do, and I feel that I don’t seem to move closer to finishing any of them. I want to go back to school for a degree in historic preservation (I was accepted to a couple of schools last fall, but we ended up not moving from here, so no school). My book is unfinished (and I am very much not in love with it right now). My house is still full of boxes (though a final decision has to happen soon about where we will unpack those boxes). If I were a child, I might stomp my foot right now. I might anyway, at least metaphorically.

It sounds like I’m making a lot of excuses, and maybe I am. Maybe I’m proving Bogan’s point. The thing I most dislike about myself is how I let fear or a sense of impossibility get in the way of almost every damn thing. Shouldn’t I have learned better than that by now?

This line drove deep into my gut when I read it again last night: “They wait, when they should turn to journeys”.

I’m tired of waiting. I realize that all of this, even the waiting, was an uncontrollable part of my life this past year. But right now I just feel like I’m pulled off on the side of the road with two flat tires.

Soon. I will have more answers soon, in less than a month (that’s when the kids are out of school).

Right now, it’s late and I’m tired, so I hope that this all makes some sense when I go back to read it in the morning, after coffee.

Oh, one more thing, for the record…

I do have wilderness in me, dammit.

Clicking on the photo below will take you to the rest of my photos from the Grand Canyon (and also from the Little Colorado Gorge, which we discovered on our way home, when we returned by a different route).

Scenic view

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{ 31 comments… read them below or add one }

Mary Alice April 29, 2008 at 4:02 am

That is an interesting poem. She wrote about women immobilizing themselves with their choices and you asked the question would she have written it differently in this age where women have more choices? I don’t think so. I think that because we have so many options open to us now, the choices are even more difficult to make… and far harder to find contentment in…what if the choice we made, was the wrong one, given the countless paths we could have chosen? Doubt creeps in, spoiling the content and joy for our present circumstances. We are always wanting more when the skies is the limit and then instead of celebrating the progress we have made, we only see the distance we still have to go.

cce April 29, 2008 at 4:45 am

Funny that you should read and post that poem while I am reading Maureen’s Dowd’s Are Men Necessary which is decidedly unpoetic but circles around the topic of being female and what we have or haven’t accomplished as a gender in the past 100 years. So far the bottom line is that things haven’t changed that much, that the feminist movement was but a blip and we’ve all returned to our places in a patriarchical society where women prefer to be wooed and courted and older men prefer young blondes and we’re all hard wired for procreation and women sacrifice ambition to raise children and we all prefer our news anchors to be white, male and handsome.
I can so relate to your feelings of having things left to accomplish while all the everydayness just sort of gets in the way,, allowing whole chunks of important time to just slip away. Sigh. Hope you get on the road soon, or at least feel that your journey is back underway. Because you’re probably still trucking in your own way. Sometimes it just feels like slowwww progress.

HRH April 29, 2008 at 6:25 am

Dammit, me too.

Although I do find myself content with dusty bread a bit too often which I think is partially her point. UGH. Why do we get bogged down with the details of the wilderness to the point of not experiencing the wilderness…or something like that.

Very interesting…

de April 29, 2008 at 7:36 am

I think you would find she understood. One would have to understand to write that poem.

slouching mom April 29, 2008 at 8:26 am

The thing is, Jennifer?


The thing I most dislike about myself is how I let fear or a sense of impossibility get in the way of almost every damn thing.

…does not strike me in the least as gendered, KWIM? I’d guess you’d find it to be as true of men as women.

I know I share it. And acknowledge it. THAT may be the gender difference right there — that men, who feel just the same way, don’t acknowledge the feeling.

liv April 29, 2008 at 8:36 am

what slouching mom said. she nailed it.

Suzanne April 29, 2008 at 9:32 am

Thank you for sharing this poem and your commentary. I also enjoyed the comments posted earlier….all of them offer useful, if disparate takes, much like the pull of many decisions you are contemplating.

I relate to this so well as I have also felt stuck, mired in indecision, perhaps like Brenda said, trying to do too much and as a result accomplishing too little. I’m trying to get my book finished, send out the earlier one and find that elusive mountain home out west. And I’m just stuck.

So, I like Brenda’s advice to choose one to focus on now. Now, how to choose which one?

And I will enjoy continuing to read how you move through this period yourself.


Ducky April 29, 2008 at 9:39 am

Remember the fellow who admitted that he let fear get in the way of making decisions?

You don’t have to do the same.

Lisa Milton April 29, 2008 at 10:34 am

Sounds like you are in the waiting place; some internal, some external. I’m battling the not knowing if we are moving, and if we move, when.

It’s hard to plan. It’s exhausting.

I don’t know the answer, but I do a little each day and claim the wilderness as my own.

I know it’s alive in you too.

Daryl E April 29, 2008 at 11:40 am

I try not to dwell on the one issue that has plagued me forever .. what is my purpose. Sigh. Dramatic? Sure. But it seems to me that there’s more to life than I am living. And thinking about it is depressing.

I like Ducky’s comment. Now I just need the courage to do something about it. I am good at telling others that even not making a decision is making a decision. If I could only listen to myself.

flutter April 29, 2008 at 12:45 pm

you absolutely have wilderness in you, Jennifer.

melissa April 29, 2008 at 1:58 pm

Amen. I’ve had the exact same issues of late, and while I hear her criticism, sometimes circumstances are stronger than will and the path of least resistance prevails. Great poem, though.

Jennifer Harvey April 29, 2008 at 2:16 pm

Flutter–thank you. Ditto.

Melissa–And then there’s that, the path of least resistance. I do think she was saying something about that, also, if not directly in this poem, in others. She saw society as patriarchal (yes) and, I think, was urging women to push back against that and not give themselves over to it. But. It’s not so easy sometimes.

Autumn April 29, 2008 at 3:56 pm

I am sending this poem to a friend. And keeping it for myself as well. That same line hit me, hard, as it did you. I think everyone has a tendency to stop, freeze, refuse to move for whatever reason, in any direction. Failure, rejection, criticism… all will keep one from side stepping, moving forward or even moving back a step or two. For me, it’s like I feel I won’t screw up if I just stay exactly where I am. I seem to forget that I won’t learn, grow, experience, or even have the hope of succeeding, if I don’t take a step. any step.
I, too, am claiming the wilderness. Thanks again for making me think- and always seeming to have the right post on just the right day!

Dave April 29, 2008 at 5:33 pm

“They wait, when they should turn to journeys”.

A great sentence there, and one that affects both genders I assure you!

Mrs. G. April 29, 2008 at 6:59 pm

My bread has been a little too dusty lately. This is the right poem for the right day.

Hatchet April 29, 2008 at 8:11 pm

I think she’s wrong about the wildness factor. Wrong then, too. Women are as wild inside as they care to be. It is only the brave or the foolish that let that wildness out for all to see, especially in 1923.

The fun part is determining whether you are the brave soul or the fool that lets their wildness out!

I do like the idea of turning to journeys, though. Very evocative. I must now journey to some plants. Sigh! Why isn’t it spring yet HERE?!

the mama bird diaries April 29, 2008 at 8:52 pm

Jennifer – It sounds like you are on the brink of taking action in one of these areas. I always fee cranky and frustrated and stagnant before I finally really start moving. You are on your way.

If we never got frustrated with our progress, we probably wouldn’t have the motivation to really move forward.

So what on your list do you truly feel passionate about doing right now? I encourage you to take the first step towards making it a reality.

Wonderful piece as always.

JCK April 29, 2008 at 9:54 pm

Interesting discussion on Bogen. I think women had their hands tied more back then or perhaps our hands are still tied,but for different reasons. We were so dependent on men then. And things have changed, yet we are tied down by our need/want to have/do everything. Thought provoking as usual, Jennifer!

SteveCinNM April 29, 2008 at 10:04 pm

Of course you have wilderness. Buckets of it. It’s dripping out of your ears. You won’t find it on a map or in a “field” or in “clean wood”, though, but you don’t me to tell you that.

Don’t be so hard on yourself. At times, we all look at what we do not have, what we are not doing, with longing and regret. As a guy, though, I can say categorically: the grass is not greener on our side. Correct me if I am reading Ms. Bogan wrong, but it sounds as if she is a bit envious of “wilderness” (and all the rest) that apprarently men have instant and unlimited access to. Have you been in the wilderness lately? There’s a reason it earned its name.

When I am in the wilderness (been to Washington DC or Edwards AFB lately? Different but equally barren wildernesses), all I think of is the warmth of the life I left behind at my “door-sill.” And let’s give some credit to “provident” and “benevolence to which no man is friend” — those are gifts to which we have no access, let alone equivalent. And those are the gifts that men yearn for — whether we know/admit it or not.

And don’t worry about the fact that your “love is an eager meaninglessness, too tense or too lax.” We don’t notice (you may be shocked to learn that men stuggle in relationship awareness/understanding) — all we care about is that you love. Us. We’re not complicated. Think of the end of the movie, Bull Durham. Susan Sarandon is tense, lax, and everything in between. All Kevin Costner wants is to be there, with her. He’d had enough of wilderness, and its cost.

We all make choices — even avoiding a choice is a choice. But chances are that we all have pretty good reasons for the choices we have made in our lives. Yeah, we make mistakes, but I can assure you that you (from where I sit) are “living the dream.” You take Thursday Drives, you’re writing a novel, you’re a committed parent, you wrestle regularly with life’s deeper truths and the insanity that consumes much of our day-to-day lives, you have a cool blog, you have goals and the means to achieve most of them. OK, so perhaps you’re in a bit of a holding pattern right now. Don’t let it get you down. If you have had to “wait” for any of your “journeys,” you have already taken good notes (mental if not literal), saving them for the day when you can revel in that expedition. And if you don’t take every trip (we can’t do it all, you know), through the dream of that journey, part of you has already been there and back.

One final note: the older I get, and the more I observe, I really think that men and women are different. That revelation may not make headlines, but I also find that the corollary to this truth is that men and women want and get fulfillment from different things in life. Perhaps this is heresy in this PC world, but I do not believe that what men want is any more or less valuable than what women want — just different. It may be that we really do complement each other. Now if the prevailing winds of society seem to confer greater value on one (gender’s) activity over another, so what? We all know better, don’t we? I only get nervous when my values and goals seem to parallel society too closely.

Sandy (Momisodes) April 29, 2008 at 10:16 pm

I certainly see the wilderness in you 🙂

“They wait, when they should turn to journeys”.- I agree that this can certainly be applicable for both genders. I love that you posted this poem and your thoughts on it. I’m left wondering some of the same things you do about the author.

Sounds like you’re life is stuck in a sitting position at the moment. I hope things start to unfold for you soon.

Jennifer Harvey April 29, 2008 at 10:58 pm

Autumn–I try to time things well. 🙂 I’m glad it meant something to you. I know it struck me.

Mrs. G–We deserve better bread.

Hatchet–I think that in the end, the author was trying to incite that sense of rebellion against her words. It worked on me, and it sounds like it worked on you, also. You can have our spring…it was 98 here today.

mama bird–You’re right, I am on the brink of taking action. I feel the push, and am impatient. Progress is the only real option, and I think I am closer to sorting out what to do next.

JCK–exactly. And thank you. 🙂

Steve–You and your wife (in case anyone is wondering, that’s Brenda, my cousin) are both insightful. All of what you wrote is wonderful and smart, and exactly what I needed to hear. Thank you for it.

Sandy–I think they will unfold. And I think you’re right about how these words can apply to both genders.

suburbancorrespondent April 30, 2008 at 4:15 am

I don’t think the poetess ever had children, or she wouldn’t call our love an eager meaninglessness…she doesn’t really understand the deepness of women, or what we value…she doesn’t understand what motivates us to make the choices we make. It’s not fear, but love – fierce, nurturing, home-building love…

Nicole P April 30, 2008 at 4:24 am

I agree, you do have wilderness in your Jennifer….me too. I completely understand everything that you are saying here.

Jenn @ Juggling Life April 30, 2008 at 8:10 am

I like what Mary Alice said. I think it’s important to connect with what stage you’re at and enjoy it. I am back in school studying what I love and I am energized and enthused. But if I’d done it earlier I would have missed days with my little ones I could never get back.

It is such a balancing act.

we_be_toys April 30, 2008 at 9:21 am

Interesting poem – I was a little put off by her initially.

I can really understand how you feel about your state of stasis – story of my life, girl!
But a big part of your having to wait isn’t your doing – its what comes from compromising in a relationship. And while everyone has to compromise, I do think your time to insist on doing for you is looming nearer. It can’t always be what ‘s best for hubby or the kids – sometimes Mom has to come first.

btw, I have been told that turning 40 means you don’t have to answer to anyone else – I’m just saying!! :))

Minnesota Matron April 30, 2008 at 10:47 am

Anyone working on a novel has wildness inside — an expanse! I love Louise Bogan for all her contradictions. She sometimes appeared to despise women. I don’t think she appreciated that all women weren’t as courageous as she, as able to find a voice. Different times. On the other side of 40, that pressure builds. . .

ByJane April 30, 2008 at 12:42 pm

Wow! does she ever paint a desperate, sterile vision of being a man! If I had my Oxford Dictionary of Women Writer’s with me, I’d look Bogan up. I can’t remember what I once knew about her, but her bitterness is palpable. Not a poem I’d take to heart; it’s too narrow a vision of both men and women.

Coco April 30, 2008 at 3:01 pm

They use against themselves that benevolence
To which no man is friend.

Oh yeah. This is me. Everyone else matters more than me.

Time to myself? Ha. My own self-imposed guilt has allowed me to write exactly for an hour this week, total.

Maybe I need more wilderness, come to think of it.

JCK May 1, 2008 at 6:02 am

You know, I had to come back and comment on this poem again. Now that I’m reading it fresh, and not overtired, I have to say that the poem makes me angry. And she had so much anger against her own sex. It does have to be taken in the context of the time period, but really, women had amazing qualities then and now. And not all of us are the same. Most importantly, perhaps she was writing about herself and feeling powerless over her world. Women have been using axes for a looong time. But, then I’m being too literal with this, perhaps?

Angela May 1, 2008 at 5:39 pm

What a fantastic piece that is. And I know that fear, too. Always, your writing is like this long narrow finger that points to something microscopic about living this life that I never thought of before….and it puts it front and center. Beautiful..even in your frustration. Yep.

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