Robert Lowell (1917-1977) was a confessional poet interested in history and writing as forms of repetition and revision. His characteristic style emerges in 1959 with the publication of Life Studies, the collection that led the critic Mendenhal to coin the term “confessional poet.” The poetry of the Beats caused him to reexamine his old work, which he saw, much as Yeats did in “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” as “distant, symbol-ridden, and willfully difficult” with “a stiff, humorless and even impenetrable surface.”
LORD WEARY’S CASTLE, 1946
“COLLOQUY IN BLACK ROCK”
Here the jack-hammer jabs into the ocean;
My heart, you race and stagger and demand
More blood-gangs for your nigger-brass percussions,
Till I, the stunned machine of your devotion,
Clanging upon this cymbal of a hand,
Am rattled screw and footloose. All discussions
End in the mud-flat detritus of death.
My heart, beat faster, faster. In Black Mud
Hungarian workmen give their blood
For the martyrs Stephen who was stoned to death.
Black Mud, a name to conjure with: O mud
For watermelons gutted to the crust,
Mud for the mole-tide harbor, mud for mouse,
Mud for the armored Diesel fishing tubs that thud
A year and a day to wind and tide; the dust
Is on this skipping heart that shakes my house,
House of our Savior who was hanged till death.
My heart, beat faster, faster. In Black Mud
Stephen the martyre was broken down to blood:
Our ransom is the rubble of his death.
Christ walks on the black water. In Black Mud
Darts the kingfisher. On Corpus Christi, heart,
Over the drum-beat of St. Stephen’s choir
I hear him, Stupor Mundi, and the mud
Flies from his hunching wings and beak–my heart,
he blue kingfisher dives on you in fire.
Here, Lowell slowly moves from the localized construction site with its jackhammers penetrating the mud to the high language of Yeats and Eliot: “Stupor Mundi” (the marvel of the world) and “the drum-beat of St. Stephen’s choir” remind me of Yeats, while “Corpus Christi,” “House of our Savior,” and “In Black Mud Darts the kingfisher” remind me of Eliot.
“MR. EDWARDS & THE SPIDER”
I saw the spiders marching through the air,
Swimming from tree to tree that mildewed day
In latter August when the hay
Came creaking to the barn. But where
The wind is westerly,
Where gnarled November makes the spiders fly
Into the apparitions of the sky,
They purpose nothing but their ease and die
Urgently beating east to sunrise and the sea;
What are we in the hands of the great God?
It was in vain you set up thorn and briar
In battle array against the fire
And treason crackling in your blood;
For the wild thorns grow tame
And will do nothing to oppose the flame;
Your lacerations tell the losing game
You play against a sickness past your cure.
How will the hands be strong? How will the heart endure?
A very little thing, a little worm,
Or hourglass-blazoned spider, it is said,
Can kill a tiger. Will the dead
Hold up his mirror and affirm
To the four winds the smell
And flash of his authority? It’s well
If God who holds you to the pit of hell,
Much as one holds a spider, will destroy,
Baffle and dissipate your soul. As a small boy
On Windsor Marsh, I saw the spider die
When thrown into the bowels of fierce fire:
There’s no long struggle, no desire
To get up on its feet and fly
It stretches out its feet
And dies. This is the sinner’s last retreat;
Yes, and no strength exerted on the heat
Then sinews the abolished will, when sick
And full of burning, it will whistle on a brick.
But who can plumb the sinking of that soul?
Josiah Hawley, picture yourself cast
Into a brick-kiln where the blast
Fans your quick vitals to a coal—
If measured by a glass,
How long would it seem burning! Let there pass
A minute, ten, ten trillion; but the blaze
Is infinite, eternal: this is death,
To die and know it. This is the Black Widow, death.
Lowell takes apart Edwards’ sermon piece by piece, returning its wrought metaphors to the material world, where the spider does not struggle in hell, but dies. The ending of the poem, “To die and know it. This is the Black Widow, death,” parallels the spider’s hourglass marking – the curse is not the fear of death, but the knowledge – the fact of it. Could be compared to Larkin’s “Ambulances.”
LIFE STUDIES, 1959
“MEMORIES OF WEST STREET & LEPKE”
Only teaching on Tuesdays, book-worming
in pajamas fresh from the washer each morning,
I hog a whole house on Boston’s
“hardly passionate Marlborough Street,”
where even the man
scavenging filth in the back alley trash cans,
has two children, a beach wagon, a helpmate,
and is a “young Republican.”
I have a nine months’ daughter,
young enough to be my granddaughter.
Like the sun she rises in her flame-flamingo infants’ wear.
These are the tranquillized Fifties,
and I am forty. Ought I to regret my seedtime?
I was a fire-breathing Catholic C.O.,
and made my manic statement,
telling off the state and president, and then
sat waiting sentence in the bull pen
beside a Negro boy with curlicues
of marijuana in his hair.
Given a year,
I walked on the roof of the West Street Jail, a short
enclosure like my school soccer court,
and saw the Hudson River once a day
through sooty clothesline entanglements
and bleaching khaki tenements.
Strolling, I yammered metaphysics with Abramowitz,
a jaundice-yellow (“it’s really tan”)
and fly-weight pacifist,
he wore rope shoes and preferred fallen fruit.
He tried to convert Bioff and Brown,
the Hollywood pimps, to his diet.
Hairy, muscular, suburban,
wearing chocolate double-breasted suits,
they blew their tops and beat him black and blue.
I was so out of things, I’d never heard
of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
“Are you a C.O.?” I asked a fellow jailbird.
“No,” he answered, “I’m a J.W.”
He taught me the “hospital tuck,”
and pointed out the T-shirted back
of Murder Incorporated’s Czar Lepke,
there piling towels on a rack,
or dawdling off to his little segregated cell full
of things forbidden the common man:
a portable radio, a dresser, two toy American
flags tied together with a ribbon of Easter palm.
Flabby, bald, lobotomized,
he drifted in a sheepish calm,
where no agonizing reappraisal
jarred his concentration on the electric chair—
hanging like an oasis in his air
of lost connections….
Like Williams coming to terms with his domestic madness in “Danse Russe,” Lowell contemplates his age here – he feels old, at 40, to be a new father, so different from his youthful days as a conscientious objector to the war and getting a year of jailtime for it. He falls further back in time to those radical days, so starkly different from “bookworming” in “the tranquillized Fifties.”
(For Elizabeth Bishop)
heiress still lives through winter in her Spartan cottage;
her sheep still graze above the sea.
Her son’s a bishop. Her farmer
is first selectman in our village;
she’s in her dotage.
the hierarchic privacy
of Queen Victoria’s century,
she buys up all
the eyesores facing her shore,
and lets them fall.
The season’s ill—
we’ve lost our summer millionaire,
who seemed to leap from an L. L. Bean
catalogue. His nine-knot yawl
was auctioned off to lobstermen.
A red fox stain covers Blue Hill.
And now our fairy
decorator brightens his shop for fall;
his fishnet’s filled with orange cork,
orange, his cobbler’s bench and awl;
there is no money in his work,
he’d rather marry.
One dark night,
I watched for love-cars. Lights turned down,
they lay together, hull to hull,
where the graveyard shelves
on the town. . . .
My mind’s not right.
A car radio bleats,
my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell,
as if my hand were at its throat. . . .
only skunks, that search
in the moonlight for a bite to eat.
They march on their soles up Main Street:
white stripes, moonstruck eyes’ red fire
under the chalk-dry and spar
of the Trinitarian Church.
I stand on top
of our back steps and breathe the rich air—
a mother skunk with her column
of kittens swills the garbage pail
She jabs her wedge-head in a cup
of sour cream, drops her ostrich tail,
and will not scare.
Nautilis Island is the location of the poem, but it’s also interesting that Lowell sets the scene with reference to this natural object, whose spiraling chambers reproduce the Golden Ratio perfectly. The rich woman buying up the houses to watch them die and the idea of “our summer millionaire” are reminiscent of Gatsby. The poet, painfully aware of death, climbs “the hill’s skull” to spy on lovers, and the insertion of the pop Lyrics and the speaker’s assertion, “I hear my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell, as if my hand were at its throat… I myself am hell” refers to Satan in Milton, but also feels like Humbert in Nabokov’s Lolita. The foul but beautiful persistence of the skunk, swilling for sour cream in the trashcan, is an odd and visionary moment for the times Lowell describes.
“FOR THE UNION DEAD,” 1964
Relinquunt Ommia Servare Rem Publicam. (They sacrifice everything to save the Republic.)
The old South Boston Aquarium stands
in a Sahara of snow now. Its broken windows are boarded.
The bronze weathervane cod has lost half its scales.
The airy tanks are dry.
Once my nose crawled like a snail on the glass;
my hand tingled to burst the bubbles
drifting from the noses of the cowed, compliant fish.
My hand draws back. I often sign still
for the dark downward and vegetating kingdom
of the fish and reptile. One morning last March,
I pressed against the new barbed and galvanized
fence on the Boston Common. Behind their cage,
yellow dinosaur steamshovels were grunting
as they cropped up tons of mush and grass
to gouge their underworld garage.
Parking spaces luxuriate like civic
sandpiles in the heart of Boston.
a girdle of orange, Puritan-pumpkin colored girders
braces the tingling Statehouse,
shaking over the excavations, as it faces Colonel Shaw
and his bell-cheeked Negro infantry
on St. Gaudens’ shaking Civil War relief,
propped by a plank splint against the garage’s earthquake.
Two months after marching through Boston,
half of the regiment was dead;
at the dedication,
William James could almost hear the bronze Negroes breathe.
Their monument sticks like a fishbone
in the city’s throat.
Its Colonel is as lean
as a compass-needle.
He has an angry wrenlike vigilance,
a greyhound’s gentle tautness;
he seems to wince at pleasure,
and suffocate for privacy.
He is out of bounds now. He rejoices in man’s lovely,
peculiar power to choose life and die-
when he leads his black soldiers to death,
he cannot bend his back.
On a thousand small town New England greens
the old white churches hold their air
of sparse, sincere rebellion; frayed flags
quilt the graveyards of the Grand Army of the Republic
The stone statutes of the abstract Union Soldier
grow slimmer and younger each year-
wasp-waisted, they doze over muskets
and muse through their sideburns…
Shaw’s father wanted no monument
except the ditch,
where his son’s body was thrown
and lost with his ‘niggers.’
The ditch is nearer.
There are no statutes for the last war here;
on Boylston Street, a commercial photograph
shows Hiroshima boiling
over a Mosler Safe, the ‘Rock of Ages’
that survived the blast. Space is nearer.
when I crouch to my television set,
the drained faces of Negro school-children rise like balloons.
is riding on his bubble,
for the blessed break.
The Aquarium is gone. Everywhere,
giant finned cars nose forward like fish;
a savage servility
slides by on grease.
In the first 2 stanzas, Lowell displays a ruin to the reader and weaves it in with his childhood memories of desire and excitement. In the next stanzas, Lowell likens the ancient life of the sea (linked by “scales” to “fish and reptile” to “dinosaur steamshovels”) to the construction of a parking lot with “Puritan pumpkin-colored girders.” He turns to the monument to the Colonel Shaw and the Negro soldiers of the Civil War, imagining their suffering. Just as the Puritan girders and steamshovel dinosaurs create a flattening historical parallel, so do the Negro soldiers and “the drained faces of Negro school-children [that] rise like ballons” on his TV, during the period of desegregation. The blank of the parking lot, too, being built underground, resonates with the boiling hole of Hiroshima (15 years before). “Space is nearer,” the speaker proclaims, ushering in a postmodern sensibility. He returns at the close of the poem to the ancient grease and fishiness of the technology around him, circling back to the start of the poem.