Gwendolyn Brooks: Poems

Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000) is a late inheritor of the Harlem Renaissance vein of poetry. She is known for the versatility of her experimental styles and themes.

A STREET IN BRONZEVILLE, 1945

“KITCHENETTE BUILDING”

We are things of dry hours and the involuntary plan,
Grayed in, and gray. “Dream” mate, a giddy sound, not strong
Like “rent”, “feeding a wife”, “satisfying a man”.

But could a dream sent up through onion fumes
Its white and violet, fight with fried potatoes
And yesterday’s garbage ripening in the hall,
Flutter, or sing an aria down these rooms,

Even if we were willing to let it in,
Had time to warm it, keep it very clean,
Anticipate a message, let it begin?

We wonder. But not well! not for a minute!
Since Number Five is out of the bathroom now,
We think of lukewarm water, hope to get in it.

Think of “Harlem,” by Langston Hughes in connection with the imagery of the dream here.

“THE MOTHER”

Abortions will not let you forget.
You remember the children you got that you did not get,
The damp small pulps with a little or with no hair,
The singers and workers that never handled the air.
You will never neglect or beat
Them, or silence or buy with a sweet.
You will never wind up the sucking-thumb
Or scuttle off ghosts that come.
You will never leave them, controlling your luscious sigh,
Return for a snack of them, with gobbling mother-eye.
I have heard in the voices of the wind the voices of my dim killed children.
I have contracted. I have eased
My dim dears at the breasts they could never suck.
I have said, Sweets, if I sinned, if I seized
Your luck
And your lives from your unfinished reach,
If I stole your births and your names,
Your straight baby tears and your games,
Your stilted or lovely loves, your tumults, your marriages, aches, and your deaths,
If I poisoned the beginnings of your breaths,
Believe that even in my deliberateness I was not deliberate.
Though why should I whine,
Whine that the crime was other than mine?—
Since anyhow you are dead.
Or rather, or instead,
You were never made.
But that too, I am afraid,
Is faulty: oh, what shall I say, how is the truth to be said?
You were born, you had body, you died.
It is just that you never giggled or planned or cried.
Believe me, I loved you all.
Believe me, I knew you, though faintly, and I loved, I loved you
All.
Remarkable for its early, candid treatment of abortion, if somewhat maudlin.

“A SONG IN THE FRONT YARD”

I’ve stayed in the front yard all my life.
I want a peek at the back
Where it’s rough and untended and hungry weed grows.
A girl gets sick of a rose.
I want to go in the back yard now
And maybe down the alley,
To where the charity children play.
I want a good time today.
They do some wonderful things.
They have some wonderful fun.
My mother sneers, but I say it’s fine
How they don’t have to go in at quarter to nine.
My mother, she tells me that Johnnie Mae
Will grow up to be a bad woman.
That George’ll be taken to Jail soon or late
(On account of last winter he sold our back gate).
But I say it’s fine. Honest, I do.
And I’d like to be a bad woman, too,
And wear the brave stockings of night-black lace
And strut down the streets with paint on my face

“GAY CHAPS AT THE BAR”

…and guys I knew in the States, young
officers, return from the front crying and
trembling.  Gay chaps at the bar in Los
Angeles, Chicago, New York…
–Lt. William Couch
in the South Pacific

We knew how to order.  Just the dash
Necessary.  The length of gaiety in good taste.
Whether the raillery should be slightly iced
And given green, or served up hot and lush.
And we knew beautifully how to give to women
The summer spread, the tropics of our love.
When to persist, or hold a hunger off.
Knew white speech.  How to make a look an omen.
But nothing ever taught us to be islands.
And smart, athletic language for this hour
Was not in the curriculum.  No stout
Lesson showed how to chat with death.  We brought
No brass fortissimo, among our talents,

“WE REAL COOL, ” 1960

The Pool Players.
Seven at the Golden Shovel.

We real cool. We
Left school. We

Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We
Die soon.

The poem invites a syncopated reading – you can almost hear a snap in the pauses at the end of each enjambed line. It would be interesting to compare this to the lineation of a William Carlos Williams poem.

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Langston Hughes: Poems

Langston Hughes (1902-1967) was the most famous and popular of the Harlem Renaissance poets. He was born in Missouri, moved to New York to attend Columbia, and dropped out after a year. Like McKay, he was a leftist who drew his ideas from the tradition of DuBois, rather than Booker T. Washington. He traveled to the Soviet Union and believed in what we saw there for many years, though he eventually became more disillusioned by it.

“THE NEGRO SPEAKS OF RIVERS,” 1921

I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

Hughes applies the voice of primitivism to himself here – whether it is ironic or not is unclear.

“I, TOO,” 1925

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

Tomorrow,
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
Then.

Besides,
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed–

I, too, am America.

Following in the Whitmanian tradition of “I Hear America Singing,” the speaker here actively sings, rather than just listening – he is of the body of America, rather than one who listens to its many voices.

“THE WEARY BLUES,” 1925

Droning a drowsy syncopated tune,
Rocking back and forth to a mellow croon,
      I heard a Negro play.
Down on Lenox Avenue the other night
By the pale dull pallor of an old gas light
      He did a lazy sway. . . .
      He did a lazy sway. . . .
To the tune o’ those Weary Blues.
With his ebony hands on each ivory key
He made that poor piano moan with melody.
      O Blues!
Swaying to and fro on his rickety stool
He played that sad raggy tune like a musical fool.
      Sweet Blues!
Coming from a black man’s soul.
      O Blues!
In a deep song voice with a melancholy tone
I heard that Negro sing, that old piano moan—
      “Ain’t got nobody in all this world,
      Ain’t got nobody but ma self.
      I’s gwine to quit ma frownin’
      And put ma troubles on the shelf.”
Thump, thump, thump, went his foot on the floor.
He played a few chords then he sang some more—
      “I got the Weary Blues
      And I can’t be satisfied.
      Got the Weary Blues
      And can’t be satisfied—
      I ain’t happy no mo’
      And I wish that I had died.”
And far into the night he crooned that tune.
The stars went out and so did the moon.
The singer stopped playing and went to bed
While the Weary Blues echoed through his head.
He slept like a rock or a man that’s dead.
This is one of the first examples of poetry to fully embrace the black vernacular and to translate the blues into poetic form.

“SONG FOR A DARK GIRL,” 1927

Way Down South in Dixie
(Break the heart of me)
They hung my black young lover
To a cross roads tree.

Way Down South in Dixie
(Bruised body high in air)
I asked the white Lord Jesus
What was the use of prayer.

Way Down South in Dixie
(Break the heart of me)
Love is a naked shadow
On a gnarled and naked tree.

The form of the poem as song draws ironic attention (like McKay’s sonnet “Lynching”) to the horror of the content.

“HARLEM,” 1927

What happens to a dream deferred?
      Does it dry up
      like a raisin in the sun?
      Or fester like a sore—
      And then run?
      Does it stink like rotten meat?
      Or crust and sugar over—
      like a syrupy sweet?
      Maybe it just sags
      like a heavy load.
      Or does it explode?
This poem, often read as a lament, can also be read as a threat – the mixed images of consumption and injury end with an inevitable bang as the wound explodes.

“CUBES,” 1934

In the days of the broken cubes of Picasso
And in the days of the broken songs of the young men
A little too drunk to sing
And the young women
A little too unsure of love to love——
I met on the boulevards of Paris
An African from Senegal

God
Knows why the French
Amuse themselves bringing to Paris
Negroes from Senegal.

It's the old game of the boss and the bossed,
       boss and the bossed,
            amused
              and
            amusing,
       worked and working,
Behind the cubes of black and white,
           black and white,
    black and white

But since it is the old game,
For fun
They give him the three old prostitutes of
	France——
Liberty, Equality, Fraternity——
And all three of 'em sick
In spite of the tax to the government
And the legal houses
And the doctors
And the Marseillaise.

Of course, the young African from Senegal
Carries back from Paris
A little more disease
To spread among the black girls in the palm huts.
He brings them as a gift
    disease——
From light to darkness
        disease——
From the boss to the bossed
	     disease——
From the game of black and white
    disease
From the city of the broken cubes of Picaso
   d
     i
   s
 e
   a 
     s
   e

This later poem takes stock of Hughes’ realization that imperialism is the parent of Cubism. The poem ends with the curving “S” of disease – syphilis – spreading in the colonies thanks to European infection.

Countee Cullen: Poems

Countee Cullen (1903-1946) was a Harlem Renaissance poet adopted and educated in New York. While progressive, Cullen valued the traditional forms of the English & American literary forms and did less to openly subvert them than Claude McKay. His less radical politics and poetics put him more in the tempered line of Booker T. Washington (in “The Negro Artist & the Racial Mountain,” Langston Hughes criticizes him for wanting to be “a poet” and not “a Negro poet”). He was first published in Alain Locke’s 1925 The New Negro, alongside Hughes, McKay, Hurston, and Toomer. He helped publish much of Hughes’ work after Locke’s anthology in his own anthology a few years later.

COLOR, 1925

“YET I DO MARVEL”

I doubt not God is good, well-meaning, kind,
And did He stoop to quibble could tell why
The little buried mole continues blind,
Why flesh that mirrors Him must some day die,
Make plain the reason tortured Tantalus
Is baited by the fickle fruit, declare
If merely brute caprice dooms Sisyphus
To struggle up a never-ending stair.
Inscrutable His ways are, and immune
To catechism by a mind too strewn
With petty cares to slightly understand
What awful brain compels His awful hand.
Yet do I marvel at this curious thing:
To make a poet black, and bid him sing!
An English sonnet with the rhyme scheme abab cdcd efef gg. It is traditional in a number of ways: the first 8 lines are a catalogue of the situation at hand, a meditation on it, and a variety of metaphors for the inscrutability of God. At the volta, the speaker reasserts his unknowingness. Finally, in the last couplet, he reveals the true topic of the poem – the pain of being a black poet in America, bidden to sing.

“INCIDENT”

Once riding in old Baltimore,
Heart-filled, head-filled with glee,
I saw a Baltimorean
Keep looking straight at me.

Now I was eight and very small,
And he was no whit bigger,
And so I smiled, but he poked out
His tongue, and called me, ‘Nigger.’

I saw the whole of Baltimore
From May until December;
Of all the things that happened there
That’s all that I remember.

A vivid childhood recollection of the manner in which hate speech erases other memories and creates lasting trauma. An injunction to the reader to erase the word, even as the poem shows it in print (where it is and always was more impactful).

“HERITAGE”

What is Africa to me:
Copper sun or scarlet sea,
Jungle star or jungle track,
Strong bronzed men, or regal black
Women from whose loins I sprang
When the birds of Eden sang?
One three centuries removed
From the scenes his fathers loved,
Spicy grove, cinnamon tree,
What is Africa to me?
So I lie, who all day long
Want no sound except the song
Sung by wild barbaric birds
Goading massive jungle herds,
Juggernauts of flesh that pass
Trampling tall defiant grass
Where young forest lovers lie,
Plighting troth beneath the sky.
So I lie, who always hear,
Though I cram against my ear
Both my thumbs, and keep them there,
Great drums throbbing through the air.
So I lie, whose fount of pride,
Dear distress, and joy allied,
Is my somber flesh and skin,
With the dark blood dammed within
Like great pulsing tides of wine
That, I fear, must burst the fine
Channels of the chafing net
Where they surge and foam and fret.
Africa? A book one thumbs
Listlessly, till slumber comes.
Unremembered are her bats
Circling through the night, her cats
Crouching in the river reeds,
Stalking gentle flesh that feeds
By the river brink; no more
Does the bugle-throated roar
Cry that monarch claws have leapt
From the scabbards where they slept.
Silver snakes that once a year
Doff the lovely coats you wear,
Seek no covert in your fear
Lest a mortal eye should see;
What’s your nakedness to me?
Here no leprous flowers rear
Fierce corollas in the air;
Here no bodies sleek and wet,
Dripping mingled rain and sweat,
Tread the savage measures of
Jungle boys and girls in love.
What is last year’s snow to me,
Last year’s anything? The tree
Budding yearly must forget
How its past arose or set—
Bough and blossom, flower, fruit,
Even what shy bird with mute
Wonder at her travail there,
Meekly labored in its hair.
One three centuries removed   
From the scenes his fathers loved,
Spice grove, cinnamon tree,
What is Africa to me?
So I lie, who find no peace
Night or day, no slight release
From the unremittant beat
Made by cruel padded feet
Walking through my body’s street.
Up and down they go, and back,
Treading out a jungle track.
So I lie, who never quite
Safely sleep from rain at night—
I can never rest at all
When the rain begins to fall;
Like a soul gone mad with pain
I must match its weird refrain;
Ever must I twist and squirm,
Writhing like a baited worm,
While its primal measures drip
Through my body, crying, “Strip!
Doff this new exuberance.
Come and dance the Lover’s Dance!”
In an old remembered way
Rain works on me night and day.
Quaint, outlandish heathen gods
Black men fashion out of rods,
Clay, and brittle bits of stone,
In a likeness like their own,
My conversion came high-priced;
I belong to Jesus Christ,
Preacher of humility;
Heathen gods are naught to me.
Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,
So I make an idle boast;
Jesus of the twice-turned cheek,
Lamb of God, although I speak
With my mouth thus, in my heart
Do I play a double part.
Ever at Thy glowing altar
Must my heart grow sick and falter,
Wishing He I served were black,
Thinking then it would not lack
Precedent of pain to guide it,
Let who would or might deride it;
Surely then this flesh would know
Yours had borne a kindred woe.
Lord, I fashion dark gods, too,
Daring even to give You
Dark despairing features where,
Crowned with dark rebellious hair,
Patience wavers just so much as
Mortal grief compels, while touches
Quick and hot, of anger, rise
To smitten cheek and weary eyes.
Lord, forgive me if my need
Sometimes shapes a human creed.
All day long and all night through,   
One thing only must I do:
Quench my pride and cool my blood,
Lest I perish in the flood.
Lest a hidden ember set
Timber that I thought was wet
Burning like the dryest flax,
Melting like the merest wax,
Lest the grave restore its dead.
Not yet has my heart or head
In the least way realized
They and I are civilized.
The poem is written in rhyming couples of iambic tetrameter that devolves as the poem continues. As the speaker disavows a connection to Africa, claiming instead an English poetic tradition in content, the form of the poem becomes more jagged, more interrupted, as if it were difficult for him to continue his claim.

Allen Ginsberg: Poems

Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997) is perhaps the most famous of the Beat poets.

“A SUPERMARKET IN CALIFORNIA”

      What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for
I walked down the sidestreets under the trees with a headache
self-conscious looking at the full moon.
          In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went
into the neon fruit supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations!
          What peaches and what penumbras!  Whole families
shopping at night!  Aisles full of husbands!  Wives in the
avocados, babies in the tomatoes!--and you, Garcia Lorca, what
were you doing down by the watermelons?

          I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber,
poking among the meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery
boys.
          I heard you asking questions of each: Who killed the
pork chops?  What price bananas?  Are you my Angel?
          I wandered in and out of the brilliant stacks of cans
following you, and followed in my imagination by the store
detective.
          We strode down the open corridors together in our
solitary fancy tasting artichokes, possessing every frozen
delicacy, and never passing the cashier.

          Where are we going, Walt Whitman?  The doors close in
an hour.  Which way does your beard point tonight?
          (I touch your book and dream of our odyssey in the
supermarket and feel absurd.)
          Will we walk all night through solitary streets?  The
trees add shade to shade, lights out in the houses, we'll both be
lonely.

          Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of love
past blue automobiles in driveways, home to our silent cottage?
          Ah, dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher,
what America did you have when Charon quit poling his ferry and
you got out on a smoking bank and stood watching the boat
disappear on the black waters of Lethe?

In this poem, Ginsberg considers Whitman’s legacy – and himself, as another gay poet, the inheritor. Its wild toggling between the “peaches and penumbras,” the “neon fruit” or “shopping for images” to the more transcendental “Are you my Angel?” locates a cultural contrast nascent in Whitman that is only clearer a century later (the poem is written at the centennial of “Song of Myself’). At the end, Ginsberg points to the fact that America always looks back nostalgically to an imaginary lost time, ever receding and never extant at all.

“AMERICA”

America I’ve given you all and now I’m nothing.
America two dollars and twenty-seven cents January 17, 1956.
I can’t stand my own mind.
America when will we end the human war?
Go fuck yourself with your atom bomb
I don’t feel good don’t bother me.
I won’t write my poem till I’m in my right mind.
America when will you be angelic?
When will you take off your clothes?
When will you look at yourself through the grave?
When will you be worthy of your million Trotskyites?
America why are your libraries full of tears?
America when will you send your eggs to India?
I’m sick of your insane demands.
When can I go into the supermarket and buy what I need with my good looks?
America after all it is you and I who are perfect not the next world.
Your machinery is too much for me.
You made me want to be a saint.
There must be some other way to settle this argument.
Burroughs is in Tangiers I don’t think he’ll come back it’s sinister.
Are you being sinister or is this some form of practical joke?
I’m trying to come to the point.
I refuse to give up my obsession.
America stop pushing I know what I’m doing.
America the plum blossoms are falling.
I haven’t read the newspapers for months, everyday somebody goes on trial for
murder.
America I feel sentimental about the Wobblies.
America I used to be a communist when I was a kid and I’m not sorry.
I smoke marijuana every chance I get.
I sit in my house for days on end and stare at the roses in the closet.
When I go to Chinatown I get drunk and never get laid.
My mind is made up there’s going to be trouble.
You should have seen me reading Marx.
My psychoanalyst thinks I’m perfectly right.
I won’t say the Lord’s Prayer.
I have mystical visions and cosmic vibrations.
America I still haven’t told you what you did to Uncle Max after he came over
from Russia.

I’m addressing you.
Are you going to let our emotional life be run by Time Magazine?
I’m obsessed by Time Magazine.
I read it every week.
Its cover stares at me every time I slink past the corner candystore.
I read it in the basement of the Berkeley Public Library.
It’s always telling me about responsibility. Businessmen are serious. Movie
producers are serious. Everybody’s serious but me.
It occurs to me that I am America.
I am talking to myself again.

Asia is rising against me.
I haven’t got a chinaman’s chance.
I’d better consider my national resources.
My national resources consist of two joints of marijuana millions of genitals
an unpublishable private literature that goes 1400 miles and hour and
twentyfivethousand mental institutions.
I say nothing about my prisons nor the millions of underpriviliged who live in
my flowerpots under the light of five hundred suns.
I have abolished the whorehouses of France, Tangiers is the next to go.
My ambition is to be President despite the fact that I’m a Catholic.

America how can I write a holy litany in your silly mood?
I will continue like Henry Ford my strophes are as individual as his
automobiles more so they’re all different sexes
America I will sell you strophes $2500 apiece $500 down on your old strophe
America free Tom Mooney
America save the Spanish Loyalists
America Sacco & Vanzetti must not die
America I am the Scottsboro boys.
America when I was seven momma took me to Communist Cell meetings they
sold us garbanzos a handful per ticket a ticket costs a nickel and the
speeches were free everybody was angelic and sentimental about the
workers it was all so sincere you have no idea what a good thing the party
was in 1835 Scott Nearing was a grand old man a real mensch Mother
Bloor made me cry I once saw Israel Amter plain. Everybody must have
been a spy.
America you don’re really want to go to war.
America it’s them bad Russians.
Them Russians them Russians and them Chinamen. And them Russians.
The Russia wants to eat us alive. The Russia’s power mad. She wants to take
our cars from out our garages.
Her wants to grab Chicago. Her needs a Red Reader’s Digest. her wants our
auto plants in Siberia. Him big bureaucracy running our fillingstations.
That no good. Ugh. Him makes Indians learn read. Him need big black niggers.
Hah. Her make us all work sixteen hours a day. Help.
America this is quite serious.
America this is the impression I get from looking in the television set.
America is this correct?
I’d better get right down to the job.
It’s true I don’t want to join the Army or turn lathes in precision parts
factories, I’m nearsighted and psychopathic anyway.
America I’m putting my queer shoulder to the wheel.

This heteroglossic poem is one of my favorites by Ginsberg because when you hear recordings of him reading it in Berkeley, you can tell that it was meant to be humorous – he and the audience are laughing. Its notation of the time and amount of money he has look ahead to Frank O’Hara’s cataloguing, and his lists look back to Whitman’s.

“HOWL”

The poem is introduced by William Carlos Williams (“Hold back the edges of your gowns, ladies, we are going through hell), who befriended Ginsberg in New Jersey after the younger poet left the mental hospital. Howl traces a course of American poetry of identity from Whitman into the 20th century, touching on the Inferno and Frost’s “Fire and Ice” as well. “The spontaneity of surface in Howl conceals but grows out of Ginsberg’s care and self-consciousness about rhythm and meter.” The first few lines actively set up over 10 pages of predicate clauses beginning with “who”:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,

dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,

angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night, who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up…

Part II turns more Yeatsian: “What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?” proceeding to posit answers beginning with “Moloch…” Part III is the famous “I’m with you in Rockland” section to Carl Solomon, which ends:

I’m with you in Rockland
in my dreams you walk dripping from a sea-
journey on the highway across America in tears
to the door of my cottage in the Western night.

The footnote is a cry for sacredness in its ironic repetition of “Holy!”

“KADDISH”

Written after his mother died in 1956, Kaddish is a moving exploration of the relationship of one’s personal and family memories. The speaker remembers his mother, Naomi (a leftist/Communist who was often in and out of mental hospitals), but also weaves her memories that he has inherited from her into the work:

Dreaming back thru life, Your time—and mine accelerating toward Apocalypse,
the final moment—the flower burning in the Day—and what comes after,
looking back on the mind itself that saw an American city
a flash away, and the great dream of Me or China, or you and a phantom Russia, or a crumpled bed that never existed—
like a poem in the dark—escaped back to Oblivion—

The poem is filled with love, but also with horrifying images of madness, loneliness, anger, and violent sexuality. It is written in a mix of Whitmanian, surrealist, and stream-of-consciousness styles. Part of the anxiety of the poem is the internalization of his mother’s madness, as well as a feeling of guilt, since he could not amass the necessary number of  men to properly make a minion to say Kaddish over her body. In this sense, his voice strains to “contain multitudes,” as Whitman’s speaker also claims. Much of the imagery seems miscegenous, from the “crown of thorns” outside of Judaism to the mix of metaphors and styles the speaker uses in straining to talk about his mother. Even the crows that caw are sad copies of the cries that end Eliot’s The Waste Land, scavengers like the birds in Yeats come to feed on the available carrion. Like O’Hara’s more lighthearted poems, it begins with the strange thought of being out on the street and thinking of his dead mother, now gone:

Strange now to think of you, gone without corsets & eyes, while I walk on the sunny pavement of Greenwich Village.
downtown Manhattan, clear winter noon, and I’ve been up all night, talking, talking, reading the Kaddish aloud, listening to Ray Charles blues shout blind on the phonograph

Mixing tradition and mourning via pop culture, the poet expresses a desire for death himself:

And you’re out, Death let you out, Death had the Mercy, you’re done with your century, done with God, done with the path thru it—Done with yourself at last—Pure—Back to the Babe dark before your Father, before us all—before the world—

The poet turns back to memories of caring for his paranoid, ill mother:

By long nites as a child in Paterson apartment, watching over your nervousness—you were fat—your next move—
       By that afternoon I stayed home from school to take care of you—once and for all—when I vowed forever that once man disagreed with my opinion of the cosmos, I was lost-
       By my later burden—vow to illuminate mankind—this is release of particulars—(mad as you)—(sanity a trick of agreement)—
       But you stared out the window on the Broadway Church corner, and spied a mystical assassin from Newark…
…  The enemies approach—what poisons? Tape recorders? FBI? Zhdanov hiding behind the counter? Trotsky mixing rat bacteria in the back of the store? Uncle Sam in Newark, plotting deathly perfumes in the Negro district? Uncle Ephraim, drunk with murder in the politician’s bar, scheming of Hague? Aunt Rose passing water thru the needles of the Spanish Civil War?
There is something fearful in the fact that her paranoia, as the witch hunts of the 50s demonstrate, was somewhat justified. Her diminishing, ‘irradiated’ body registers the Cold War as manifest phenomenon, diminishing almost by half-life. Repeatedly, the speaker attempts to confront the horror of his own mother’s body (perhaps a stand-in for the ravaged dreams of the old Left in America), now gone:
     Naomi, Naomi—sweating, bulge-eyed, fat, the dress unbuttoned at one side—hair over brow, her stocking hanging evilly on her legs—screaming for a blood transfusion—one righteous hand upraised—a shoe in it—barefoot in the Pharmacy
Picking her tooth with her nail, lips formed an O, suspicion—thought’s old worn vagina—absent sideglance of eye—some evil debt written in the wall, unpaid—& the aged breasts of Newark come near—
       May have heard radio gossip thru the wires in her head, controlled by 3 big sticks left in her back by gangsters in amnesia, thru the hospital—caused pain between her shoulders—

One time I thought she was trying to make me come lay her—flirting to herself at sink—lay back on huge bed that filled most of the room, dress up round her hips, big slash of hair, scars of operations, pancreas, belly wounds, abortions, appendix, stitching of incisions pulling down in the fat like hideous thick zippers—ragged long lips between her legs—What, even, smell of asshole? I was cold—later revolted a little, not much—seemed perhaps a good idea to try—know the Monster of the Beginning Womb—Perhaps—that way. Would she care? She needs a lover.

As his mother begins to die, the speaker turns back to her days of youth in his imagination:

   O Russian faced, woman on the grass, your long black hair is crowned with flowers, the mandolin is on your knees—
       Communist beauty, sit here married in the summer among daisies, promised happiness at hand—
….
blessed daughter come to America, I long to hear your voice again, remembering your mother’s music, in the Song of the Natural Front—
       O glorious muse that bore me from the womb, gave suck first mystic life & taught me talk and music, from whose pained head I first took Vision—
       Tortured and beaten in the skull—What mad hallucinations of the damned that drive me out of my own skull to seek Eternity till I find Peace for Thee, O Poetry—and for all humankind call on the Origin
O beautiful Garbo of my Karma—all photographs from 1920 in Camp Nicht-Gedeiget here unchanged—with all the teachers from Vewark—Nor Elanor be gone, nor Max await his specter—nor Louis retire from this High School—

At her death, Kurtzlike, she yells out “All the Horror!” The poem’s mystical, bizarre ending picks up many of the references from earlier stanzas (keys, bars, sunlight), seemingly reclaiming the visionary status of the poet for the modern era:

2 days after her death I got her letter—
       Strange Prophecies anew! She wrote—‘The key is in the window, the key is in the sunlight at the window—I have the key—Get married Allen don’t take drugs—the key is in the bars, in the sunlight in the window.
                                                       Love,
                                                               your mother’
       which is Naomi—
The key that unlocks the beginning of the poem is death itself. The last line plays on the adjectival meaning of Naomi – “beautiful or delightful” (in the Bible, the mother in law of Ruth who lost both her sons and her husband), turning over some of the horror of the memories with an act of love. The “roar of memory” at the end of the poem comes back as a vast highschool, representing America’s institutional wasteland and yet its unbounded possibilities as well.

John Ashbery: Poems

John Ashbery, a poet in the New York School, is often thought of as having inherited the poetic tradition of Wallace Stevens (phenomenological) vs. Pound and Creeley (historical).

“SOME TREES,” 1956

These are amazing: each
Joining a neighbor, as though speech
Were a still performance.
Arranging by chance

To meet as far this morning
From the world as agreeing
With it, you and I
Are suddenly what the trees try

To tell us we are:
That their merely being there
Means something; that soon
We may touch, love, explain.

And glad not to have invented
Such comeliness, we are surrounded:
A silence already filled with noises,
A canvas on which emerges

A chorus of smiles, a winter morning.
Placed in a puzzling light, and moving,
Our days put on such reticence
These accents seem their own defense.

The poem expresses and renews the joys of nature by pointing out that the beauty the speaker finds is in the fact of being “glad not to have invented such comeliness.” The trees, as in Mrs. Dalloway, represent some form of both rootedness and connectivity. The attention to speech performance is also interesting in a poem about trees because Saussure’s original sign, made of signifier/signified, was of the tree/arbor.

“SELF-PORTRAIT IN A CONVEX MIRROR,” 1975

Examining the convex portrait of Parmigianino, the speaker considers it from all perspectives with a sort of “peripheral vision.” He says to the artist, “your eyes proclaim/ That everything is surface. The surface is what’s there/ And nothing can exist except what’s there…. And just as there are no words for the surface, that is,/ No words to say what it really is, that it is not/ Superficial but a visible core, then there is/ No way out of the problem of pathos vs. experience.” I am very interested in this idea, as well as how the mirror plays with the idea of “reflection.” The doubt of sight enters: “the supposition of promises together/ In one piece of surface… more keeps getting included/ Without adding to the sum.”  “Those assholes/ Who would confuse everything with their mirror games/ Which seem to multiply stakes and possibilities, or/ At least confuse issues by means of an investing/ Aura that would corrode the architecture/ Of the whole in a haze of suppressed mockery,/ Are beside the point.” He concludes with an image resembling faceting: “We have seen the city; it is the gibbous/ Mirrored eye of an insect.” The poem is an extremely complex literary encounter with visual art, in the tradition of poets like Auden (“Musee Des Beaux Arts”), William Carlos Williams (poems on Brueghel), and others.

Frank O’Hara: Poems

Frank O’Hara (1926-1966) was of the New York School of poets, along with Schuyler, Koch, and Ashbery. Born in Baltimore, he moved to New York in 1951, where the city became for him “what the pastoral or rural worlds were for other writers, a source of refreshment and fantasy.” He explores the richness of locality, extinguishing the need for Old World symbols and charms and settling instead on the pleasures of the body. His poetry is notable for its insistence on joy and consumerism alongside loss and skepticism. In Lunch Poems, O’Hara explored the consumer’s midday break time as an innocent, rejuvenating participation in the city, including its capitalist delights. Unlike the nights of the Confessional poets, O’Hara’s poetry is distinctly a daytime voice. His campy humor (overperforming and neither affirming nor denying, but seeking a “3rd position”) is sometimes viewed as an important precursor to the work of poet laureate Billy Collins. He is also interesting to compare with Isherwood, especially A Single Man. O’Hara was killed in a beach-buggy accident on Fire Island at 41.

“WHY I AM NOT A PAINTER,” 1957

I am not a painter, I am a poet.
Why? I think I would rather be
a painter, but I am not. Well,

for instance, Mike Goldberg
is starting a painting. I drop in.
“Sit down and have a drink” he
says. I drink; we drink. I look
up. “You have SARDINES in it.”
“Yes, it needed something there.”
“Oh.” I go and the days go by
and I drop in again. The painting
is going on, and I go, and the days
go by. I drop in. The painting is
finished. “Where’s SARDINES?”
All that’s left is just
letters, “It was too much,” Mike says.

But me? One day I am thinking of
a color: orange. I write a line
about orange. Pretty soon it is a
whole page of words, not lines.
Then another page. There should be
so much more, not of orange, of
words, of how terrible orange is
and life. Days go by. It is even in
prose, I am a real poet. My poem
is finished and I haven’t mentioned
orange yet. It’s twelve poems, I call
it ORANGES. And one day in a gallery
I see Mike’s painting, called SARDINES.

Considers the medium of language via the medium of language, whereas the painting juxtaposes language and paint – a different project. The painting is concise and masks its inspiration because it needs to simplify; the poem is prolix and can never arrive at its topic.

LUNCH POEMS, 1964

“A STEP AWAY FROM THEM”

It’s my lunch hour, so I go
for a walk among the hum-colored
cabs. First, down the sidewalk
where laborers feed their dirty
glistening torsos sandwiches
and Coca-Cola, with yellow helmets
on. They protect them from falling
bricks, I guess. Then onto the
avenue where skirts are flipping
above heels and blow up over
grates. The sun is hot, but the
cabs stir up the air. I look
at bargains in wristwatches. There
are cats playing in sawdust.
                                          On
to Times Square, where the sign
blows smoke over my head, and higher
the waterfall pours lightly. A
Negro stands in a doorway with a
toothpick, languorously agitating.
A blonde chorus girl clicks: he
smiles and rubs his chin. Everything
suddenly honks: it is 12:40 of
a Thursday.
                Neon in daylight is a
great pleasure, as Edwin Denby would
write, as are light bulbs in daylight.
I stop for a cheeseburger at JULIET’S   
CORNER. Giulietta Masina, wife of
Federico Fellini, è bell’ attrice.
And chocolate malted. A lady in
foxes on such a day puts her poodle
in a cab.
             There are several Puerto
Ricans on the avenue today, which
makes it beautiful and warm. First
Bunny died, then John Latouche,
then Jackson Pollock. But is the
earth as full as life was full, of them?
And one has eaten and one walks,
past the magazines with nudes
and the posters for BULLFIGHT and
the Manhattan Storage Warehouse,
which they’ll soon tear down. I
used to think they had the Armory
Show there.
                A glass of papaya juice
and back to work. My heart is in my
pocket, it is Poems by Pierre Reverdy.
This poem juxtaposes death and the quotidian details of everyday life, the personal (“I,” the timestamp, the particulars) and impersonality (“One,” life, etc.). It emphasizes the vitality of the dead, as well as a delicious joie de vivre, a comfort that Puerto Ricans in the street can create happiness and one can carry one’s heart in one’s pocket as a book of poems.

“THE DAY LADY DIED”

It is 12:20 in New York a Friday
three days after Bastille day, yes
it is 1959 and I go get a shoeshine
because I will get off the 4:19 in Easthampton
at 7:15 and then go straight to dinner
and I don’t know the people who will feed me
I walk up the muggy street beginning to sun
and have a hamburger and a malted and buy
an ugly NEW WORLD WRITING to see what the poets
in Ghana are doing these days
                                           I go on to the bank
and Miss Stillwagon (first name Linda I once heard)
doesn’t even look up my balance for once in her life
and in the GOLDEN GRIFFIN I get a little Verlaine
for Patsy with drawings by Bonnard although I do
think of Hesiod, trans. Richmond Lattimore or
Brendan Behan’s new play or Le Balcon or Les Nègres
of Genet, but I don’t, I stick with Verlaine
after practically going to sleep with quandariness
and for Mike I just stroll into the PARK LANE
Liquor Store and ask for a bottle of Strega and
then I go back where I came from to 6th Avenue
and the tobacconist in the Ziegfeld Theatre and
casually ask for a carton of Gauloises and a carton
of Picayunes, and a NEW YORK POST with her face on it
and I am sweating a lot by now and thinking of
leaning on the john door in the 5 SPOT
while she whispered a song along the keyboard
to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing
Billie Holliday, the topic of the poem, is never mentioned. Rather, the poem explores how she lives and exists in collective memory, as well as in the atomized experience of the individual. The speaker obsessively timestamps the day and how he moves through it. At the end he feels a personal sadness and rage, remembering the night “everyone and I stopped breathing” at the sound of her voice – an ironic phrase that captures the suspense in terms of her actual death, but also maintains the personal/social dichotomy that characterizes so many of O’Hara’s poems.

“AVE MARIA”

Mothers of America
                                     let your kids go to the movies!
get them out of the house so they won’t know what you’re up to
it’s true that fresh air is good for the body
                                                                             but what about the soul
that grows in darkness, embossed by silvery images
and when you grow old as grow old you must
                                                                            they won’t hate you
they won’t criticize you they won’t know
                                                                            they’ll be in some glamorous country
they first saw on a Saturday afternoon or playing hookey
they may even be grateful to you
                                                            for their first sexual experience
which only cost you a quarter
                                                       and didn’t upset the peaceful home
they will know where candy bars come from
                                                                                 and gratuitous bags of popcorn
as gratuitous as leaving the movie before it’s over
with a pleasant stranger whose apartment is in the Heaven on Earth Bldg
near the Williamsburg Bridge
                                                       oh mothers you will have made the little tykes
so happy because if nobody does pick them up in the movies
they won’t know the difference
                                                         and if somebody does it’ll be sheer gravy
and they’ll have been truly entertained either way
instead of hanging around the yard
                                                                 or up in their room
                                                                                                     hating you
prematurely since you won’t have done anything horribly mean yet
except keeping them from the darker joys
                                                                             it’s unforgivable the latter
so don’t blame me if you won’t take this advice
                                                                                      and the family breaks up
and your children grow old and blind in front of a TV set
                                                                                                        seeing
movies you wouldn’t let them see when they were young
This poem is an ode to the movies, a lighthearted delight in the sex kids will find there that I’d like to contrast with Larkin’s darker, more depressing aesthetic in “High Windows,” which almost feels like a grungy attempted ripoff of O’Hara’s style. Also interesting to think about in terms of Vivian Sobchack and Linda Williams.

“STEPS”

How funny you are today New York
like Ginger Rogers in Swingtime
and St. Bridget’s steeple leaning a little to the left

here I have just jumped out of a bed full of V-days
(I got tired of D-days) and blue you there still
accepts me foolish and free
all I want is a room up there
and you in it
and even the traffic halt so thick is a way
for people to rub up against each other
and when their surgical appliances lock
they stay together
for the rest of the day (what a day)
I go by to check a slide and I say
that painting’s not so blue

where’s Lana Turner
she’s out eating
and Garbo’s backstage at the Met
everyone’s taking their coat off
so they can show a rib-cage to the rib-watchers
and the park’s full of dancers with their tights and shoes
in little bags
who are often mistaken for worker-outers at the West Side Y
why not
the Pittsburgh Pirates shout because they won
and in a sense we’re all winning
we’re alive

the apartment was vacated by a gay couple
who moved to the country for fun
they moved a day too soon
even the stabbings are helping the population explosion
though in the wrong country
and all those liars have left the UN
the Seagram Building’s no longer rivalled in interest
not that we need liquor (we just like it)

and the little box is out on the sidewalk
next to the delicatessen
so the old man can sit on it and drink beer
and get knocked off it by his wife later in the day
while the sun is still shining

oh god it’s wonderful
to get out of bed
and drink too much coffee
and smoke too many cigarettes
and love you so much

The rushed, passionate, run-on sense of the poem is explained by its ending, where the speaker has overconsumed on all the stuff of life. The montage of pop and politics, personal and social is a whirlwind tour of O’Hara’s stylistic devices.

Sylvia Plath: Poems

I’m reading a number of Plath poems, but rather than explicate them, I’ll reproduce a paper I wrote about Plath in 2010 alongside a list of the poems I’m reviewing.

“ODE FOR TED,” 1956; “WREATH FOR A BRIDAL,” 1956; “VIRGIN IN A TREE,” 1958; “METAPHORS,” 1959; “LOVE LETTER,” 1960

ARIEL, 1965

“MORNING SONG,” “THE RABBIT CATCHER,” “THE OTHER,” “YOU’RE,” “DADDY,” “ARIEL,” “NICK & THE CANDLESTICK,” “LADY LAZARUS”

‘Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting.’[1]

– Robert Frost, 1939

Nature plays a seemingly paradoxical role in the poetry of Sylvia Plath, as the locus of both the static, alienating landscape and the magnetic, transformative life cycle. The frustrating, ongoing mental estrangement from Nature that characterizes much of Plath’s work is punctuated by transcendent moments of union, in which the female body becomes a creative vessel for the mutative processes of sexuality, (re)birth, and death. In a journal entry from 1958, Plath writes, ‘The surface texture of life can be dead’, but there remain moments when ‘we burn clear of our shackles and stand, burning and speaking like gods’.[2] Like Frost’s ‘piece of ice on a hot stove’, Plath’s poetry channels the dynamism of such experience into language, so that its latent heat may be felt even after the momentary ecstasy of the experience itself has melted away.

For Plath, Nature’s life cycle that can engage both mind and body with the world beyond ‘surface texture’, leading to physical and poetic (re)generation.  Through the kinaesthesia of the life cycle and the transient unity of the female body with Nature that it provides, Plath locates a connection with the genesis of creative writing as well.

Tracing the arc of such epiphanic moments through Plath’s work reveals a distillatory poetics, in which the lingering representation is capable of transcending the fugitive nature of the moment it describes.

When Plath encounters Nature solely through the mind, her detachment from the space renders it two-dimensional, a threatening spectacle from which she is alienated. In ‘A Winter Landscape with Rooks’, the speaker sees the sun gives a ‘scorning’ glance at the ‘landscape of chagrin’, ‘all engraved in ice’.[3] Plath herself termed the poem a ‘psychic landscape’, representative of her projection of feeling onto the natural world.[4] In The Dialectics of Art and Life, Sylvia Lehrer observes that in exploring detachment from Nature, many of Plath’s early landscapes are in fact ‘mindscapes’, inextricably ‘linked with mind rather than body’.[5] Indeed, in poems such as ‘Southern Sunrise’, Plath paints Nature as papery, unsubstantiated scenery; it is composed of ‘storybook villas’ like a ‘leaf-and-flower pen-sketch’.[6] In ‘Spiders’, the speaker watches the performance of ants being ushered

Off-stage and infamously wrapped

Up by a spry black deus

Ex machina.[7]

The intellectualization of nature as a spectacle separate from the self leaves Plath dissociated from natural cycles. In ‘November Graveyard’, the ‘scene stands stubborn’, the trees ‘Hoard last year’s leaves, won’t mourn’, and the poet can only ‘stare, stare’ at the ‘hard-hearted emerald’ of the ‘essential landscape’.[8]

Physically unengaged with Nature, the female body becomes, in Jacqueline Rose’s words, ‘rigidly, tragically circumscribed.’[9] In ‘Virgin in a Tree’, Plath rewrites the arboreal metamorphosis of classical virgins, envisioning it as an act of violence, rather than protection. In this ‘tart fable’, the punningly ‘chased girls’ who run from their own sexuality remain mere characters on the stage of Nature’s static landscape, and are therefore condemned to its threatening subjection. This metamorphosis is anything but dynamic; it permanently rigidifies the female form and wastes its fecundity, as, ‘Untongued, all beauty’s bright juice sours’.[10] Plath ironically employs the language of the very rape the girls attempt to avoid to show how the virgin body is subsumed, rather than regenerated, by a Nature that ‘constricts | White bodies in a wooden girdle’ and ‘sheathe[s] the virgin shape | In a scabbard of wood’.[11]

Plath, however, figures masculinity as sovereign over Nature, and it is through physical unity with man that she initially accesses Nature’s transfiguring powers. In ‘Ode for Ted’, the speaker posits herself as ‘adam’s woman’, and stands amazed at ‘[her] man’s’ effect upon the land:

For his least look, scant acres yield:                                                                         each finger-furrowed field                                                                                                heaves forth stalk, leaf…

[…]

at his hand’s staunch hest, birds build.[12]

Nature enters the female body through unity with maleness, and the poem’s sexual overtones highlight the potential of the fertile womb to engage with Nature as ‘field’ and ‘nest’. Rose points out that ‘if there is a body of [Plath’s] writing’ there is also, ‘no less crucially, a body in her writing’.[13] These physical and poetic bodies run parallel because ‘For Plath, words plunge into the body, and writing is a sexual act’.[14] The transformative moment of congress with Nature that intercourse permits is even clearer in ‘Wreath for a Bridal,’ where earth and sky appear to ‘laud these mated ones’ in the ‘stark act’ of lovemaking, which

…set[s] the land

Sprouting fruit, flowers, children…

[…]

Let flesh be knit…[15]

This exhilaration, however, melts away when male and female are in discord. ‘The Snowman on the Moor’ actually reverses man’s propitious effect on the land, as

…at his tread

Ambushed birds by

Dozens dropped dead in the hedges: o she felt

No love in his eye…[16]

In ‘Rabbit Catcher’, too, the speaker sees the recalcitrant landscape as ‘a place of force’, and she struggles against the ‘wind gagging me with my own blown hair, | Tearing off my voice’.[17] The female body returns to its place as stranger again in ‘Wuthering Heights’, a ‘tilted and disparate’ space where the sky itself ‘leans’ on her.[18] Though Plath chooses to invite Nature into her body, she cannot control it, and must instead be content to ride the brief course of its exhilaration.  

Plath entwines the transformation of physical intimacy with her desire for another natural metamorphosis: pregnancy. In a journal entry from 1959, Plath states that her failed attempts to become pregnant have ‘utterly thwarted’ her marital need ‘to express our love, us, through my body, the doors of my body’.[19] Whereas pregnancy would be life-giving, infertility, she writes, would leave her ‘Dead to [her] woman’s body’.[20] Judith Kroll, in Chapters in a Mythology, holds that in the ordering system of Plath’s poetic expression, ‘biological fertility is the province of the heroine.’[21] ‘Barren Woman’ is one of several poems that describe Plath’s fixation with infertility; in it, the sterile woman’s womb ‘Echo[es] to the least footfall’, and its only flowers are ‘Marble lilies’.[22] This imagery mirrors the poet’s earlier ‘mindscapes’, where the woman remains divorced from Nature.

Such corporeal stasis lies in sharp contrast to the visceral and kinetic transformations that pregnancy eventually brings. In ‘Metaphors’, the speaker is both thrilled and terrified by the temporary new shape of her body. While she embodies the life cycle in being ‘A melon’, ‘a red fruit’, and a ‘cow in calf’, the persona also loses control; in the ‘psychic landscape’ of her own body, she is herself ‘a means, a stage’, for she has ‘Boarded the train there’s no getting off’.[23] The simultaneous fear and thrill of carrying unborn life mirrors the experience of writing as well. In ‘Stillborn’, Plath elaborates on this connection, looking over her failed poems and giving the ‘sad diagnosis’ that, though ‘it wasn’t for any lack of mother-love […] still the lungs won’t fill and the heart won’t start’.[24] Pregnancy, like writing, carries with it both enormous potential and a terrible dread of failure.

A successful delivery, however, is utterly regenerative. As Plath writes in ‘Love Letter’, the female body blooms in pregnancy as it ‘start[s] to bud like a March twig’, and the speaker tells her child that it is ‘Not easy to state the change you made.| If I’m alive now, then I was dead’.[25] If pregnancy links her to creation, it also makes her a Creator in her own right: ‘Now I resemble a sort of god | Floating through the air in my soul-shift’.[26] Linking this (pro)creative power to writing, Plath states elsewhere: ‘writing makes me a small god: I re-create the flux and smash of the world’.[27] The image of herself as deity, however, also sets her ‘floating through’ an otherworldly space, likening her own rebirth through childbirth to a resurrection after death.

Religious imagery appears again in ‘Nick and the Candlestick’, where the speaker becomes a Madonna, mother to a newborn child who is ‘the baby in the barn’.[28] This spiritual feeling, however, begins to fade once the baby has left her body and she is returned to her ordinary shape. In ‘Nick’, the speaker gazes lovingly on the child and recalls the cleansing effect of his growth within her:

O embryo

Remembering, even in sleep,

Your crossed position.

The blood blooms clean

In you, ruby.[29]

In contrast, the speaker now feels the emptiness of her womb, where ‘Waxy stalactites’ and ‘Icicles’ constantly reduce themselves, melting ‘Into the terrible well’.[30] Like the formations in the empty cave of her womb, the shape of pregnancy melts away, leaving the speaker a mere woman again. ‘Love Letter’, too, ends with the image of the mother’s body, ‘Pure as a pane of ice’, suggesting both the intense purgation of the experience and its fugitive quality.[31]

In ‘Morning Song’, Plath observes the separation of infant from mother after birth, seeing that ‘Love set you going like a fat gold watch’ and ‘your bald cry | Took its place among the elements’.[32] Gazing at the infant, the persona makes a statement of both profound awe and separation:

I’m no more your mother

Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow

Effacement…[33]

The image of distillation links birth to writing once again, for the recording of a brief, powerful experience celebrates it even as the moment itself is effaced by time. Plath’s journal also reveals her feeling during the moment of labour that the world itself begins to spin:

I had my eyes squeezed shut and felt this black force blotting out my brain and utterly possessing me… I felt I must be ripped and bloody from all that power breaking out of me…a 10 day misery of my milk waiting a week…ended the grim parenthesis. Chairs and tables took their places, served once more.[34]

As the moment of parturient transcendence melts and her body resumes its shape, objects, too, resume their places, and stasis replaces motion.

Yet the memory of the female body as vessel remains an important source of power for Plath. In ‘The Other’, the speaker addresses a barren woman who has experienced sexual epiphany with her husband: ‘The stolen horses, the fornications | circle a womb of marble’.[35] To compensate for the theft of intimacy, the persona lords her own fertility over her rival; only she has experienced the transformative exhilaration of birth:  Navel cords, blue-red and lucent, |Shriek from my belly like arrows, and these I ride’.[36] Whereas the speaker engages in the movement of the life cycle, the barren woman is locked in stasis and imagined in utterly inorganic terms. She is ‘old plastic’ or ‘cold glass’, and her menstrual blood is merely ‘an effect, a cosmetic’ within her fruitless body.[37]

Like sex and pregnancy, which both empower and threaten the body, Plath figures the kinetic brush with death as equally regenerative. ‘A Birthday Present’ explores the fantasy of death as purification and rebirth. ‘If it were death,’ she holds,

…there would be a birthday.

And the knife not carve, but enter

Pure and clean as the cry of a baby,

And the universe slide from my side.[38]

In several poems, the revivifying brush with death is closely associated with speed and motility. The poem ‘Stopped Dead’ describes the near-death experience of a car accident in both sexual and procreative terminology: the persona hears the ‘passionate hot metals’ of the automobile ‘writhing and sighing’ and the ‘squeal of brakes’ and wonders, ‘is it a birth cry?’[39] Plath reiterates this sensation in ‘Years’. Instead of ‘great Stasis’, it is wild, reckless, unshackling motion she desires:

What I love is

The piston in motion –

My soul dies before it.

And the hooves of the horses,

Their merciless churn.[40]

The powerful motion of hooves in the near-death experience of ‘Years’ recalls the two equine symbols in ‘The Other’ – the sexual metaphor of the speaker’s ‘stolen horses’ and the ‘naval cords’ that she rides, thus linking sex, birth, and death through related imagery.

The title poem of Plath’s final collection, ‘Ariel’, describes a horseback ride that synthesizes the imagery of the entire life cycle in a single, exhilarating kinaesthesia. The poem begins with ‘Stasis in darkness’, but as the horse gallops forward, the speaker becomes one with the animal, instantly freed into ‘the substanceless blue’ by the ‘Pour of tor and distances’.[41] The poem then races through the realm of the sexual through the yonic imagery of the ‘furrow’ that ‘splits and passes’, the sensation of the speaker’s own ‘Thighs [and] hair’ in motion, and the ‘Black sweet blood mouthfuls’ of exploding berries from the surrounding bushes.[42] As the obligations that bind her to quotidian drudgery disappear, ‘The child’s cry | Melts in the wall’ and this lady ‘Godiva’ experiences an unshackling from the ‘Dead hands, dead stringencies’ of ordinary life.[43] Finally, the speed and recklessness of the ride thrust her towards death, allowing a euphoric sense of rebirth at the poem’s conclusion:

…I

am the arrow,

The dew that flies

Suicidal, at one with the drive

Into the red

Eye, the cauldron of morning.[44]

In hurtling linguistically towards an imagined regeneration, ‘Ariel’ offers an amalgam of the transcendent experiences of  Nature’s cycle that Plath explores throughout her poetic oeuvre.

Though seemingly an act of passivity, in allowing Nature to enter the female body, Plath locates a powerful creativity through the processes of sex, birth, and death. At the end of ‘The Figure a Poem Makes’, Frost adds that poetry’s ‘most precious quality will remain its having run itself and carried away the poet with it.’[45] In wedding the kinesis of the life cycle to a celebration of its very transience, Plath achieves a remarkable poetic dynamism. Though the price of each metamorphosis is the nullification of the former shape, Plath’s poetry embraces the very brevity of transformative experience, the dynamism of liminal space, and the ride upon the back of the melting moment.

WORKS CITED:

Kroll, Judith, Chapters in a Mythology: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath (New York, NY:            Harper & Row Publishers, 1976)

Lehrer, Sylvia, The Dialectics of Art and Life: A Portrait of Sylvia Plath as Woman and            Poet (Salzburg: Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik, Universität Salzburg,            1985)

Oates, Joyce Carol (ed.), The Best American Essays of the Century (New York, NY:            Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000)

Plath, Sylvia, Collected Poems, ed. Ted Hughes (London: Faber & Faber, 1988)

The Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962, ed. Karen V. Kukil (London: Faber and            Faber, 2000)

Rose, Jacqueline, The Haunting of Sylvia Plath (London: Virago Press, 1991)

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Bassnet, Susan, Sylvia Plath (London: Macmillan, 1987)

Gill, Jo, The Cambridge Companion to Sylvia Plath (Cambridge: Cambridge University            Press, 2006)

Hayman, Ronald, The Death and Life of Sylvia Plath (Gloucestershire: Sutton            Publishing Limited, 2003)

Holbrook, David, Sylvia Plath: Poetry and Existence (London: The Athlone Press, 1988)

Lindberg-Seyersted, Brita, ‘Sylvia Plath’s Psychic Landscapes’, English Studies, vol.            71, No. 6 (December 1990): 509-22

Plath, Sylvia, Letters Home, 8th edn., ed. Aurelia Schober Plath (London: Faber and            Faber, 1999)

Stevenson, Anne, Bitter Fame: A Life of Sylvia Plath (Boston: Houghton Mifflin            Company, 1989)

Wagner-Martin, Linda (ed.), Sylvia Plath: The Critical Heritage, 2nd edn. (London:            Routledge, 1997)

 


[1] Robert Frost, ‘The Figure a Poem Makes’, in Joyce Carol Oates (ed.), The Best American Essays of the Century (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000), p.178

[2] Sylvia Plath, The Journals of Sylvia Plath, 1950-1962, ed. Karen V. Kukil (London: Faber and Faber, 2000), p.306 (abbr. Journals)

[3] Sylvia Plath, Collected Poems, ed. Ted Hughes (London: Faber & Faber, 1988), ll.7-8,11 (abbr. CP)

[4] Plath, Journals, p.205

[5] Sylvia Lehrer, The Dialectics of Art and Life: A Portrait of Sylvia Plath as Woman and Poet (Salzburg: Institut für Anglistik und Amerikanistik, Universität Salzburg,1985), p.185

[6] Plath, CP, ll.2,7

[7] Ibid., ll.33-5

[8] Ibid., ll.1-2

[9] Jacqueline Rose, The Haunting of Sylvia Plath (London: Virago Press, 1991) p.116.

[10] Plath, CP, ll.43

[11] Ibid., ll.21-2,7-8

[12] Ibid., ll.1,13-15,18

[13] Rose, p.29

[14] Rose, p.29

[15] Plath, CP, ll.5-6,21-24

[16] Ibid., ll.33-6

[17] Ibid., ll.1-2

[18] Ibid., ll.2,37

[19] Plath, Journals, p.500

[20] Ibid., p.500

[21] Judith Kroll, Chapters in a Mythology: The Poetry of Sylvia Plath (New York, NY:Harper & Row Publishers, 1976), p.11

[22] Plath, CP, ll.1,5

[23] Ibid., ll.7,9

[24] Ibid., ll.5,10

[25] Plath, CP, ll.31,1-2

[26] Ibid., ll.34-5

[27] Plath, Journals, p.232

[28] Plath, CP, l.42

[29] Ibid., CP, ll.

[30] Ibid., ll.2,11,39

[31] Plath, CP, l.36

[32] Ibid., ll.1-3

[33] Ibid., CP, ll.7-9

[34] Plath, Journals, 646-8

[35] Plath, CP, ll.21-2

[36] Ibid.,ll.18-19

[37] Ibid., l.8

[38] Ibid.,ll.57,61-4

[39] Ibid., ll.8-9,1-2

[40] Plath, CP,  ll.11-15

[41] Ibid., ll.1,3,5

[42]Ibid., ll.6,7,13,18

[43] Ibid., ll.24-5,20-21

[44] Ibid., ll.27-31

[45] Frost in Oates, p.178.

Adrienne Rich: Poems

“DIVING INTO THE WRECK,” 1973

First having read the book of myths,
and loaded the camera,
and checked the edge of the knife-blade,
I put on
the body-armor of black rubber
the absurd flippers
the grave and awkward mask.
I am having to do this
not like Cousteau with his
assiduous team
aboard the sun-flooded schooner
but here alone.

There is a ladder.
The ladder is always there
hanging innocently
close to the side of the schooner.
We know what it is for,
we who have used it.

Otherwise
it is a piece of maritime floss
some sundry equipment.

I go down.
Rung after rung and still
the oxygen immerses me
the blue light
the clear atoms
of our human air.
I go down.
My flippers cripple me,
I crawl like an insect down the ladder
and there is no one
to tell me when the ocean
will begin.

First the air is blue and then
it is bluer and then green and then
black I am blacking out and yet
my mask is powerful
it pumps my blood with power
the sea is another story
the sea is not a question of power
I have to learn alone
to turn my body without force
in the deep element.

And now: it is easy to forget
what I came for
among so many who have always
lived here
swaying their crenellated fans
between the reefs
and besides
you breathe differently down here.

I came to explore the wreck.
The words are purposes.
The words are maps.
I came to see the damage that was done
and the treasures that prevail.
I stroke the beam of my lamp
slowly along the flank
of something more permanent
than fish or weed

the thing I came for:
the wreck and not the story of the wreck
the thing itself and not the myth
the drowned face always staring
toward the sun
the evidence of damage
worn by salt and sway into this threadbare beauty
the ribs of the disaster
curving their assertion
among the tentative haunters.

This is the place.
And I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair
streams black, the merman in his armored body.
We circle silently
about the wreck
we dive into the hold.
I am she: I am he

whose drowned face sleeps with open eyes
whose breasts still bear the stress
whose silver, copper, vermeil cargo lies
obscurely inside barrels
half-wedged and left to rot
we are the half-destroyed instruments
that once held to a course
the water-eaten log
the fouled compass

We are, I am, you are
by cowardice or courage
the one who find our way
back to this scene
carrying a knife, a camera
a book of myths
in which
our names do not appear.

Rich calls attention to the ridiculousness of the enterprise of knowledge, its oddity, as well as how alone she is. Many critics have suggested that the descent is meant to be into an investigation of the old world of patriarchy and its rules. Perhaps the ladder is taking one down only to be able to look up at the “glass ceiling” of the surface? Her self-presentation as Tiresias compares her underwater journey with that of the drowned sailor in Eliot, having a liberating knowledge of both sides of the world. The ship, if it is a vestige of common culture, is most damaged at its heart, but still holds treasures which fascinate “mermaid and merman” alike. I also love the idea of the quest as something so deep and time-consuming one forgets why one has come. Compare this with Bishop, Moore, and Murdoch, as well as Woolf on the sea and fish.

“POWER,” 1978

Living in the earth-deposits of our history

Today a backhoe divulged out of a crumbling flank of earth
one bottle amber perfect a hundred-year-old
cure for fever or melancholy a tonic
for living on this earth in the winters of this climate.

Today I was reading about Marie Curie:
she must have known she suffered from radiation sickness
her body bombarded for years by the element
she had purified
It seems she denied to the end
the source of the cataracts on her eyes
the cracked and suppurating skin of her finger-ends
till she could no longer hold a test-tube or a pencil

She died a famous woman denying
her wounds
denying
her wounds came from the same source as her power.

Rich’s repetition here makes double the denial of wounds (physical, literal and also metaphorical, yonic). It emphasizes the sacrifice necessary for Curie to continue her work, which killed her.

Amiri Baraka: Poems

“IN MEMORY OF RADIO,” 1961
Who has ever stopped to think of the divinity of Lamont Cranston?
(Only jack Kerouac, that I know of: & me.
The rest of you probably had on WCBS and Kate Smith,
Or something equally unattractive.)

What can I say?
It is better to haved loved and lost
Than to put linoleum in your living rooms?

Am I a sage or something?
Mandrake’s hypnotic gesture of the week?
(Remember, I do not have the healing powers of Oral Roberts…
I cannot, like F. J. Sheen, tell you how to get saved & rich!
I cannot even order you to the gaschamber satori like Hitler or Goddy Knight)

& love is an evil word.
Turn it backwards/see, see what I mean?
An evol word. & besides
who understands it?
I certainly wouldn’t like to go out on that kind of limb.

Saturday mornings we listened to the Red Lantern & his undersea folk.
At 11, Let’s Pretend
& we did
& I, the poet, still do. Thank God!

What was it he used to say (after the transformation when he was safe
& invisible & the unbelievers couldn’t throw stones?) “Heh, heh, heh.
Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows.”

O, yes he does
O, yes he does
An evil word it is,
This Love.

It would be interesting to compare the imagined childhood world of this poem to “Robert Frost’s “Birches” or Dylan Thomas’ “Fern Hill.” The speaker does not have real knowledge or power – “only words to play with,” as Humbert would say. He also plays with love as “going out on a limb” by reversing it, turning it over, extending its meaning. Though he only has language, the poet demonstrates that it is enough.

“THE NEW WORLD,” 1969

The sun is folding, cars stall and rise
beyond the window. The workmen leave
the street to the bums and painters’ wives
pushing their babies home. Those who realize
how fitful and indecent consciousness is
stare solemnly out on the emptying street.
The mourners and soft singers. The liars,
and seekers after ridiculous righteousness. All
my doubles, and friends, whose mistakes cannot
be duplicated by machines, and this is all of our
arrogance. Being broke or broken, dribbling
at the eyes. Wasted lyricists, and men
who have seen their dreams come true, only seconds
after they knew those dreams to be horrible conceits
and plastic fantasies of gesture and extension,
shoulders, hair and tongues distributing misinformation
about the nature of understanding. No one is that simple
or priggish, to be alone out of spite and grown strong
in its practice, mystics in two-pants suits. Our style,
and discipline, controlling the method of knowledge.
Beatniks, like Bohemians, go calmly out of style. And boys
are dying in Mexico, who did not get the word.
The lateness of their fabrication: mark their holes
with filthy needles. The lust of the world. This will not
be news. The simple damning lust,
                                       float flat magic in low changing
                                       evenings. Shiver your hands
                                       in dance. Empty all of me for
                                       knowing, and will the danger
                                       of identification,
                           Let me sit and go blind in my dreaming
                           and be that dream in purpose and device.
                           A fantasy of defeat, a strong strong man
                           older, but no wiser than the defect of love.
There is a stark break between the denotatitve opening lines and the assertion of “how fitful and indecent consciousness is” – almost humorous in its shift. In this American wasteland, the speaker calls for a new reality of experience – not the plastic dreams, but something greater and more intangible, less faddish.

Robert Lowell: Poems

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,
so vegetarian,
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.”

“SKUNK HOUR”

(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.
Thirsting for
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,
my Tudor Ford climbed the hill’s skull;
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. . . .
nobody’s here—
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 spire
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.

Colonel Shaw
is riding on his bubble,
he waits
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.