Robert Lowell |
The night attendant, a B.
rouses from the mare's-nest of his drowsy head
propped on The Meaning of Meaning.
He catwalks down our corridor.
makes my agonized blue window bleaker.
Crows maunder on the petrified fairway.
Absence! My hearts grows tense
as though a harpoon were sparring for the kill.
(This is the house for the "mentally ill.
What use is my sense of humour?
I grin at Stanley, now sunk in his sixties,
once a Harvard all-American fullback,
(if such were possible!)
still hoarding the build of a boy in his twenties,
as he soaks, a ramrod
with a muscle of a seal
in his long tub,
vaguely urinous from the Victorian plumbing.
A kingly granite profile in a crimson gold-cap,
worn all day, all night,
he thinks only of his figure,
of slimming on sherbert and ginger ale--
more cut off from words than a seal.
This is the way day breaks in Bowditch Hall at McLean's;
the hooded night lights bring out "Bobbie,"
a replica of Louis XVI
without the wig--
redolent and roly-poly as a sperm whale,
as he swashbuckles about in his birthday suit
and horses at chairs.
These victorious figures of bravado ossified young.
In between the limits of day,
hours and hours go by under the crew haircuts
and slightly too little nonsensical bachelor twinkle
of the Roman Catholic attendants.
(There are no Mayflower
screwballs in the Catholic Church.
After a hearty New England breakfast,
I weigh two hundred pounds
Cock of the walk,
I strut in my turtle-necked French sailor's jersey
before the metal shaving mirrors,
and see the shaky future grow familiar
in the pinched, indigenous faces
of these thoroughbred mental cases,
twice my age and half my weight.
We are all old-timers,
each of us holds a locked razor.
Robert Lowell |
My whole eye was sunset red,
the old cut cornea throbbed,
I saw things darkly,
as through an unwashed goldfish globe.
I lay all day on my bed.
I chain-smoked through the night,
learning to flinch
at the flash of the matchlight.
Outside, the summer rain,
a simmer of rot and renewal,
fell in pinpricks.
Even new life is fuel.
My eyes throb.
Nothing can dislodge
the house with my first tooth
noosed in a knot to the doorknob.
Nothing can dislodge
the triangular blotch
of rot on the red roof,
a cedar hedge, or the shade of a hedge.
No ease from the eye
of the sharp-shinned hawk in the birdbook there,
with reddish-brown buffalo hair
on its shanks, one asectic talon
clasping the abstract imperial sky.
an eye for an eye,
a tooth for a tooth.
No ease for the boy at the keyhole,
when the women's white bodies flashed
in the bathroom.
Young, my eyes began to fail.
Nothing! No oil
for the eye, nothing to pour
on those waters or flames.
I am tired.
Everyone's tired of my turmoil.
Robert Lowell |
What was is.
The boys in my old gang
are senior partners.
They start up
bald like baby birds
to embrace retirement.
At the altar of surrender
I met you
in the hour of credulity.
How your misfortune came our clearly
to us at twenty.
At the gingerbread casino
how innocent the nights we made it.
on our Vesuvio martinis
with no vermouth but vodka
to sweeten the dry gin-
the lash across my face
that night we adored.
soon every night and all
when your sweet amorous
More great poems below...
Robert Lowell |
History has to live with what was here,
clutching and close to fumbling all we had--
it is so dull and gruesome how we die,
unlike writing, life never finishes.
Abel was finished; death is not remote,
a flash-in-the-pan electrifies the skeptic,
his cows crowding like skulls against high-voltage wire,
his baby crying all night like a new machine.
As in our Bibles, white-faced, predatory,
the beautiful, mist-drunken hunter's moon ascends--
a child could give it a face: two holes, two holes,
my eyes, my mouth, between them a skull's no-nose--
O there's a terrifying innocence in my face
drenched with the silver salvage of the mornfrost
Robert Lowell |
It was a Maine lobster town—
each morning boatloads of hands
pushed off for granite
quarries on the islands,
and left dozens of bleak
white frame houses stuck
like oyster shells
on a hill of rock,
and below us, the sea lapped
the raw little match-stick
mazes of a weir,
where the fish for bait were trapped.
Remember? We sat on a slab of rock.
>From this distance in time
it seems the color
of iris, rotting and turning purpler,
but it was only
the usual gray rock
turning the usual green
when drenched by the sea.
The sea drenched the rock
at our feet all day,
and kept tearing away
flake after flake.
One night you dreamed
you were a mermaid clinging to a wharf-pile,
and trying to pull
off the barnacles with your hands.
We wished our two souls
might return like gulls
to the rock.
In the end,
the water was too cold for us.
Elizabeth Bishop |
(In Memoriam: Robert Lowell)
I can make out the rigging of a schooner
a mile off; I can count
the new cones on the spruce.
It is so still
the pale bay wears a milky skin; the sky
no clouds except for one long, carded horse1s tail.
The islands haven't shifted since last summer,
even if I like to pretend they have
--drifting, in a dreamy sort of way,
a little north, a little south, or sidewise,
and that they're free within the blue frontiers of bay.
This month, our favorite one is full of flowers:
Buttercups, Red Clover, Purple Vetch,
Hackweed still burning, Daisies pied, Eyebright,
the Fragrant Bedstraw's incandescent stars,
and more, returned, to paint the meadows with delight.
The Goldfinches are back, or others like them,
and the White-throated Sparrow's five-note song,
pleading and pleading, brings tears to the eyes.
Nature repeats herself, or almost does:
repeat, repeat, repeat; revise, revise, revise.
Years ago, you told me it was here
(in 1932?) you first "discovered girls"
and learned to sail, and learned to kiss.
You had "such fun," you said, that classic summer.
("Fun"--it always seemed to leave you at a loss.
You left North Haven, anchored in its rock,
afloat in mystic blue.
And now--you've left
You can't derange, or re-arrange,
your poems again.
(But the Sparrows can their song.
The words won't change again.
Sad friend, you cannot change.
Elizabeth Bishop |
for Robert Lowell
This is the time of year
when almost every night
the frail, illegal fire balloons appear.
Climbing the mountain height,
rising toward a saint
still honored in these parts,
the paper chambers flush and fill with light
that comes and goes, like hearts.
Once up against the sky it's hard
to tell them from the stars--
planets, that is--the tinted ones:
Venus going down, or Mars,
or the pale green one.
With a wind,
they flare and falter, wobble and toss;
but if it's still they steer between
the kite sticks of the Southern Cross,
receding, dwindling, solemnly
and steadily forsaking us,
or, in the downdraft from a peak,
suddenly turning dangerous.
Last night another big one fell.
It splattered like an egg of fire
against the cliff behind the house.
The flame ran down.
We saw the pair
of owls who nest there flying up
and up, their whirling black-and-white
stained bright pink underneath, until
they shrieked up out of sight.
The ancient owls' nest must have burned.
Hastily, all alone,
a glistening armadillo left the scene,
rose-flecked, head down, tail down,
and then a baby rabbit jumped out,
short-eared, to our surprise.
So soft!--a handful of intangible ash
with fixed, ignited eyes.
Too pretty, dreamlike mimicry!
O falling fire and piercing cry
and panic, and a weak mailed fist
clenched ignorant against the sky!
Robert Lowell |
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 tranquilized Fifties,
and I am forty.
Ought I to regret my seedtime?
I was a fire-breathing Catholic C.
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.
?" I asked a fellow jailbird.
"No," he answered, "I'm a J.
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 to 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.
David Lehman |
for Jim Cummins
In Iowa, Jim dreamed that Della Street was Anne Sexton's
Dave drew a comic strip called the "Adventures of Whitman,"
about a bearded beer-guzzler in Superman uniform.
like Wallace Stevens
in a seersucker summer suit.
To town came Ted Berrigan,
saying, "My idea of a bad poet is Marvin Bell.
But no one has won as many prizes as Philip Levine.
At the restaurant, people were talking about Philip Levine's
latest: the Pulitzer.
A toast was proposed by Anne Sexton.
No one saw the stranger, who said his name was Marvin Bell,
pour something into Donna's drink.
"In the Walt Whitman
Shopping Center, there you feel free," said Ted Berrigan,
pulling on a Chesterfield.
Everyone laughed, except T.
I asked for directions.
"You turn right on Gertrude Stein,
then bear left.
Three streetlights down you hang a Phil Levine
and you're there," Jim said.
When I arrived I saw Ted Berrigan
with cigarette ash in his beard.
Graffiti about Anne Sexton
decorated the men's room walls.
Beth had bought a quart of Walt
Donna looked blank.
"Walt who?" The name didn't ring a Marvin Bell.
You laugh, yet there is nothing inherently funny about Marvin Bell.
You cry, yet there is nothing inherently scary about Robert Lowell.
You drink a bottle of Samuel Smith's Nut Brown Ale, as thirsty as
You bring in your car for an oil change, thinking, this place has the aura
of Philip Levine.
Then you go home and write: "He kissed her Anne Sexton, and she
returned the favor, caressing his Ted Berrigan.
Donna was candid.
"When the spirit of Ted Berrigan
comes over me, I can't resist," she told Marvin Bell,
while he stood dejected at the xerox machine.
came by to circulate the rumor that Robert Duncan
had flung his drink on a student who had called him Philip Levine.
The cop read him the riot act.
"I don't care," he said, "if you're Walt
Donna told Beth about her affair with Walt Whitman.
"He was indefatigable, but he wasn't Ted Berrigan.
The Dow Jones industrials finished higher, led by Philip Levine,
up a point and a half on strong earnings.
ended the day unchanged.
Analyst Richard Howard
recommended buying May Swenson and selling Anne Sexton.
In the old days, you liked either Walt Whitman or Anne Sexton,
Ted Berrigan changed that just by going to a ballgame with
And one day Philip Levine looked in the mirror and saw Marvin Bell.
Mark Doty |
The intact facade's now almost black
in the rain; all day they've torn at the back
of the building, "the oldest concrete structure
in New England," the newspaper said.
when the backhoe claw appears above
three stories of columns and cornices,
the crowd beneath their massed umbrellas cheer.
Suddenly the stairs seem to climb down themselves,
atomized plaster billowing: dust of 1907's
rooming house, this year's bake shop and florist's,
the ghosts of their signs faint above the windows
lined, last week, with loaves and blooms.
We love disasters that have nothing to do
with us: the metal scoop seems shy, tentative,
a Japanese monster tilting its yellow head
and considering what to topple next.
It's a weekday,
and those of us with the leisure to watch
are out of work, unemployable or academics,
joined by a thirst for watching something fall.
All summer, at loose ends, I've read biographies,
Wilde and Robert Lowell, and fallen asleep
over a fallen hero lurching down a Paris boulevard,
talking his way to dinner or a drink,
unable to forget the vain and stupid boy
he allowed to ruin him.
And I dreamed
I was Lowell, in a manic flight of failing
and ruthless energy, and understood
how wrong I was with a passionate exactitude
which had to be like his.
A month ago,
at Saint-Gauden's house, we ran from a startling downpour
into coincidence: under a loggia built
for performances on the lawn
hulked Shaw's monument, splendid
in its plaster maquette, the ramrod-straight colonel
high above his black troops.
We crouched on wet gravel
and waited out the squall; the hieratic woman
-- a wingless angel? -- floating horizontally
above the soldiers, her robe billowing like plaster dust,
seemed so far above us, another century's
allegorical decor, an afterthought
who'd never descend to the purely physical
soldiers, the nearly breathing bronze ranks crushed
into a terrible compression of perspective,
as if the world hurried them into the ditch.
"The unreadable," Wilde said, "is what occurs.
And when the brutish metal rears
above the wall of unglazed windows --
where, in a week, the kids will skateboard
in their lovely loops and spray
their indecipherable ideograms
across the parking lot -- the single standing wall
seems Roman, momentarily, an aqueduct,
all that's left of something difficult
to understand now, something Oscar
and Bosie might have posed before, for a photograph.
Aqueducts and angels, here on Main,
seem merely souvenirs; the gaps
where the windows opened once
into transients' rooms are pure sky.
It's strange how much more beautiful
the sky is to us when it's framed
by these columned openings someone meant us
to take for stone.
The enormous, articulate shovel
nudges the highest row of moldings
and the whole thing wavers as though we'd dreamed it,
our black classic, and it topples all at once.
Robert Lowell |
It is the future generation that presses into being by means of these exuberant feelings and supersensible soap bubbles of ours.
The hot night makes us keep our bedroom windows open.
Our magnolia blossoms.
Life begins to happen.
My hopped up husband drops his home disputes,
and hits the streets to cruise for prostitutes,
free-lancing out along the razor's edge.
This screwball might kill his wife, then take the pledge.
Oh the monotonous meanness of his lust.
It's the injustice.
he is so unjust-
Whiskey-blind, swaggering home at five.
My only thought is how to keep alive.
What makes him trick? Each night now I tie
ten dollars and his car key to my thigh.
Gored by the climacteric of his want,
he stalls above me like an elephant.
Robert Lowell |
Only today and just for this minute,
when the sunslant finds its true angle,
you can see yellow and pinkish leaves spangle
our gentle, fluffy tree—
suddenly the green summer is momentary.
Autumn is my favorite season—
why does it change clothes and withdraw?
This week the house went on the market—
suddenly I woke up among strangers;
when I go into a room, it moves
with embarrassment, and joins another room.
I don't need conversation, but you to laugh with—
you and a room and a fire,
cold starlight blowing through an open window—
After sunfall, heaven is melodramatic,
a temporary, puckering, burning green.
The patched-up oak
and blacker, indelible pines
have the indigestible meagerness of spines.
One wishes heaven had less solemnity:
a sensual table
with five half-filled bottles of red wine
set round the hectic carved roast—
Bohemia for ourselves
and the familiars of a lifetime
charmed to communion by resurrection—
running together in the rain to mail a single letter,
not the chafe and cling
of this despondent chaff.
Yet for a moment, the children
could play truant from their tuition.
When I look back, I see a collapsing
accordion of my receding houses,
and myself receding
to a boy of twenty-five or thirty,
too shopworn for less, too impressionable for more—
in a washed blue workshirt and coalblack trousers,
moving from house to house,
still seeking a boy's license
to see the countryside without arrival.
terror in happiness may not cure the hungry future,
the time when any illness is chronic,
and the years of discretion are spent on complaint—
until the wristwatch is taken from the wrist.
Robert Lowell |
My Dolphin, you only guide me by surprise,
a captive as Racine, the man of craft,
drawn through his maze of iron composition
by the incomparable wandering voice of Ph?dre.
When I was troubled in mind, you made for my body
caught in its hangman's-knot of sinking lines,
the glassy bowing and scraping of my will.
I have sat and listened to too many
words of the collaborating muse,
and plotted perhaps too freely with my life,
not avoiding injury to others,
not avoiding injury to myself--
to ask compassion .
this book, half fiction,
an eelnet made by man for the eel fighting
my eyes have seen what my hand did.
Robert Lowell |
"Relinquunt Omnia Servare Rem Publicam.
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 sigh 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
Gaudens' shaking Civil War relief,
propped by a plank splint against the garage's earthquake.
Two months after marching through Boston,
half 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 gently 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 statues 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 statues 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 bless?d break.
The Aquarium is gone.
giant finned cars nose forward like fish;
a savage servility
slides by on grease.
Robert Lowell |
(for Elizabeth Bishop)
Nautilus Island's hermit
heiress still lives through winter in her Spartan cottage;
her sheep still graze above the sea.
Her son's a bishop.
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.
His nine-knot yawl
was auctioned off to lobstermen.
A red fox stain covers Blue Hill.
And bow 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 Tutor 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
"Love, O careless Love.
" I hear
my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell,
as if my hand were at its throat.
I myself am hell;
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
She jabs her wedge-head in a cup
of sour cream, drops her ostrich tail,
and will not scare.