The future may be an enemy. Time can turn happy days and nights into nothing.
Elizabeth Hardwick (1916 – 2007)
Her Dead Brother (Excerpt)
by Robert Lowell (1917 – 1977)
. . …………………………… …… We are ruinous;
God’s Providence through time has mastered us:
Now all the bells are tongueless, now we freeze,
A later Advent, pruner of warped trees,
Whistles about our nunnery slabs, and yells,
And water oozes from us into wells;
A new year swell and stirs. Our narrow Bay
Freezes itself and us. We cannot say
Christ even sees us, when the ice floes toss
His statue, made by Hurons, on the cross,
That Father Turbot sank on Mother’s mound –
A whirlgig! Mother, we must give ground,
Little by little; bit it does no good.
Tonight, while I am piling, on more driftwood,
And stooping with the poker, you are here,
Telling your beads; and breathing in my ear,
You watch your orphan swording at her fears.
I feel you twitch my shoulder. No one hears
Us mock the sisters, as we used to, years
And years behind us, when we heard the spheres
Whirring venite; and we held our ears.
My mother’s hollow sockets fill with tears.
Lowell, as an adult, did not function well without a wife. He didn’t function particularly well with one either, but it was as Elizabeth Hardwick’s spouse that he found the greatest stability and productivity of his career. When you look at Lowell’s history of relationships there is a tendency for them to be cemented under duress. When Hardwick and Lowell connected at Yaddo in the fall of 1948, Hardwick was scheduled to depart, but fell for Lowell’s affections and decided to stay on. During the early part of 1949, while both were in residence, there was a scandal at Yaddo, when the FBI, on the vigilant lookout at the time for communist spies among liberal artists, visited Yaddo and interviewed Hardwick on the activities of Agnes Smedley, a writer on Far East politics and a known Marxist. Intertwined among all this was another scandal, the fact that current year’s Bollinger award had been given to Pound, who had published a book of poems while being imprisoned for his support of Mussolini. The zealous nature of the federal government during this period to root out fascists, socialists and communists from all reaches of American life, and particularly the arts lead them to Yaddo, who had several individuals involved in both scandals. The long and the short of it is, in a complicated and only partially verifiable report, the long finger of Hoover’s FBI was pointed at Smedley and other’s at Yaddo for some involvement in some unproven nefarious scheme to steal government secrets and FBI agents showed up to root out the foreign agents of a supposed communist plot. Hardwick was one of the people interviewed about the same time the two of them were falling in love and this was just the kind of heavy handed government interference that was in Robert Lowell’s wheel house of righteous indignation. He promptly applied the full powers of his maniac intellect and family connections to cry foul; and come to his lady’s aid, loudly! This kind of moral, emotional and political support strengthened their bond, but it also fed Lowell’s unhealthy manic side with the inevitable outcome that there was going to be a crash, sooner or later. As it turned out, it was sooner.
I mention this only for context around Lowell’s three major accomplishments in 1949; he reconnected with the Catholic Church in a fervent elevation of piety, he had a nervous breakdown and he married Elizabeth Hardwick. Lowell is quoted in Ian Hamilton’s biography as telling Hardwick before they married, while in the midst of a deepening depression; “No one can care for me, …… I have ruined my life. I’ll always be mad.” Hardwick married him anyway in his parents home in Boston late in 1949 and it was agreed by all, he should be admitted to Payne Whitney clinic in New York for treatment shortly after the honeymoon to sort himself out in January of 1950.
Lowell’s second volume of poetry, The Mills of the Kavanaughs, was published in 1951 and obviously written during these turbulent years. The long form poems are imbued with a rising moral authority and psychiatric insights about himself and his family and for the most part, are not my cup of tea. However, when I take the time to focus on portions, there is remarkable beauty. I admire that he kept writing during this time of personal chaos. The best of The Mills of the Kavanaughs, both the poem and the book, is a foreshadowing of what was to come next, his best work, which would set him apart in American Literature, all written under the loving care and intelligence of Lizzie Hardwick.
The Mills of the Kavanaughs (Excerpt)
by Robert Lowell
The leaves, sun’s yellow, listen, Love, they fall.
She hears her husband, and she tries to call
Him, then remembers. Burning stubble roars
About the garden. Columns fill the life
Insurance calendar on which she scores.
The lady laughs. She shakes her parsol.
The table rattles, and she chews her pearled,
Once telescopic pencil, till its knife
Snaps open, “Sol,” she whipsers, laughing, “Sol,
If you will help me, I will win the world.”
Her husband’s thumbnail scratches on her comb.
A boy is pointing at the sun. He cries:
O dandelion, wish my wish, be true,
And blows the callow pollen in her eyes.
“Harry,” she whispers, “we are far from home –
A boy and a girl a-Maying in the blue