Talking about the past is like a cat’s trying to explain climbing down a ladder.
Terminal Days at Beverly Farms (Excerpt)
by Robert Lowell
Father and Mother moved to Beverly Farms
to be a two minute walk from the station,
half an hour by train from the Boston doctors.
They had no sea-view,
but sky-blue tracks of the commuters’ railroad shone
like a double-barreled shotgun
through the scarlet late August sumac,
multiplying like cancer
at their garden’s border.
Father had had two coronaries.
He still treasured underhand economies,
but his best friend was his little black Chevie,
garaged like a sacrificial steer
with gilded hooves,
yet sensationally sober,
and with less side than an old dancing pump.
The local dealer, a “buccaneer,”
had been bribed a “king’s ransom”
to quickly deliver a car without chrome.
Each morning at eight-thirty,
inattentive and beaming,
loaded with his “calc” and “trig” books,
his clipper ship statistics,
and his ivory slide rule,
Father stole off with the Chevie
to load in the Maritime Museum at Salem.
He called the curator
“the commander of the Swiss Navy.”
Father’s death was abrupt and unprotesting.
His vision was still twenty-twenty.
After a morning of anxious, repetitive smiling,
his last words to Mother were:
“I feel awful.”
There are photographs where the intent of the picture is one thing and the truth of it another. Knowing that this was a staged photograph by a professional photographer shortly before or after Harriet’s baptism, and that more than one picture would have been taken, it is hard to understand why this version would be the one to make it into the family archives. Few new fathers allow the truth of their inner uncertainty about the business of being a new father to be so clearly on display for friends and relatives to see, let alone what a grown up Harriet might think.
Lowell’s next book to be published was Life Studies in 1959, two years after Harriet’s birth. Life Studies won the National Book Award for poetry in 1960. The poems are innately personal, biographical, stark and a bit of a slog to read. They are inconsistent in tone, some critics claim intentionally, and very much an attempt to stitch together his relationships within his family and himself and his past. They are a reflection of the time politically in this country as well as what had happened to Lowell personally during the decade of the 1950’s, in which he spent a period mid-decade in ancestral worship in trying to right his ship and bring things into focus.
The 1950’s in Hamilton’s biography for Lowell are a series of breakdowns, hospitalizations, recoveries, improvements, productivity, then a slide into episodes of heavy drinking and depression, only to rinse and repeat. Lowell had the financial means from his parents to have a stable home life during this chaos and the love and support of Hardwick through it all. During periods of productivity in this decade, Lowell was exploring the flexibility that free verse provided and decoupling the classical structure from the narratives he felt compelled to share. He was energized by the possibilities to connect the old and the new in a different confessional voice of poetry he felt was needed to convey the truth of his past for a new future. There is only one typical sonnet contained within Life Studies, and its one I have already shared on Fourteenlines; the sonnet To Speak of Woe That Is In Marriage, a dark misogynistic nightmare where no intimacy exists between man and wife, only destructive, unemotional copulation. it’s unclear who Lowell is channeling To Speak of Woe, himself, his father, someone else? Regardless Lowell’s subconscious was on full display.
Much of Life Studies draws on his family history and its clear he wrote far beyond what was published during that time. Hamilton shares a draft of a previously unpublished sonnet in his biography of Lowell. The sonnet was written shortly after Lowell’s Father’s death in 1950, the Navy Admiral Robert Traill Spence Lowell III.
Four years have left Dunbarton much the same,
Mother, another stone, another name,
And you, earth’s orbit? You are things,
No you, no person. Ah, the king of kings,
Little Napoleon, whose bolting food
So caught your fancy, caught your horror stood
Blotting your minutes after Father died.
No bustle, bustle, bustle. Groom and bride
lie cot by cot. Once more they feel the spark
Dive through the unnerved marrow of their dark,
A person breaking through his prison term,
Where now as then, relapsing. Oh a germ,
Studies his navel, graphs and charts and maps
Gentle to all, and loving none perhaps.
It is small wonder that when Lowell made the decision to shift from this kind of mechanical regularity to the spacious relaxation of free verse, he was somewhat dazzled by his own boldness, for a period, at any rate, he was content simply to “take liberties,” to relish the sheer drasticness of what he’d done.
But in reading Hamilton’s biography, there appears to be nothing relaxed about Lowell’s writing process. The entire process of writing the poems that would make up Life Studies was punctuated by manic depressive episodes, endless rewrites and revisions in the period leading up to the final drafts, a process that utterly drained Lowell and all those around him, resulting in another series of locked ward hospitalizations at its conclusion. Very little about Lowell’s life appears to have been “relaxing” for his spouse, friends and supporters. From Hamilton’s descriptions, Lowell is what I would describe as a high maintenance individual.
Life Studies concludes with Skunk Hour, dedicated to Elizabeth Bishop, that in my opinion is more an inside joke between the two of them than the tour du force poem based on the praise that the critics heaped upon it. Regardless, it has a playful quality that definitely sets it apart from most of the rest of the book and again, in my opinion, is a poor second as Lowell’s response to Bishop’s Armadillo. Why Life Studies won the National Book Award for poetry is completely beyond me. I dare wonder if Lowell was a fledgling writer in 2021, submitting these same poems for publication today, would he win the acclaim he did or would he be resoundingly rejected? Some poets and poems stand the test of time, words that go well beyond their age and period. Lowell in my mind is not one of them. He is a poet very much connected and a reflection of his time. And his time has come and gone.
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. Her farmer
is first selectman in our village,
she’s in her dotage.
the hierarchic privacy
of Queen Victoria’s century,
she buys up all
the eyesores facing her shore,
and lets them fall.
The season’s ill—
we’ve lost our summer millionaire,
who seemed to leap from an L. L. Bean
catalogue. His nine-knot yawl
was auctioned off to lobstermen.
A red fox stain covers Blue Hill.
And now our fairy
decorator brightens his shop for fall,
his fishnet’s filled with orange cork,
orange, his cobbler’s bench and awl,
there is no money in his work,
he’d rather marry.
One dark night,
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,
‘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 pail
She jabs her wedge-head in a cup
of sour cream, drops her ostrich tail,
and will not scare.