“I think trying to write is a religious exercise. You are trying to understand life, and you can only get the illusion of doing it fully by writing. That is, it’s the only way I can come to understand things fully. When I create, when I put my own mark on something and form it, I begin to know the whole truth about it, how it was put together. Then you can begin to change things around. You know all this after you have written a lot. You really know. And it has become the most important thing in your life. It has nothing to do with craft, or even art, in a way. It is making sense of life. It is coming to understand yourself.”Peter Taylor
When Robert Lowell Broke Jean Stafford’s Nose For The Second Time
by Amy Newman
When Robert Lowell broke Jean Stafford’s nose
for the second time, something happened to poetry,
vascular, circulatory, an unstable shift in the tender stem
of the coming years,
as the introduction of sulfuric acid to soil
alters hydrangeas to a boy-child blue.
Are you alright, poetry? He hit her hard.
Her pain was exquisite and private,
a castle with seven rooms.
In the final room, the brain shivered, gem-like,
palpable as mathematics.
Doors opened, doors wavered in passive arcs,
beneath a moon unsuitable for metaphor.
What would have been the point, anyway,
of such dreaming? Against the backdrop of the unreachable
planets, pigeons navigate their evening,
soundless at such a distance, seeming graceful, yes,
but terrified, shedding almost everything naïve.
If I were to recount Lowell’s first romance and all its twists and turns, parental misgivings and outright intrusions, it would sound like a cheap romance novel. I’ll sum it up by sharing that at the time Bobby, as his Mother and Father called him, declared his intention to marry his first love and his parents fore bade it, he became so incensed over their objections that he got into a physical brawl with his father, pummeling him to the ground in the entry way of his childhood home in Boston and stormed off, only to come to his senses a few weeks later and relent, realizing he needed the monthly allowance they provided. He promptly made peace with his father and dumped her.
Jean Stafford was different. Jean was an intellectual, a writer, a foil up to the challenge of Lowell’s intensity, intellect and ability. Lowell’s first book of poems, Lord Weary’s Castle, is dedicated to her and the two were married from 1940 to 1948. By the time Stafford and Lowell met, at a writing conference in Colorado, Lowell had grown up and the name Bobby had been buried in all but his parents memory; his friends and colleagues called him Cal. He would published under Robert but it was not the name he went by, the weight of all those prior Roberts a bit too much to bear.
Robert Lowell and Jean Stafford, Late 1930’s.
Stafford was an accomplished writer in her own regards during their relationship and after, ultimately winning the Pulitzer for short fiction in 1970. She had a temperament that mirrored Lowell’s maniac depression and so, they either fueled or tolerated each other’s creativity and demons. On Christmas Day 1938, Lowell borrowed his Father’s Packard and crashed it, while drunk, seriously injuring Stafford, who suffered severe facial fractures, a shattered nose and broken ribs, requiring multiple painful facial surgeries in the upcoming years, one to remove a bit of bone dangerously embedded close to her frontal lobe. Lowell it is reported fled the scene, but eventually plead guilty to operating a vehicle under the influence and paid a fine. None of us truly understand other people’s marriages, but I can imagine this one was all the more complex for the guilt and suffering the crash created between the two of them.
Despite them being in a relationship for more than 10 years, I cannot find a single love poem that Lowell wrote to Stafford. Lord knows, there are no love poems in Lord Weary’s Castle. Stafford would marry again and would obviously go on to publish successfully, admirably, but sustained happiness eluded her. She died at age 63, succumbing to excessive drinking and depression’s erosion of her overall health.
Lowell’s take on marriage is depressing and a bit outrageous in its audacity. He betrayed his second wife of 24 years, Elizabeth Hardwick, by taking their transatlantic letters in the final months of their marriage, while conducting a secret affair in London with Lady Blackwell and without Hardwick’s consent, published it as a book of poetry called The Dolphin. Talk about burning bridges, he dried up an entire ocean no vessel could ever sail across. Lowell wrote some amazing poems on the state of marriage, but unlike Larkin, who could wallow in self hatred and man’s blacker sides, but was also capable of tenderness in his poetry, I have yet to find a single what I would describe as a playful love poem by Lowell. I hope to unearth some in the coming month, or if you know of one, please share it, but as of yet, my reading of Lowell feels like crashing head long into a brick wall and injuring those whom you love is an apt metaphor on the stark nature of his writing on male/female relationships.
by 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 Phèdre.
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.