I Feel Awful

Elizabeth Hardwick and Robert Lowell with their new born daughter Harriet (1957).

Talking about the past is like a cat’s trying to explain climbing down a ladder.

Robert Lowell


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.

Hamilton writes:

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. 

Skunk Hour

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. 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,
‘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;
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.

In The Spirit Level

Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell

“The armored cars of dreams, contrived to let us do so many a dangerous thing.”

― Elizabeth Bishop

The Armadillo

by Elizabeth Bishop   (1911-1979)


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 and Elizabeth Bishop’s friendship spanned from 1947 until the end of Lowell’s life in 1977.  They met when Lowell, as part of his appointment with the Library of Congress, was tasked with expanding its collection from just manuscripts and books to include recordings of poets reading their work.  He immediately reached out to Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, Randell Jarrell along with many others, and included an invitation to Elizabeth Bishop who had recently published North and South, which Lowell had written a positive review.   They soon became fast friends. 

In the summer of 1948, with fresh divorce decree in hand, Lowell went with his girl friend at the time, Carly Dawson to spend the summer in Maine to visit Elizabeth Bishop.  Dawson, already twice divorced, soon faded on Lowell’s odd behavior and intensity and dumped him early on in the visit when Lowell immediately set his fascination upon Bishop shortly after their arrival.  Lowell’s and Bishop’s fascination with each other would continue for the next three decades.   It didn’t take long that summer for Lowell to profess his love for her and told his friends and even his family he was going to marry her.  Bishop never took his exclamations of matrimony seriously and claims the two of them never slept together, though there was an intimacy in their intellectual connection that lasted far beyond what a likely physical romance would have lasted, given Lowell’s history in that regard.  

By fall of 1948, with his position completed at the Library of Congress, Lowell headed to Yaddo, an arts commune near Saratoga, New York that still exists today.   It is an eclectic place, then and now, that gives artists in residence a place to work and interact with other artists across a wide range of disciplines.  Upon arrival he reconnected with Elizabeth Hardwick whom he had met before, a novelist and book reviewer, who was a sharp and thorny critic, and also apparently a font of juicy rumors about Alan Tate’s private life.  In short, Hardwick was exactly the kind of intellectual challenge Lowell admired and it took no time for him to switch his gaze from one Elizabeth to another, Bishop to Hardwick.  

Bishop is quoted as saying, “I never wanted to marry Robert Lowell, but I would have loved to have his baby.”  I think it was a way of keeping her sexual history private.  Bishop was a lesbian at a time that it was not easy to be out and open about being a lesbian.   Bishop, in contrast to Berryman and Lowell who were celebrated for evolving confessional poetry, was very deliberate in her writing to separate her personal life from her poetry in all but its metaphors.  Bishop traveled the world, enjoyed the freedom that a single life affords a woman of financial means; writing, painting and enjoying her journey. 

I find it intriguing that Bishop’s final published poem, published 3 weeks after her death in the New Yorker is titled Sonnet.  She had published another Sonnet in 1928 that I have shared in an earlier Fourteenlines, but to my knowledge sonnets were not her forte.  Is the title and its 14 lines a way to reach out to the past to departed friends, Lowell in particular, who had embraced 14 lines as sufficient space to encompass a lifetime?  The poem is remarkable in its simplicity and imagery.  I too have often been fascinated by the rainbows that live in the edges of beveled mirrors and the tiny bubble that exists in all of our spirit levels, fragile, yet permanent, resetting us on the level if we choose to course correct. 



by Elizabeth Bishop

Caught — the bubble
in the spirit level,
a creature divided;
and the compass needle
wobbling and wavering,
Freed — the broken
thermometer’s mercury
running away;
and the rainbow-bird
from the narrow bevel
of the empty mirror,
flying wherever
it feels like, gay!