Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Poem: Robert Lowell

Yesterday's poem got me thinking about another poem that treats the US Civil War, a poem I had to read in high school and did not fully understand, could not really understand or bear, even, until I returned to it, and its author, in college. I speak of Robert Lowell (1917-1977), who had died only a decade before and whose name and fame were still widely known and accepted. They have both dimmed quite a bit since then, as his peer and friend, Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1917), has seen her star ascend, and many of the poets of his generation (Theodore Roethke, Karl Shapiro, John Ciardi, Randall Jarrell, etc.) are even less invoked. (Another almost exact contemporary, Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000), has also become better known and canonical over the last 30 years.)  Lowell's career had many stages, controversies, summits and pits, but when he published the poem below, "For the Union Dead," in the eponymous 1964 volume, he was at the zenith of his fame.

Its title invokes his friend and former teacher Allen Tate's "Ode to the Confederate Dead," while also touching upon many of Lowell's touchstones: Boston, especially the city of his youth; New England and its place in the country; political and social liberalism, and his own conflicts concerning his and the country's difficulties in grappling with race and racism; modernization and the shifts the country was experiencing; his own aging; the power and limits of art to invoke, witness, imagine, commemorate; and so much more. Formally, it shows his shift to the looser, more open style of his mid-career, while still demonstrating his skill as a versifier, his sureness of meter, rhetoric, figure.  His use of the "n" word still jars, but far less; I think it stopped me when I was a teenager, tearing more at the wound that its use in other circumstances--by white classmates, in books like Huckleberry Finn and Wallace Stevens's poetry--had already created. Now I can see why it was necessary, for Lowell, here. The national wound that Shaw and the black soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry confronted in 1863, reanimated so vividly in the 1989 film Glory (which won Denzel Washington his first Academy Award) still festers to some degree, though their bravery and that of all who fought and won that terrible war has gone a long way--including, at the moment of this poem's writing, during the Civil Rights Movement, which involved those "Negro children" on the TV Lowell cites--towards suturing if not fully healing it.


"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
on St. 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 gentle 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.

Colonel Shaw
is riding on his bubble,
he waits
for the blessèd break.

The Aquarium is gone.  Everywhere,
giant finned cars nose forward like fish;
a savage servility
slides by on grease.

From Life Studies and For the Union Dead by Robert Lowell, published by Noonday Press (a division of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.). Copyright © 1964 by Robert Lowell. All rights reserved.

No comments:

Post a Comment