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 The Atlantic Monthly | January 1975

The Difficult Grandeur of Robert Lowell

Why should such grim books give such pleasure?
by Helen Vendler

In 1973, Robert Lowell, our greatest contemporary poet, published three volumes at once—History, For Lizzie and Harriet, and The Dolphin—and by that decisive self-presentation made us all once again confront his tumultuous and vexed career. The books were prudishly ignored by the National Book Award judges, who refused even to nominate the entirely new one, The Dolphin, for an award, but it later won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry, and reviews mirrored the mixed feelings reflected in the award-giving. History is a recasting, in chronological order and revised form, of the poems which appeared in Notebook; bracketing it are For Lizzie and Harriet, about Lowell's former wife and child, and The Dolphin, about his new wife and child. Personal history and the history of the race are Lowell's subjects, and the brutal force of the three books taken at once forced energetic postures of repudiation or championship from all his readers.

Lowell, though born of the Winslows, the Starks, and the Lowells, and perhaps our last intellectual New England poet, is nonetheless not a parochial Boston voice. He is now fifty-seven, and world-famous, but the eccentricity of his life began, we may think, with his expulsion, for throwing stones, from the Boston Public Garden; it continued with his leaving Harvard for Kenyon College; it was marked by a conversion, though temporary, to Roman Catholicism, followed by imprisonment during World War II as a conscientious objector; it has included successive periods of mental illness and successive marriages; and in its combination of reclusiveness and public action, it embodies its own contradictions. The books that have issued from this life trace, at first obscurely and then candidly (some have said exhibitionistically), the contours of Lowell's experience, and offer us a poetry of difficult grandeur.

In Lowell, the "mill of the mind" (as Yeats called it) grinds a diverse grain with a stony force. Perhaps the first and only question put to us by its incessant activity is why the grim books that make up his collected works should give us, in any sense, pleasure. Lowell's dramatic power has an edge of malice and, in his tragic moments, cruelty: Both malice and cruelty are countered by a quietism which took its extreme form in the early portrait of the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham in "The Quaker Graveyard at Nantucket"—the face of the statue "expressionless, expresses God." This quietism has recently taken the form of an expressionless, if biting, historical impartiality. But behind cruelty, malice, and deadly observation lies a covert idealism, sometimes self-indulgent and knowingly sentimental, sometimes pure. His commonest fantasies are of "tyrannizers and the tyrannized," whether Jonathan Edwards terrifying his congregation, or Stalin executing his friends; in our putatively democratic America, Lowell speculates on the use and abuse of power and kingship.

His most recent manner throws up nearly indigestible fragments of experience, unprefaced by explanation, unexplained by cause or result; sudden soliloquies of figures ranging from Biblical times to contemporary history; translations; diary jottings; stately imitations of known forms; the whole litter and debris and detritus of a mind absorptive for fifty years. His free association, irritating at first, hovering always dangerously toward the point where unpleasure replaces pleasure, nonetheless becomes bearable, and then even deeply satisfying, on repeated rereading. And if Verdun or Thomas More or Frank Parker is not in our sphere of reference, we can slide off to poems on the march on Washington, or private walks, or Emerson, or a Cambridge blizzard, or New York taxi drivers. The presence of the familiar, and the genuineness of its note, act to assure the genuineness of the rest.

Lowell is one of our most learned and widely read poets, liking encyclopedic reference for its own sake: He tells us that when he was a boy, he "skulked in the attic, / and got two hundred French generals by name, / from A to V—from Augereau to Vandamme." Any one of the two hundred might put in an appearance in History, and other, more private allusions to a family past jostle the large and casual mention of historical figures. Lowell has a formidable genius for the details of life, those details which made Life Studies an unrivaled family history in verse, and which now, filling the pages of History, constitute an unspeakably dense poetic or secondary world. It is a world where, even after the publication of Life Studies, the Lowell ancestors refuse to disappear:

They won't stay gone, and stare with triumphant torpor, as if held in my fieldglasses' fog and enlargement.

Like some crowded Tiergarten, Lowell's poetry exhausts all species. Since everything is here, we cannot exactly define the poet as a selective collector; he is rather the curator of the world, and it is only in the tone of regard with which this curator presents his specimens, whether alive or fossilized, that we can catch his likeness. That tone, though fierce, is measured. For him, the monuments of culture are not, as they were for Rilke, inexhaustible proof of the ecstatic potential of man; history has not for Lowell, as it had for Tennyson, a teleological shape; and family and home are not finally, as they are to Allen Ginsberg's monstrous piety, sacred. The disloyalty of Lowell-as-grandson in Life Studies, where we see him doodling moustaches on the last Russian Czar, plays a decisive role in Lowell's historical perspective. Though his poetry has been seen, with some truth in respect to the early books, as one rising out of disgust, preoccupied with the grotesque, and violent in its sensibility, these qualities are not its determining ones. He has learned, partly through the fitful tenderness first manifested in Life Studies, to tame the apocalyptic to the eternal dailiness of life. It is not that his Miltonic avidity for omnipotence has disappeared; but its direction has altered, and the temporal has obscured the prophetic. In fact, History and its companion volumes, with their tenderness toward the earth and its offerings, contain the first legitimate continuance of Shakespeare's sonnets since Keats, full of "Any clear thing that blinds us with surprise / ...wandering silences and bright trouvailles." The closing poem in For Lizzie and Harriet demands quotation in any writing about Lowell's recent work: In it he puts transcendence—all that demands aspiration, vengeance, order, justice, law, salvation—to rest, and chooses instead a Shakespearean recurrence:

Before the final coming to rest, comes the rest
of all transcendence in a mode of being, hushing
all becoming. I'm for and with myself in my otherness,
in the eternal return of earth's fairer children,
the lily, the rose, the sun on brick at dusk,
the loved, the lover, and their fear of life,
their unconquered flux, insensate oneness...

"My breath," says Lowell, "is life, the rough, the smooth, the bright, the drear."

Into his infernal scenarios enter the odd domestications of the universe, like the turtle discovered on the road, kept in the bathtub, then in the sink, where he refuses to eat:

raw hamburger mossing in the watery stoppage,
the room drenched with musk like kerosene—
no one shaved, and only the turtle washed.
He was so beautiful when we flipped him over:
greens, reds, yellows, fringe of the faded savage,
the last Sioux, old and worn...

Lowell and his wife drive the turtle to the river, watch him "rush for water like rushing into marriage." The "uncontaminated joy" of the turtle finding his proper food and element at last transforms the river for Lowell:

lovely the flies that fed that sleazy surface,
a turtle looking back at us, and blinking.

The turtle has some of the staunchness of the skunks in "Skunk Hour" (from Life Studies), but in that poem the poet cannot share in the cheerful animal life; his "ill-spirit sob[s] in each blood cell." In the vistas of the newer poems, however, the human species performs generic acts, like the lizard:

The lizard rusty as a leaf rubbed rough
does nothing for days but puff his throat
on oxygen, and tongue up passing flies,
loves only identical rusty lizards panting:
harems worthy this lord of the universe—
each thing he does generic, and not the best.

In his recent poetry, Lowell embodies his maxims in fine-drawn descriptions, and views himself as not distinct from the lizard: "I, fifty, humbled with the years' gold garbage, / dead laurel grizzling my back like spines of hay." He moves ahead, "drawn on by my unlimited desire, / like a bull with a ring in his nose, a chain in the ring..." The cause of our will to direction is only language: If seals should suddenly learn to write, "Then all seals, preternatural like us, / would take direction, head north—their haven / green ice in a greenland never grass." "The fish, the shining fish, they go in circles, / not one of them will make it to the Pole— / this isn't the point though, this is not the point." The "horrifying mortmain of ephemera" becomes in another view our only night on stage, as Lowell says in his poem about his ten-year-old daughter:

Spring moved to summer—the rude cold rain
hurries the ambitious, flowers and youth....

Child of ten, three quarters animal,
three years from Juliet, half Juliet,
already ripened for the night on stage—
beautiful petals, what shall we hope for....?

If I quote such poems, it is because the inexhaustibility of the world, the eternal return of earth's fairer children, seems to have become Lowell's new subject, expressed with full knowledge of the fragile in the inexhaustible. This poetry has no need of invitation or seduction to win us: It beckons by the comprehension of its atlas, historical and geographical, its representation of all we know.

It does not abandon its previous myths, but it subjects them to a relentless modernizing. Genesis is thrust into Darwinian time, as we see the beginning of the world:

The virus crawling on its belly like a blot,
an inch an aeon; the tyrannosaur,
first carnivore to stand on his two feet,
the neanderthal, first anthropoid to laugh—
we lack staying power, though we will to live.
Abel learned this falling among the jellied
creepers and morning-glories of the saurian sunset.

Lowell believes equally in Abel and the dinosaurs; and he decides, in a bold throw of the dice, to give twentieth-century speeches to all his characters, even those lost in antiquity. So Clytemnestra becomes Lowell's mother, complaining about her husband:

"After my marriage, I found myself in constant
companionship with this almost stranger I found
neither agreeable, interesting, nor admirable,
though he was always kind and irresponsible...."

Lowell himself appears as the young Orestes, in Clytemnestra's Christmas poem:

"O Christmas tree, how green thy branches—our features
could only be the most conventional,
the hardwood smile, the Persian rug's abstraction,
the firelight dancing in the Christmas candles,
my unusual offspring with his usual scowl,
spelling the fifty feuding kings of Greece,
with a red, blue and yellow pencil....I
am seasick with marital unhappiness—"

The compulsion to rewrite history, to afford privileged glimpses of the hidden moments of intimacy in public lives, to insert in the book of history the commentaries of poets—Horace, Du Bellay, Góngora, Heine, Baudelaire, Becquer, Leopardi, Rilke, Rimbaud—to modernize relentlessly in laconic colloquialisms, to assume familiarity, to impute motive—all this rules more of History than perhaps it should.

Yet what fixes us in admiration of this recent poetry is the continual presence of Lowell himself. He is at the shore, has eaten lobster, watches his dying fire, and thinks how we still discover the dead fires of druidic Stone Age men and quasimythical Celtic kings:

               The fires men build live after them,
this night, this night, I elfking, I stonehands sit
feeding the wildfire wildrose of the fire
clouding the cottage window with my lust's
alluring emptiness. I hear the moon
simmer the mildew on a pile of shells,
the fruits of my banquet...a boiled lobster,
red shell and hollow foreclaw, cracked, sucked dry,
flung on the ash-heap of a soggy carton—
it eyes me, two pinhead, burnt-out popping eyes.

This is the quintessential beauty of the appalling exactly drawn. It stands in counterpoint to the equal beauty of the beautiful exactly drawn, in this "imitation" from Bécquer:

                  The thick lemony honeysuckle,
climbing from the earthroot to your window,
will open more beautiful blossoms to the evening;
but dewdrops, trembling, shining, falling,
the tears of day—they'll not come back....

The vignettes of history spoken in Lowell's voice strike even more sharply than the resurrected voices of history left to speak for themselves. Here are the Pilgrims in New England:

                         The Puritan shone here,
lord of self-inflicted desiccation,
roaming for outlet through the virgin forest,
stalking the less mechanically angered savage—
the warpath to three wives and twenty children.

As History moves to the modern era, Lowell speaks to his contemporaries, the dead poets—Eliot, Pound, Schwartz, MacNeice, Frost, Williams, Jarrell, Roethke—and to the then still living Berryman. He speaks as well to the other admired dead, from F. O. Matthiessen to Harpo Marx to Che Guevara. Each is allowed a remark, an epigram, a moment of appearance, before the spurt of life dies out: "The passage from lower to upper middle age / is quicker than the sigh of a match in the water." Interspersed are other sighs of aging, this one adapted from a letter by Mary McCarthy:

Exhaust and airconditioning klir in the city....
The real motive for my trip is dentistry,
a descending scale: long ago, I used to drive
to New York to see a lover, next the analyst,
an editor, then a lawyer...time's dwindling choice.

It was not to be expected that Lowell should forsake his autobiographical vein, but it is tempered often, in History, with episodes of pure and detached observation, as an immortal eye, indifferent to its own decay, makes notations of the disordered wonders of the earth—the panorama, for instance, of Cambridge in a blizzard:

Risen from the blindness of teaching to bright snow,
everything mechanical stopped dead,
taxis no-fares...the wheels grow hot from driving—
ice-eyelashes, in my spring coat; the subway
too jammed and late to stop for passengers;
snow-trekking the mile from subway end to airport...
to all-flights-canceled, fighting queues congealed
to telephones out of order, stamping buses,
rich, stranded New Yorkers staring with the wild, mild eyes
of steers at the foreign subway—then the train home,
jolting with stately grumbling.

Such a passage rests in the present, in the isolation of perfect registering of sense, and prevents the worse isolation of the mind withdrawn from sense:

Sometimes, my mind is a rocked and dangerous bell;
I climb the spiral stairs to my own music,
each step more poignantly oracular,
something inhuman always rising in me—

Lowell works, in his poems of sense, like those "star-nosed moles, [in] their catatonic tunnels / and earthworks...only in touch with what they touch."

There are morals that can be quoted or deduced from the poems in History and its companion volumes, but they are not what vivifies the new work. These poems live neither on ideology nor on logic—props thought to be the mainstays of an earlier Lowell; instead, they yield to the lawless free associations of the rocked and dangerous mind. The worst one can say of Lowell's recent verse is that its connections are often at first sight baffling and its use of slang sometimes uncertain; but the awed formality of the early verse was a young man's evasion of his own language. Repudiating the "monotony of vision" inherent in unending attachment to the child he was, and yet knowing that child alive in himself till death, Lowell feels the thread of self as perpetual clue while following the labyrinths of change, forcing works into shape, dismayed by the recalcitrance of words, wishing a real, not artificial, flame on the hearth:

I want words meat-hooked from the living steer,
but a cold flame of tinfoil licks the metal log,
beautiful unchanging fire of childhood
betraying a monotony of vision....
Life by definition breeds on change,
each season we scrap new cars and wars and women.
But sometimes when I am ill or delicate,
the pinched flame of my match turns unchanging green,
a cornstalk in green tails and seeded tassel....
A nihilist has to live in the world as is,
gazing the impassable summit to rubble.

Of all styles, description is the most difficult to describe. Lowell has freed himself from his large early abstractions, even from the categories of the individual soul that once seemed so natural. Taking on history as a discipline, Lowell refuses to be less than the world is.

Have we had a nihilist poet before this recent Robert Lowell? Not a nihilist who is a disappointed idealist, but a philosophical nihilist, incorporating within truth both instinctual hope and equable resignation? How Lowell came to this nihilism is not clear; political and marital discouragement, the weariness of twenty years of cyclical mania and depression, and repeated, inevitable hospitalization would suffice, even without the blighting of Lowell's own generation by insanity, suicide, and tragedy. But the weariness is allowed to remain weariness, tending toward but never reaching that death whose "sweetness none will ever taste." "Life, hope, they conquer death, generally, always."

The comparative lack of fertility in Lowell's two weaker volumes, For the Union Dead and Near the Ocean—after their exquisite predecessor, the original Life Studies—warned us that Lowell had to find a new impulse of energy or die as a poet. It seemed impossible that he should go beyond Life Studies, with its finely modulated satiric memoir, "91 Revere Street," and its subsequent collection of family portraits. Though there were many beautiful poems in Life Studies, it was Part IV of that book, with its quality of sporadic memoir from a son not detached enough to be all-forgiving, but old enough to permit himself detachment, that immediately gained Lowell a new fame, a fame as misplaced in the adjective "confessional" as it was, in itself, deserved. It was not the confessions that made Life Studies so memorable; it was rather the quality of memory indelibly imprinted, a brilliance of detail almost unconsciously preserved in a store of words perpetually refreshed.

In Life Studies, a deliberate sparseness of syntax enhanced minute details, as daguerrotype succeeded daguerrotype, rendering the furniture, the cuckoo clocks, the lamps with doily shades, the hot water bottle, the golf-cap, the ivory slide rule, the Pierce Arrow, the billiards-table, the decor "manly, comfortable, / overbearing, disproportioned." If we believed in the confessions, it was because we were made to believe in their ambience. And all the forceful particularity of Life Studies reappears in Lowell's latest work.

It is astonishing that anyone confronted with Lowell's three new volumes should still be praising Lord Weary's Castle over History. And yet it is done, for example, by a fellow poet who accuses Lowell of "self-exploitation" in History: "One senses the life lived in order to provide material for poems; one sees with horror the cannibal-poet who dines off portions of his own body, and the bodies of his family." There are flaws in History, of course, since there are no flawless books of poetry, but flaws die of themselves, in silence, and need no criticism for their extinction. A poet's necessary conversion of experience into art can hardly be called cannibalism, and if the accusation that "the life is lived in order to provide material for poems" is to be convincing, it must be proved. These poems are Lowell's life as much as his life is; perhaps more.

                          Conscience incurable
convinces me I am not writing my life;
life never assures which part of ourself is life.

Lowell is not at his best in describing the chaos of present relation; Life Studies benefited from the haze, the selective screens of memory, which refined the dramatis personae into effigies of themselves, sepulchral statues fixed in eternally characteristic positions. The slip and flow of changing personal give-and-take is apparently not yet available to Lowell, and that truth is more damaging to his recent poetry than any moral criticism. The lapses in these three recent books spring from two sources—the cruel brevity of a fourteen-line form used for encyclopedic material, and the attempt to write of immediate personal interchange. When we lack Lowell's penumbra of information about Rome or the Enlightenment or the Chicago Convention, we miss his point; wishing for intimacy in the personal sonnets, we find sometimes simply the rags and tatters of conversation. "I am learning to live in history," says Lowell in For Lizzie and Harriet, and adds his definition: "What is history? What you cannot touch." Once it is irremediably past, and only then, does life give itself to the epiphanies of Lowell's verse, without losing itself as plight, and without divesting itself of dailiness. The shame of wrongdoing, the bitterness of the wronged, the claims of fidelity and the claims of change, must in life clash to a standstill, but nothing in the art of poetry serves justice as justice might urge in life. The extreme power, even of an apparently unjust position, cannot be gainsaid when it occurs. Here is Lowell, for instance, on the eternal problem of the subjection of women: In youth they were swallows, beautiful, capricious, full of movement and gaiety; they asked to be domesticated, to be put into nests, to be fed; now, oppressed by the drudgery of life, they metamorphose into stinging wasps: What are they but prostitutes? I quote the earlier version, called "Das ewig Weibliche":

Serfs with a finer body and tinier brain—
who asks the swallows to do drudgery,
clean, cook, peck up their ton of dust per diem?
Knock on their homes, they go up tight with fear,
farting about all morning past their young,
small as wasps fuming in their ash-leaf ball.
Nature lives off the life that comes to hand;
yet if we knew and softly felt their being,
wasp, bee and bird might live with us on air;
the boiling yellow-jacket in her sack
of zebra-stripe cut short above the knee
escape...the nerve-wrung creatures, wasp, bee and bird,
felons for life or keepers of the cell,
wives in their wooden cribs of seed and feed.

Whatever our judgment of the social view of the poem, who can dismiss its powerful metamorphoses, its fuming wasps and boiling yellow-jackets, its lethal conjunction of seed and feed? Finally, the only test of the poem is that it be unforgettable, the natural held in the grip of vision. We know Lowell's vision, a powerful one that has forgone the comforts of nostalgia, of religion, seemingly of politics. In the sterner poems, he even forgoes love, though The Dolphin lingers in a forlorn hope for that subject even yet. Love itself bows to the eternal phenomenon of recurrence and fate:

I too maneuvered on a guiding string
as I execute my written plot.
I feel how Hamlet, stuck with the Revenge Play
his father wrote him, went scatological
under this clotted London sky.

But even within the rigid confines of the plot, still declaiming words fed by the prompter, the poet finds some liberties of choice and action hovering in possibility: To waver is to be counted among the living, he says, and "survival is talking on the phone." While death becomes "an ingredient of [his] being," he nonetheless watches, from night to morning, "the black rose-leaves / return to inconstant greenness." Writing and writing and writing, with an urgency showing no diminution, Lowell places himself, myopic and abashed, below his former epic assaults on heaven:

I watch a feverish huddle of shivering cows;
you sit making a fishspine from a chestnut leaf.
We are at our crossroads, we are astigmatic
and stop uncomfortable, we are humanly low.

Though this is not a comfortable poetry, it has the solace of truth in its picture of the misery, sense of stoppage, and perplexed desultoriness of middle age. "They told us," says Lowell, remembering the old motto, "by harshness to win the stars." That was, for a long time, his mode, the Luciferian embattled ascent, accompanied by an orchestration of clashing arms and wars in heaven. Now, making a net, as he says, to catch like the Quaker fishermen all the fish in the sea of life and history, even up to Leviathan, he works with no props but the mood of the occasion, with no sure guide but the inexplicable distinctiveness of personal taste. Foretelling the mixed extinction and perpetuity of his own poetic accomplishment, Lowell hangs up his nets in perpetuity. They are the equivocal nets woven and unraveled by a Penelope:

                        I've gladdened a lifetime
knotting, undoing a fishnet of tarred rope;
the net will hang on the wall when the fish are eaten,
nailed like illegible bronze on the futureless future.

The self-epitaph is premature, but not on that account false. The subjects of these poems will eventually become extinct, like all other natural species devoured by time, but the indelible mark of their impression on a single sensibility will remain, in Lowell's votive sculpture, bronzed to imperishability.

The Atlantic Monthly | November 1960

For the Union Dead
by Robert Lowell

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 steam shovels were grunting
as they cropped up tons of mush and grass
to gouge their underworld garage.

Parking lots luxuriate like civic
sand piles 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.

The 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. 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
showed 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 blessed break.

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

The Atlantic Monthly | August 1961

The Voyage
From Baudelaire: Le Voyage
by Robert Lowell

For T. S. Eliot


For the boy playing with his globe and stamps,
the world is equal to his appetite—
how grand the world in the blaze of the lamps,
how petty in tomorrow's small dry light!

One morning we lift anchor, full of brave
prejudices, prospects, ingenuity—
we swing with the velvet swell of the wave,
our infinite is rocked by the fixed sea.

Some wish to fly a cheapness they detest,
others, their cradles' terror—others stand
with their binoculars on a woman's breast,
reptilian Circe with her junk and wand.

Not to be turned to reptiles, such men daze
themselves with spaces, light, the burning sky;
cold toughens them, they bronze in the sun's blaze
and dry the sores of their debauchery.

But the true voyagers are those who move
simply to move—like lost balloons! Their heart
is some old motor thudding in one groove.
It says its single phrase, "Let us depart!"

They are like conscripts lusting for the guns;
our sciences have never learned to tag
their projects and designs—enormous, vague
hopes grease the wheels of these automatons!


We imitate, oh horror! tops and bowls
in their eternal waltzing marathon;
even in sleep, our fever whips and rolls
us, like an angel flogging the brute sun.

Strange sport! where destination has no place
or name, and may be anywhere we choose—
where man, committed to his endless race,
runs like a madman diving for repose!

Our soul is a three-master seeking port:
a voice from starboard shouts, "We're at the dock!"
Another, more elated, cries from port,
"Here's dancing, gin, and girls!" Balls! It's a rock!

The islands sighted by the lookout seem
the El Dorados promised us last night;
imagination wakes from its drugged dream,
sees only ledges in the morning light.

What dragged these patients from their German spas?
Shall we throw them in chains, or in the sea?
Sailors discovering new Americas,
who drown in a mirage of agony!

The worn-out sponge, who scuffles through our slums,
sees whisky, paradise, and liberty
wherever oil lamps shine in furnished rooms—
we see Blue Grottoes, Caesars, and Capri.


Stunningly simple tourists, your pursuit
is written in the teardrops in your eyes!
Spread out the packing cases of your loot,
your azure sapphires made of seas and skies!

We want to break the boredom of our jails
and cross the oceans without oars or steam—
give us visions to stretch our minds like sails,
the blue, exotic shore line of your dream!

Tell us, what have you seen?


        "We've seen the stars,
a wave or two—we've also seen some sand;
although we peer through telescopes and spars,
we're often deadly bored as you on land.

The shine of sunlight on the violet sea,
the roar of cities when the sun goes down:
these stir our hearts with restless energy;
we ride on the Indian Ocean, where we drown!

No old château or shrine besieged by crowds
of crippled pilgrims sets our souls on fire,
as these chance countries gathered from the clouds.
Our hearts are always anxious with desire.

Desire, that great elm fertilized by lust,
gives its old body, whenever heaven warms
its bark that winters and old age encrust;
green branches draw the sun into its arms.

Why are you always growing taller, Tree—
Oh longer-lived than cypress! Yet we took
one or two sketches for your picture book,
Brothers who sell your souls for novelty!

We have salaamed to pagan gods with horns,
entered shrines peopled by a galaxy
of Buddhas, Slavic saints, and unicorns,
so rich Rothschild must dream of bankruptcy!

Priests' robes that scattered solid golden flakes,
dancers with tattooed bellies and behinds,
charmers supported by braziers of snakes..."


Yes, and what else?


        Oh trivial, childish minds!

You've missed the more important things that we
were forced to learn against our will. We've been
from top to bottom of the ladder, and see
only the pageant of immortal sin:

there women, servile, peacock-tailed, and coarse,
marry for money, and love without disgust
horny, potbellied tyrants stuffed on lust,
slaves' slaves—the sewer in which their gutter pours!

old maids who weep, playboys who live each hour,
state banquets loaded with hot sauces, blood and trash,
ministers sterilized by dreams of power,
workers who love their brutalizing lash;

and everywhere religions like our own
all storming heaven, propped with saints who reign
like sybarites on beds of nails and frown—
all searching for some orgiastic pain!

Many, self-drunk, are lying in the mud—
mad now, as they have always been, they roll
in torment screaming to the throne of God:
"My image and my lord, I hate your soul!"

And others, dedicated without hope,
flee the dull herd—each locked in his own world
hides in his ivory tower of art and dope—
this is the daily news from the whole world!


How sour the knowledge travelers bring away.
The world's monotonous and small; we see
ourselves today, tomorrow, yesterday,
an oasis of horror in sands of ennui!

The Atlantic Monthly | March 1966

Fourth of July in Maine
(For Harriet Winslow)
by Robert Lowell

Another summer! Our Independence
Day Parade, all innocence
of children's costumes, helps resist
the communist and socialist.
Five nations: Dutch, French, Englishmen,
Indians, and we, who held Castine,
rise from their graves in combat gear—
world-losers elsewhere, conquerors here!

Civil Rights clergy face again
the scions of the good old strain,
the poor who always must remain
poor and Republicans in Maine,
upholders of the American Dream,
who will not sink and cannot swim—
O Emersonian self-reliance,
O lethargy of Russian peasants!

High noon. Each child has won his blue,
red, yellow ribbon, and our statue,
a dandyish Union Soldier, sees
his fields reclaimed by views and spruce—
he seems a convert to old age,
small, callous, elbowed off the stage,
while the canned martial music fades
from scene and green—no more parades!

Blue twinges of mortality
remind us the theocracy
drove in its stakes here to command
the infinite, and gave this land
a ministry that would have made
short work of Christ, the Son of God,
and then exchanged His crucifix,
hardly our sign, for politics.

This white Colonial frame house,
willed downward, Dear, from you to us,
still matters, the Americas'
best artifact produced en masse.
The founders' faith was in decay,
and yet their building seems to say:
"O every time I take a breath,
My God you are the air I breathe."

New England, everywhere I look,
old letters crumble from the Book,
China trade rubble, one more line
unraveling from the dark design
spun by God and Cotton Mather—
our bel età dell' oro, another
bright thing thinner than a cobweb,
caught in Calvinism's ebb.

Dear Cousin, life is much the same,
though only fossils know your name
here since you left this solitude,
gone, as the Christians say, for good.
Your house, still outwardly in form
lasts, though no emissary come
to watch the garden running down,
or photograph the propped-up barn.

If memory is genius, you
had Homer's, enough gossip to
repeople Trollope's Barchester,
nurse, negro, diplomat, down-easter,
cousins kept up with, nipped, corrected,
kindly, majorfully directed,
though family furniture, decor,
and rooms redone meant almost more.

How often when the telephone
brought you to us from Washington,
we had to look around the room
to find the objects you would name—
lying there, ten years paralyzed,
half blind, no voice unrecognized,
not trusting in the afterlife,
teasing us for a carving knife.

O high New England summer, warm
and fortified against the storm
by nightly nips you once adored,
though never going overboard,
Harriet, when you used to play
your chosen Nadia Boulanger
Monteverdi, Purcell, and Bach's
precursors on the Magnavox.

Blue-ribboned, blue-jeaned, named for you,
our daughter cartwheels on the blue—
may your proportion strengthen her
to live through the millennial year
Two Thousand, and like you possess
friends, independence, and a house,
herself God's plenty, mistress of
your tireless sedentary love.

Her two angora guinea pigs
are nibbling seed, the news, and twigs—
untroubled, petrified, atremble,
a mother and her daughter, humble,
giving, idle and sensitive.
Few animals will let them live.
Only a vegetarian God
could look on them and call them good.

Man's poorest cousins, harmonies
of lust and appetite and ease,
little pacific things, who graze
the grass about their box, they praise
whatever stupor gave them breath
to multiply before their death—
Evolution's snails, by birth,
outrunning man who runs the earth.

And now the frosted summer night-dew
brightens, the north wind rushes through
your ailing cedars, finds the gaps;
thumbtacks rattle from the white maps,
food's lost sight of, dinner waits,
in the cold oven, icy plates—
repeating and repeating, one
Joan Baez on the gramophone.

And here in your converted barn,
we burn our hands a moment, borne
by energies that never tire
of piling fuel on the fire;
monologue that will not hear,
logic turning its deaf ear,
wild spirits and old sores in league
with inexhaustible fatigue.

Far off that time of gentleness,
when man, still licensed to increase,
unfallen and unmated, heard
only the uncreated Word—
when God the Logos still had wit
to hide his bloody hands, and sit
in silence, while His peace was sung.
Then the universe was young.

We watch the logs fall. Fire once gone,
we're done for: we escape the sun,
rising and setting, a red coal,
until it cinders like the soul.
Great ash and sun of freedom, give
us this day the warmth to live,
and face the household fire. We turn
our backs, and feel the whiskey burn.


Memories of West Street and Lepke 

Robert Lowell
Only teaching on Tuesdays, book-worming
in pajamas fresh from the washer each morning,
I hog a whole house on Boston's 
"hardly passionate Marlborough Street,"
where even the man
scavenging filth in the back alley trash cans,
has two children, a beach wagon, a helpmate,
and is "a young Republican."
I have a nine months' daughter,
young enough to be my granddaughter.
Like the sun she rises in her flame-flamingo infants' wear. 
These are the tranquilized Fifties,
and I am forty.  Ought I to regret my seedtime?
I was a fire-breathing Catholic C.O.,
and made my manic statement,
telling off the state and president, and then
sat waiting sentence in the bull pen
beside a negro boy with curlicues
of marijuana in his hair.
Given a year,
I walked on the roof of the West Street Jail, a short
enclosure like my school soccer court,
and saw the Hudson River once a day
through sooty clothesline entanglements
and bleaching khaki tenements.
Strolling, I yammered metaphysics with Abramowitz,
a jaundice-yellow ("it's really tan")
and fly-weight pacifist,
so vegetarian,
he wore rope shoes and preferred fallen fruit.
He tried to convert Bioff and Brown,
the Hollywood pimps, to his diet.
Hairy, muscular, suburban,
wearing chocolate double-breasted suits,
they blew their tops and beat him black and blue.
I was so out of things, I'd never heard
of the Jehovah's Witnesses.
"Are you a C.O.?" I asked a fellow jailbird.
"No," he answered, "I'm a J.W."
He taught me the "hospital tuck,"
and pointed out the T-shirted back
of Murder Incorporated's Czar Lepke,
there piling towels on a rack,
or dawdling off to his little segregated cell full
of things forbidden to the common man:
a portable radio, a dresser, two toy American
flags tied together with a ribbon of Easter palm.
Flabby, bald, lobotomized,
he drifted in a sheepish calm,
where no agonizing reappraisal
jarred his concentration on the electric chair
hanging like an oasis in his air
of lost connections. . . .

From Selected Poems by Robert Lowell, published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc. Copyright © 1976, 1977 by Robert Lowell.



 Poet's Choice: By Edward Hirsch

Sunday, July 13, 2003; Page BW12

Rainer Maria Rilke was 31 years old and living in Paris when he wrote his searching, off-balance sonnet "Self-Portrait in the Year 1906." My favorite translation, if that is the right word, is Robert Lowell's version in Imitations, a book that can now be reread in Frank Bidart and David Gewanter's magnificent new edition of Lowell's Collected Poems.

Lowell took his idea of "imitation" from Dryden, who in turn borrowed the term from Crowley. "I take imitation of an author . . . to be an endeavour of a later poet to write like one who has written before him, on the same subject," Dryden declared in "Ovid and the Art of Translation" (1680); "that is, not to translate his words, or be confined to his sense, but only to set him as a pattern, and to write as he supposes the author would have done, had he lived in our age, and in our country."

Lowell could be so free with his texts that they become virtually unrecognizable -- "I have been reckless with literal meaning," he confessed -- but I find his rhyming version of Rilke's self-portrait utterly convincing. Here, Rilke's seriousness finds a formal American idiom that also feels natural.


The bone-build of the eyebrows has a mule's

or Pole's noble and narrow steadfastness.

A scared blue child is peering through the eyes,

and there's a kind of weakness, not a fool's,

yet womanish -- the gaze of one who serves.

The mouth is just a mouth . . . untidy curves,

quite unpersuasive, yet it says its yes,

when forced to act. The forehead cannot frown

and likes the shade of dumbly looking down.

A still life, nature morte -- hardly a whole!

It has done nothing worked through or alive,

in spite of pain, in spite of comforting . . .

Out of this distant and disordered thing

something in earnest labors to unroll.

Lowell captures Rilke's playful and anguished tone, the ruthless self-critical gaze of a young artist who feels unfinished, incomplete, haunted by his own weakness. Rilke used the occasion not only to recognize but also to declare his own inner conviction, his deep sense of artistic mission. He had already apprenticed himself to Rodin when he wrote this poem, and he had taken from the master an unshakable sense of "the great work."

Lowell's version of Rilke's sonnet stands behind Frank Bidart's poem "Self-Portrait, 1969," which appeared in his breakthrough first book, Golden State (1973). Bidart adds something more open and hesitant, something more radically self-questioning to the form. His complex, original mode of punctuation gives the sense of a man brooding, of consciousness at work. It nails down the way the poet hears phrases coming to him. He stares at himself in the mirror; he responds intensely to what he has just written. Bidart brings to the self-portrait a Yeatsian sense of lyric as a form of arguing with oneself.

Self-Portrait, 1969

He's still young -- ; thirty, but looks younger --

or does he? . . . In the eyes and cheeks, tonight,

turning in the mirror, he saw his mother, --

puffy; angry; bewildered . . . Many nights

now, when he stares there, he gets angry: --

something unfulfilled there, something dead

to what he once thought he surely could be --

Now, just the glamour of habits . . .

Once, instead,

he thought insight would remake him, he'd reach

-- what? The thrill, the exhilaration

unraveling disaster, that seemed to teach

necessary knowledge . . . became just jargon.

Sick of being decent, he craves another

crash. What reaches him except disaster?

(Robert Lowell's version of Rilke's self-portrait appears in his "Collected Poems," edited by Frank Bidart and David Gewanter. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2003 by Harriet Lowell and Sheridan Lowell. Frank Bidart's "Self-Portrait, 1969" appears in his book "In the Western Night: Collected Poems 1965-1990." Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 1990 by Frank Bidart.)





'Collected Poems'



The Exile's Return

There mounts in squalls a sort of rusty mire,
Not ice, not snow, to leaguer the Hôtel
De Ville, where braced pig-iron dragons grip
The blizzard to their rigor mortis. A bell
Grumbles when the reverberations strip
The thatching from its spire,
The search-guns click and spit and split up timber
And nick the slate roofs on the Holstenwall
Where torn-up tilestones crown the victor. Fall
And winter, spring and summer, guns unlimber
And lumber down the narrow gabled street
Past your gray, sorry and ancestral house
Where the dynamited walnut tree
Shadows a squat, old, wind-torn gate and cows
The Yankee commandant. You will not see
Strutting children or meet
The peg-leg and reproachful chancellor
With a forget-me-not in his button-hole
When the unseasoned liberators roll
Into the Market Square, ground arms before
The Rathaus; but already lily-stands
Burgeon the risen Rhineland, and a rough
Cathedral lifts its eye. Pleasant enough,
Voi ch'entrate, and your life is in your hands.

The Holy Innocents

Listen, the hay-bells tinkle as the cart
Wavers on rubber tires along the tar
And cindered ice below the burlap mill
And ale-wife run. The oxen drool and start
In wonder at the fenders of a car,
And blunder hugely up St. Peter's hill.
These are the undefiled by woman-their
Sorrow is not the sorrow of this world:
King Herod shrieking vengeance at the curled
Up knees of Jesus choking in the air,

A king of speechless clods and infants. Still
The world out-Herods Herod; and the year,
The nineteen-hundred forty-fifth of grace,
Lumbers with losses up the clinkered hill
Of our purgation; and the oxen near
The worn foundations of their resting-place,
The holy manger where their bed is corn
And holly torn for Christmas. If they die,
As Jesus, in the harness, who will mourn?
Lamb of the shepherds, Child, how still you lie.

Colloquy in Black Rock

Here the jack-hammer jabs into the ocean;
My heart, you race and stagger and demand
More blood-gangs for your nigger-brass percussions,
Till I, the stunned machine of your devotion,
Clanging upon this cymbal of a hand,
Am rattled screw and footloose. All discussions

End in the mud-flat detritus of death.
My heart, beat faster, faster. In Black Mud
Hungarian workmen give their blood
For the martyre Stephen, who was stoned to death.

Black Mud, a name to conjure with: O mud
For watermelons gutted to the crust,
Mud for the mole-tide harbor, mud for mouse,
Mud for the armored Diesel fishing tubs that thud
A year and a day to wind and tide; the dust
Is on this skipping heart that shakes my house,

House of our Savior who was hanged till death.
My heart, beat faster, faster. In Black Mud
Stephen the martyre was broken down to blood:
Our ransom is the rubble of his death.

Christ walks on the black water. In Black Mud
Darts the kingfisher. On Corpus Christi, heart,
Over the drum-beat of St. Stephen's choir
I hear him, Stupor Mundi, and the mud
Flies from his hunching wings and beak-my heart,
The blue kingfisher dives on you in fire.

Christmas in Black Rock

Christ God's red shadow hangs upon the wall
The dead leaf's echo on these hours
Whose burden spindles to no breath at all;
Hard at our heels the huntress moonlight towers
And the green needles bristle at the glass
Tiers of defense-plants where the treadmill night
Churns up Long Island Sound with piston-fist.
Tonight, my child, the lifeless leaves will mass,
Heaving and heaping, as the swivelled light
Burns on the bell-spar in the fruitless mist.

Christ Child, your lips are lean and evergreen
Tonight in Black Rock, and the moon
Sidles outside into the needle-screen
And strikes the hand that feeds you with a spoon
Tonight, as drunken Polish night-shifts walk
Over the causeway and their juke-box booms
Hosannah in excelsis Domino.
Tonight, my child, the foot-loose hallows stalk
Us down in the blind alleys of our rooms;
By the mined root the leaves will overflow.

December, old leech, has leafed through Autumn's store
Where Poland has unleashed its dogs
To bay the moon upon the Black Rock shore:
Under our windows, on the rotten logs
The moonbeam, bobbing like an apple, snags
The undertow. O Christ, the spiralling years
Slither with child and manger to a ball
Of ice; and what is man? We tear our rags
To hang the Furies by their itching ears,
And the green needles nail us to the wall.

New Year's Day

Again and then again ... the year is born
To ice and death, and it will never do
To skulk behind storm-windows by the stove
To hear the postgirl sounding her French horn
When the thin tidal ice is wearing through.
Here is the understanding not to love
Our neighbor, or tomorrow that will sieve
Our resolutions. While we live, we live

To snuff the smoke of victims. In the snow
The kitten heaved its hindlegs, as if fouled,
And died. We bent it in a Christmas box
And scattered blazing weeds to scare the crow
Until the snake-tailed sea-winds coughed and howled
For alms outside the church whose double locks
Wait for St. Peter, the distorted key.
Under St. Peter's bell the parish sea

Swells with its smelt into the burlap shack
Where Joseph plucks his hand-lines like a harp,
And hears the fearful Puer natus est
Of Circumcision, and relives the wrack
And howls of Jesus whom he holds. How sharp
The burden of the Law before the beast:
Time and the grindstone and the knife of God.
The Child is born in blood, O child of blood.

The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket


Let man have dominion over the fishes of the sea and the fowls of the air and the beasts and
the whole earth, and every creeping creature that moveth upon the earth.

A brackish reach of shoal off Madaket,-
The sea was still breaking violently and night
Had steamed into our North Atlantic Fleet,
When the drowned sailor clutched the drag-net. Light
Flashed from his matted head and marble leer,
He grappled at the net
With the coiled, hurdling muscles of his thighs:
The corpse was bloodless, a botch of reds and whites,
Its open, staring eyes
Were lustreless dead-lights
Or cabin-windows on a stranded hulk
Heavy with sand. We weight the body, close
Its eyes and heave it seaward whence it came,
Where the heel-headed dogfish barks its nose
On Ahab's void and forehead; and the name
Is blocked in yellow chalk.
Sailors, who pitch this portent at the sea
Where dreadnaughts shall confess
Its hell-bent deity,
When you are powerless
To sand-bag this Atlantic bulwark, faced
By the earth-shaker, green, unwearied, chaste
In his steel scales: ask for no Orphean lute
To pluck life back. The guns of the steeled fleet
Recoil and then repeat
The hoarse salute.

Whenever winds are moving and their breath
Heaves at the roped-in bulwarks of this pier,
The terns and sea-gulls tremble at your death
In these home waters. Sailor, can you hear
The Pequod's sea wings, beating landward, fall
Headlong and break on our Atlantic wall
Off 'Sconset, where the yawing S-boats splash
The bellbuoy, with ballooning spinnakers,
As the entangled, screeching mainsheet clears
The blocks: off Madaket, where lubbers lash
The heavy surf and throw their long lead squids
For blue-fish? Sea-gulls blink their heavy lids
Seaward. The winds' wings beat upon the stones,
Cousin, and scream for you and the claws rush
At the sea's throat and wring it in the slush
Of this old Quaker graveyard where the bones
Cry out in the long night for the hurt beast
Bobbing by Ahab's whaleboats in the East.

All you recovered from Poseidon died
With you, my cousin, and the harrowed brine
Is fruitless on the blue beard of the god,
Stretching beyond us to the castles in Spain,
Nantucket's westward haven. To Cape Cod
Guns, cradled on the tide,
Blast the eelgrass about a waterclock
Of bilge and backwash, roil the salt and sand
Lashing earth's scaffold, rock
Our warships in the hand
Of the great God, where time's contrition blues
Whatever it was these Quaker sailors lost
In the mad scramble of their lives. They died
When time was open-eyed,
Wooden and childish; only bones abide
There, in the nowhere, where their boats were tossed
Sky-high, where mariners had fabled news

Of IS, the whited monster. What it cost
Them is their secret. In the sperm-whale's slick
I see the Quakers drown and hear their cry:
"If God himself had not been on our side,
If God himself had not been on our side,
When the Atlantic rose against us, why,
Then it had swallowed us up quick."

This is the end of the whaleroad and the whale
Who spewed Nantucket bones on the thrashed swell
And stirred the troubled waters to whirlpools
To send the Pequod packing off to hell:
This is the end of them, three-quarters fools,
Snatching at straws to sail
Seaward and seaward on the turntail whale,
Spouting out blood and water as it rolls,
Sick as a dog to these Atlantic shoals:
Clamavimus, 0 depths. Let the sea-gulls wail

For water, for the deep where the high tide
Mutters to its hurt self, mutters and ebbs.
Waves wallow in their wash, go out and out,
Leave only the death-rattle of the crabs,
The beach increasing, its enormous snout
Sucking the ocean's side.
This is the end of running on the waves;
We are poured out like water. Who will dance
The mast-lashed master of Leviathans
Up from this field of Quakers in their unstoned graves?

When the whale's viscera go and the roll
Of its corruption overruns this world
Beyond tree-swept Nantucket and Woods Hole
And Martha's Vineyard, Sailor, will your sword
Whistle and fall and sink into the fat?

In the great ash-pit of Jehoshaphat
The bones cry for the blood of the white whale,
The fat flukes arch and whack about its ears,
The death-lance churns into the sanctuary, tears
The gun-blue swingle, heaving like a flail,
And hacks the coiling life out: it works and drags
And rips the sperm-whale's midriff into rags,
Gobbets of blubber spill to wind and weather,
Sailor, and gulls go round the stoven timbers
Where the morning stars sing out together
And thunder shakes the white surf and dismembers
The red flag hammered in the mast-head. Hide
Our steel, Jonas Messias, in Thy side.


There once the penitents took off their shoes
And then walked barefoot the remaining mile;
And the small trees, a stream and hedgerows file
Slowly along the munching English lane,
Like cows to the old shrine, until you lose
Track of your dragging pain.
The stream flows down under the druid tree,
Shiloah's whirlpools gurgle and make glad
The castle of God. Sailor, you were glad
And whistled Sion by that stream. But see:

Our Lady, too small for her canopy,
Sits near the altar. There's no comeliness
At all or charm in that expressionless
Face with its heavy eyelids. As before,
This face, for centuries a memory,
Non est species, neque decor,
Expressionless, expresses God: it goes
Past castled Sion. She knows what God knows,
Not Calvary's Cross nor crib at Bethlehem
Now, and the world shall come to Walsingham.

The empty winds are creaking and the oak
Splatters and splatters on the cenotaph,
The boughs are trembling and a gaff
Bobs on the untimely stroke
Of the greased wash exploding on a shoal-bell
In the old mouth of the Atlantic. It's well;
Atlantic, you are fouled with the blue sailors,
Sea-monsters, upward angel, downward fish:
Unmarried and corroding, spare of flesh
Mart once of supercilious, wing'd clippers,
Atlantic, where your bell-trap guts its spoil
You could cut the brackish winds with a knife
Here in Nantucket, and cast up the time
When the Lord God formed man from the sea's slime
And breathed into his face the breath of life,
And blue-lung'd combers lumbered to the kill.
The Lord survives the rainbow of His will.

The First Sunday in Lent


The crooked family chestnut sighs, for March,
Time's fool, is storming up and down the town;
The gray snow squelches and the well-born stamp
From sermons in a scolded, sober mob
That wears away the Sabbath with a frown,
A world below my window. What will clamp
The weak-kneed roots together when the damp
Aches like a conscience, and they grope to rob
The hero under his triumphal arch?

This is the fifth floor attic where I hid
My stolen agates and the cannister
Preserved from Bunker Hill-feathers and guns,
Matchlock and flintlock and percussion-cap;
Gettysburg etched upon the cylinder
Of Father's Colt. A Lüger of a Hun,
Once blue as Satan, breaks Napoleon,
My china pitcher. Cartridge boxes trap
A chipmunk on the saber where they slid.

On Troy's last day, alas, the populous
Shrines held carnival, and girls and boys
Flung garlands to the wooden horse; so we
Burrow into the lion's mouth to die.
Lord, from the lust and dust thy will destroys
Raise an unblemished Adam who will see
The limbs of the tormented chestnut tree
Tingle, and hear the March-winds lift and cry:
"The Lord of Hosts will overshadow us."


This world, this ferris wheel, is tired and strains
Its townsman's humorous and bulging eye,
As he ascends and lurches from his seat
And dangles by a shoe-string overhead
To tell the racing world that it must die.
Who can remember what his father said?
The little wheel is turning on the great
In the white water of Christ's blood. The red
Eagle of Ares swings along the lanes

Of camp-stools where the many watch the sky:
The townsman hangs, the eagle swings. It stoops
And lifts the ferris wheel into the tent
Pitched for the devil. But the man works loose,
He drags and zigzags through the circus hoops,
And lion-taming Satan bows and loops
His cracking tail into a hangman's noose;
He is the only happy man in Lent.
He laughs into my face until I cry.


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