Gone now the
a lioness who ruled the roost
and made the Mother cry.
She used to tie
gobbets of porkrind in bowknots of gauze--
three months they hung like soggy toast
on our eight foot magnolia tree,
and helped the English sparrows
weather a Boston winter.
Three months, three months!
Is Richard now himself again?
Dimpled with exaltation,
my daughter holds her levee in the tub.
Our noses rub,
each of us pats a stringy lock of hair--
they tell me nothing's gone.
Though I am forty-one,
not forty now, the time I put away
was child's play. After thirteen weeks
my child still dabs her cheeks
to start me shaving. When
we dress her in her sky-blue corduroy,
she changes to a boy,
and floats my shaving brush
and washcloth in the flush. . . .
Dearest I cannot loiter here
in lather like a polar bear.
Recuperating, I neither spin nor toil.
Three stories down below,
a choreman tends our coffin's length of soil,
and seven horizontal tulips blow.
Just twelve months ago,
these flowers were pedigreed
imported Dutchmen; now no one need
distinguish them from weed.
Bushed by the late spring snow,
they cannot meet
another year's snowballing enervation.
I keep no rank nor station.
Cured, I am frizzled, stale and small.
Robert Lowell was one of the great American poets of the Twentieth Century, or any century and any country for that matter. “For the Union Dead” alone would suffice to get his name into the mix on that discussion. But I want to draw your attention to, “Home After Three Months Away.”
To really appreciate this poem you should hear Lowell reading it with his sonorous, depressed and oddly mixed New England accent with the Louisiana lilt that some say he acquired as a student at LSU. It’s available in Sourcebooks, Poetry Speaks. His mournful sound drones like the last bit of air being squeezed from a Celtic bagpipe, though his people descended from the Boston Brahman and Mayflower immigrants.
The opening image of his daughter’s nurse, “Gone now…” hanging, “gobbets of porkrind in bowknots of gauze” to help, “…the English sparrows weather a Boston winter,” is deployed to establish his upper class status (note his command of Middle English.) It is juxtaposed against the nurse’s capacity to rule the roost and “make the Mother cry.” How odd the use of the article “the” before “Mother.” That one word possibly reveals the distance between Lowell and his wife, Elizabeth Hardwick, who he would leave eleven years after the writing of this poem. (For a good heartbreak consider that he died in a cab on his way to reunite with Hardwick after seven years with English author Lady Caroline Blackwood. Arriving at Hardwick’s Manhattan apartment building the cab driver turned around to find Lowell in the backseat dead from a heart attack).
After his lament, “Three months, three months! / Is Richard now himself again?” (Richard, really himself, Robert) There’s a brief respite with his daughter and he sharing a bath, a biblical reference to putting away childish things, “… they tell me nothing's gone. / Though I am forty-one, / not forty now, / the time I put away, / was child's play.”
And after his daughter momentarily appears as a son we get to the meat of the matter, not the gobbet hung in gauze. The coffin-sized yard, the tulips now weeds, “Bushed by the late spring snow, / they cannot meet/ another year's snowballing enervation. // I keep no rank nor station. / Cured, I am frizzled, stale and small.”
In a letter to Peter Taylor, Lowell wrote, “In depression…I too go over my life trying to understand it –– I think in a way, I never understood it, that it is addition not be understood just completed…Yet I can’t live that way, must live with a point to be reached.”
It’s a wonder Lowell never committed suicide. (See David Markson’s Reader’s Block for a list of those who did.)
All of which is a circuitous way of saying I struggle with depression. And can appreciate feeling cured, frizzled and small. At the age of fifty-four, one might think I would have found an efficacious way to address my mood swings. I have not. And after analysis, Zen practice and numerous self-help programs I go through long periods of time when nothing is so bleak as the prospect of getting up and getting into the day.
Thank God Lowell went through what he did and was able to articulate it with grace and elegance. It was enough to get me past the snowballing enervation of the blizzard in my bed to post this blog about one of our national treasures.