Friday, 18 July 2014

Robert Lowell - For the Union Dead

I like it when I find a poetry book in a second hand book store and I flick through it to see if I like the poet’s style, and then I find a couple of poems singled out and hand written all over with pencil notes.  What that signals to me is somebody has gone to fair effort to do a detailed analysis either through formal study or out of personal interest.  Whatever, it gets my attention.  I’m suddenly curious to know what it is the person has written and whether I agree with it and if there is anything I can learn from the notes.  So I’ve picked up a Faber edition of poems by American poet, Robert Lowell – never read any of his work.  By this time, English literature students would be naming which of the poems were written all over in pencil – correct, Waking in the Blue; Memories of West Street and Lepke (both heavily marked up), and the one that I’ve placed among my favourite poems, For the Union Dead.  I was first drawn to the poem because it’s written in a simple language, easy to read, and the theme seemed to be on a military hero and the American civil war (love the military).  But then I wasn’t so sure – the present day (1960’s) mixed in with a history of Colonel Shaw; Boston being dug up (luxuriating car parks); advent of the space age and continued racial prejudice ………  I turn to the pencil notes but they don’t help any – interpretation of isolated lines and words, but no clue for the collective meaning.  The thing becomes like a rubik’s cube and I can’t put it down.  Being a great poem from a renowned poet there’s a lot of research available for this one, though I might add, none of it has convinced me that that was what Lowell was really on about when he wrote, For the Union Dead ……

For the Union Dead
‘Relinquunt Omnia Servare Rem Publicam.’
(Robert Lowell 1917 - 1977)
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 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-wasted, 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 blessed break.
The Aquarium is gone,  Everywhere,
giant finned cars nose forward like fish;
a savage servility
slides by on grease.

The thing I’ve enjoyed in my affair with Lowell’s, For the Union Dead is the paths of study it has led me down.  And I don’t think you can really approach this poem without doing a lot of study.  I’ve found it beneficial to read about the 54th Massachusetts Regiment; Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and his father; the battle of Fort Wagner; abolitionists; Gauden; William James and his dedication speech; Brahmin families and Boston society; what is a Mosler safe; civil rights movement in the 1960’s ……  But I’m still left with what is the true message in the poem.  It probably is as some analyses suggest, a swipe at Boston city politics at the time; a lament for the erosion of puritan values; a family history at odds with a changing world.  It does have a feeling of Mans’ spiritual progression which the poet perhaps believes is in a downward spiral.  I can’t leave it, and I go back to Robert Lowell himself.  He was for a time a Catholic convert – referred to by professor, Allen Tate as a ‘Catholic poet’ in his introduction to Lowell’s book, Land of Unlikeness (Wikipedia, Robert Lowell).  So that gets me thinking there are a couple of lines in this poem that make me think this is Lowell’s comment on the evolution of mankind.  I believe the third stanza line, I often sigh still for the dark downward and vegetating kingdom of the fish and reptile, is not nostalgia for a childhood memory, but is a reference to man’s primeval memory of having evolved from a fish/reptile form (kingdom of God).  I often sigh still – but man cannot remain, cannot go back, he must go on to fulfil purpose.  Then there is the line in stanza 10, “… man’s lovely, peculiar power to choose life and die – “.  God has given man free will (power to choose life), the thing that separates man from animals (fish, reptiles).  Man has the power to choose ‘life’ (spiritual life, eternal life as God offers).  But in his freedom to choose, man continually makes choices that lead to death (of mankind).  Lowell’s ancestor (Colonel Shaw) tried to uphold noble choice but in vain, for man’s prejudice and inhumanity still goes on.  Man chooses materialism and belief in technology and science (and dies).
Great poem, and I’m once more amazed at the connection between Navy and Poetry – Robert Lowell’s father was a Commander in the US Navy (Robert Traill Spencer Lowell III).  His mum seems to have come from good stock too.

My link for this post is a poem I wrote a couple of years ago when I’m looking at all the turmoil and trouble in the world and I’m a lot like Robert Lowell, wondering where the hell are we headed!

2012.  The world is evolving, ever turning and evolving.  Mankind is evolving, ever learning and evolving.  And it hasn’t come far, and it’s got a long, long way to go.

I Don’t Understand
I see television news,
I see children, young children
on the streets in Syria
with hatred on their faces
clapping fervently for the downfall
of the country’s political ruling party.
I see African families, a man and a woman
fleeing the latest genocide famine,
escaping down some dirt track
they’ve reportedly been on
for the past two years,
but in which time
they’ve kept on copulating
giving birth to two little lives
now starving and disease driven in their arms.
I see men, fit men
on a normal work day
apparently not having to hold down jobs,
keep on top of a mortgage, nor
bring in food, pay bills, petrol, child-care
gathered in a town square,
all armed with modern automatic weapons
wasting bullets fired straight up to the sky.

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