Friday, January 14, 2011

Another Lowell Poem - Still Time for Some Little Compassion for Self

Robert Lowell 1917-1977
After reading and meditating upon last evening's poem from the hand of the great twentieth century American poet Robert Lowell, I am still preoccupied with the sound of his words; haunted by his cadences; startled by his post-modern starkness - like that of an American version of the Irish Samuel Beckett - longing to read more of his words aloud and let them rid me of any possible complacency.  Yes we were born to to die, to live with mortality firmly embedden in our seed - our existential lot.  This evening, I should like to place here another stark poem from our author's bleak but potent pen.  This time I wish to peruse and meditate upon "Home After Three Months Away."  Once again, as I have never tired of mentioning whenever I discuss a poem, my comments after this poem will be merely by way of illumination and resonances evoked rather than by meanings offered or given - the latter being the very anathema of a good interpretation of poetry.

Home After Three Months Away.

Gone now the baby's nurse,

a lioness who ruled the roost
and made the Mother cry.
She used to tie
gobbets of porkrind to 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 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.

I have already mentioned that Robert Lowell suffered from manic depression or bipolar disorder.  His three month's absence from his wife and daughter was necessitated by his having to be hospitalized for that mental illness in McLean Hospital in Belmont, Boston, Lowell is looking for his new identity, examining those things which are familiar is his surroundings for clues.   One commentary I saw somewhere on the net attributed wrongly his absence to a vacation.  That goes to show that while coming to a poem totally raw, without some background on the poet, and letting the words speak only for themselves - obviously correct in theory - can leave a lot of essential background disregarded to the detriment of the impact of the poem.  Another commentary talks about the fact that he was psychoanalysed in a strict Freudian sense without referring to any form of invasive treatment either by drugs or by electric shock therapy.  I know that the great writer Ernest Hemingway was subjected to the latter which practically obliterated his personality.  Call me naive, but psychoanalysis never obliterated one's self-identity.  If anything, rendering unconscious motivations conscious is very healthy indeed.  I feel that the poet is referring to the chemical intervention of drugs.  Once again, I hasten to add that I do not know what exact treatment Robert Lowell underwent at McLean Hospital, but as one who spent some 7 weeks in a psychiatric hospital myself for unipolar depression some 12 or more years ago, I feel instinctively that this is what the poet has in mind.
Obviously the little girl child had a nurse while the father was away.  However, for one reason or another this baby minder is now gone.  Lowell is trying to pick up the pieces of his life after his thirteen week absence.  He is also attempting to re-establish some identity as a father, family-man and poet once again.  Magnolia trees are very common in Boston.  The magnolia is a deciduous large shrub or small tree, growing up to 20 feet tall. The flowers are usually white, although some varieties are pink. 
Then, I love the following two lines which form an exclamation followed by a question, both of which interrupt the opening musings of the poet:  "Three months, three months!// Is Richard now himself again?"  How time flies, and especially if one were in a psychiatric hospital - such an experience might be lost to a haze of forgetfulness brought on by the powerful drugs used therein.  Then the question itself has overtones of Shakespeare's Richard III apparently where a similar collocation of words occurs.  I often wonder am I myself?  What is the self anyway - what is my real identity?  Are there not in fact many selves of which we can take our pick?  I will return to this question in later posts as it is dealt with in some detail in Professor Paul Gilbert's Compassionate Mind which I have recently been discussing.

An older Robert Lowell
His gentle fragile little daughter "holds her levee in the tub."  This to me strikes many chords and evokes many powerful resonances.  In her baby tub the little girl has a levee or defence, say in sponges, cloths or even a a plastic duck - take your pick.  Her tub is placed there by her parents anyway and she is cared for and protected.  I get the sense here that the poet himself feels anything but protected.  He has had no levee against the frighful tide of manic depression which obviously swept him away to be hospitalized.  Hence this line is powerful to me as a sufferer from unipolar depression who was once hospitalized.
Then we have the anonymous and omniscient "they" who are obviously the experts and they tell him that "nothing's gone,"  that his identity has not been irretrievably damaged.  Again, one feels that the poet is not at all too convinced by the assurances of these so-called experts.  The time he put away - a most peculiar turn of phrase, almost an underlying suggestion that he was put away - was "child's play."  Again, we get the distinct impression that the poet is being ironic here, because his time away was obviously anything but.
Then we have that wonderful Biblical allusion from the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew's Gospel where the Good Shepherd tells his flock not to worry at all because they should be like the lilies of the field and the birds in the air - an internal reference to the English sparrows of the opening lines.  These lilies and sparrows they indeed do not toil or spin.  And so these New Testament allusions illumine the line "Recuperating, I neither spin nor toil."  And so, recuperating he is not toiling or spinning.  He has no option, but to take it easy.
Then the lines: "Three stories down below,// a choreman tends our coffin length of soil,// and seven horizontal tulips blow" I find haunting as they deal with the sheer existential nature of life - we are fated to die, where even the soil that should bring tulips forth is "coffin length" and 7 is a very Biblical number as we all know, and this adds a more Scriptural depth to the whole.
Finally the word "enervation" which means to weaken or to destroy the vitality of any living organism is a very strong word indeed and is an obvious and inevitable word for a mental health patient to use.  Without a doubt our poor poet is enervated after his ordeal.  He can neither spin nor toil indeed.  We feel that he is "bushed" himself by the weather of the mind, by a mental snow hard driven in his mind to render him enervated.
The final lines hardly need commentary as they describe so well this enervated, bushed and weakened man: I keep no rank nor station:// Cured, I am frizzled, stale and small.  Here I am reminded of a picture I saw once of Ernest Hemingway shortly after he had been released from psychiatric hospital having undergone the horrific electric shock treatment then more widely used than today.  The last line brings that vacant expression on the writer's face to my mind.  Hemingway would end his own life by gunshot shortly afterwards.  We simply cannot believe that Lowelll is cured.  Irony again, if not a hint of sarcasy?

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