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LOWELL, Robert

To Speak of Woe That Is in Marriage

“It is the future generation that presses into being by means of these exuberant feelings and supersensible soap bubbles of ours.”


“The hot night makes us keep our bedroom windows open.

Our magnolia blossoms. Life begins to happen.

My hopped up husband drops his home disputes,

and hits the streets to cruise for prostitutes,

free-lancing out along the razor’s edge.

This screwball might kill his wife, then take the pledge.

Oh the monotonous meanness of his lust. . .

It’s the injustice . . . he is so unjust—

whiskey-blind, swaggering home at five.

My only thought is how to keep alive.

What makes him tick? Each night now I tie

ten dollars and his car key to my thigh. . . .

Gored by the climacteric of his want,

he stalls above me like an elephant.”

Memories of West Street and Lepke

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. . . .

Man and wife

Tamed by Miltown, we lie on Mother's bed;

the rising sun in war paint dyes us red;

in broad daylight her gilded bed-posts shine,

abandoned, almost Dionysian.

At last the trees are green on Marlborough Street,

blossoms on our magnolia ignite

the morning with their murderous five days' white.

All night I've held your hand,

as if you had

a fourth time faced the kingdom of the mad,

its hackneyed speech, its homicidal eye,

and dragged me home alive.... Oh my Petite,

clearest of all God's creatures, still all air and nerve:

you were in our twenties, and I,

once hand on glass

and heart in mouth,

out drank the Rahvs in the heat

of Greenwich Village, fainting at your feet,

too boiled and shy

and poker-faced to make a pass,

while the shrill verve

of your invective scorched the traditional South.

Now twelve years later, you turn your back.

Sleepless, you hold

your pillow to your hollows like a child;

your old-fashioned tirade,

loving, rapid, merciless,

breaks like the Atlantic Ocean on my head.

The Old Flame

My old flame, my wife!

Remember our lists of birds?

One morning last summer, I drove

by our house in Maine. It was still

on top of its hill -

Now a red ear of Indian maize

was splashed on the door.

Old Glory with thirteen stripes

hung on a pole. The clapboard

was old-red schoolhouse red.

Inside, a new landlord,

a new wife, a new broom!

Atlantic seaboard antique shop

pewter and plunder

shone in each room.

A new frontier!

No running next door

now to phone the sheriff

for his taxi to Bath

and the State Liquor Store!

No one saw your ghostly

imaginary lover

stare through the window

and tighten

the scarf at his throat.

Health to the new people,

health to their flag, to their old

restored house on the hill!

Everything had been swept bare,

furnished, garnished and aired.

Everything's changed for the best -

how quivering and fierce we were,

there snowbound together,

simmering like wasps

in our tent of books!

Poor ghost, old love, speak

with your old voice

of flaming insight

that kept us awake all night.

In one bed and apart,

we heard the plow

groaning up hill -

a red light, then a blue,

as it tossed off the snow

to the side of the road.

Children of Light

Our fathers wrung their bread from stocks and stones

And fenced their gardens with the Redmen's bones;

Embarking from the Nether Land of Holland,

Pilgrims unhouseled by Geneva's night,

They planted here the Serpent's seeds of light;

And here the pivoting searchlights probe to shock

The riotous glass houses built on rock,

And candles gutter by an empty altar,

And light is where the landless blood of Cain

Is burning, burning the unburied grain.