... the true shark, the shadow of departure.
--"Flight to New York," The Dolphin
Americans began traveling abroad in unprecedented numbers in what Robert Lowell called, in "Memories of West Street and Lepke," the "tranquilized fifties" (Life Studies 85; line 12). (1) In 1957, the first edition of Europe on Five Dollars a Day appeared, its title suggesting the strength of the dollar against European and other currencies. "One shouldn't gloat over a good exchange rate," said Elizabeth Bishop in a letter, pleased nevertheless at how easily she could get by in Brazil (One Art 321). The wherewithal and the inclination of the U.S. middle class to vacation in Europe was but one index of the strength of American economic interests that, following World War II, moved into markets formerly controlled by French and British corporations. In this context, Robert von Hallberg has argued that American poets abroad, far from being opposed to political expansion, were as caught up as other Americans in the proliferation of American interests. Indeed, he suggests, they carried out the poetic counterpart of that expansion--the establishment of an American cultural hegemony. Allen Tate, von Hallberg reports, could write to the U.S. State department, "Mr. Lowell is the kind of a man I think we should send abroad more and more in order to eliminate some false impressions that foreigners seem to have about the qualifications of Americans to participate in international cultural life on equal terms with them" (72).
Tate may have been hasty in his judgment. Did the United States really want to send its most celebrated literary manic-depressive to foreign nations so that he could insult local officials, rave about the Bomb, and have to be sedated and packed home again? The idea of Lowell as government spokesman, promoting U.S. interests abroad, does not sit easily with Lowell's abundantly documented instability. Even had Lowell wanted to aid U.S. political and cultural expansion--not unthinkable, despite his left-liberal political affiliations and activism--how would he have done so? (2) Whatever small power American poets wielded at the mid-century--more than they wield today--they occupied a space still well below the horizon of the average citizen or the average head of state.
Von Hallberg's poet-traveler conforms well to the versions of travel presented in postcolonial critical texts of the past two decades. Numerous culture critics have traced the first-world traveler's subjecting of the foreign site to conceptual control--psychic or physical, artistic or geographic--by means of the colonial "gaze." (3) But the poems of late-twentieth-century travelers, American or not, suggest little in common with this age-of-empire version of the subject. The traveler of the past century (not only post- but pre-war, as in the much-documented cases of modernist U.S. expatriates) has, on the contrary, been largely conflicted and unstable, vulnerable both to centrifugal forces within himself or herself, and to pressures and assaults from without, including, particularly, those issuing from home.
For present purposes, the European trip von Hallberg discusses--in which Lowell lectured as part of the Salzburg Seminar in American Civilization and which resulted in a manic episode followed by hospitalization--will not be as germane as two subsequent and still more traumatic periods in Lowell's poetic career: the period in which he traveled to South America and Mexico, and the period, toward the end of his life, when, having left Elizabeth Hardwick for Caroline Blackwood, he made numerous flights between England and the United States. It was during these years, rather than during the earlier European trip, that Lowell's travels began to erode an already vulnerable psyche and to become subject matter for his poems.
"FALLING, FALLING": THE NORTH-SOUTH AXIS
Near the middle of Robert Lowell's For the Union Dead, a new trope appears, one that will continue in several successive books, particularly those whose poems are often presented as daily notes--Notebook 1967-68, Notebook, History, For Lizzie and Harriet, and The Dolphin. Following the poems of optical, epidermal, and neural sensitivity--"Night Sweat," "The Lesson," "The Neo-Classical Urn," and "Eye and Tooth"--come poems of travel in which journeys appear as new contexts for that sensitization: "Going To and Fro," "Returning," "Buenos Aires," and "Dropping South: Brazil" present the strained, introspective speaker of Lowell's "breakthrough" phase, introduced in Life Studies, as increasingly vulnerable to and destabilized by the duress of travel. (4) The rhetoric becomes murkier, the speaker more disoriented, as he moves from his center of gravity in New England. In Lowell, the disorientation of travel became a metaphor for, if not often a cause of, the disorientation of psychological illness. From this phase until the end of Lowell's life, travel was a texture used to generate fractured narratives of the troubled traveler's ego.
Unlike Elizabeth Bishop, Lowell was a reluctant internationalist who seemed to know little about contemporary poetry outside of the European tradition. (5) Nevertheless, he admired Bishop's travels almost as much as he did her poems from Brazil, which had been appearing in the New Yorker since the early 1950's. In 1957, during a visit to Lowell at Castine, Maine, Bishop and her companion Lota de Macedo Soares invited him and his wife Elizabeth and their daughter to come to Brazil. After seeing them off at the Bangor airport, Lowell tried his hand at a travel poem dedicated to Bishop. More than a dozen versions of the poem exist, usually titled "Flying Down to Rio," but the first published, in Notebook, was titled "Flying from Bangor to Rio 1957" and reads in part as follows:
North & south from Halifax to Rio the same Atlantic-- you can never settle on where to be, lashed by your giant memory to the globe. (3-6)
In History, this became
North & South, Yarmouth to Rio, one Atlantic-- you'd never found another place to live, bound by your giant memory to one known longitude. (4-6) (6)
The Notebook version is more concise and rings truer than the History version in that Bishop could "never settle on where to be" but did in fact find "another place to live." More significantly, "lashed [...] to the globe"--especially by memory--anticipates both Bishop's "In the Waiting Room" (in which the panic-stricken girl tries "to stop / the sensation of falling off / the round, turning world" [57-59]) and Lowell's "Dropping South: Brazil"(where the poet finds himself "hunched, spinning downward on the colored globe" ), providing a figure for the literalism both poets worried about--the need to be grounded by observation and memory and yet, particularly in Lowell's case, the increasing dissatisfaction with that need ("I want to make something / imagined, not recalled," he would later write [DBD 3-4]).
Two years later, Life Studies appeared, the book that Lowell had begun immediately after Bishop's visit to Maine and that marked, most critics agree, his transition to a new, "freer" style and a new subject matter, his own psychological difficulties. But leaving aside the more or less symbolic journey from religious Rome to secular Paris in "Beyond the Alps," all but one of the journeys (and that connected to death) in that volume are within the northeastern United States: Boston to Cambridge, Cambridge to Maine, Boston to Beverly Farms, Manhattan subway rides, New England Sunday spins, and visits to family burial plots. Also, while psychological vulnerability appeared as a trope in these poems, it had not yet been exacerbated, as it soon would be, by international travel.
In late 1961, Lowell had caught a glimpse of Latin America on a ten-day vacation to Puerto Rico with Lizzie and Harriet, loving the "millionaire hotel world" and "shaken" by the beauty of Puerto Rico and by "all the creeping Puerto Rican life, which is all around us here on the West Side, but which is revealed there in greater purity." It was a vibrant life, he thought, that would outlast his own culture (Letter to Edmund Wilson 31 March 1962, qtd. in Mariani 122). In early 1962, the CIA-funded "Congress of Cultural Freedom" gave him the opportunity, in the form of a reading tour of several South American countries, at last to accept Bishop's invitation to visit Brazil.
This trip, with its CIA auspices and the likelihood that Lowell's presence was intended to counteract the influence of leftist poets such as Pablo Neruda, might lend credence to Robert von Hallberg's assessment of American poets' complicity with U.S. expansionism, were it not for what followed. As soon as he arrived in Buenos Aires, Lowell threw away his medication and experienced a full-blown manic bout. Taken to a reception at the presidential palace, he downed several double martinis, announced he was "Caesar of Argentina," and delivered a speech extolling Hitler. He then walked out of the reception, stripped naked, and mounted an equestrian statue in one of the city's main squares. After several days of similarly erratic behavior, including spending binges in which he charged all purchases to the Congress, he had to be fought to the ground, strait-jacketed, Thorazined, and sent home for treatment (Hamilton 300-303; Saunders 348). (7)
"Dropping South: Brazil" and "Buenos Aires" were written during this trip, though only the latter is clearly autobiographical. One cannot read "Cattle furnished my new clothes: / my coat of limp, chestnut-colored suede [...]" ("Buenos Aires," FUD 5-6) without remembering that Lowell's Argentine sprees included the purchase of costly leather jackets for himself and his friends, for which he billed the "Congress." (8) Three of the eight quatrains deal with statuary--"Literal commemorative busts" (21) and "a hundred marble goddesses" (26), with whom the poet "found rest / by cupping a soft palm to each hard breast" (27-28)--reminding us of his statue-hugging rampage.
"Dropping South: Brazil" is less descriptive but richer in its treatment of the figure of the traveler. Travel in this poem is mythic and surreal: "Walking and walking in a mothy robe [...] / I crossed the reading room and met my soul, / hunched, spinning downward on the colored globe" (1-4). The vertigo of "spinning downward," anticipatory of that in Bishop's "In the Waiting Room," is emphasized even in the title, since this is not traveling nor even flying but "dropping" south, the motion of an object without agency. Later in the poem, "falling" is introduced as a way of describing travel that will appear in other poems, such as "No Messiah" (The Dolphin) and the Notebook version of "Mexico," to which I will turn later. What follows is enriched with notes from the real Brazil and, possibly, from conversations with Elizabeth Bishop. The "old Atlantic" that the poet knew from Massachusetts (note the echo of "one Atlantic" and the "same Atlantic" in the versions of "Flying from Bangor to Rio, 1957") is revised not only by the new geographical perspective but by magic--literally, by the Afro-Brazilian rites and dances of macumba:
The ocean was the old Atlantic still, always the swell greened in, rushed white, and fell, now warmer than the air. However, there red flags forbade our swimming. No one swam. A lawless gentleness. The Latin blonde, two strips of ribbon, ripened in the sun, sleeping alone and pillowed on one arm. No competition. Only rings of boys butted a ball to keep it in the air, while inland, people starved, and struck, and died-- unhappy Americas, ah tristes tropiques!-- and nightly in the gouges by the tide, macumba candles courted Yemanja, tall, white, the fish-tailed Virgin of the sea, corpselike with calla lilies, walking the water in her white gown. "I am falling. Santa Maria, pray for me, I want to stop, but I have lost my foothold on the map, now falling, falling, bent, intense, my feet breaking my clap of thunder on the street." (5-24)
The speaker may be in a "reading room," as he says, walking to and fro in his "mothy robe," but the disorientation is global. In the final lines, the "I" who, at the beginning of the poem, met (past tense) his soul "spinning downward" over the planet, or over a colored model globe, is now (present tense) falling, having "lost my foothold on the map."
The "old Atlantic" of earlier poems is also distanced and de-familiarized here by "red flags" forbidding swimming, whether because of riptide or because of pollution (at this writing, no one swims at Ipanema and few at Copacabana, though the beaches are full of sunbathers). The "lawless gentleness" suggests the sea but could also characterize, for Lowell, his own view, not pejorative, of Rio, of Brazil, and perhaps of Latin America. In the beach scene, human activity is minimal, a norm if not a cliche of the tristes tropiques with their sleepy inhabitants. No one bothers the sleeping blonde woman. The unseen reality behind this tranquil view is the starvation, strikes, and death in the Brazilian backlands and favelas. Following Lowell's chain of scenes, arranged in order of increasing Otherness--private room to beach to suffering inland regions to "Americas" as a whole--we arrive at another, more Other still: the macumba ceremonies, which, like voodoo or lucumi, are New World versions of Yoruba celebrations. Though the vision of the Yoruba god Yemanja, "corpselike with calla lilies," seems to come out of Brazilian carnaval (as well as Afro-Caribbean music and santeria), the language takes us to the west coast of Africa. When, then, we come to "I am falling," with its abrupt change from past to present tense, we see this bookish, "mothy"-robed poet, who had spun out of his orbit in leaving New England, as threatened by a wider and wider spin. (The structural echo of the poem's first line--"Walking and walking in a mothy robe"--is Yeats's "Turning and turning in a widening gyre.") The quotation marks around the "I am falling" passage are a distancing device, but they may also paraphrase a conversation with Bishop, who, a decade later, was to attribute a similar speech to the young girl named Elizabeth in "In the Waiting Room":
I was saying it to stop the sensation of falling off the round, turning world into cold, blue-black space. (Bishop, CP 56-59)
"Going To and Fro," which appears earlier in For the Union Dead, also concludes with a falling off the world. Here, however, the experience is displaced onto another traveler, the symbolist poet Gerard de Nerval. (An earlier draft was titled "For Nerval or Someone." (9)) The poem's title alludes to the book of Job, where God inquires of Satan "Whence camest thou?" and Satan replies, "From going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it" (Job 1.6). The Devil is mentioned twice in Lowell's poem, and, at one point, the phrase "he and you" (20), suggesting that Nerval and the devil colluded in making art: they "dug it all out of the dark / unconscious bowels of the nerves" (21-22). The poem begins vaguely, "It's authentic perhaps / to have been there" (1-2), but by the second stanza, the location is alternately Nerval's France and Lowell's America:
the hot-dog and coca cola bar, the Versailles steps, the Puritan statue-- if you could get through the Central Park by counting [....] (8-12)
The last "if" clause suggests what the next lines confirm, that the locales are practically unendurable: "But the intestines shiver, /the ferry saloon thugs with your pain" (13-14). What redeems the misery is, in Nerval's case and perhaps in Lowell's, the erotic promise of travel:
how often you wanted your fling with those French girls, Mediterranean luminaries, Mary, Myrtho, Isis-- as far out as the sphynx! The love that moves the stars moved you! It set you going to and fro and up and down-- If you could only get loose from the earth by counting your steps to the noose [...] (26-36)
The latter lines evoke Nerval's own suicide by hanging while they remind us that Nerval undertook his travel, like his death, willingly. As Lowell has it, the French poet was moved by love, fantasy (Myrtho was a goddess Nerval invented), and an aversion to stasis, as if the motion of travel would somehow deter or postpone death, as in Zeno's paradox where one can never arrive anywhere as long as the distance between here and there is endlessly measured and divided. (The earlier draft reads "Nerval got loose from the dark / By counting his steps to the noose" [35-36].) Counting is characteristic, also, of obsessive neurosis. What would one count to "get through"--not just to traverse but to endure--the Central Park? Although counting steps to the noose may divert a condemned man's mind from his fate, the image applies more broadly to perceiving the nearness of death at moments of extreme anxiety. This anxiety returns in "Flight to New York," where the poet admits "my bleak habit of counting off minutes on my fingers, / like pages of an unrequested manuscript" (D 4-5).
The four if clauses that structure "Going To and Fro" build in substance and coherence:
if now you could loll on the ledge for a moment [................................] if you could for a moment [...] (2-6) if you could get through the Central Park by counting [...] (11-12) If you could get loose from the earth by counting your steps to the noose [...] (34-36)
This latter "if" represents the most fully articulated wish, whose force has only gradually become utterable--though even this, like the previous "if" clauses, ends in an ellipsis, as though more if's lay in abeyance. The counting in the park was not, as it turns out, merely a counting of numbers or sheep, a whistling in the dark. Nor were the "One step, two steps, three steps" at the beginning of the same stanza merely steps from one location to the next (7). These are, rather, the steps counted toward death, a final "get[ting] loose from the earth," candidly suicidal in Nerval, fraught with terror in Lowell. The wish to "get loose / from the earth" thus contrasts with "Dropping South: Brazil" with its fear of losing one's "foothold on the map," its "falling," and the idea, from "Flying from Bangor to Rio, 1957," of being "lashed by [...] memory to the globe." It is as if Lowell, through Nerval, were exploring an alternative reaction to mobility, one less acrophobic and more daring. Such an alternative, however, was to have no future in Lowell's subsequent poems or travels.
After attending a second and less catastrophic "Congress of Cultural Freedom" in Caracas, in December of 1967, where he met Ivan Illich, Lowell flew to Cuernavaca to visit Father Illich's Center for Intercultural Development. There he met and became romantically involved with one of Illich's assistants, 22-year-old Mary Keelan, an Irishwoman employed by the Monastery of Emmaus. He wrote the sonnet sequence "Mexico" as a result of this affair, including it first in Notebook 1967-68, then in Notebook, and finally, in the version discussed here, in For Lizzie and Harriet. (10) "Mexico" is the first poetic sequence where extended travel provides a matrix for Lowell's narratives of vulnerability. The poet folds his ongoing personal concerns into notes on local history, customs, flora and fauna that exist chiefly in order to nourish those concerns and give them shape.
"Mexico" is also an instructive example of the way in which travel functions as a mode of composition. It would be next to impossible to puzzle out the hundreds of changes Lowell made, with Frank Bidart's help, in the poems and parts of poems that they moved, filtered, and re-grouped from Notebook 1967-68, to Notebook, and then to For Lizzie and Harriet, History, and The Dolphin. Some of the changes are miniscule, but many are large and structural. The process took the form of shuttling the historical poems--on Verlaine, DeGaulle, Stalin, Che Guevara, and many others--into the book History and away from the "personal" books For Lizzie and Harriet and The Dolphin. While the original "Mexico" sequence in Notebook 1967-68 and Notebook had twelve poems, the entire sequence is dropped from History, and of the ten "Mexico" poems appearing in For Lizzie and Harriet, several are made up of recombined parts of earlier poems. (11)
On the whole, the Mexican sonnets seem part of the "waste-marble" that Lowell had intended to cut from Notebook but that nonetheless found its way into subsequent volumes. But--bracketing, if possible, the question of aesthetic value--"Mexico" exemplifies the kind of poem and the kind of combinatory process of composition that the poet was developing out of his travels. The poems of "Mexico" may be unevocative of that country--Mexico is mere backdrop, as Octavio Paz noted with disappointment--but they were probably never intended to be "place" poems like those of D.H. Lawrence or even those of Bishop. They are, as was "Dropping South: Brazil," principally concerned with the centrifugal and fragmenting psychological processes within the speaker. While all of the ten sonnets of the "Mexico" sequence are "love" poems, I will address only those that bear on the anxieties associated with geographical displacement, poems whose "love" interest stands in vexed relation to that displacement.
The first six lines of the first poem deal with familiar material, the ageing and famous poet--"fifty, humbled [...] / dead laurel grizzling my back [...] ," beside his new, young lover, "some sweet, uncertain age, say twenty-seven" (2-3, 4)--before a version of Mexico makes its entrance:
What help then? Not the sun, the scarlet blossom, and the high fever of this seventh day, the predestined diarrhea of the pilgrim, the multiple mosquito spots, round as pesos. Hope not for God here, or even for the gods; the Aztecs knew the sun, the source of life, will die, unless we feed it human blood-- we two are clocks, and only count in time ... the hand a knife-edge pressed against the future. (LH 6-14; ellipsis Lowell's)
The sequence of images--from the sun's heat on Sunday, to the traveler's physical discomfort and vulnerability to bacteria and insects, to God, the gods, and thence to the Aztecs (and back to the sun)--is a loop with a kind of logic. The sun's fever is also the traveler's, and the mosquito draws blood as the Aztec gods did; the one set of terms, centered on the sun, depends on the other, centered on human blood. Having closed this elemental, very Paz-ian loop, however, the poet is driven back to the initial impetus of the poem, independent of the "Mexican" reflections. "We two are clocks," he says, the one of us having ticked off more hours than the other, a fairly conventional comment on mortality. We "count" in the sense that, like any organism, we register and measure the passage of time; but we also "count" as Nerval counts steps to the noose in "Going To and Fro," in which counting is a way of surviving; finally, we "count" in the sense that we matter.
The anxiety about age remains static, undeveloped by the dystopic portrait of a Mexican town, with its baking sun, diarrhea, fever, and mosquitoes, elements forming an ironic frame for a cross-generational declaration of love. Only the last line, where the clock metaphor is abruptly dropped for an image that ties the speaker to the Aztec sacrifices, is a link forged between the lovers and "Mexico." The hand, agent both of life and craft, as The Dolphin makes clear ("My eyes have seen what my hand did" (15)), has become the edge of a knife, which can, and must, cut and wound in order to keep the sun shining, the clock ticking, the poems coming. This hand is "pressed against the future" in the sense that it--the poet's actions and poems--will determine what is to come.
The Mexican lizard of the third poem of the series recalls the lizards of Bishop's "Brazil, January 1, 1502," from a few years before. Bishop's lizards "scarcely breathe" (CP 33); Lowell's "does nothing for days but puff his throat / for oxygen" (LH 2-3). Bishop's male lizards eye the female lizard. Lowell's too "loves only identical rusty lizards panting" (4). In Bishop's poem the lizards' lust (or "Sin") is juxtaposed with the lust of the conquistadors. Here, in parallel fashion, the attention returns to the topic of the couple in love. But, rather than lust, the poem evokes the passing of time, the two lovers' measure of it dwarfed by longer arcs: "The Toltec temples pass to dust in the dusk-- / the clock dial of the rising moon, dust out of time" (9-10). The lovers are seen as two clocks again, as in the first poem, but now "two clocks set back to Montezuma's fate" (11), as if partaking of the violence of that time ("when they took a city, they murdered everything" ).
Love and death, the passing of time, carpe diem--all this would be conventional were it not for the complication of geographical displacement. The poems of this sequence emerge out of Lowell's conflict between the desire to locate the playground for love that travel seems to offer and the simultaneous inability to grasp or realize the foreign place. The effort of realization may take the form of remembering the Toltecs or the Aztecs or of describing the fountains, the sunsets, or the body with its mosquito bites and diarrhea, but the instability, certainly as much imported as native, is always underscored ("I have lived without / sense so long the loss no longer hurts," he writes later, in the seventh sonnet [2-3]).
The beginning of the fourth sonnet turns like a compass needle toward home, the present place achieving relevance only to what has been left behind: "South of Boston, south of Washington, / south of any bearing [...] I walk the glazed moonlight [...]" (1-2).12 To have or take "any bearing" would be to maintain a reference point in the North. To be "south of any bearing" is, for this traveler, to be beyond the pale. Why travel at all, with such a reluctance to re-orient oneself? The answer is, as it was in "Going to and Fro," for "love": "drawn on by my unlimited desire [...] " (4).
The undertow of obsession--like the counting in "Going To and Fro," the walking to and fro in "Dropping South: Brazil," and the monotony of the bull and cow going "up road and down" in the fourth sonnet--is palpable in the fifth sonnet also, in the walking past the same site "twenty times" (6), as if it were a way of numbing oneself, as Proust warns, to one's surroundings. The fifth sonnet, however, suggests a struggle against this automatism, introducing a figure of Heraclitean flux--"The stream will not flow back to hand, not twice, not once" (7)--which warns against the numbing, reminding one of the singularity and irrevocability of every movement, however repetitive it may seem.
The next to last "Mexico" poem opens on the "Next to last day" (1) with a sublime vista of valley, volcano, and a world on fire: the lovers are "baking" on the veranda, the brown rock is "roasting," the grass is "smoking," and "the breath / of the world" rises like smoke (3-5). This intensity lies parallel to another: "the hours / of shivering, ache and burning, when we charged / so far beyond our courage--altitude [...] "(7-9). If these lines describe love-making, they also refer to mountain climbing, since the vertical metaphor, to emerge in the two poems titled "Eight Months Later," is suggested by the "cleavage dropping miles to the valley's body" (4), then the mention of the volcano and, after the passage about "the hours / of shivering," by the single word "altitude," outside of syntax.
Toward the end of this poem, the poet characterizes his lover:
No artist perhaps, you see the backs of phrases, a girl too simple to lose herself in words-- I fall back in the end on honest speech; infirmity's a food the flesh must swallow, feeding our minds ... the mind which is also flesh. (10-14)
That the "girl" (later a "poor child") is presented as simple, inartistic, and nonverbal may be connected to the poet's claim, in Wordsworthian fashion, to "fall back [...] on honest speech," a claim about which Lowell, in prizing imagination over "fact," was ordinarily suspicious. (13) But here we must compare the Notebook version, since the vertigo entailed in the project of speaking honestly has been elided from For Lizzie and Harriet; in the earlier version (as in the version printed in Collected Poems), "altitude" and "falling" back on honest speech are connected. The idiom of "falling back on," in the sense of relying upon, is conflated with the frightening sense of "falling" or "falling backward," echoed in "Dropping South: Brazil," where the traveler is "falling, falling, bent, intense," having lost his bearings, his textual "foothold on the map." Thus, in Notebook: "we'd charged / so far beyond our courage--altitudes, / then the falling [...] falling back on honest speech [...]" (Notebook 10-12).
"Mexico" began with the phrase "The difficulties, the impossibilities [...] ," followed by what seems the object of those terms: "I, fifty [...] you, some sweet uncertain age, say, twenty-seven [...]" (LH 1, 2-4). But other "difficulties" and "impossibilities" are at stake: getting the mind to clear, to focus and compose is certainly one of them. While this small "notebook" sequence traces a short period in time, it reaches back with nostalgia as well as forward with anxiety. "Mexico" provides a matrix and set of reference points within which to continue composing around the concerns that animate all Lowell's poetry of this period, irrespective of place: what the past demands of us; how we are to treat others; and what to do with life and life's "notes." The "impossibilities" and "difficulties" concern the latter--poesis--as much as anything else.
The two sonnets that form a coda to the "Mexico" sequence, together titled "Eight Months Later" (individually titled "Eight Months Later" and "Die Gold Orangen"), represent moments of retrospect and nostalgia for the poet's Mexico days and for "[t]he flower I took away" (LH 1). The memory draws on the imagery of the ninth "Mexico" poem: "we burned the grass, the grass still fumes" (3) as the poet compares himself first to Lucifer, who "sank to sleep on the tumuli of Lilith" (6) and then to God. His dissatisfaction with "home"--"Midsummer Manhattan," where "everything is stacked [...] half Europe / in half a mile" (9-12)--leads to familiar travel sentiments.
I wish we were elsewhere: Mexico ... Mexico? Where is Mexico? Who will live the year back, cat on the ladder? (LH 12-14)
The invocation of "Mexico" gives rise to the double question "Mexico? Where is Mexico?"--as much a questioning of the subject's own mental processes as a recognition that "Mexico" is not recoverable. The cat climbs the ladder without trepidation since it does not look back; coming down is another matter.
The ladder metaphor works in several ways. The vertigo is disorienting; the rungs look fragile, incapable of support; one doubts one's capacity to negotiate the passage. Moreover, the lost time and the lover are irretrievable. The alternate metaphor from the fifth sonnet, "The stream will not flow back to hand," shows this ongoing concern. But with the ladder figure, the element of height is crucial. What causes the fear is not that one cannot go back, since, if the road were lateral, one could try, but that the only direction is down. Again, the speaker's anxiety and enervation concern the chasm below. The way up is by climbing, the way down is by falling.
"Die Gold Orangen"--the title alluding to Mignon's song Kennst du das Land in Goethe, (or to "Delfica," Nerval's imitation of it)--coheres through its entire fourteen lines by means of landscape description and the conventional reflection that everything described is past--"I see it; it's behind us, love, behind us--" (4). The sentiments are familiar and rhetorical: "What have I done with us, and what was done?" (9). But the poem is overtaken in its last five lines by yet another metaphor of height, of dropping, echoing the volcano and altitude sickness of "Mexico":
And the mountain, El Volcan, a climber of clouds? The mule-man lost his footing in the cloud, seed of the dragon coupled in that cave .... The cliff drops; over it, the water drops, and steams out the footprints that led us on. (10-14)
I have made much of "dropping" and "falling" in the travel poems of For the Union Dead and For Lizzie and Harriet. "Mexico" describes a vertiginous "cleavage dropping miles to the valley's body," and here, at the end of "Eight Months Later," "the cliff drops; over it, the water drops." Just as the speaker fears he has "lost [his] foothold on the map" in "Dropping South: Brazil," so here the mule-man has "lost his footing in the cloud." If a map is a tenuous place to gain a foothold, a cloud is even more so. Despite William Carlos Williams's "The Descent," the descent beckons only in the most terrifying way: as the cat cannot get down the ladder but stops, paralyzed, at the top, so here, tropical waterfalls have "steam[ed] out the footprints that led us on," preventing us from returning. It is not only one of several of Lowell's metaphors for the impossibility of turning around on a path--the theme of transience and unrecoverability that runs through the "Mexico" sequence; it is also one of the proliferating figures of height and dizziness, of the vulnerability of this queasy, disoriented traveler.
TURBULENCE: THE EAST-WEST AXIS
Air travel is the norm in Lowell's poems as it has been in those of Derek Walcott, whom Lowell stopped to visit in Trinidad on the first South American trip. For Walcott, however, the plane is a metaphor not so much of psychic turbulence and insecurity as of privilege, a detached perspective, and the guilt associated with both. In both poets, "flight"--as in Walcott's "The Schooner Flight" or Lowell's "Flight to New York"--means running away as much as it means travel. Walcott, often viewing his islands from the plane window, uses these perspectives as opportunities to meditate on identity. Lowell selects an aisle seat. His travel poems, as we have already seen, do not concern places so much as they do inner conflicts, played out in historical or literary terms. The experience of travel, while it sensitizes, also enervates and disturbs.
Travelers often fall ill because the depletion caused by travel occurs below the threshold of consciousness. Certainly, Lowell's frequent travels by air toward the end of his life were ill-advised. Consider the movements of his last three years: he flew back to Boston from Mexico in 1974; two months later he flew to Spoleto, Italy, for the arts festival, back to Boston to teach, and then, following a collapse in 1975, to London for hospitalization. He returned to New York in 1976 for an opening of The Old Glory, flew to Boston again, after another severe attack, to stay with his third wife Caroline Blackwood, and then flew to England for Christmas and to work on the Eumenides. In January 1977 he returned to Boston, where, staying with Frank Bidart, he woke in the night with congestive heart failure and was rushed to the hospital. Later that month he flew to Dublin, returning to Cambridge after only ten days to give a reading at Harvard and then to Knoxville for a reading at the University of Tennessee. In July, he and Elizabeth Hardwick flew to Moscow as part of the U. S. delegation to the Union of Soviet Writers. Next he flew back to Dublin to see Caroline and their son Sheridan, though his friend Blair Clark told him his going would be a "fatal mistake"; finally, after a frightening night locked up in the mansion at Castletown, Caroline having left, despondent, for London, he managed the trip to the London airport to catch his last plane to New York. In the taxi from Kennedy airport to West 67th Street, he died of heart failure.
Telescoped in this way, perhaps these travels of Lowell's last three years seem more extraordinary than they were; certainly they were epiphenomenal to the heartbreak that partly caused them. At any rate, the cumulative effect was devastating. The damage is as visible in the poems written on the east-west Atlantic axis as it is in the north-south poems. In order briefly to link these two axes, consider a poem written before the Caroline Blackwood period, "Flight in the Rain," from Notebook, which conflates a past north-south flight with a present east-west flight. It is a poem of travel trauma that did not survive the sifting process into the subsequent books:
--Why does he say, I'm not afraid of flying? --His imagination has lost the word for dying. --It must be worse, if you have imagination ... That night: the wing-tilt, air-bounce upright, lighted Long Island mainstreets flashed like dice on the window; the raindrop, gut troutlines wriggling on the window; the landings, not landing; the long low flight at snailspace exhausting a world of suburban similars ... The sick stomach says, You were. Says, Pray-- this mismanaged life incorrigible.... Prayer lives longer than God--God, the deja vu, He sees the sparrow fall, heard years from here in Rio, one propeller clunking off, our Deo Gracias on the puking runway. (Notebook 1-14)
The memory evoked by Lowell's flight is that of an earlier, equally turbulent landing at Rio, when passengers said a prayer of thanks as the plane, one prop dead, hit "the puking runway." Because of this pairing of present and past, we have "landings, not landing," the memory of multiple, reverberating traumas. The deja vu is this recognition, God's recognition, of an ominous parallelism. God, the micro-manager, according to Christian tradition, counts the hairs of our heads and knows when every sparrow falls. This sparrow, the plane, had fallen--in Lowell's sense of "falling"--before, and now would again, or so the "sick stomach" says. The poet is less concerned with what lies out the window--the Long Island suburban streets flashing by--than with the nausea that speak to him of mortality.
This poem of flight is more specific than most of the poems of vulnerability that spread out from Notebook into History, For Lizzie and Harriet, and The Dolphin. Indeed, its explicit depiction of the physical and spiritual nausea of air travel is well to bear in mind as we look at the east-west travel poetry of the latter volume.
The travel theme is largely submerged during the poems of householding and hospitals that occupy the bulk of The Dolphin. But the six-poem sequence "Leaving America for England" introduces a subliminal charge that ignites in the longer sequence "Flight to New York." The former sequence of six poems begins, in "America," with a reference to "My lifelong taste for reworking the same water--" (1), reminding one of "the old Atlantic still" and "the same Atlantic" that he contemplated in earlier poems. This first poem of the sequence emphasizes sameness, stasis, unwillingness to experience anew. He is content with
puzzles repeated and remembered, games repeated and remembered, the runner trimming on his mud-smooth path, the gamefish fattening in its narrow channel....(6-9)
The "narrow channel" and the "mud-smooth path" evoke the numbing, back-and-forth routine that figured in the "Mexico" poems and the "going to and fro" of For the Union Dead. That Lowell did not see himself as a born traveler is suggested in the middle of this poem where he declares, paraphrasing Horace, "Change I earth or sky I am the same" (5)--an aged dog, he suggests, well past the age of learning new tricks, and "deaf to the lure of personality" (D 10). The line suggests also, again, Lowell's imperviousness or wish for imperviousness--a protective measure against the trauma of disorientation--to the psychic shaping that can come from travel to other places, amid other cultures and languages.
While the six poems of "Leaving America for England" move from this embrace of the familiar to ruminations on the poet's marriages and the place of the personal in poetry, the "Flight to New York" sequence stands as an intense, linear representation of air travel, moving from pre-flight jitters to departure to the "Purgatory" of flight and finally to arrival. More than half of the twelve poems define the traveler as not only in transit but also in flight in both senses of the word. In these poems, the modern travel experience--planes, airports, tickets, fear and apprehension--is palpable, as suggested by the first lines of the first poem, "Plane-Ticket": "A virus and its hash of knobby aches-- / more than ever flying seems too lofty, / the season unlucky for visiting New York [...]" (1-3). The apprehension plays on the literal "loft" and "aloft" of flying, but the usual figurative sense of "lofty" as rhetorically "high" is also apt, in that both poet and traveler wish to avoid loftiness, being up off the ground (just as, conversely, "falling" and "falling back on honest speech" were connected in Notebook). Despite these apprehensions, the poem depicts the traveler in his honeymoon period, still in the elation of "rock in the leaf," "green sap" in "arid rind" (11-12) (the first phrase from "Mexico," the others from the present series):
I have my round-trip ticket.... After fifty so much joy has come, I hardly want to hide my nakedness-- the shine and stiffness of a new suit, a feeling, not wholly happy, of having been reborn. (10-14)
Lowell's psychological and somatic need for the familiar, however, shadows the elation: to be reborn, to wear this "new suit" like a boy on his first trip, to experience "so much joy" is, after all, not a "wholly happy" feeling. Happiness is, rather, a worn path.
The following poem, "With Caroline at the Air-Terminal," consists largely of a cut-up letter from Caroline Blackwood, describing desperate love and domestic details--the grey color of the house (and of her mood), the dining room converted to a nursery. She also wonders not, as he does, whether he will arrive in New York, but whether the promise of the round-trip will be fulfilled: "'I feel unsafe, uncertain you'll get back'" (8). Only the final five lines are not quotation: he describes the plane, as its "great white umbilical ingress bangs in place" (11) and adds, forebodingly, "The flight is certain" (12). Only one other thing in life is as certain. We may think of the British "terminal" as bearing the semantic weight it does in "Terminal Days at Beverly Farms," the more so since the traveler has just wondered, in "Plane-Ticket," whether the "book of life" offers "a choice of endings" (9-10). His question of travel is the simplest possible: will I arrive?
In the fourth poem, "Flight," the vertical themes are underscored by an aerial view of New York City with its vertiginous scaffolds and walls "flying like Feininger's skyscraper yachts" (11) as the clouds clear toward the runway. Once the speaker is in New York, in the sixth poem, "No Messiah," the topos of travel becomes inextricable from the problems of the poet's existence, both domestic and literary. On the one hand, he "can find no lodging for my two lives" (5), and, on the other, the ability to "write the truth" about matters has been "lost in passage" (1-3). He shows up on Lizzie and Harriet's doorstep, once his own, "planesick on New York food" and feeling "the old / Subway reverberate through our apartment floor [...]" (9-10). He stops in the middle of the room, hearing
my Nolo, the non-Messianic man-- drop, drop in silence, then a louder dro echoed elsewhere by a louder drop. (D 12-14)
The drops reverberating rhythmically along the above lines echo through Lowell's poetry from the time of "Dropping South: Brazil." The drop here is post-flight, as is the reverberation felt under the room, a phantom effect of an experience supposedly completed. The man who refuses, Lowell's Bartleby, has dropped from the sky, "non-Messianic" at Christmas--but what is that louder drop (since the first was silent), followed by the echo of a louder drop still? Deconstruction's term "dispersed subject" seems designed to describe the dispersal traced in this poem, where, along with allegiances, subjectivity itself has been spread over several sites and time zones. The traveler has landed in New York and come to a familiar hearth, but he is still in England and still on the plane. Home has been, through the traveler's own inner divisions and compulsions, de-based. The silent descent of the alienated "Nolo" is displaced by a disembodied echo, which, in a chain of deferral, creates still another echo "elsewhere."
In the last pair of poems of the series, the prospects of distance and of imminent departure come into focus. The poet sees the living-room Christmas tree "fallen out with nature, shedding to a naked cone of triggered wiring" (9-10), a Doll's House-like stage symbol of the poet's and his family's condition. But this deterioration conceals a life force--continuing the metaphor of renewed sexual vigor in age that pervades the poems about Caroline Blackwood (and the "rock in leaf" in "Mexico")--all the more certain of itself for recognizing its instability:
This worst time is not unhappy, green sap still floods the arid rind, the thorny needles catch the drafts, as if alive--I too, because I waver, am counted with the living. (D 11-14)
Where, at the beginning of this sequence, being "reborn," because of its frightening newness, was "not wholly happy," now "[t]his worst time," because it is familiar, "is not unhappy." Turbulence may mean pathology--sensitization, indecision, trauma--but he recognizes that it is life. In making a case for a qualified happiness, the two metaphors for fertility and vigor protest too much and, perhaps inadvertently, suggest a line from "My Last Duchess": "There she stands as if alive," implying that one is in fact not alive but merely simulating life; that one is--as in the case of Browning's duchess--a plausible imitation, an artwork; and finally, that the comfort and security of the "mud-smooth path" and "narrow channel" have been overrated.
The last poem of the "Flight to New York" series, "Christmas," is, but for its closing lines, a poem of almost trivial comfort, "the tedium and deja-vu of home" (1). But if the speaker feared arrival, he fears departure still more, the promise of that round-trip ticket with which the sequence begins. Fear of birth or renewal is eclipsed by fear of death. The trip over was rough; even after landing, the traveler's digestion rumbled, and his body trembled, as did the ground beneath, shaken by subway trains. But now that comfort has come at last, in the warmth of love and gift-giving and the reestablishing of familiar writing habits, the traveler must return. Departure will of course be by airplane; its shadow already swims under the family, its menace spreading metonymically:
We are at home and warm, as if we had escaped the gaping jaws-- underneath us like a submarine, nuclear and protective like a mother, swims the true shark, the shadow of departure. (10-14)
The shadow of departure resembles a shark, which in turn resembles both a submarine and a mother. The adjectives respective to these latter two--"nuclear" and "protective"--are instead arrogated only to one, the mother, the devastating power of whose protection must now seem at least as threatening as a shark. The fear instilled by this mother must be a seeping over from that very warmth and comfort, which, at the moment they are so prized, are also impelling the inevitable departure. The threats from beneath were sensed earlier (in "No Messiah") in the rumbling of the subway under the floor. If the airplane is the real threat, it is presaged by something closer to home but similar in shape (subway, submarine, airplane--all metal cylinders). The real fear, as Freud knew and as "Elizabeth" found out in "In the Waiting Room," is always from "inside." The rumble under the floor and the shadow beneath us are the unheimlich within the heimlich, the uncanny within the familiar.
Shadows and rumblings portend the repressed return, the other half of the round trip. As with the cat atop the ladder, as with the vanished footprints in the snow that had mapped a safe return, the descent is almost impossible to face. This last poem of the sequence is the arrival, the savoring at last of comfort, but the comfort ends almost as soon as it began. The ominous shadow may be the prospect of England, of Caroline, of a wound reopening, but it is certainly also the prospect of being high off the earth, turbulent, sick, and terrorized once again.
FRAGILITY AND THE "MUD-SMOOTH PATH"
"Flight in the Rain," with its two turbulent, nauseating landings; "Summer Between Terms," where the poet is reduced to "eat[ing] my toad[s] hourly" (Dolphin 8) and reading poems for his trainfare; "Leaving America for England," which underlines his penchant for comfort, the familiar, and the routine; and "Flight to New York," where the shadow of departure looms like a shark and vibrates like a subway--these poems and others suggest that Lowell experienced travel viscerally and might well have wished not to experience it at all. Even in "My Last Afternoon with Uncle Devereux Winslow," the child Lowell, wishing for a homelike home, says, "'I won't go[....] I want to stay'" (Life Studies 1). But life demanded his movement, not comfortably to and fro on a "mud-smooth path" but across oceans, wrenched out of time and comfort zones. Lowell's travel had less to do with nationalities, differences, or cultures, less with otherness, than with the monoculture of airports, bad food, and psychic disequilibrium. The experiences in the poems are similar: turbulence, with the plane's fragility as a trope for that of the traveler. If Lowell did not always seem interested in things or places around him, as Lota de Macedo Soares suggested, travel itself nevertheless operated profoundly on him, at levels below the cognitive. (14)
The disorientation of travel may in the end have unhinged time-space relations for Lowell. In the poem "Fragility" (from the "Caroline" section of The Dolphin), the poet attempts to impose the grid of time on the chaos of space, a habit that would finally become a therapy in his last book, Day by Day. "Fragility" constitutes the effort of a man emerging from trauma to gain perspective:
One foot in last year, one in last July, the motionless month, the day that lasts a month. We reach mid-journey, you lag by fifteen summers, half a year more than Harriet's whole life. The clock looks over my shoulder crazily. (1-5)
One could do the math here, computing Lowell's, Caroline's, and Harriet's ages at the time of writing ("mid-journey" in Dante would be thirty-five), but perhaps more interesting is the fact that time is conflated or confused with space and that, while the clocks in "Mexico" were metaphors for the discrepant biological ages of the poet and his young lover, here an externalized clock, like a mad superego, watches over the poet's shoulder, monitoring the time remaining. The poet has, like Billy Pilgrim in Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, come "unstuck in time."
Yeats said that we make rhetoric out of our argument with others, poetry out of our argument with ourselves. The movement from rhetoric to poetry in Lowell--as the poetry becomes more "personal"--corresponds to another movement, from roots to rootlessness, the heimlich to the horrifying. It was not a movement Lowell accepted. In "During a Transatlantic Call," he wrote, "I've closed my mind / so long, I want to keep it closed, perhaps--" (D 10-11). Indeed the psychic and poetic energy expended on resisting the change, as in the case of the white-knuckled passenger on a turbulent flight, taxed and probably shortened Lowell's life.
It has often been noted that Lowell's was a different talent than Bishop's--large, prolific, allusive, historical, and rhetorical--one that was part of New England soil, not a "guest" there as Bishop felt she was. Perhaps we need to revisit the adage that "wherever you go, there you are." The "you" in Bishop was relatively malleable, given not only to doubt but to change; its vulnerability lay in its capacity to lose itself in places, in spite of its frequent trope of touristic conventionality--sometimes because of it, insofar as that touristic persona was self-effacing. Lowell's "you," on the other hand, along with the passionate necessity to comprehend his life, went everywhere with him.
Bishop's last published words to him, in her elegy "North Haven," observe that his relentless revising of poems will now have to stop: "You can't derange, or re-arrange/ your poems again" (CP 28-29). But from the question of words that, because they are stopped now, will never change, she moves without transition to the question of a self, similarly stopped and therefore unchanging: "The words won't change again. Sad friend, you cannot change" (30).
This essay is based on a chapter from the author's forthcoming book Mastery's End: Travel and Postwar American Poetry (U of Georgia P, 2005).
(1) All future citations of poetry refer to line numbers.
(2) The picture of Lowell as pacifist and draft resister is complicated by that of Lowell the elitist and authoritarian. Beyond the matter of his privileged upbringing, Lowell was influenced strongly by the Agrarians who were his tutors and whose anti-urban, anti-capitalist program contained racist and classist elements. For an account of Lowell's political conflicts and swervings, see Steven Gould Axelrod's "Robert Lowell and the Cold War" (The New England Quarterly [September 1999]: 339-61).
(3) See Mary Louise Pratt's Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (New York: Routledge, 1992), as well as other works on the colonizing gaze--for example, James Buzard's The Beaten Track: European Tourism, Literature, and the Ways to "Culture" 1800-1918 (New York: Oxford UP, 1993), Laura Mulvey's Visual and Other Pleasure(Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1989), or John Urry's The Tourist Gaze: Leisure and Travel in Contemporary Societies (London: Sage, 1990).
(4) In using the term "vulnerable" I refer to Harold Bloom's phrase the "trope of vulnerability," which he coined to characterize and disparage Lowell's poetry. Bloom complained, "I am left uncertain as to whether I am not being moved by a record of human suffering, rather than by a making of any kind" (1).
(5) In a letter to Bishop, Lowell expressed his concern over how little he knew of Latin American literature or culture (Mariani 307). Keith Botsford, representative of the "Congress" in Brazil and Argentina, claimed to have tried to educate Lowell in this area as well as to introduce him to the leading Argentine writers, but Lowell, said Botsford, showed little interest.
(6) Yet another draft reads, "Wholly Atlantic/ you combed this seaboard north and south / for room to live." Bishop would later use some of the poem's diction ("rode," "star," "anchor," "drift") in her elegy to Lowell, "North Haven."
(7) Botsford, exasperated and not fully realizing the gravity of Lowell's symptoms, had deserted the poet in Buenos Aires and come back to Rio. Bishop was furious ("I asked him what the HELL he thought he was doing; didn't he know Cal's history?") and phoned Lowell's New York doctor, who said Lowell must come back to the United States immediately (One Art 411).
(8) See also the reworking of this material in "Liberty and Revolution, Buenos Aires" (History), where the poet writes, "I had bought a cow suit and matching chestnut / flatter pointed shoes that hurt my toes" (Collected Poems 3-4).
(9) See Frank Bidart's notes on this poem and its versions in Lowell's Collected Poems, 1060.
(10) This was still not the final version. The sequence was revised again for Lowell's Selected Poems; that version is the one that appears in the recent Collected Poems.
(11) Reviewers of the new Collected Poems have been quick to notice that these problems--not only multiple published versions of poems but also poems made out of parts from two or three earlier poems--remain, inevitably, unsolved. See, for one of the earliest reviews, Anthony Lane's "The Fighter: Rereading Robert Lowell" (The New Yorker. 9 June 2003. 80-89).
(12) Even "south of the South," as he wrote in Notebook (2).
(13) Lowell's remarks in his two essays on John Crowe Ransom indicate his ambiguity on the question of "honest speech": he had praised Ransom's poems as having "the distinction of good conversation," saying he wrote poetry in "the language of one of the best talkers" (Collected Prose 19). In the second essay, however, he regrets that Ransom had abandoned "pretty rhymes" in order to write "honest" essays (25), then praises him again for his "unpainted" poetic language, "not far removed" from prose (27). The ambivalence is maintained in Lowell's own poems, notably in one of his last, "Epilogue"(Day By Day).
(14) After Bishop had entertained Lowell and Hardwick for several weeks in Brazil, Lota commented, "They aren't interested in things or places much, are they? Just people and books" (qtd. in Goldensohn 187).
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von Hallberg, Robert. "Tourism and Postwar American Poetry." American Poetry and Culture, 1945-1980. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1985. 62-92.
Walcott, Derek. "The Schooner Flight." The Castaway and Other Poems. London: Cape, 1965. 345-361.
JEFFREY GRAY is an associate professor of English at Seton Hall University, where he teaches twentieth century poetry and literary theory. He is the author of Mastery's End: Travel and Postwar American Poetry (U Georgia P, 2005) and editor of the Greenwood Encyclopedia of American Poetry, in progress. His articles have appeared in Contemporary Literature, Callaloo, Novel, Prospects, and Profession, among others; his poetry has appeared in the Atlantic, The American Poetry Review, and The Literary Review, among others.…