08 June 2017

Poetry Thursday - Waking in the Blue by Robert Lowell

The setting. A reading of the poem is here
Waking in the Blue

The night attendant, a B.U. sophomore,
 rouses from the mare’s-nest of his drowsy head
 propped on The Meaning of Meaning.
 He catwalks down our corridor.
 Azure day
 makes my agonized blue window bleaker.
 Crows maunder on the petrified fairway.
 Absence! My heart grows tense
 as though a harpoon were sparring for the kill.
 (This is the house for the ‘mentally ill.’)

 What use is my sense of humor?
 I grin at Stanley, now sunk in his sixties,
 once a Harvard all-American fullback,
 (if such were possible!)
 still hoarding the build of a boy in his twenties,
 as he soaks, a ramrod
 with the muscle of a seal
 in his long tub,
 vaguely urinous from the Victorian plumbing.
 A kingly granite profile in a crimson golf-cap,
 worn all day, all night,
 he thinks only of his figure,
 of slimming on sherbet and ginger ale’
 more cut off from words than a seal.

 This is the way day breaks in Bowditch Hall at McLean’s;
 the hooded night lights bring out ‘Bobbie,’
 Porcellian ’29,
 a replica of Louis XVI
 without the wig’
 redolent and roly-poly as a sperm whale,
 as he swashbuckles about in his birthday suit
 and horses at chairs.
 These victorious figures of bravado ossified young.

 In between the limits of day,
 hours and hours go by under the crew haircuts
 and slightly too little nonsensical bachelor twinkle
 of the Roman Catholic attendants.
 (There are no Mayflower
 screwballs in the Catholic Church.)

 After a hearty New England breakfast,
 I weigh two hundred pounds
 this morning. Cock of the walk,
 I strut in my turtle-necked French sailor’s jersey
 before the metal shaving mirrors,
 and see the shaky future grow familiar
 in the pinched, indigenous faces
 of these thoroughbred mental cases,
 twice my age and half my weight.
 We are all old-timers,
 each of us holds a locked razor.

Robert Lowell (1917-1977)

Lowell, who came from a privileged New England background and studied at Harvard, started writing confessional poems in the mid-1950s; when this poem was published, in Life Studies in 1959, it was considered brave to "come out" about mental illness, even though he doesn't talk about the nature of the illness.

If there are references in the poem that are mystifying, these notes give some insight. "B.U.", for instance, is Boston University, hardly as prestigious as Harvard. Porcellian? an all-male social club at Harvard.

Why does this poem appear here today? As so often, it's the result of a coincidence - my happening to start reading the catalogue to an exhibition called The Written Image that I had intended to see yesterday, but got sidetracked from. (It's still on my list; read about the show here and here.)

In the exhibition catalogue Robert Perkins presents 45 years of collaboration with poets, and he writes:
These experience [of frightening things, as a child] prepared me to accept an old and precious world full of contradiction as it was overflowing with beauty. 
Our age doesn’t welcome the introvert. For these reasons, when I discovered her, poetry meant the world to me. These men and women seemed like fellow travelers, older, wiser, more acute observers, spinners of the most gossamer fabrics and emotions.  
Instead of being woven into the fabric of our everyday life, I’ve noticed poetry is, for most people, something they turn to on an ‘occasion’: a marriage, a death, even an illness. I discovered poetry again on Bowditch Hall, a maximum-security ward for men at McLean Hospital [in Belmont, MA], the same ward referred to in Robert Lowell’s poem ‘Waking in the Blue.’ I was there a year (in 1968, insurance paid for a full year) and the aide who is mentioned in Lowell’s poem as the B.U. sophomore was still there. He had a copy of the poem in his wallet. He would pull it out and point to his mention, as proud as any parent showing off pictures of his child.  
After reading that, it seemed essential to find  Waking in the Blue immediately.

And now I've been sidetracked from looking at the online catalogue by writing this blog post, not just finding a new poem but educating myself about it and its references, and finding out about Lowell and about Perkins. ("Life happens when you're making other plans", wot?)

On his website Robert Perkins says of himself:
 Born in Boston and classically educated at Milton Academy and Harvard University (AB 1974), he received an MFA from the Graduate Program at Bennington College in 2004. His true education began while spending his 19th year on Bowditch Hall, the men’s locked ward at McLean Hospital in Belmont MA. (Humpty Dumpty River). Although it did not initially appear so, the trauma of this experience was the key to his life.

Back to the serious stuff of my own Plan A, now.

1 comment:

MAM said...

Hey Margaret! Lost your email address but just looked at TOH and your bit about Joe Cunningham. Interesting work he is doing now - I had a class with him and the person who was his SO (can't remember her name to save me) many years ago. So long actually, that I had forgotten all about it but I think it might have been in the neighborhood of very old traditional. What I remember most though, is very silly - he seemed to be quite a bit younger than the SO and someone asked her if she was his mother! Hope you are well - I liked that mag - bookmarking for further looking!
Martha Ann