Sunday, August 3, 2008

Vendler on Lowell, without the text

Auden said somewhere that he read reviews mostly for the quotations. Helen Vendler's brilliant review of Lowell's later poems is best read that way; the text doesn't really add much to the passages, but the quotations were good enough to make me read Lowell, whom otherwise (confessional, deranged, megalomaniacal) I wouldn't have bothered with. Follow the link for the full version, here is the meat of the thing: [I've boldfaced the bits that really got to me]

They won't stay gone, and stare with triumphant torpor,
as if held in my fieldglasses' fog and enlargement.

Before the final coming to rest, comes the rest
of all transcendence in a mode of being, hushing
all becoming. I'm for and with myself in my otherness,
in the eternal return of earth's fairer children,
the lily, the rose, the sun on brick at dusk,
the loved, the lover, and their fear of life,
their unconquered flux, insensate oneness...

raw hamburger mossing in the watery stoppage,
the room drenched with musk like kerosene—
no one shaved, and only the turtle washed.
He was so beautiful when we flipped him over:
greens, reds, yellows, fringe of the faded savage,
the last Sioux, old and worn...

lovely the flies that fed that sleazy surface,
a turtle looking back at us, and blinking.

The lizard rusty as a leaf rubbed rough
does nothing for days but puff his throat
on oxygen, and tongue up passing flies,
loves only identical rusty lizards panting:
harems worthy this lord of the universe—
each thing he does generic, and not the best.

I, fifty, humbled with the years' gold garbage,
dead laurel grizzling my back like spines of hay

Spring moved to summer—the rude cold rain
hurries the ambitious, flowers and youth....

Child of ten, three quarters animal,
three years from Juliet, half Juliet,
already ripened for the night on stage—
beautiful petals, what shall we hope for....?

The virus crawling on its belly like a blot,
an inch an aeon; the tyrannosaur,
first carnivore to stand on his two feet,
the neanderthal, first anthropoid to laugh—
we lack staying power, though we will to live.
Abel learned this falling among the jellied
creepers and morning-glories of the saurian sunset.

"O Christmas tree, how green thy branches—our features
could only be the most conventional,
the hardwood smile, the Persian rug's abstraction,
the firelight dancing in the Christmas candles,
my unusual offspring with his usual scowl,
spelling the fifty feuding kings of Greece,
with a red, blue and yellow pencil....I
am seasick with marital unhappiness—"

The fires men build live after them,
this night, this night, I elfking, I stonehands sit
feeding the wildfire wildrose of the fire
clouding the cottage window with my lust's
alluring emptiness. I hear the moon
simmer the mildew on a pile of shells,
the fruits of my banquet...a boiled lobster,
red shell and hollow foreclaw, cracked, sucked dry,
flung on the ash-heap of a soggy carton—
it eyes me, two pinhead, burnt-out popping eyes.

The thick lemony honeysuckle,
climbing from the earthroot to your window,
will open more beautiful blossoms to the evening;
but dewdrops, trembling, shining, falling,
the tears of day—they'll not come back....

The Puritan shone here,
lord of self-inflicted desiccation,
roaming for outlet through the virgin forest,
stalking the less mechanically angered savage—
the warpath to three wives and twenty children.

Sometimes, my mind is a rocked and dangerous bell;
I climb the spiral stairs to my own music,
each step more poignantly oracular,
something inhuman always rising in me—

Risen from the blindness of teaching to bright snow,
everything mechanical stopped dead,
taxis no-fares...the wheels grow hot from driving—
ice-eyelashes, in my spring coat; the subway
too jammed and late to stop for passengers;
snow-trekking the mile from subway end to airport...
to all-flights-canceled, fighting queues congealed
to telephones out of order, stamping buses,
rich, stranded New Yorkers staring with the wild, mild eyes
of steers at the foreign subway—then the train home,
jolting with stately grumbling.

star-nosed moles, [in] their catatonic tunnels
and earthworks...only in touch with what they touch.

I want words meat-hooked from the living steer,
but a cold flame of tinfoil licks the metal log,
beautiful unchanging fire of childhood
betraying a monotony of vision....
Life by definition breeds on change,
each season we scrap new cars and wars and women.
But sometimes when I am ill or delicate,
the pinched flame of my match turns unchanging green,
a cornstalk in green tails and seeded tassel....
A nihilist has to live in the world as is,
gazing the impassable summit to rubble.

Serfs with a finer body and tinier brain—
who asks the swallows to do drudgery,
clean, cook, peck up their ton of dust per diem?
Knock on their homes, they go up tight with fear,
farting about all morning past their young,
small as wasps fuming in their ash-leaf ball.
Nature lives off the life that comes to hand;
yet if we knew and softly felt their being,
wasp, bee and bird might live with us on air;
the boiling yellow-jacket in her sack
of zebra-stripe cut short above the kneeescape...
the nerve-wrung creatures, wasp, bee and bird,
felons for life or keepers of the cell,
wives in their wooden cribs of seed and feed.

I too maneuvered on a guiding string
as I execute my written plot.
I feel how Hamlet, stuck with the Revenge Play
his father wrote him, went scatological
under this clotted London sky.

I watch a feverish huddle of shivering cows;
you sit making a fishspine from a chestnut leaf.
We are at our crossroads, we are astigmatic
and stop uncomfortable, we are humanly low.

I've gladdened a lifetime
knotting, undoing a fishnet of tarred rope;
the net will hang on the wall when the fish are eaten,
nailed like illegible bronze on the futureless future


zbs said...

Hm; I think Vendler here and typically chooses the worst quotations

Zed said...

I guess we disagree about Vendler and probably Lowell -- minimally, though, it'd be trivial to find much worse passages in Lowell's later verse!

zbs said...


I like Vendler OK though, but her willingness to invent the content she ascribes to poets and then discover it tends to carry her to not their most sparkling lines.

Maybe their most sparkling lines wouldn't be a very good place to start though honestly