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Lost Puritan: A Life Of Robert Lowell

Paul Mariani
W.W. Norton, $27.50

by Don Share

"History," Dr. Johnson claimed, "may be formed from permanent monuments and records, but Lives can only be written from personal knowledge, which is growing every day less, and in a short time is lost forever." In his poetry, Robert Lowell collapsed the distinction between history and biography, as if he took for granted that the individual has a personal relationship with history, and that history is the record of personal moments that endure like monuments. Reading about Lowell's life, it's tempting to believe that he had been predestined to live a public life. As Elizabeth Bishop marveled in a letter to him, "I could write in as much detail about my Uncle Artie, say -- but what would be the significance. . . .Whereas all you have to do is put down the names!" His work came from the nexus of the crises, personal as well as political, that now seem to epitomize the decades in which he lived.
In good Johnsonian fashion, Paul Mariani has sifted through everything from existing works about Lowell to previously unavailable correspondence, newly conducted interviews, and uncollected writing in an attempt to capture contemporary testimony as if it were about to vanish altogether. The resulting patchwork of such material threatens to smother its subject with overwhelming detail, yet for all that it scarcely alters the common perception of Lowell as a man who was brilliant, determined, and frequently ill. Each bit of the history Mariani unearths tends to reiterate what Lowell summed up in just a few grim lines:

How often have my antics
and insupportable, trespassing tongue
gone astray and led me to prison . . .
to lying . . . kneeling . . . standing.

Indeed, Mariani says he intended to write a biography that gives Lowell "more of his own words." This strategy is questionable, though, because Lowell writes better about himself than Mariani does:
Whom am I?, he thinks [Mariani writes], as the fog begins to give way to the solidity of the white wall he has been staring at. The Thorazined fixture sits on the bed and stares, struggling to swim up out of the leaden murk which has been choking him. . . .
Compare Lowell's own account, in "Near the Unbalanced Aquarium":
My mind, somewhat literary and somewhat muscle-bound, hunted for the clue to the right picture of itself. In my distraction, the walls of the hospital seemed to change shape like limp white clouds. I thought I saw a hard enameled wedding cake, and beside it, holding the blunt silver knife of the ritual, stood the tall white stone-bride -- my mother....
It's a difficult enough story to piece together and Mariani encumbers it with a prose style that aims to be exuberant, but instead usually sounds forced and rushed. It is exasperating that Mariani weaves together his quotations with such dubious prose: ". . . in spite of his encounters with Flaubert, Montale, and Rilke, he knew he was still a puritan at heart;" "Only in the last ten years, with his second marriage and later the birth of his daughter, had he begun to write what he'd really had to say."
Much of the material Mariani presents is so compelling by itself that it's a shame he so often conscripts it to serve as fodder for critical speculation. A typical example is how Mariani patches in a poignant anecdote of Derek Walcott's. Walcott, about to go out with Lowell in New York, straightens the knot in Lowell's tie. Lowell, Walcott recalls, "returns the knot to its loose tilt. 'Casual elegance,' he says, his hands too large to be those of a boulevardier. The correction is technical, one moment's revelation of style." Walcott's observation is superbly articulated, yet Mariani embeds it in a paragraph about Lowell's poem, "The Severed Head," and can't resist adding that "What Walcott does not yet see is that the severed head is gasping for air." This sounds more like grasping for straws.
Such a technique is simply inadequate in what purports to be a critical biography. Mariani manages to step carefully, if not always deftly, through large drifts of information without setting off an avalanche; there is much to be grateful for here. Yet despite attempting to document how Lowell "learned to write his way into the mystery of existence," Mariani hovers breathlessly on the fringes of the poetry.
The bits and pieces are certainly worth having though. A previously uncollected poem, "Summer Tales," which Mariani gives in full, tells many volumes' worth:

I cannot go down to the sea,
After so much logical interrogation,
I can do nothing that matters. . . .
I think of my son and daughter,
and three stepdaughters
on far-out ledges
washed by the dreaded clock-clock of the
waves . . .
gradually rotting the bulwark where I stand
Their father's unmotherly touch
trembles on a loosened rail.

Even more moving are the last lines which Lowell, according to Mariani, left behind; they are uncanny, at once both expletive and prayer:

May I die at night
With a semblance of my senses
Like the full moon that fails.

Lowell himself never completed a prose account of his own life. And though this account is well worth reading, we will have to wait -- hopefully not long -- for a better one; as Johnson put it, the biographer's problem is that what is known can seldom be immediately told, and even when it might be told it is no longer known. For now, Elizabeth Bishop's remains the most penetrating insight into Lowell's amazing ability to churn self-drama into sheer poetry. As she saw it, he passed through phases in which "everything and anything suddenly seemed material for poetry -- or not material, seemed to be poetry, and all the past was illuminated in long shafts here and there, like a long-waited-for sunrise." It is this poetry, after all, that is likely to remain a permanent and illuminating monument, an enduring record of its own. 

Originally published in the October/November 1994 issue of Boston Review

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