Thursday, September 14, 2006

For The Union Dead

Robert Lowell

Relinquunt Omnia Servare Rem Publicam

The old South Boston Aquarium stands
in a Sahara of snow now. Its broken windows are boarded.
The bronze weathervane cod has lost half its scales.
The airy tanks are dry.

Once my nose crawled like a snail on the glass;
my hand tingled
to burst the bubbles
drifting from the noses of the cowed, compliant fish.

My hand draws back. I often sigh still
for the dark downward and vegetating kingdom
of the fish and reptile. One morning last March,
I pressed against the new barbed and galvanized

fence on the Boston Common. Behind their cage,
yellow dinosaur steamshovels were grunting
as they cropped up tons of mush and grass
to gouge their underworld garage.

Parking spaces luxuriate like civic
sandpiles in the heart of Boston.
A girdle of orange, Puritan-pumpkin colored girders
braces the tingling Statehouse,

shaking over the excavations, as it faces Colonel Shaw
and his bell-cheeked Negro infantry
on St. Gaudens' shaking Civil War relief,
propped by a plank splint against the garage's earthquake.

Two months after marching through Boston,
half the regiment was dead;
at the dedication,
William James could almost hear the bronze Negroes breathe.

Their monument sticks like a fishbone
in the city's throat.
Its Colonel is as lean
as a compass-needle.

He has an angry wrenlike vigilance,
a greyhound's gentle tautness;
he seems to wince at pleasure,
and suffocate for privacy.

He is out of bounds now. He rejoices in man's lovely,
peculiar power to choose life and die--
when he leads his black soldiers to death,
he cannot bend his back.

On a thousand small town New England greens,
the old white churches hold their air
of sparse, sincere rebellion; frayed flags
quilt the graveyards of the Grand Army of the Republic.

The stone statues of the abstract Union Soldier
grow slimmer and younger each year--
wasp-waisted, they doze over muskets
and muse through their sideburns...

Shaw's father wanted no monument
except the ditch,
where his son's body was thrown
and lost with his "niggers."

The ditch is nearer.
There are no statues for the last war here;
on Boylston Street, a commercial photograph
shows Hiroshima boiling

over a Mosler Safe, the "Rock of Ages"
that survived the blast. Space is nearer.
When I crouch to my television set,
the drained faces of the Negro school-children rise like balloons.

Colonel Shaw
is riding on his bubble,
he waits
for the bless├Ęd break.

The Aquarium is gone. Everywhere,
giant finned cars nose forward like fish;
a savage servility
slides by on grease.


Notes to Myself -

"They relinquished all to serve the Republic"

The transition between distanced, dreamlike images and concrete, concise images makes the latter resonate. The distance comes from his use of a double-adjective tactic coupled with increased assonance. His concise stanzas come through alliteration ("savage servility slides").

I love end-rhyme like Lowell's. It is subtle, often just a repetition of a single consonant, hard to pin down, quiet, unnoticable when read outloud, secondary to his internal rhyme, and most of all discarded when it needs to be. The internal rhyme is breathtaking.

This piece would not stand without the research Lowell put in to it. Writing about a family member often implies the author's self in the character, but Lowell pulls it off stunningly. From quoting the letter to the tidbits about Boston, this poem is whole. Immunity is also impossible: there is shame at the segregation and television. Did Shaw die in vain?

This idea that past progress proved positive before present progress displaced past is wonderfully put. In a time (1960) when Lowell, Bishop, Berryman and other poets were against the mass-production America, Lowell uses this series of images to implicate himself in the mess while still whining about the changes to Boston. Also, the statement here that nothing is physically lost, just changed, is in some ways more hopeful and some more depressing than loss altogether: the fish are transformed into cars, the Aquarium still stands, the monument is moved and placed out of bounds, the Statehouse lacks dignity while propped up so the dinosaur steamshovels can gouge a parking garage beneath it, the ditch becomes the underworld garage, (Shaw's choice to be buried is taken from us as we must park underground and use mass-produced items) respect of the past becomes exploitation of the past, childhood is only a memory. Lowell draws parallels between the Confederate state that buried Shaw without military honors and the mass-production society that forces all people to line up neat.

This piece is an example of Lowell's sometime mastery. I don't like all of his work, but some of his lines are splendid. His style stays very consistent, which bores me a little. But most Poets Laureate bore me because they occupy a political post and therefore cannot be too polarizing - Louise G. being the main exception, but she got lucky. I like Lowell best when he uses this series of short stories to set up a larger theme. The book, For the Union Dead is good, not great. "Fall 1961", "Eye and Tooth", "Those Before Us", and the title poem stood out as the strongest pieces and all of them utilize the same tactics.

(Yes, I do realize I am saying I like variety and don't like it, but what I mean is this format works best for Lowell as I read him - he does not seem quite as confident elsewhere.)

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