Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Robert Lowell's "Streamers: 1970"


The London windows bloomed with Christmas streamers
twenty-five days before their Christmas Day
I will not see if I can reach New York;
but I was divorced from my passport --
"The Home Office can't keep your passport, it isn't theirs,
it isn't yours even, it's God's, or Nixon's."
Everything gets lost in life's strip-tease --
who stripped for the guards at Auschwitz? They caught whores
good Germans, and married them themselves for Hitler --
one would assume those marriages were consummated;
who'd marry a whore to read 'Mein Kampf' in bed?
After the weddings they packed the wives in planes;
altitude gained, the girls were pushed outdoors --
their parachutes their streaming bridal veils.


Most critics disparage Lowell's later oeuvre, especially the blank verse sonnet five-iambics of "History", "For Lizzie and Harriet", and "The Dolphin", for being unfocussed and unmemorable. I strongly disagree. The images are (for the most part)just as breathtaking, bold, unique, internally resonant, and politically apt as anything he had previously produced. Though my fave Lowell volume is "For The Union Dead", which is studded with many remarkable efforts, "History" in particular is filled with highlights, the above poem just one gem in a neglected mine.

The way Lowell contrasts -- and resolves -- the opening two lines with the last two is stunning. And only Lowell could dare (and succeed at) a seemingly diversionary aside in the tight strictures of the sonnet. Of course, as it turns out, it's not diversionary at all: the absurdity of the lost passport becomes the horrific absurdity (in different circumstances, but with the same evil negligence and unconcern) of "wrong identity" in the world of the Third Reich.

Lowell is my favourite American poet, and in my subjective mind the best American poet. Laughed at by the Beats for being square, by Donald Hall for being a lugubrious manic-depressive, and by Robert Bly for being willfully violent in verse (but Bly always confuses the role of the poet with that of the saint), he nevertheless dwarfed his detractors' poetic efforts, as well as refuting their poetics with deathless lines.

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