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Monday, May 30, 2011

Number 171: Robert Lowell "For the Union Dead"

For the Union Dead
"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 crowded, 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 of 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 statutes 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 statutes 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 Negro school-children rise like balloons.

Colonel Shaw
is riding on his bubble,
he waits
for the blessed break.

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

-- Robert Lowell

Hap Notes: Since memorial day was originally observed to commemorate the more than 600,000 Americans lost in the Civil War, this would seem like an appropriate poem for the day.

Let me set the scene a bit for you since this was written in the 60s, and while the poem has a lot of extraordinary things to tell us about our own era, it was written when specific things were happening then.

Lowell has a few historical inaccuracies in the poem but none of them are glaring omissions and serve the ends of the poem, as you will see. Lowell is looking at the Capitol Area of Boston where the old aquarium used to be (there in the poem but closed down and defunct) and a statue of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Regiment has been displaced and the Capitol building has been braced for the building of a parking garage under the Capitol building. All the literal earth quaking in the poem is from the construction "dinosaurs" unearthing and the various other sounds of massive construction. The poet sees an ad for Mosler safes (a safe that really did make it through the bombing in Hiroshima) as the only reminder of WWII.

Now the statue of Colonel Shaw is by Augustus Saint-Gaudens and depicts him riding with his all black troops. The regiment got badly beaten at Fort Wagner in South Carolina and the confederates bury the Colonel in a ditch with his black troops as an insult. Shaw had previously stated that he wished to be buried with his brave men if the time ever came and his relatives were glad that he got to be buried with them (he had the right, as an officer, to have his body taken home for a burial.) The film "Glory" is based on this, by the way. (Helen Vendler also points out that Shaw's sister was married to one of Lowell's relatives. The letters he quotes were in the family's archives.) William James gave a speech at the statue's dedication on this day (Memorial Day, but it was May 31, like usual for the day,) in 1897. The Latin epigraph of the poem is a slightly altered version of the one on the statue. Lowell has it read "They relinquished everything to serve the republic", the original says "he" not "they."

It's also worth pointing out that the poem is written at a turbulent time for civil rights. Although, perhaps with the onslaught of the not-so-subtle racism of the Obama "birthers" it's obvious that we are still far from the goal.

Okay, so let's cut to the chase, what is Lowell saying here? Well, there's a lot and some I think you will uncover by yourself but he's more than hinting that contemporary values are base, commercial and care little for the past. He's dreamily angry, the way Lowell often is, thinking about the statue, the value of moral honor and courage and the brusque way we are sinking into the ooze of ignorant idiot commercialized capitalism- using the hymn "Rock of Ages" as an ad catch phrase. The monument sticks like a fishbone in the throat of this modern city. The Colonel in the statue is "lean as a compass needle", a moral compass I think Lowell believes we have misplaced.

There's very little air in this poem. It's claustrophobic with cars, bubbles that need to pop and breathe, the tension of black school children during de-segregation. Even the safe is closed and safe and airless.

The fish are out of the tank now and the cars have taken their place. That dark downward vegetating kingdom is us and we slide through with "savage servility." Even the cars live in the "underworld."

The poetic license he takes is with the safe company who had no specific ad like that (although advertising is full of examples of this kind of ignorance.) The parking garage building at the capitol also included a bit of restoration. Shaw's father never made that "niggers" statement although it was much used during the Civil War on both sides for good and ill.

There is much, much more in this poem, but I think this will get your started.

I would give ten full years of my life to write a poem this good.

Here's where we've talked about Lowell before:

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