Let the trumpet of the Last Judgement sound when it will; I shall come, this book in my hand, to present myself before the sovereign judge. I shall declare: here is what I have done, what I have thought, what I have been.
SO WRITES ROUSSEAU on the opening page of the Confessions. Robert Lowell, whose earlier poetry was haunted by visions of the Last Judgement, but who could not finally comfort himself with the belief in a sovereign judge, might have used Rousseau's words as his epigraph for Day by Day. It is the triumph of this collection that it captures, with almost frightening accuracy, what Lowell has done, what he has thought, and especially what he has been. In his last years, he seems to have attained the self-knowledge he had always been seeking, a sense of self so sharp that in one poem he prefigures the very conditions of his own death:
Under New York's cellular facades clothed with vitreous indifference,
I dwindle . . . dynamite no more
I ask for a natural death, no teeth on the ground, no blood about place . . .
It's not death I fear, but unspecified, unlimited pain.
This passage appears on page 48 of Day by Day. Less than a week after the book was published, Robert Lowell died of a heart attack while traveling by taxi from Kennedy Airport to the home of Elizabeth Hardwick, his former wife, to whom he had been married for 25 years. There were "no teeth on the ground, no blood about the place" in this "natural death." And surely this was justice for the "unspecified, unlimited pain" Lowell longed to avoid in dying had been his portion while alive, especially during the years of terror and turmoil evoked with such candor in these new poems.
Day by Day is Lowell's last testament, a book self-centered in the best sense of the word. For here, in successive "snapshot[s] . . . heightened from life,/ yet paralyzed by fact," Lowell renounces, one by one, the roles he played in his earlier work judge, preacher, surveyor of history, connoisseur of chaos. From the opening poem, in which Ulysses acknowledges his impotence to his young Circle, Lowell makes clear that there will be no more parades. The "I" of Day by Day offers no solutions to the political dilemmas of living in "the sunset of Capitalism." He has no hopes of being blessed by "the Queen of Heaven"; he passes judgement neither on Napoleon nor on Nixon, as he did in History (1973); he no longer berates his Purian ancestors as he did in Lord Weary's Castle (1974). The fiery Lowell who once declared:
Our fathers wrung their bread from stocks and stones
And fenced their gardens with the Redman's bones now speaks ruefully of "my dangerous ad hominem simplifications." Even Lowell's parents, immortalized in Life studies (1959) as tragicomic representatives of Beacon Hill snobbery, decadence, and futility, now become merely Robert Lowell's parents, human beings whom he can actually love. The same process of demythologizing occurs in the case of Lowell's literary friends - John Berryman, Peter Taylor, W.H. Auden, Robert Penn Warren - as well as the women he has loved. Perhaps most remarkable, the machismo that made The Dolphin (1973) a rather problematic volume has wholly evaporated in this new book in which Lowell casts a cold eye on life and death, recognizing that "our bodies/are but as bodies are," that it is all "Gone/the sweet agitation of the breath of Pan,"
In a poem called "The Withdrawal," Lowell notes:
and the years of discretion are spent on complaint - until the wristwatch is taken from the wrist.
"Complaint" in the broadest sense political satire, moralizing about history, about the social condition, about sexuality - such topical poetry is now ruled out of order. Illness, both mental and physical, seems to have undermined the old desire to speak one's piece:
We feel the machine slipping from our hands, as if some else were steering; if we see a light at the end of the tunnel, it's the light of an oncoming train.
Under these circumstances ("the wristwatch has been taken from the wrist"), Lowell opts for simplicity. "I thank God," he says in one poem, "for being alive -/ a way of writing I once thought heartless." And in another poem he declares:
Alas, I can only tell my own story - talking to myself, or reading, or writing, or fearlessly holding back nothing from a friend. . . .
But how does one tell, one's "own story" without lapsing into solipsism? How "say what happened" without resorting to cliche? This has always been a problem for the confessional poet and Lowell has solved it variously. In Life Studies, his first autobiographical book, he creates beautiful circular structures; the typical lyric like "Man and Wife" begins in a moment of crisis in the present, moves backward into a closely related past, and then returns to the present with renewed insight. The model for these poems was the Greater Romantic Lyric - say Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey" - but the texture was concrete and realistic - Flaubertian or Chekhovian as Lowell himself insisted whenever he discussed
The unrhymed blank verse sonnet sequences that began with Notebook 1967-68 are closer to diary entries than to autobiography proper. In a recent commentary in Salmagundi, Lowell himself says of them: "I had a chance such as I had never had before . . . to snatch up and verse the marvelous varieties of the moment I think perfection (I mean outward coherence not inspiration was never to difficult . . . Obscurity came when I tried to cram too much in the short space." Many readers including myself will concur with this self-judgement; one might add that, if obscurity was the Scylla of the sonnet cucles, their Charybdis was triviality. In recording the varieties of the moment, Lowell often resorted to sheer documentation, as in the following Dolphin sonnet which is based on an actual letter:
"Your student wrote me, if he took a plane past Harvard, at any angle, at any height, he'd see a person missing, Mr. Robert Lowell.
You insist on treating Harriet as if she were thirty or a wrestler - she is only thirteen.
She is normal and good because she had normal and good parents.
Such literal transcripts placed the reader in the position of voyeur, observing or overhearing things that were really none of anybody's business.
But the "confessionalism" of Day by Day is of a very different order. In the Paris Review interview of 1961, Lowell spoke of the Chekhovian "detail that you can't explain. It's just there." And he added: "Almost the whole problem of writing poetry is to bring it back to what you really feel, and that takes an awful lot of maneuvering. You may feel the doorknob more strongly than some big personal event, and the doorknob will open into something you can use as your own . . . Some little image, some detail you've noticed - you're writing about a little country shop, just describing it, and your poem ends up with an existentialist account of your experience."
The title sequence of Day by Day is precisely such an "existentialist account of experience," even though the individual poems lack the finish and complex network of images found in comparable poems in Life Studies, For the Union Dead, or Near the Ocean. Day by Day resembles a fragmented Chekhovian novella; it is a series of poignant and ironic variations on the title, which is that of a popular song, crooned over the airwaves of the early '50s by Frank Sinatra:
Day by Day,
I'm falling more in love with you.
And day by day, My love seems to grow.
There isn't any end to my devotion,
It's deeper, dear, by far than any ocean . . .
Lowell takes these hyperboles and turns them inside-out. His own "story" is one of day-by-day withdrawal; day by day, the love he shares with his new wife seems to decline, and there is an end to their mutual devotion. Significantly, husband and wife dwell in the "oceanless inland" of Milgate Park in Kent, and the poet thinks sadly that he hasn't heard "the Atlantic rattling paper" for "three years." In the idyllic "golden summer" world of cow pasture and "blond-faced wheat," each new day is threatening, the blinding sun reminding both poet and reader that "The reign of the kingfisher was short." Memories of his former life repeatedly crowd out the attempt to recapture "pastoral adolescence," and in the closing lines of "The Golden Summer," the speaker says laconically:
I will leave earth with my shoes tied, as if the walk could cut bare feet.
In the poems that follow, Lowell gives us, not a realistic account of the breakdown of his marriage, but a graph of his feelings in process. The ruling theme of the sequence stated in "Milgate":
It's a crime to get too little from too much.
Or again in "Home":
If he has gone mad with her, the poor man can't have been very happy, seeing too much and feeling it with one skin-layer missing.
Having everything a "man" could want, the protagonist is desperately unhappy; he is too old, too weather-beaten, too scared by experience, too mentally disoriented to undergo the "Arnolfini marriage" he has set up for himself. And indeed it is not long before that marriage starts to dissolve:
This week the house went on the market - suddenly I wake among strangers; when I go into a room, it moves with embarrassment and joins another room.
These lines are as limpid as any Lowell has written: no moral comment, no judgment, no casting of blame; rather, the images do all the work. The room, no longer a space to be inhabited by the imperious poet, takes on a hallucinatory life of its own, avoiding his entrance by "join[ing] another room." It is as if everything he touches turns to dust.
In the remainder of the sequence, Lowell spells out, as few contemporary poets have done, what it means to be totally alone, spiritually adrift:
we learn the spirit is very willing to give up, but the body is not weak and will not die.
When his wife departs from Logan Airport, Boston, flying off into a "limitless prospect on the blue," the poet is left behind staring at a sketch that soon turns into a "blank sheet." In the brown air" of his rented house he needs "electricity even on fair days" and decamp[s] from window to window/to catch the sun," "blind with seeing." All attempts to communicate with old friends fail, and the poet loses himself in manic schemes:
Joy of standing up my dentist, my X-ray plates like a broken Acropolis . . .
Joy to idle through Boston, my head full of young henry Adams . . .
Such "joy" quickly turns into anxiety:
No one has troubled to file away the twisted black iron window-bars, their taunt of dead craft.
And the poet's "Bright Day Boston" ends on a note of lassitude:
This house, that house - I have lived in them all, straight brick without figure.
His wife makes a brief return to Boston, but while she lies asleep in his "insomniac arms," Lowell's feverish thoughts turn to the "suburban surf" of nightime cars, "Diamond-faceted like your eyes,/glassy, staring lights/lighting the way they cannot see." In daylight, angst gives way to "A false calm": "In noonday light, the cars are tin, stereotype and bright,/a farce/ of their former selves at night - /invisible as exhaust." But by this time, he too has become an invisible man, not seen by the woman in his bed. And a few poems later, the bed is empty:
The single sheet keeps shifting on the double bed, the more I kick it smooth, the less it covers; it is the bed I made.
These are the opening lines of "Ten Minutes," a remarkable example of the "grace of accuracy" Lowell longed to achieve in his last poems. In Life Studies, "Robert Lowell" was consistently presented as an exemplar of his time and place, a "Mayflower screwball" unable to "adjust" to the "savage servility" of modern Boston. But here, in "Ten Minutes," Robert Lowell is only himself:
Mother under one of her five-minute spells had a flair for total recall, and told me, item by, person by person, how my relentless, unpredicatable selfishness had disappointed and removed anyone who tried to help - but I cannot correct the delicate compass-needle so easily set ajar.
One recalls the words of Jonathan Edwards, addressing his congregation, in a poem written 30 years earlier: "You play against a sickness past your cure." But in the new poems, "sickness" is not necessarily a universal condition; it is merely the condition of Robert Lowell, whose compass-needle points in the wrong direction:
My frightened arms anxiously hang out before me like bent L's, as if I feared I was a laughingstock, and wished to catch and ward you off . . .
This is becoming a formula: after the long, dark passage, I offer you my huddle of flesh and dismay.
"This time it was all night," I say.
Your answer, "Poseur, why, you haven't been awake ten minutes."
So much suffering, so little understanding. It is after this episode that Lowell, standing, like Lear, in his "nakedness," has a total breakdown and is taken to the hospital. Upon "recovery," he no longer wants to do anything but fish; he is content to record what he sees without comment or distortion:
Ducks splash deceptively like fish: fish break water with the wings of a bird to escape.
A hissing goose sways in stationary anger; purple bluebells rise in ledges on the lake.
A single cuckoo gifted with a pregnant word shift like the sun from wood to wood.
Lowell himself calls these observations "description without significance,/transcribed verbatim by my eye," But of course the poet's vision is still highly selective: ducks, fish, the "hissing goose," the "single cuckoo" - these are all creatures that can escape confinement, that are free. In contrast, the poet himself remains a prisoner, caught in the net of his own past "crimes." And in the sobering "downlook" that accompanies his final "recovery," he realizes that he is responsible for everything that has happened:
It's impotence and impertinence to ask directions, while staring right and left in two-way traffic.
Day by Day internalizes the "unforgivable landscape" of Lowell's earlier poetry: the conflict is no longer between self and world but between the self and its false images. Such unrelenting self-criticism and self-examination might well be maudlin and embarrassing, not to say boring. But Lowell succeeds brilliantly because he now recognizes that
We are poor passing facts, warned by that to give each figure in the photograph his living name.
"We are poor passing facts" - surely this statement (another oblique allusion to Lear ) contains a bleak, despairing view of existence, and Day by Day is, to my mind, an almost unbearably painful book. Still, I find it comforting to think that, in artistic terms, Lowell's final poems constitute such a striking recovery. Rarely tendentious or sentimental - the respective vices of History and The Dolphin - Day by Day is the book that gives "each figure in the photograph/his living name."