A fragment from Robert Lowell



Christ, let me die at night
with a semblance of my senses,
like the full moon that fails.

I'll never forget watching a visibly shaken Joseph Brodsky, who was a good friend of Robert Lowell's, read these lines during the poet's funeral at the Church of the Advent in Boston in September 1977.


This fragment was found among the papers Lowell left at his home in Britain when he departed from there earlier in the month, bound for the United States. On September 12 he died of heart failure in a taxi on the way from Kennedy Airport to Manhattan. Of course, we were struck by Lowell's uncanny prophesy, but we were also moved by the fact that these lines, some of the last he wrote, had the same startling clarity as the poems in his final book, Day by Day, published the year before his death.

In the decades since then, Lowell's work--especially his collection, For the Union Dead--has continued to inspire our poets who want to probe the full range of American life--our public, or political lives, as well as our most personal experiences.

The photograph above of Lowell and his wife, Caroline Blackwood, was taken by Walker Evans in 1973. The portrait of Lowell below was taken by Evans at Milgate House, the couple's home in Kent.



Lowell in his days as Poetry Consultant at the Library of Congress (1947-48)

Venice


A click of window glass had roused me
Out of my sleep at early dawn.
Beneath me Venice swam in water,
A sodden pretzel made of stone.

It was all quiet now; however,
While still asleep, I heard a cry--
And, like a sign that had been silence,
It still disturbed the morning sky.

It hung--a trident of the Scorpion--
Above the sleeping mandolins
And had been uttered by an angry,
Insulted woman's voice, maybe.

Now it was silent. To the handle
Its fork was stuck in morning haze.
The Grand Canal, obliquely grinning,
Kept looking back--a runaway.

Reality was born of dream-shreds
Far-off, among the hired boats.
Like a Venetian woman, Venice
Dived from the bank to glide afloat.

Boris Pasternak--Venice, 1913 (revised 1928)
Translated by Lydia Pasternak Slater

"My concern has always been for meaning, and my dream that every poem should have content in itself--a new thought or a new image. And that the whole of it with all its individual character should be engraved so deeply into the book that it should speak from it with all the silence and with all the colors of its colorless black print.

"Thus I wrote a poem called 'Venice', and another called 'The Railway Station'.  What I saw before me as I was writing was the town standing on the water, the figures-of-eight and circles of its reflections drifting, multiplying, swelling like a biscuit soaked in tea. Or the distance of the railway station, where the tracks and platforms end in clouds and smoke and the trains vanish, and the skyline of departure ends the history of situations--meetings and farewells and events before and after them.

"I was concerned neither with myself nor with my readers nor with the theory of art. All I cared about was that one poems should contain the town of Venice, and the other the Brest (now called the Byelorussian-Baltic) railway station."

---from Pasternak's An Essay in Autobiography

This was intended to serve as the introduction for a 1954 collection of Pasternak's poems; the collection never appeared, but the introduction was translated by Manya Harari and published in London in 1959.