Sunday, August 28, 2005
August Reading #1

Work has meant travel, and travel has meant lots of reading, but little writing--that and a concurrent state of bewilderment, of the world in stubborn parts. But the stack is built to toppling, so here at least is notes.

First, The Letters of Robert Lowell. I haven't ever been drawn to his poetry, and even after reading this (all 600+ pages of it), I still find it unreadable. But the letters were still a pleasure. In places he writes beautifully, as in this description of Delmore Schwartz:

He was much more bruised and swollen, when I knew him well, an intimate gruelling year, a year or so before you and I met--Jean and he and I, sedentary, indoors souls, talking about books and literary gossip over glasses of milk, strengthened with Maine vodka, the milk intended to restore what the vodka tore down--Delmore in an unpressed mustard gabardine, a little winded, husky voiced, unhealthy, but with a carton of varied vitamin bottles, the color of oil, quickening with Jewish humor, and in-the-knowness, and his own genius, every person, every book--motives for everything, Freud in his blood, great webs of causation, then suspicion, then rushes of rage. He was more reasonable than us, but obsessed, a much better mind, but one already chasing the dust--it was like living with a sluggish, sometimes angry spider--no hurry, no motion, Delmore's voice, almost inaudible, dead, intuitive, pointing somewhere, then the strings tightening, the roar of rage--too much, too much for us!

But the real pleasures of the letters are seeing his humanness, his lack of distance. For most of his life, Lowell was hospitalized once a year or so with intense manic episodes--these mounted over a period of months, often involving a torrid (or misguided, or attempted) affair, often some dramatic scenes. In the letters, there are threads--they get longer, grander, sometimes hard to follow. Then some months of silence--a gap in the record--then very short, contrite letters as he attempts to undo the damage he has caused. And so he goes, in and out of asylums, marriages, jobs--gossiping and struggling, trying to be a better tennis player, supporting his friends. His letters are not luminous, in the way that Cheever's journals are, but they provide an excellent portrait of a person, living along, obedient to the idea of making art amid chaos. 3 stars.


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