Memories of West Street and Lepke

By Robert Lowell 1917–1977 Robert Lowell
Only teaching on Tuesdays, book-worming
in pajamas fresh from the washer each morning,
I hog a whole house on Boston’s
“hardly passionate Marlborough Street,”
where even the man
scavenging filth in the back alley trash cans,
has two children, a beach wagon, a helpmate,
and is a “young Republican.”
I have a nine months’ daughter,
young enough to be my granddaughter.
Like the sun she rises in her flame-flamingo infants’ wear.

These are the tranquillized Fifties,
and I am forty. Ought I to regret my seedtime?   
I was a fire-breathing Catholic C.O.,
and made my manic statement,
telling off the state and president, and then   
sat waiting sentence in the bull pen
beside a Negro boy with curlicues
of marijuana in his hair.

Given a year,
I walked on the roof of the West Street Jail, a short   
enclosure like my school soccer court,   
and saw the Hudson River once a day   
through sooty clothesline entanglements   
and bleaching khaki tenements.
Strolling, I yammered metaphysics with Abramowitz,
a jaundice-yellow (“it’s really tan”)   
and fly-weight pacifist,
so vegetarian,
he wore rope shoes and preferred fallen fruit.   
He tried to convert Bioff and Brown,
the Hollywood pimps, to his diet.
Hairy, muscular, suburban,
wearing chocolate double-breasted suits,
they blew their tops and beat him black and blue.

I was so out of things, I’d never heard
of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
“Are you a C.O.?” I asked a fellow jailbird.   
“No,” he answered, “I’m a J.W.”
He taught me the “hospital tuck,”
and pointed out the T-shirted back
of Murder Incorporated’s Czar Lepke,   
there piling towels on a rack,
or dawdling off to his little segregated cell full   
of things forbidden the common man:
a portable radio, a dresser, two toy American   
flags tied together with a ribbon of Easter palm.   
Flabby, bald, lobotomized,
he drifted in a sheepish calm,
where no agonizing reappraisal
jarred his concentration on the electric chair—
hanging like an oasis in his air
of lost connections....

Robert Lowell, “Memories of West Street and Lepke” from Selected Poems. Copyright © 1976 by Robert Lowell. Used by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC, www.fsgbooks.com. All rights reserved. Caution: Users are warned that this work is protected under copyright laws and downloading is strictly prohibited. The right to reproduce or transfer the work via any medium must be secured with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.

Source: Selected Poems (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1976)

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Poet Robert Lowell 1917–1977

POET’S REGION U.S., New England

SCHOOL / PERIOD Confessional

Subjects War & Conflict, Midlife, Class, Crime & Punishment, Living, History & Politics, Social Commentaries

Poetic Terms Confessional

 Robert  Lowell

Biography

Robert Lowell is best known for his volume Life Studies, but his true greatness as an American poet lies in the astonishing variety of his work. In the 1940s he wrote intricate and tightly patterned poems that incorporated traditional meter and rhyme; in the late 1950s when he published Life Studies, he began to write startlingly original personal or "confessional" poetry in much looser forms and meters; in the 1960s he wrote . . .

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Poem Categorization

SUBJECT War & Conflict, Midlife, Class, Crime & Punishment, Living, History & Politics, Social Commentaries

POET’S REGION U.S., New England

SCHOOL / PERIOD Confessional

Poetic Terms Confessional

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