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Sailing Home from Rapallo

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[February 1954]

Your nurse could only speak Italian,
but after twenty minutes I could imagine your final week,   
and tears ran down my cheeks....

When I embarked from Italy with my Mother’s body,   
the whole shoreline of the Golfo di Genova
was breaking into fiery flower.
The crazy yellow and azure sea-sleds   
blasting like jack-hammers across
the spumante-bubbling wake of our liner,   
recalled the clashing colors of my Ford.   
Mother traveled first-class in the hold;   
her Risorgimento black and gold casket   
was like Napoleon’s at the Invalides....

While the passengers were tanning   
on the Mediterranean in deck-chairs,   
our family cemetery in Dunbarton   
lay under the White Mountains
in the sub-zero weather.
The graveyard’s soil was changing to stone—
so many of its deaths had been midwinter.   
Dour and dark against the blinding snowdrifts,
its black brook and fir trunks were as smooth as masts.
A fence of iron spear-hafts
black-bordered its mostly Colonial grave-slates.   
The only “unhistoric” soul to come here   
was Father, now buried beneath his recent   
unweathered pink-veined slice of marble.   
Even the Latin of his Lowell motto:   
Occasionem cognosce,

seemed too businesslike and pushing here,   
where the burning cold illuminated
the hewn inscriptions of Mother’s relatives:   
twenty or thirty Winslows and Starks.
Frost had given their names a diamond edge....

In the grandiloquent lettering on Mother’s coffin,   
Lowell had been misspelled LOVEL.
The corpse
was wrapped like panettone in Italian tinfoil.

Robert Lowell, “Sailing Home from Rapallo” from Selected Poems. Copyright © 1976 by Robert Lowell. Used by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC, http://us.macmillan.com/fsg. All rights reserved.
Source: Selected Poems (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1976)
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Sailing Home from Rapallo

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