“My Last Afternoon with Uncle Devereux Winslow” has become one of my favorite poems by Robert Lowell and one that has resisted my attempt at the sort of analysis that comes to terms with the nature of what one enjoys. I’ll quote it and then try to do the sometimes perilous thing and approach it following the advice I would give to students: ask what the action of the poem is. First the poem:
“I won’t go with you. I want to stay with Grandpa!”
That’s how I threw cold water
on my Mother and Father’s
watery martini pipe dreams at Sunday dinner.
… Fontainebleau, Mattapoisett, Puget Sound….
Nowhere was anywhere after a summer
at my Grandfather’s farm.
Diamond-pointed, athirst and Norman,
its alley of poplars
paraded from Grandmother’s rose garden
to a scary stand of virgin pine,
scrub, and paths forever pioneering.
One afternoon in 1922,
I sat on the stone porch, looking through
screens as black-grained as drifting coal.
clumped our Alpine, Edwardian cuckoo clock,
slung with strangled, wooden game.
Our farmer was cementing a root-house under the hill.
One of my hands was cool on a pile
of black earth, the other warm
on a pile of lime. All about me
were the works of my Grandfather’s hands:
snapshots of his Liberty Bell silver mine;
his high school at Stuttgart am Neckar;
stogie-brown beams; fools’-gold nuggets;
octagonal red tiles,
sweaty with a secret dank, crummy with ant-stale;
a Rocky Mountain chaise longue,
its legs, shellacked saplings.
A pastel-pale Huckleberry Finn
fished with a broom straw in a basin
hollowed out of a millstone.
Like my Grandfather, the décor
was manly, comfortable,
What were those sunflowers? Pumpkins floating shoulder-high?
It was sunset, Sadie and Nellie
bearing pitchers of ice-tea,
oranges, lemons, mint, and peppermints,
and the jug of shandygaff,
which Grandpa made by blending half and half
yeasty, wheezing homemade sarsaparilla with beer.
The farm, entitled Char-de-sa
in the Social Register,
was named for my Grandfather’s children:
Charlotte, Devereux, and Sarah.
No one had died there in my lifetime …
Only Cinder, our Scottie puppy
paralyzed from gobbling toads.
I sat mixing black earth and lime.
I was five and a half.
My formal pearl gray shorts
had been worn for three minutes.
My perfection was the Olympian
poise of my models in the imperishable autumn
of Rogers Peet’s boys’ store below the State House
in Boston. Distorting drops of water
pinpricked my face in the basin’s mirror.
I was a stuffed toucan
with a bibulous, multicolored beak.
Up in the air
by the lakeview window in the billiards-room,
lurid in the doldrums of the sunset hour,
my Great Aunt Sarah
was learning Samson and Delilah.
She thundered on the keyboard of her dummy piano,
with gauze curtains like a boudoir table,
accordionlike yet soundless.
It had been bought to spare the nerves
of my Grandmother,
tone-deaf, quick as a cricket,
now needing a fourth for “Auction,”
and casting a thirsty eye
on Aunt Sarah, risen like the phoenix
from her bed of troublesome snacks and Tauchnitz classics.
Forty years earlier,
twenty, auburn headed,
grasshopper notes of genius!
Family gossip says Aunt Sarah
tilted her archaic Athenian nose
and jilted an Astor.
Each morning she practiced
on the grand piano at Symphony Hall,
deathlike in the off-season summer—
its naked Greek statues draped with purple
like the saints in Holy Week….
On the recital day, she failed to appear.
I picked with a clean finger nail at the blue anchor
on my sailor blouse washed white as a spinnaker.
What in the world was I wishing?
… A sail-colored horse browsing in the bullrushes …
A fluff of the west wind puffing
my blouse, kiting me over our seven chimneys,
troubling the waters….
As small as sapphires were the ponds: Quittacus, Snippituit,
and Assawompset, halved by “the Island,”
where my Uncle’s duck blind
floated in a barrage of smoke-clouds.
stuck out like bundles of baby crow-bars.
A single sculler in a camouflaged kayak
was quacking to the decoys….
At the cabin between the waters,
the nearest windows were already boarded.
Uncle Devereux was closing camp for the winter.
As if posed for “the engagement photograph,”
he was wearing his severe
war-uniform of a volunteer Canadian officer.
Daylight from the doorway riddled his student posters,
tacked helter-skelter on walls as raw as a boardwalk.
Mr. Punch, a water melon in hockey tights,
was tossing off a decanter of Scotch.
La Belle France in a red, white and blue toga
was accepting the arm of her “protector,”
the ingenu and porcine Edward VII.
The pre-war music hall belles
had goose necks, glorious signatures, beauty-moles,
and coils of hair like rooster tails.
The finest poster was two or three young men in khaki kilts
being bushwhacked on the veldt—
They were almost life-size….
My Uncle was dying at twenty-nine.
“You are behaving like children,”
said my Grandfather,
when my Uncle and Aunt left their three baby daughters,
and sailed for Europe on a last honeymoon …
I cowered in terror.
I wasn’t a child at all—
unseen and all-seeing, I was Agrippina
in the Golden House of Nero….
Near me was the white measuring-door
my Grandfather had penciled with my Uncle’s heights.
In 1911, he had stopped growing at just six feet.
While I sat on the tiles,
and dug at the anchor on my sailor blouse,
Uncle Devereux stood behind me.
He was as brushed as Bayard, our riding horse.
His face was putty.
His blue coat and white trousers
grew sharper and straighter.
His coat was a blue jay’s tail,
his trousers were solid cream from the top of the bottle.
He was animated, hierarchical,
like a ginger snap man in a clothes-press.
He was dying of the incurable Hodgkin’s disease….
My hands were warm, then cool, on the piles
of earth and lime,
a black pile and a white pile….
Uncle Devereux would blend to the one color.
I struggle to find the action of the poem—what it is “about” in so far as it is about something happening, in so far as it responds to something happening, or presents something happening. And that is because it’s action is, like many of the best poems from Wordsworth onwards, poems of recollection (here, also, re-collection), exists on the axis of passive and active. It is a poem about staying in place: about staying in a place, about staying in a place that stays (and that stays change), about being staid, about the staying in place that is dying and about death as a reminder of what cannot stay in place, and about the effort to stay alive, by way of memory, in a place that has departed. There is no didacticism in it; the poem holds onto the past like the poet holds onto the piles of earth and lime, keeping them separate, knowing that they, like everything in the memory, like Uncle Devereux, will ultimately blend to “the one color” that is not named, that is an annihilation or absence.
But maybe it is better to go further: this is a poem about holding oneself in place, about holding onto a place, and being held by a place and being held in place. The lime and earth are held anxiously, unconsciously, curiously, futilely; the anchor is picked at knowing that it is embellished, an ornament that can come off; the posters over the rough wall hold history in place; objects hold memories in place and are held in place by the poet’s memory; and the details are themselves, like the anchor, embellishments, not fictitious, but the everyday, unintended ornament of time passing.
And having gone further, the poem works by the tension it contains between holding in place and being held in place by death: death being both that which holds the poet’s memory to that place, death’s hold being everywhere in the poem, but also dying as what overcomes or denies the effort at holding things in place and what prevents something from being held onto.
A Freudian might associate such holding in place with a blockage or constipation; with a refusal to let go, and whether or not we accept the anal implications of that phrase, the adversity to waste and loss needs to admit, as Lowell’s poem does, the thought that preventing waste might mean accruing details that are themselves worthless beyond the patient’s cherishing of them; they are there simply because what they were; they are held in place as if to prove that they can be held in place, and though they themselves hold in place the labors and activities of lifetimes, they cannot, themselves, hold in place the life that has been lost. They cannot hold back death.
What they can take hold of, by way of metaphor and simile, is whatever associations Lowell will bring into play; and the willfulness of the associations is registered in the images themselves. In “A sail-colored horse browsing in the bullrushes,” “bullrushes” contains, and tempers, within itself the rushing of a bull; “stuck out like bundles of baby crow-bars” presents the implement that would loosen and free; “grasshopper notes of genius” springs forward. They hold in place what has a potential to come loosened; they have within them all that is not in and of that place at all. The posters are perhaps especially emblematic of how this place, with all it holds, becomes so many other places, at the same time. Holding something in place requires a degree of displacement, by simile, metaphor, and amplification.
Death undoes all of that, combines, to something nameless, “the one color,” the two piles, and the body of his uncle. But the memory of death also holds the past in place, becoming a measure of what is held.
And maybe it is just that: a poem about holding on, a poem that itself holds on, even when what is held has already disappeared.