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Notions of Freedom

The Collected Poetry of Malcolm Lowry

edited by Kathleen Scherf
University of British Columbia Press, 418 pp., $60.00

Pursued by Furies: A Life of Malcolm Lowry

by Gordon Bowker
St. Martin's Press, 672 pp., $29.95

He liked to describe himself as primarily a poet, which is hardly the way the rest of the world has come to see Malcolm Lowry. I’ve more than once, in conversation, mentioned my devotion to Lowry’s poetry and had a misunderstanding arise. It was assumed I was speaking metaphorically—that I was praising the lyrical qualities of his prose. But while the fiction, particularly Under the Volcano, has its appeal, as do the letters and some aspects of his hermetic and hellbent life, it’s Lowry’s poems that pull on my imagination. Having moved nine times in fourteen years, I can’t say there are many books that have followed me everywhere, but The Selected Poems of Malcolm Lowry—an old City Lights paperback carrying a list price of $1.50—is one. Admittedly, this is partly a matter of weight and size; it’s a waif of a book, a pocket-book for a human-sized pocket.

With a lengthy introduction, acknowledgments, a list of abbreviations, a note on the text, copious annotations, textual notes, appendices, a bibliography, holographs, and indices, my old paperback’s successor, The Collected Poetry of Malcolm Lowry, extends over more than four hundred busy pages. If the earlier edition was a street waif, this one has all the trappings of a stolid and prosperous burgher. Lowry, who never published a volume of poetry in his lifetime, left his verse manuscripts in heaped disarray, thereby ensuring that much of the task of deciphering, editing, and ordering his poems would fall to other hands. As he noted, shrewdly, of himself, “But I think I most really wanted to be squelched, to be a posthumous rather than a living poet.” In this, he was merely being consistent with the rest of his existence. Given his spectacular alcoholism, he was perpetually dependent on others to decipher, edit, and order his life as well.

That life’s origins were tidy enough. Born in Liverpool in 1909, the fourth son of Arthur Lowry, a hardworking and prosperous cotton-broker, and Evelyn Boden Lowry, a socially ambitious but retiring woman, Malcolm had an upbringing designed to mold him into what each of his brothers indeed became: a respectable businessman. But at seventeen, already turned rebellious, he went to sea on an Asia-bound freighter for four months, and his subsequent years at Cambridge were marked by rowdiness and dissipation. At eighteen, when a copy of Blue Voyage happened his way, he fell under the spell of the American poet and novelist Conrad Aiken, and he eventually traveled to Massachusetts to meet and learn from him. Restlessness, in combination with visa problems, in time led him to Mexico, where his first marriage collapsed, thence to the coast of British Columbia, where he and his second wife lived for years in a squatter’s shack and much of Under the Volcano, the novel that brought him worldwide fame, was composed. He worked on poetry throughout his life. The earliest verses in the Collected were written when he was a schoolboy; he was still sorting and composing poems at the time of his death, in Ripe, Sussex, in 1957.

What sort of poet was he? There are poets who seem to have an instinct for clearing a modest homestead for themselves, in which they can cultivate and sow their natural gifts. Among Lowry’s near contemporaries, John Crowe Ransom and Louise Bogan fit into this category, poets who present us with an apt marriage of subject and approach, and who leave us, in their narrow but inspiring perfection, wishing they had written not differently but only more prolifically. Lowry’s a cat of another stripe. There are individual successes, but he never found the manner—the sure-pitched voice—that would allow him to embark with confidence on a new poem. He’s hit and miss. You certainly wouldn’t want any more than the 481 poems presented here; but oh, you’d want many of them to be written differently.

I suspect that most readers who are drawn to Lowry’s poems are tantalized by something unrealized, something not-quite-there-yet about them. Such readers might well differ when attempting to winnow the good poems from the less good, but they would widely agree that there’s something excitingly unconsummated in his verses. To spend a day with either Lowry’s Selected or his Collected is to glimpse, intermittently, the marvelous book of poems he might have written—the one found only in that peerless repository, with its shelves of teak and sandalwood and mahogany, located on the crest of Mount Parnassus.

Fortunately, in what he did write there are sufficient virtues to give us a sense of what that ideal Lowry Collected would look like. One sights it here and there, in fragments. Perhaps in an opening line:

The lightouse invites the storm and lights it

or:

Iron thoughts sail out at evening on iron ships

Or in the middle of a poem:

The wind is high tonight in Canada
A viaduct is drifting out to sea

or:

There will be no to-morrow.
   To-morrow is over.

Or most likely at the close:

See, they have all gone,
The names too: Oaxaca; Xanadu;
   Belawan;
Saigon. And the sun. You would have liked Saigon.

or:

And in that deeper south below Cape Horn,
From Aldeberan to Aberdeen.

or this about a ship’s departure:

Farewell, smoke is real
And ukuleles mourn a ululu:
And engine stampedes: more fool you fool you:
And aerial says: oh whither where away:
And sea: each one-eared dog will have its day:
And stars wink: Venus first, then Mercury.

He loved the creatures of the shoreline, particularly seagulls, which glide again and again through his verse, but his poems themselves rarely fly. They’re more likely to resemble crabs: armored, clanking, indrawn, sidestepping; evasive and stubborn, shy and combative. In that hypothetical Collected we would see his characteristically powerful imagery (rusty tankers, wharfs, storms, whirlpools, seaside taverns, wolves, cacti, clocks, mirrors, prisons, volcanoes) fused to clamorous rhymes and wrenched diction. A penchant for traditional forms—particularly the sonnet—would be constantly undermined by antic slanginess and a jazzy, upstart sense of humor.

The sonnet entitled “We Sit Unhackled Drunk and Mad to Edit,” as printed in the Selected, comes as close to the perfect Lowry as anything he ever wrote:

Notions of freedom are tied up with drink
Our ideal life contains a tavern
Where man may sit and talk or just think
All without fear of the nighted wyvern;
Or yet another tavern where it appears
There are no No Trust signs no No Credit
And, apart from the unlimited beers,
We sit unhackled drunk and mad to edit
Tracts of a really better land where man
May drink a finer, ah, an undistilled wine,
That subtly intoxicates without pain,
Weaving the vision of the unas similable inn
Where we may drink forever
   without owing
With the door open, and the wind blowing

The first three lines establish a tone of sober simplicity into which that fabled creature of line four, the wyvern, irrupts with all the bizarre improbability of a pink elephant. Further on, the poem journeys from the stern and restricted, from the almost schoolboyish realm of that quadruple “no No” and “no No” of line six, into a zone of emancipation, cleverness, artistic license. The whole poem hangs on the page in a beautiful imbalance. The matter-of-fact first sentence fits snugly into one line. The second, with its complex diction ever verging on a sort of dazed garrulity, spills over the remaining thirteen lines. They ultimately evoke that legendary mead hall, that charming boîte de nuit, that hospitable cantina, that homey pub, that cool plum-wine shop, that glorious beer-garden—they evoke that perfect, painless place toward which all the thirsting souls of the world, whatever their brew and their bar, gaze yearningly.

An extraordinarily high proportion of Lowry’s poems are about drinking (including one that surely begins as well as a contemporary drinking poem can: “Is this an airplane roaring in my room?”; I wish the follow-up had been as good), but I don’t think any of the others have the two-sided wisdom of “We Sit Unhackled Drunk….” Its first line might almost have been composed by a psychologist exploring the roots of alcoholism. But by the close—with that unassimilable inn—we have glimpsed, from within, the grail of an inebriated visionary.

A sonnet nearly as good, “Delirium in Vera Cruz,” moves in the contrary direction, from a drunkard’s swirling, phantasmal night to a head-splitting dawn of bills and responsibilities, a world far removed from anyplace where a man might indulge his appetites “without owing”:

Where has tenderness gone, he asked the mirror
Of the Biltmore Hotel, cuarto 216. Alas,
Can its reflection lean against the glass
Too, wondering where I have gone, into what horror?
Is that it staring at me now with terror
Behind your frail tilted barrier? Tenderness
Was here, in this very retreat, in this
Place, its form seen, cries heard,
   by you. What error
Is here? Am I that forked rashed image?
Is this the ghost of love which you reflected?
Now with a background of tequila, stubs, dirty collars,
Sodium perborate, and a scrawled page
To the dead, telephone discon nected?
…He smashed all the glass in the room.(Bill: $50)

There’s something wonderful in how the workaday world asserts itself so gently—in a concluding two-word parenthesis—and yet so unignorably. All of the night’s hallucinatory fury and outrage and heartbreak are finally swept away by the quietest imaginable reminder of where we wind up the next morning: no less confused, but deeper in debt.

It’s a poem whose authorship could be deduced merely by its fourteen rhyme-words (the last of them wittily concealed in a number). It’s also a poem that plays into Lowry’s peculiar strengths. A Hopkins-like rough-hewn quality—his often ungainly way of fulfilling prosodic requirements—here enhances a hurlyburly torment. It’s a sonnet that feels as though it were put together not with a fine coping saw and a miter box and some copper brads, but with a ripsaw and a rasp and a handful of hobnails.

“Delirium in Vera Cruz” centers on the emotion perhaps most distinctive about Lowry’s entire oeuvre: terror. However Lowry’s life may have been dulcified in the day-to-day, however profound his pleasure in swimming and playing the ukulele and bird-watching and joking with his wife, when he settled himself at his writing-desk he tended to unleash dread, horror, alarm, fright, trepidation. Each of these terms has its own applicability to Lowry’s turbulent nature, but “terror” perhaps comes nearest to the quaking helplessness that underlies so many of his poems (to say nothing of Under the Volcano, whose plot unfolds beneath a pair of minatory, smoldering peaks and beside a deep, rocky chasm that reeks of the unburied dead). It’s the word he himself employed when, in a letter written when he was twenty-nine, he sought to explain himself to his father: “the keynote is fear, an appalling rooted terror sown somewhere in the dark of my childhood and only now breaking into its poisonous flower.”

Readers who meet Lowry initially through his poetry, as I did, will hardly be surprised by much of the material in Gordon Bowker’s Pursued by Furies: A Life of Malcolm Lowry. One could easily have predicted Lowry’s uneasiness with authority figures (not just with policemen but with teachers, immigration officials, doctors); his undependability; his superstitiousness and childishness; his veerings between an out-lashing rage and a feeble scuttling after shelter.

What I did find surprising in Bowker’s tale was how Lowry’s aversion to authority was conversely, complicatedly intertwined with an intense need for a spiritual father. Throughout his life, Lowry sought out a curious mentor for himself: a mixture of exacting disciplinarian and benign overseeing angel who would not only guide him but would—when life became too overwhelming—enfold him, subsume him. As his relatively minor, but recurrent, problems with plagiarism would suggest (he was a great borrower of phrases and anecdotes), he continually sought to blend himself with his artistic forefathers; according to Bowker, Lowry (who was prone to many forms of mysticism) seriously entertained the notion that he had written Aiken’s Blue Voyage in another life. Those waters of oblivion toward which his poems yearn (the longing, as one of his poems has it, “to wash away to sea”) seem less a mother’s amniotic fluids than a father’s blood.

Given Lowry’s recurring problems with father surrogates—when he wasn’t fawning over Aiken he was threatening to murder him—you might naturally suppose that Arthur Lowry was an explosive tyrant. But while Malcolm occasionally portrayed his father as a ferocious martinet—a Hermann Kafka threatening to suffocate young Franz—there’s little evidence to sustain this view. No one can say, of course, what filial traumas may have disfigured Malcolm’s childhood, but Bowker’s careful and thorough—if often humdrum—biography convincingly portrays Arthur Lowry as an “honorable” man who, for all his limitations of wit and imagination, was remarkably indulgent and patient with his wayward son. Through one arrangement or another, Arthur never quit supporting Malcolm.

More than once, Malcolm attempted suicide, and throughout much of his life he was in such perilous mental health that he probably couldn’t have managed on his own. It’s hard to imagine he would have survived—let alone have composed novels and poems and film scripts and journalism—without the boon of a paternal “allowance.” One of the choice ironies of Malcolm’s life—in which, forever courting the abyss, he sought to say “something new about hellfire”—is that his enduring reputation may ultimately rest upon a God-fearing pillar of the community who privately announced that he “despaired” of his son’s sanity.

The sordid details of Lowry’s personal life ask a good deal of forbearance and forgiveness from his admirers. In addition to his incessant drinking, and the dishonesties and evasions that inevitably attended it, there were a number of physical assaults on wives and girlfriends, acts of betrayal toward friends, minor financial swindles (he had a habit of pledging money he didn’t have), and so forth. Bowker tells us that Lowry’s brother and sister-in-law “kept suitcases permanently packed by the door just in case…. Malcolm turned up asking to stay. They would then say, ‘Oh, what a pity, we’re just off on our holidays.”‘ Lowry’s life—like his untidily maintained piles of verse—asks our indulgence, and it’s no accident that many of his fans come to him as cultists who, on the basis of his genius, will excuse him anything.

There’s a narcissism running through Lowry’s writing which constantly threatens, even in his most inspired moments, to spoil everything. Readers seem to divide sharply on Under the Volcano: they adore it or they bridle at it. I’m sympathetic with either view, having felt both sorts of responses in the three times I’ve read the novel over a period of twenty years. A book that possessed me as an undergraduate—that seemed to treat of universal and profound things—with time has come to seem narrower and more idiosyncratic. It has become for me less a universal story than a single man’s story, and an often infuriatingly cryptic man at that. Even someone passionate about the book would have to concede that Lowry was never much good at getting out of his own head; he was nothing like a natural novelist. All the same, as though sensing this, in Under the Volcano he trained this deficiency into a virtue: he created a powerful tale of the claustrophobia of the solipsistic mind.

The book’s hero, Geoffrey Firmin, who is a British ex-consul living in Mexico, may chat with friends or make love or mingle with the crowd, but he is utterly alone. He is an oblique man whom drink renders still more elliptical, and he can’t seem to express straightforwardly either the love he still feels for his ex-wife, Yvonne, or the rage he harbors over the affair she had with his half-brother, Hugh. At one point, Geoffrey prays to be delivered “from this dreadful tyranny of self.” His drunken incoherence—which in the end, when he proves unable to explain himself to a cluster of fascistic police, costs him his life—is not the cause but the symptom of his isolation.

The poetry, likewise, is thoroughly self-preoccupied. One can’t help wishing that the pitiable images the poet occasionally fixes on—an amputee, an injured bat, a prisoner—were more individuated. In their suffering they surely demand a measure of autonomy; they ask the simple dignity of being represented as something more than facets in the mind of a tormented poet.

What to make, then, of the hefty new Collected Poems? A number of good things might be said. As far as I can judge, it has been painstakingly assembled; one trusts in the meticulousness of its editor, Kathleen Scherf. The poems feel securely tagged and dated, and the general reader can now trace, for the first time, Lowry’s poetic evolution. And Chris Ackerley, who provides the annotations, has energetically chased down numerous references I would have thought were hopelessly personal and inaccessible.

On the negative side, there’s surprisingly little here that broadens or brightens the accomplishment displayed in the Selected, which was edited by Earle Birney, Lowry’s friend and posthumous champion. Birney may have committed all sorts of editorial peccadilloes (supplying titles to poems that lacked them, regularizing punctuation, restructuring sections), but he was an astute critic of his friend’s poetic merits.

The Collected ultimately raises questions that extend beyond the issue of its graces and shortcomings. Even while trying my best to read conscientiously, I was struck by how much more time the book asked of me than I was willing to give it. Because of the disarray in which Lowry left his manuscripts, we can only speculate about how the poems would have looked had he supervised their publication. The result is a Collected with dozens and dozens of variant lines nestled beneath the text of the poem, each of them crying out, in a maze of small type, for evaluation. To steer conscientiously through each of these variants, to appraise the minuscule shifting permutations each might work upon the whole, would probably require half a year.

Hence, one can’t help wondering who the book is finally for. I suppose the answer is the Lowry Scholar, but that’s an answer that begs as many questions as it settles. It is one thing, surely, to devote half a year to Eliot or Proust or Auden. But what sort of reader, unless he or she is wandering around like one of Lowry’s protagonists in a pie-eyed delirium, can spare that sort of time for The Collected Poetry of Malcolm Lowry?

Nonetheless, I’d urge those who don’t have available a good half-year for Lowry’s verses to give them a good half-week—twenty hours, say, to bring into focus a fierce, touching, and highly original minor poet (as well as the creator of the exotic Pacific island of Tamotua—which, reversed, transforms into Automat). In my view, there are five top-flight Lowry poems, whose virtues may not be fully evident unless positioned beside some of his smaller successes.

Among Lowry’s best, in addition to “We Sit Unhackled Drunk and Mad to Edit” and “Delirium in Vera Cruz,” I would place two untitled lyrics (“As the poor end of each dead day drew near…” and “I wrote: In the dark cavern of our birth…”) and “Eye-opener.” I can think of at least two poems by other poets that brought me to laughter by their second line, Philip Larkin’s “Vers de Société” (“My wife and I have asked a crowd of craps/To come and waste their times and ours: perhaps…”) and Peter de Vries’s parody of Byron (“She walks in beauty like the night/Watchman on appointed rounds…”). But “Eye-opener” may be the only poem I’ve read whose first line by itself made me laugh aloud: “How like a man, is Man, who rises late…” Also memorable are “Eels,” “The Drunkards,” “The Wild Cherry,” “Byzantium: Or Where the Great Life Begins,” “Kingfishers in British Columbia,” “The Ship Is Turning Homeward,” “In Memoriam: Ingvald Bjorndal and His Comrade,” “Iron Thoughts Sail Out at Evening,” and “Alas, there is no still path in my soul,” whose concluding lines rigorously crystallize the anguish of the meditative mind for whom philosophy is both torment and slender hope of salvation:

There is no path, there is no path at all,
Unless perhaps where abstract things have gone
And precepts rise and meta
   physics fall,
And principles abandoned stumble on.
No path, but as it were a river in spate
Where drowning forms, down
   swept, gesticulate.

None of the five poems I’ve singled out runs longer than sonnet length. On the basis of both his baroque prose and his grandiose ambitions (Under the Volcano was meant to form part of a colossal Dantesque trilogy), Lowry is commonly perceived as a titanic writer. But Lowry the poet was surely a natural miniaturist. “As the poor end…” runs only ten lines:

As the poor end of each dead day drew near,
He tried to count the things which he held dear;
No Rupert Brooke, and no great lover, he
Remembered little of simplicity.
His soul had never been empty of fear,
And he would sell it thrice now for a tankard of beer
He seemed to have known no love, to have valued dread
Above all human feelings. He liked the dead;
The grass was not green, not even grass to him;
Nor was sun, sun; rose, rose;
   smoke, smoke; limb, limb.

Is there, anywhere, a comparably short self-portrait as harrowing as this one? One may hear a dim echo of Yeats’s epitaph for Swift (“World-besotted traveler; he / Fought for human liberty”) in lines three and four, but the poem in its totality sounds like Lowry and nobody else.

Why has that final line—I’ve often asked myself—haunted me for something like twenty years? With its nine (or possibly ten) stresses, it is of course a great rhythmical oddity (like Milton’s “Rocks, Caves, Lakes, Fens, Bogs, Dens, and shades of death”). If the quintessential trait of poetry is, as many critics have defined it, concision, this line seems the ne plus ultra of that virtue: it approaches the packed leanness of mathematical speech. But what a skewed mathematics this is! The line embraces a string of paradoxes. It says, A≠A, B≠B, C≠C, D≠D. We have reached that realm of human desperation or disorientation wherein what logicians call the law of identity has been annihilated: things no longer equal themselves.

I’d attach a postscript to the poem beginning “I wrote: In the dark cavern of our birth….” One hopes the version found in Birney’s Selected turns out to be an accepted variant, since it is far more effective than what appears in Scherf’s Collected. Here is Birney’s version:

Strange Type

I wrote: in the dark cavern of our birth.
The printer had it tavern, which seems better:
But herein lies the subject of our mirth,
Since on the next page death appears as dearth.
So it may be that God’s word was distraction,
Which to our strange type appears destruction,
Which is bitter.

Scherf gives us “Which is better….” as a last line. If that’s truly what Lowry wanted, one can only be glad that, in Birney’s hands, he had an editor who protected him from himself. The poem turns on a series of short orthographic steps, miniature stumbles of the sort encompassed by mistypings, spelling errors, slips of the tongue: cavern/tavern, dearth/death, distraction, destruction. (I’m reminded of an earlier poem in which ‘informal’ is misread as “infernal”…) Doesn’t the poem naturally culminate in the short, shattering voyage from better to bitter? In striking a final note, which of the two words was Lowry likely to favor? (Bitter, of course, and washed down with a pint of bitter.) If he wrote otherwise, I’m tempted to think he meant what he didn’t say.