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Near the Unbalanced Aquarium

One morning in July 1954 I sat in my bedroom on the third floor of the Payne-Whitney clinic of New York Hospital, trying as usual to get my picture of myself straight. I was recovering from a violent manic seizure, an attack of pathological enthusiasm. What I saw were the blind white bricks of other parts of the hospital rising in my window. Down the corridor, almost a city block away, I heard the elevator jar shut and hum like a kettle as it soared to the top floor with its second and last allotment of sixteen of my fellow patients going to Occupational Therapy. My mind, somewhat literary and somewhat muscle-bound, hunted for the clue to the right picture of itself. In my distraction, the walls of the hospital seemed to change shape like limp white clouds. I thought I saw a hard enameled wedding cake, and beside it, holding the blunt silver knife of the ritual, stood the tall white stone bride—my mother. Her wedding appeared now less as a day in the real past than as a photograph.

The hospital was a blending of the latest and laciest Gothic-and-skyscraper styles of the Twenties and Thirties—arch, groin, coign, and stainless steel. I thought for a moment of that island in the Seine, a little Manhattan with river water on both sides, the island of King Louis’s SainteChapelle, all heraldry and color and all innocent, built to house a thorn! Under its veneer of fragile white bricks, how merely geometrical this New York hospital was, how securely skeletonized with indestructible steel, how purely and puritanically confined to its office of cures. Counting the tiers of metal-framed windows, I myself was as if building this hospital like a child, brick by brick or block by block.

The mornings were long because, after breakfast and bed-making and informal lounging and television-news period, we were all expected to walk for some forty minutes in the courtyard. It was a formal, flowerless place covered with bright gray octagonal paving stones, like some unaccountably secluded and clean French place. Two by two, we walked round and round, and without any props or screens or diverting games, we tried to make conversation. It was thought uncooperative and morbid if we walked with another man. The women were terrible to me. Some were concave and depressed, some worried endlessly about their doctors’ feelings and remarks, some flattered, some flirted, some made fierce well-expressed sarcastic thrusts—they all talked. Distant, thorny, horny, absentminded, ineptly polite, vacantly rude, I walked with the ladies. They were hurt, and I was hurt. The men were almost as bad. I had my cronies, but I had soon exhausted their novelty, which mattered little to me. What hurt me was that in a matter of minutes I used up any strength I had to be new or fresh or even there.

Then there were the student nurses, crisp-fronted, pageboy bobbed, pale-blue-denim bloused, reading new Herald Tribunes and eyeing watchfully the strategic angles of the courtyard. They were ready to engage me gently and bring me back, if ever I dawdled into single file or sat down by myself on a bench. The unflowering shrubbery was healthily a full green, the leaves were all there, and in spite of the dusty dreariness of midsummer New York all about us, it all seemed cool, spontaneous, and adequate. That’s how all the other patients seemed. And a great iron gate, some twenty feet high, protected us from the city and living. The gate was just a little bit prettier and more ornate than use demanded. It was really locked, and a patient would have had to be an athlete or a thief to scale it. Beyond it we could see the blinding blue sparkle of the East River. Often, an orange tugboat was moored a few feet away from us. It had a swollen fleece-and-rawhide buffer on its prow. As if begging admission to our asylum, the boat kept moving with chafing sounds toward the concrete embankment.

My mind moved through the pictures of conscience and remained in its recollections, weightless, floating. On a sallow sheet of onionskin paper, whose semitransparency half revealed and half concealed the pink pads of my fingers, I tried to write some lines of verse:

In Boston the Hancock Life Insurance Building’s beacon flared
Foul weather, Father, as far as the Charlestown Naval Yard.
And almost warmed…

On the nights when Mother was dying all alone at that little private hospital in Rapallo, the needle of the Hancock Life Insurance Building was flashing storm warnings. As I took the taxi to the Boston airport, I watched the angry discouraging red lights go on and off. Far to my left, men were working with blow-torches on the blistered gray of old battleships scrapped at the Charlestown Naval Yard, Father’s old hunting ground. This was the last place he had found employment worthy of his optimistic esprit de corps and his solid grounding in higher mathematics. In New Hampshire, the White Mountains would have been freezing. And at our family cemetery in Dunbarton the black brook, the pruned fir trunks, the iron spear fence, and the memorial slates would have been turning blacker. The motto on Father’s family crest would still say Occasionem Cognosce, as he lay buried under his ostentatiously recent unacclimatized tombstone, the single Lowell among some twenty-five Starks and Winslows. And as the moonlight and the burning cold illuminated the carved names of Father’s in-laws, one might have thought they were protesting Father’s right to hold a single precious inch of the over-crowded soil, unless he produced a dead wife, a Winslow.

I arrived at Rapallo half an hour after Mother’s death.* On the next morning, the hospital where she died was a firm and tropical scene from Cézanne: sunlight rustled through the watery plucked pines, and streaked the verticals of a Riviera villa above the Mare Ligure. Mother lay looking through the blacks and greens and tans and flashings from her window. Her face was too formed and fresh to seem asleep. There was a bruise the size of an earlobe over her right eye. The nurse who had tended Mother during her ten days’ dying stood at the bed’s head. She was a great gray woman and wore glasses whose diaphanous blue frames were held together by a hairpin. With a flourish, she had just pulled aside the sheet that covered Mother’s face, and now she looked daggers at the body as if death were some sulky animal or child who only needed to be frightened. We stood with tears running down our faces, and the nurse talked to me for an hour and a half in a patois that even Italians would have had difficulty in understanding. She was telling me everything she could remember about Mother.

For ten minutes she might just as well have been imitating water breaking on the beach, but Mother was alive in the Italian words. I heard how Mother thought she was still at her hotel and wanted to go walking, and said she was only suffering from a little indigestion, and wanted to open both French windows and thoroughly air her bedroom each morning while the bed was still unmade, and how she kept trying to heal the hemorrhage in her brain by calling for her twenty little jars and bottles with their pink plastic covers, and kept dabbing her temples with creams and washes, and felt guilty because she wasn’t allowed to take her quick cold bath in the morning and her hot aromatic bath before dinner. She kept asking about Bob and Bobby. “I have never been sick in my life. Nulla malettia mai! Nulla malettia mai!” And the nurse went out. “Qua insieme per sempre.” She closed the door, and left me in the room.

That afternoon I sat drinking a Cinzano with Mother’s doctor. He showed me a copy of Ezra Pound’s Jefferson and/or Mussolini, which the author had personally signed with an ideogram and the quotation “Non…como bruti.”

At the Italian funeral, I did everything that Father could have desired. I met the Rapallo English colony, Mother’s brief acquaintances. I made arrangements at the simple red-brick English chapel, and engaged a sober Church of England clergyman. Then I went to Genoa and bought Mother a black-and-gold baroque casket that would have been suitable for burying her hero Napoleon at Les Invalides. It wasn’t disrespect or even impatience that allowed me to permit the undertakers to take advantage of my faulty knowledge of Italian and Italian values and to overcharge me and to make an ugly and tasteless error. They misspelled Mother’s name on her coffin as Lovel. While alive, Mother had made a point of spelling out her name letter by letter for identification. I could almost hear her voice correcting the workmen: “I am Mrs. Robert Lowell of One Seventy Marlborough Street, Boston, L, O, W, E, double L.”

On the Sunday morning when we sailed, the whole shoreline of the Golfo di Genova was breaking into fiery flower. A crazy Piedmontese raced about us in a particolored sea sled, whose outboard motor was of course unmuffled. Our little liner was already doing twenty knots an hour, but the sea sled cut figure-eights across our bow. Mother, permanently sealed in her coffin, lay in the hold. She was solitary, just as formerly when she took her long walks by the Atlantic at Mattapoisett in September, “the best season of the year,” after the summer people had gone. She shone in her bridal tinfoil and hurried homeward with open arms to her husband lying under the White Mountains.

When Mother died, I began to feel tireless, madly sanguine, menaced, and menacing. I entered the Payne-Whitney Clinic for “all those afflicted in mind.” One night I sat in the mixed lounge, and enjoyed the new calm which I had been acquiring with much cunning during the few days since my entrance. I remember coining and pondering for several minutes such phrases as “the Art of Detachment,” “Off-handed Involvement,” and “Urbanity: Key to the Tactics of Self-Control.” But the old menacing hilarity was growing in me. I saw Anna and her nurse walk into our lounge. Anna, a patient from a floor for more extreme cases, was visiting our floor for the evening. I knew that the evening would soon be over, that the visitor would probably not return to us, and that I had but a short time to make my impression on her.

Anna towered over the piano, and pounded snatches of Mozart sonatas which she half remembered and murdered. Her figure, a Russian ballerina’s or Anna Karenina’s, was emphasized and illuminated, as it were, by an embroidered Middle European blouse that fitted her with the creaseless, burnished, curved tightness of a medieval breastplate. I throbbed to the music and the musician. I began to talk aimlessly and loudly to the room at large. I discussed the solution to a problem that had been bothering me about the unmanly smallness of the suits of armor that I had seen “tilting” at the Metropolitan Museum. “Don’t you see?” I said, and pointed to Anna. “The armor was made for Amazons!” But no one took up my lead. I began to extol my tone deafness; it was, I insisted, a providential flaw, an auditory fish weir that screened out irrelevant sonority. I made defiant adulatory remarks on Anna’s touch. Nobody paid any attention to me.

  1. *

    Charlotte Lowell died on February 14, 1954; her husband had died in 1950.

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