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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.”

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