dramatis personae

Marjorie Perloff: On "Memories of West Street and Lepke"


 [T]he phrasal style of "Memories of West Street" . . . resolves the image of the dramatis personae, including the "I" of the poet himself, into a series of attributes, qualities, actions, and objects. The syntax of the poem is thus the perfect vehicle for the realist-confessional mode . . . . In the third stanza, for example, the "I" who is ambiguously "given a year," rapidly becomes part of his surroundings: the roof of the West Street Jail, whose size, shape, and outlook is described in the next five lines. Similarly, in the next sentence, the "I" appears "Strolling" on the roof, only to fade behind the image of his companion, Abramowitz, the "jaundice-yellow" pacifist, who is, in turn, rapidly supplanted by Bioff and Brown, the Hollywood gangsters. The seemingly gratuitous adjectival phrases characterizing these two underworld types -- "Hairy, muscular, suburban / wearing chocolate double-breasted suits" -- objectify the poet's own anxiety and neurotic fracture. Similarly, the catalogue of items in Lepke's cell: a "portable radio," a "dresser," "two toy American / flags tied together with a ribbon of Easter palm" metonymically stand for the debasement of the Catholic version of the American dream with its uneasy amalgam of Palm Sunday and the Fourth of July.

The syntactic structures of "Memories of West Street" thus imply that only by viewing the self in terms of its surroundings, companions, and habitual actions can the poet come to grips with the world he inhabits: the piling up of participial phrases and adjective strings guarantees the authenticity of the poet's vision. Indeed, the one passage in the poem that seems relatively flat -- the sequence in lines 14-19 with its histrionic reference to the Negro boy with "curlicues / of marijuana in his hair" -- has a looser, paratactic syntax that is closer to everyday speech than is the rest of the poem: "I was . . . and made . . . and then sat waiting . . . ," followed by four prepositional phrases. Compared to the passage immediately following ("Given a year . . ."), this account of "waiting sentence in the bull pen" seems rather diffuse.

From The Poetic Art of Robert Lowell (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1973), 108-109.

Stephen Yenser