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

Susan McCabe: On "The Fish"

[McCabe quotes the lines that begin "I looked into his eyes" and end "old scratched isinglass."]

What she discovers is not identity but difference, the eyes impenetrable and layered – mediated and distanced by the speaker’s language. That she describes his yes as "seen through the lenses / of old scratched isinglass" implicates both her vision and that of the fish as blurred and imperfect. Isinglass, a transparent gelatin from the bladders of fish and used, ironically, as a clarifying agent, only diminishes and reduces her ability to see the fish …

[McCabe quotes the last twelve lines in "The Fish."]

Only after seeing the fish can she see "the little rented boat," which, like the fish, becomes dynamized, its deficiencies metamorphosing to matter for exultation. The fish is only ugly or grotesque to the untrained or unempathic eye. As the small space of the boat expands, her multiple prepositions override "thwarts" and tie "everything" into relationship. The poem takes us two ways: into recognizing difference and into apprehending unity, into perceiving connection and its frailty. But to comprehend, to totalize would be to underrate. We recall that this is a poem about a visionary moment: it can’t keep, but must be let go. This poem, looser than others in this volume and preferring internal rhymes until its final couplet, highlights how fragile and unpredictable are our joinings and communions. …

From Susan McCabe, "Artifices of Independence," Chapter 2 in Elizabeth Bishop: Her Poetics of Loss (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994), 95, 96.