David Kalstone: On "Memories of West Street and Lepke"
Memories of West Street and Lepke" shuttles back and forth between the comfortable Lowell living in Boston in the 1950s and his recall of the year he spent in a New York jail as a conscientious objector. . . . No object in the poem seems to be allowed the independent interest often accorded by [Elizabeth] Bishop. Instead, things bristle with an accusatory significance, all too relevant to the speaker, an "I" not at all relaxed or random in his self-presentation. So much of his experience is already second-hand, as in his self-conscious reference to what Henry James had long since identified as "hardly passionate Marlborough Street," an etiolated gesture toward an etiolated frame. Experiences seem preempted by rhetoric of the Eisenhower period ("agonizing reappraisal") or by advertising ("Like the sun she rises in her flame-flamingo infants' wear").
He talks about himself in implied ironic quotation marks. You imagine them around "fire-breathing" and "manic" in the lines "I was a fire-breathing Catholic C.O., / and made my manic statement." Line endings have a similar dry effect: "Given a year, / I walked on the roof of the West Street Jail." The break forces a wry question; a momentary stepping back, "given," indeed. This is the language of a man on trial, who hear words as if they belonged to someone else. "Fire-breathing" and "manic" are overheard characterizations, expressions he cannot adopt completely as his own. Prepared reactions of the "tranquilized Fifties" encrust his responses, make it hard to break through to feeling.
The distance between the speaker and his experience gives "Memories of West Street and Lepke" its special tension, the air that something is being withheld rather than yielded. So, for example, the mind seems to be making some flickering connection between the daughter's "flame-flamingo infants' wear" and the "seedtime" of the "fire-breathing Catholic C.O." It is a linguistic tease, not fully worked out. We are being asked to think about the "dragon" of a father, and the roseate daughter young enough to be his granddaughter, about a passage of vitality. Something is being suggested about failed ideology and the lapse into slogan-encapsulated domesticity of the 1950s and middle age.
. . . Lowell seems to take very little primary pleasure in the objects named and remembered. The "pajamas fresh from the washer each morning" seem there not so much for themselves as to prepare our curiosity for a later detail, Czar Lepke "piling towels on a rack." It is one of several parallels, teasing us into wondering what links the speaker in his laundered world to the boss of Murder Incorporated. . . . Both Lowell and Lepke belong to privileged worlds. The poet, hogging a whole house, remembers Lepke in "a segregated cell full / of things forbidden the common man." Outside, like the scavenger on Lowell's Marlborough Street, is the anarchic variety of the prison of which the younger Lowell was a part: "a Negro boy with curlicues / of marijuana in his hair"; Abramowitz, another pacifist. "Bioff and Brown, the Hollywood pimps," beat Abramowitz black and blue; it sounds like an energetic alliterative game to accompany Lowell from the tranquilized present to a busy, untidy past.
. . . .
The arrangement of details and scenes invites us to make comparisons and contrasts upon which the poem itself deliberately makes no comment . . . . Finally, the poet's baffled failure to generalize becomes one of the subjects of the poem. The figures in the frieze have the air of being deliberately chosen and placed, as the connections are between the criminal past and the respectable drugged present, the poem bristles with the challenge to recapture and unite them. Its selective organization teases us toward meaning, even if it is only in the form of a conundrum, a puzzle whose pieces we must match ourselves. Lowell pictures himself as becalmed; his poem, on the other hand, insists almost militantly on what [Gabriel] Pearson calls "the vital chore of unremitting interrogation."
From "The Uses of History," in Robert Lowell, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House, 1987), 91-93.