Robert Lowell

Commander Lowell


There were no undesirables or girls in my set,
when I was a boy at Mattapoisett—
only Mother, still her Father’s daughter.
Her voice was still electric
with a hysterical, unmarried panic,
when she read to me from the Napoleon book.
Long-nosed Marie Louise
Hapsburg in the frontispiece
had a downright Boston bashfulness,
where she grovelled to Bonaparte, who scratched his navel,
and bolted his food—just my seven years tall!
And I, bristling and manic,
skulked in the attic,
and got two hundred French generals by name
,from A to V—from Augereau to Vandamme.
I used to dope myself asleep,
naming those unpronounceables like sheep.

Having a naval officer
for my Father was nothing to shout
about to the summer colony at “Matt.”
He wasn’t at all “serious,”
when he showed up on the golf course,
wearing a blue serge jacket and numbly cut
white ducks he’d bought
at a Pearl Harbor commissariat . . .
and took four shots with his putter to sink his putt.
"Bob,” they said, “golf’s a game you really ought to know how to play,
if you play at all.”
They wrote him off as “naval,”
naturally supposed his sport was sailing.
Poor Father, his training was engineering!
Cheerful and cowed
among the seadogs at the Sunday yacht club,
he was never one of the crowd.

“Anchors aweigh,” Daddy boomed in his bathtub,
“Anchors aweigh,”
when Lever Brothers offered to pay
him double what the Navy paid.
I nagged for his dress sword with gold braid,
and cringed because Mother, new
caps on all her teeth, was born anew
at forty. With seamanlike celerity,
Father left the Navy,
and deeded Mother his property.

He was soon fired. Year after year,
he still hummed “Anchors aweigh” in the tub—
whenever he left a job,
he bought a smarter car.
Father’s last employer
was Scudder, Stevens and Clark, Investment Advisors,
himself his only client.
While Mother dragged to bed alone,
read Menninger,
and grew more and more suspicious,
he grew defiant.
Night after night,
à la clarté déserte de sa lampe,
he slid his ivory Annapolis slide rule
across a pad of graphs—
piker speculations! In three years
he squandered sixty thousand dollars.

Smiling on all,
Father was once successful enough to be lost
in the mob of ruling-class Bostonians.
As early as 1928,
he owned a house converted to oil,
and redecorated by the architect
of St. Mark’s School . . . . Its main effect
was a drawing room, “longitudinal as Versailles,”
its ceiling, roughened with oatmeal, was blue as the sea.
And once
nineteen, the youngest ensign in his class,
he was “the old man” of a gunboat on the Yangtze.