Alan Williamson: On "Central Park"

"Central Park" is delicately framed by a conflict of opposing states of soul in the poet - a vaguely sexual elation ("now light as pollen"), a depressed sense of being used up, mechanized, by the life-process ("now as white / and winded as a grounded kite"). Lowell looks out on a scene of sex-in-nature that might recall the Garden of Eden, but that, to his eye, is as inexorably geometrical as a cubist painting. . . .

This afflicting vision of sameness, of life simplified to mathematics, comes naturally to the Edwardsian side of Lowell; but the real point is that it now comes naturally to all of us, enforced on civilized consciousness by overcrowding, overpopulation, the monolithic architecture of cities. As the painting's pure geometric lines might be overspread with an amorphous gray wash, so, Lowell says, "the stain of fear and poverty . . . darkened every mote of dust" and "each trapped anatomy" (the picture becomes darker still if one remembers anatomy's old meaning, "skeleton").

It is hard to be precise about what this stain-geometry relation means, but one analogy might be a schizophrenic's sense of having a mechanical, active self and a distinct, but immobilized and somewhat formless, inner self.

Under these conditions, Lowell's wistful desire in "Waking Early" for a sexual escape from a devitalized earth, a "sweet volcanic cone," becomes the hopeless wish of mankind:


All wished to leave this drying crust,

borne on the delicate wings of lust

like bees, and cast their fertile drop

into the overwhelming cup.


This "overwhelming cup" again suggests overpopulation, but, more inescapably, it is a kind of cosmic vaginal symbol, a womb-grave. It implies a regressive nirvana, an escape from individuated consciousness through sexual fulfillment, that leads us back, in a delicate way, to the theme of the death instinct.

The passage of sexual escape leads directly to the picture of the lion in the zoos.

. . .

Rather obviously, this passage is a social parable on the situation of the poor and the blacks - those people who are "humbled" by living conditions that give them a degrading "animal" image of themselves, treated as criminals a priori, controlled by drugs and a ghetto-cage. The parable shows how society's structures practically compel self-definition through crime and flaunted sexuality - qualities which then "prove" its view of the black man's baser nature. But the very use of the image of a zoo suggests that this is all a kind of theater, fulfilling unconscious, projected desires in the spectator-keeper (a point that Black literature has made repeatedly, from the story of the incestuous father in Ellison's Invisible Man to Cleaver's "The Primeval Mitosis"). But if the lion is an image for black rebellion, it is certainly a pessimistic one; for the energy is seen as purely reactive, chained, like some forms of energy in the poems, to terms of aggression and death.

What follows can be taken as a second parable, in which the oppressed appear not as rebels and criminals but as utterly helpless victims, treated with murderous hypocrisy even by the seemingly benevolent agencies of society:


Behind a dripping rock, I found

a one-day kitten on the ground--

deprived, weak, ignorant and blind,

squeaking, tubular, left behind--

dying with its deserter's rich

Welfare lying out of reach:

milk cartons, kidney heaped to spoil,

two plates sheathed with silver foil.


Though Lowell seems to see little hope in revolution, his bitterest satire is reserved for the conscience-salving of reform. "Welfare" is seen as a way of getting rid of the poor, as - in the terms of the metaphor - inappropriate food, so shielded and sanitary (i.e. rotting) that the "animal" couldn't get at it even if he could see or walk. The total picture that emerges from these stanzas is one of complete vulnerability and dammed-up energy on the part of the poor, explicit shirking of responsibility and implicit paranoid cruelty on that of the rich, and something of the inadequacy-omnipotence dialectic of Lowell's tyrant poems on both sides. We get a very bleak sense of American political possibilities.

The twilight stanza that follows returns to the words shadow and stain, which now have a more special meaning, the degradation attached to being black. But by the same token, the night the shadows portend is a "jungle hour," the hour of revenge not only for the rebelling black criminal, but for alienated and repressed energy in general. The "mouth of night" is a rather terrifying image, suggesting hell-mouth, Old Night, primal chaos, and other archetypal associations like those of the "overwhelming cup." This image, coupled with that of a failing sun, gives the passage an apocalyptic tone. In this atmosphere, the phenomena of twilight are poignant echoes of the poet's earlier elation and the more innocent sexual escapism: one kite still flies, a "snagged balloon" fails to get much help from "the attraction of the moon," another cosmic feminine symbol.

Lowell now turns to examine the psychology of the oppressor in his moment of peril. But here he uses a direct address, and an angry prophetic tone that carries him farther from the observer stance than he has ventured since Lord Weary's Castle:


Old Pharaohs starving in your foxholes,

with painted banquets on the walls,

fists knotted in your captives' hair,

tyrants with little food to spare--

all your embalming left you mortal,

glazed, black, and hideously eternal,

all your plunder and gold leaf

only served to draw the thief. . .


The Egyptian imagery springs from the surroundings, Cleopatra's Needle and the Metropolitan Museum, but it is stunningly appropriate, both to the architecture of Fifth Avenue and to an imperial nation with extremes of wealth and poverty and an overextended foreign policy. Lowell sees the American ruling class in much the same way that Eldridge Cleaver does: as people who are essentially, humanly, dead, and driven to seek their lost vitality through simulacra, in their dilettantish art-collecting, and in their sadomasochistic fascination with their social victims. This is the psychology of "Caligula" blown up to a mass scale.

Lowell is also interested in the idea that technology provides a spurious form of transcendence, of immortality. Here, as in "For the Union Dead," his thought parallels that of Norman 0. Brown, who holds, in Life Against Death, that the city is man's most perfect sublimation; in it, he flees both the body and death by identifying himself with pure geometries, with indestructible, ethereally beautiful metals and stones. But a major thesis of Brown's book is that the repressed death-instinct, like repressed sexuality, has its "return of the repressed" in a sense of emptiness, death-in-life, and in the breaking loose of aggressive impulses. The theme of an urban death-instinct has been latent in this poem since the line about "the overwhelming cup." At this point, its return seems to have both a homicidal and a suicidal dimension, as the rich become increasingly obsessed with the violence their splendor may provoke.

Whether this fear springs from guilt or secret desire, it leads to a terrible escalation:


We beg delinquents for our life.

Behind each bush, perhaps a knife;


each landscaped crag, each flowering shrub

hides a policeman with a club.


The syntactical change from "perhaps" to the simple indicative is important. As in a comparable passage in Lowell's translation of Juvenal, the violence of the poor against the rich, though real, is omnipresent only in the rich man's guilty imagination. But society's "deterrent terror" against the poor, on the other hand, has the capacity to be literally everywhere, to fulfill a fantasy of omnipotence.

One can hardly imagine a more scathing radical critique of our class system, extending from its depth psychology to its surface rationalizations. All the same, "Central Park" is not a revolutionary poem, since it offers not the least prospect of a successful and virtuous uprising, but rather, a spiraling release of all destructive tendencies. In another sense, though, it is a radical poem, especially for Lowell, in that it eschews qualification, eschews the "complexity" that can rationalize and blur, and endeavors to see individual human action as at least momentarily identical with the historical or moral force it most deeply serves. It is a poem of seeing through, rather than with, the eye, in the tradition of Blake, of Yeats's "Easter 1916," of Shelley when he wrote


I met Murder on the way--

He had a mask like Castlereagh . . .


Perhaps this means that "Central Park" lacks a certain human depth or human texture in comparison with "Memories of West Street and Lepke," "Waking Early," or the poem that immediately follows it. Nevertheless, it seems to me one of Lowell's finest achievements as a poet of moral clarification and urgent, vital rage.


Title Alan Williamson: On "Central Park" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Alan Williamson Criticism Target Robert Lowell
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 04 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Pity the Monsters: The Political Vision of Robert Lowell
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