Memories of West Street and Lepke

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."

Alan Williamson on: "Memories of West Street and Lepke"

That moral and intellectual relativism is itself an issue in the poem is indicated, I think, by the dominant imagery of clothing. Of course, Lowell has used this imagery throughout, to denote human absorption in roles; but its exaggerated employment here underlines the fact that Lowell must now perceive people and situations through these roles and appearances, without the prophet's confident penetration to spiritual conditions. A further complicating factor is that the characters in the poem are all extreme, contradictory, sui generis - all Dickensian solipsists. Their relation to social processes is obscure and mystified, most of all to themselves; and taken collectively, they mirror the author's own confusion about the possibility of interpretive or moral judgments on society. Indeed, not the least solipsistic among them is the author.

The opening stanza reveals Lowell's subtle discomfort at his accommodated position, at the growing distance between his concept of himself and any of the roles he must or can play. He sees himself as an underground eccentric, wearing his pajamas most of the day; but this eccentricity - and the daily load of laundry - is made possible by a respectable job, though one so luxurious it hardly seems such: "Only teaching on Tuesdays." He "hog[s] a whole house" - a residential arrangement quite appropriate to his class and background, but clearly unnatural in terms of his own feelings. Lowell proceeds to invent a bizarre but appropriate analogue to his own paradoxical status:

even the man

scavenging filth in the back alley trash cans,

has two children, a beach wagon, a helpmate,

and is a "young Republican."

(Perhaps this figure deserves to be interpreted more seriously, as Marcuse's vision of the superficially unexploited proletarian who pays for his comforts by a subtle regimentation extending not only to his politics but to his play - "a beach wagon" - and his sexuality - "a helpmate." But the archness of tone suggests that Lowell intends him - for the present, at least - mainly as metaphor.)

Within bourgeois community and responsibility, Lowell has found at least one vital center for his life, his baby daughter: "Like the sun she rises in her flame-flamingo infants' wear." Yet even the daughter's importance is cheapened when it must be expressed through the irrelevant poetry of departure of advertising. This rhetoric bears out a dominant pattern of excess, especially of over-size - in Lowell's house, his teaching arrangements, the age-discrepancy between him and his daughter - a pattern that has some of the terror, if not the moral implication, of Macbeth's "giant's robe/ Upon a dwarfish thief." At the very least, Lowell's exaggeration of his contentment is a subtle way of questioning it - of admitting that he is "selling" himself.

One reason, presumably, for Lowell's delayed parenthood is the very different kind of commitment that engaged his youth:

Ought I to regret my seedtime?

I was a fire-breathing Catholic C.O.,

and made my manic statements . . .

"Ought I to regret my seedtime?" is the essential question of the poem: has Lowell's present ironic vision transcended, and so gained the right to reject, his earlier committed one? The question, for me, recalls one of Blake's Proverbs of Hell: "In seedtime learn, in harvest teach, in winter enjoy." The proverb is relevant to more than Lowell's occupation, for the Devil is satirizing the conventional life-cycle, claiming that it is merely a mind-forged manacle designed to prevent man from ever enjoying his instincts, ever distinguishing his true self from his society's rationalizations.

Lowell's mature irony does indeed reveal disturbing, incontrovertible truths about his earlier self. His revolt was itself solipsistic, ineffective, merely bizarre, or at least society could make it seem so: the apolitical, Dionysiac Negro he was paired with was no better an objective correlative of his commitments than his fellow professors and Marlborough Street neighbors would be now. The phrase "telling off" makes his argument seem a sloppy emotional catharsis; just as, later, the comparison of the prison roof to "my school soccer court" would reduce his martyrdom to a compulsive repetition of childhood experiences involving authority, violence, and exhibitionistic attention-seeking (assuming that the reader makes the obvious connection with "91 Revere Street"). Of course, this too could be seen as part of society's mystification: prison makes the dissenter doubt his own manhood and judgment, since it reduces him to the dependence of a child.

At times, however, Lowell's irony backfires: the use of a technical psychoanalytic term like "manic" in a subtle descriptive context, however accurate it may be, suggests a complacent patness attained at some cost to richness of feeling and recollection.

In the prison scenes Lowell's vision of anomalies and disconnections becomes still more intense and maddening. The pervasive costume imagery absorbs - though with a grimmer irony than usual - so palpable a reality as the New York slums: "bleaching khaki tenements." The prisoners, defined by garments ranging from "rope shoes" to "chocolate double-breasted suits," are worlds unto themselves, and worlds full of self-contradiction. One, Abramowitz, carries pacifism to a cosmic extreme, yet clearly has his own problems about aggression and masculinity (he is called a "flyweight" and urgently wishes to be "tan"). Lowell can finally dismiss his point of view with a rather sneaky reference to Eden and the Fall. Nor can Lowell feel much common cause with the other war protesters, one of whom belongs to a sect the Catholic C.O. has never even heard of Still less, of course, is there a feeling of unity among the prisoners in general. Indeed, the prisoners' interactions reveal to Lowell another, equally important kind of disunity; the ethical contradictoriness of our society, which punishes the aggressive conformist for his acquisitiveness while bearing down on the eccentric for his dislike of force, but allows the persecution of the eccentric by the conformist to go on in prison just as it does elsewhere.

Something unanticipated happens in the poem, however, when Lowell focuses on the last prisoner: "Murder Incorporated's Czar Lepke."

. . .

One difference is technical. Where, before, hesitancy and the sense of disconnectedness expressed themselves in abstention from eloquence, halting metrics, submerged or doggerel rhyming, now the lines become emphatically iambic, the rhymes prominent, regular, stately; there is a touch of the surging periodicity of Lord Weary's Castle.

We are led to look for a reflection of this increased intensity in the moral content of the lines. One insight that becomes very clear is the real power of money and violence cutting across all claims of value and principle in American life. Morally repudiated and condemned to die, Lepke is still czar, still "segregated" into privilege like a Southern white, still given "things forbidden the common man." Further, these things are exactly what the conventionally respectable desire: the American Way of Life, an unexamined jumble of consumer goods, piety, patriotism. As the scavenger earlier identified with these things against his own class interests, Lepke identifies with them against the whole legal and moral tenor of his life; unless, of course, one cynically concludes that the law and public life are themselves so pervaded by this doublethink that their ostensible values are meaningless.

For Lepke, as the citation from John Foster Dulles would suggest, is a symbol of at least one aspect of American public life. He has organized, bureaucratized, depersonalized individual murder; America, in the "tranquillized Fifties," has done the same thing with its power to annihilate mankind. Lepke is "lobotomized," has had certain electrical connections in his brain severed (whether literally or metaphorically is not to the point here). America, too, has "lost connections," between its values and its acts, the fiction and the reality of its motives, the news and the appropriate emotional reaction; it too "drifts" toward its fate, unable and unwilling to change. (Rightly considered, the phrase "agonizing reappraisal" was as grotesque when spoken by Dulles as when applied to Lepke.) America, too, is "calm," "tranquillized" as Lepke is "lobotomized"; but in both cases the calm may be merely the psychological effect of an overwhelming, inescapable fear of execution or nuclear annihilation. And here Lowell's analogy carries an especially frightening implication; for in Lepke's single-minded concentration on death, his attitude seems to change from terror to fascination to love. Death becomes an "oasis," the only escape from fear. A number of radical writers have seen such a Dr. Strangelove psychology in the attitude of Americans toward the bomb; and we remember that both Freud and Marcuse predicted a resurgence of the death instinct in very advanced civilizations.

The concluding phrase, "lost connections," seems to reflect not only on Lepke and official America, but on the poet himself. For he too, at the beginning, suffers from an inability to connect his inner identity with his social roles; and an inability to go beyond an inclusive, defensive irony to the patterned vision of social processes that might allow him to locate himself, and reopen the possibility of political engagement. This vision arrives with the symbol of Lepke; and it is important that Lepke is a symbol, while the other characters, because of their obscure or mystified relation to society, remain unbudging, fruitless particulars. The return from observation to symbolism, like the more intense metrics, and like the vision itself, suggests a kind of breakthrough or change of heart in Lowell - one that, I believe, is mirrored in the structure of Life Studies as a whole.

From Pity the Monsters: The Political Vision of Robert Lowell. Copyright © 1974 by the Yale University Press.

Stephen Yenser on "Memories of West Street and Lepke"

The first stanza of the poem is given over mostly to the speaker, who is living in a house on "'hardly passionate Marlborough Street,'"

where even the man scavenging filth in the back alley trash cans, has two children, a beach wagon, a helpmate, and is a "young Republican."

The situation is reflected in the last stanza, where Lepke is seen "dawdling off to his little segregated cell full / of things forbidden the common man." Like the speaker, Lepke is isolated from other men; and in the fine lines that end the poem, this association is both confirmed and denied. . . .

"Memories of West Street and Lepke" is itself an "agonizing reappraisal," as is the whole of Life Studies; but this more or less explicit contrast serves almost to link the two men rather than to separate them, while the concentration on death and the "air / of lost connections", are remarkably applicable to the poetry of this volume. The same relationship obtains between Lepke and Lowell as does between the "lost connections" and the "sooty clothesline entanglements" that the poet saw from the roof of the West Street Jail. The figure of Lepke is more a mirage than a mirror image - as the "oasis" suggests - and consequently the technique of the poem itself exemplifies the "air / of lost connections." That there is a connection at some level between the poet-speaker and the gangster is intimated by Lowell's recollection of himself in "During Fever" as "part criminal and yet a Phi Bete." That description of himself is relevant to "During Fever" because the poem goes ahead to recall the "rehashing" of his father's character, but both the description and the "rehashing" are also relevantto this poem; if Lepke is a murderer in fact, the poet-speaker is one in intent. This is to put the matter too bluntly, perhaps, but what Lowell seems to suspect in these poems is that any man's murder taints other men.

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