Thursday, June 28, 2007

Len Sousa's Poetry/Music Mashups: Lowell's "For the Union Dead" Meets Philip Glass

One of the great political poems of the 20th century, Robert Lowell's "For the Union Dead" (1964) is an archeological dig through the multiple pasts of personal and American history, a re-dedication of the famous St. Gauden's Memorial in Boston to Robert Gould Shaw and the all-black regiment (the Massachusetts 54th) who fought in the Civil War. What attracted me to Lowell's poem was--in addition to its kaleidoscopic allusiveness--its seething anger, just below the surface of its erudition. The poem comes to its anger slowly, but it's just as I felt before and during the Gulf War of 1991, when I was first encountered this poem. The poem ends with an image of the countless cars choking the roads: "a savage servility/slides by on grease." To echo Walter Benjamin: every artefact of civilization is also an artefact of barbarism.
  • Len Sousa has smartly mashed "For the Union Dead" with Philip Glass. Thanks to Chris Kempf for pointing this site out to me. (My little girls danced to Frank O'Hara Meets the Beatles the whole time that I posted this note.)


Unknown said...

here's a post from my blog about the Lowell (if it's too much, edit it down or delete it):

Lowell's great "For the Union Dead" begins with water/childhood imagery and finishes with a vision of occluded filth: "grease." In this it follows the trajectory of Rimbaud's "Memoire," which opens with "Clear water; like the salt of childhood tears" and concludes with "mud." Lowell was translating the Rimbaud poem around the time he wrote "Union" (his rhymed version appears in "Imitations"), and I think Rimbaud's quatrains influenced his stanzaic choice. Rimbaud's last image is of a boat stuck in mud in the middle of a lake; Lowell shows us the "savage servility" of an evil automotived populace, a car-culture that "slides by on grease." "Everywhere giant-finned cars nose forward like fish." The lake where fish should be swimming. Boat: car. "The old South Boston Aquarium." The two poems mirror each other to some extent, and I wonder if Lowell worked these intertangencies consciously. Both poets biographically shared the drama of an overbearing needy mother and absent, militarized father (a plot poignantly depicted in "Memoire"), and perhaps some of the power of Lowell's poem comes from this Oedipal engine. Whether your vroomvroom boat is dredge-caught in mud, or whether your giant finned car (what is a boat but a finned car) slides by on grease, forget it. You ain't going nowhere, little guy: c'mere and let me tuck you in. Momma mud, granny grease. They gonna get you in the end.

Re the Oedipal underlay of "Union Dead": re the poem's ending: the chariot from which King Laios ordered a young tramp standing in the crossroads to step aside, get out of my way: that royal vehicle is now "everywhere": the "giant-finned cars" of the fathers are flooding everywhere, commanding passage, imposing their imperial progress. (Perhaps the father slain is Allen Tate, and "the gentle serpent" that concludes his "Ode to the Confederate Dead" is reverse-echoed as homage/assuage by "a savage servility.")

Lowell didn't mention in his depiction of the subterranean public parking garage beneath Boston Common that, as usual in this city where the Revolution was fostered with such ideals of freedom, the contract to build the project was given to those criminous construction companies who use (what else) substandard materials to increase their profit, with kickbacks to everyone in government,— all of which led of course to the garage falling apart a mere two decades after Lowell witnessed its first incursions: its ceilings and walls caved in and crumbled, resulting in the whole thing having to be built again, as it were tautologically . . . the cyclical greeds of politics and war seem unending, ending as always in more mire.


Philip Metres said...

Bill, an eloquent reading of this poem, by a poet whose work is now considered outre and weird...but who, in my estimation, will still be read in a hundred years.