“The old South Boston Aquarium stands / in a Sahara of snow now,” begins Robert Lowell’s masterpiece, “For the Union Dead,” a poem about race and class in Boston. To my mind, it’s one of the great American poems of the 20th century. And perhaps it’s a tonic for this week’s savage bombings.
Because I went to college in Boston and lived there in the 1980s, and because my son goes to college there now, I feel a kindred spirit with the gritty, gleaming city on the Charles. I certainly don’t feel I’m a Bostonian, mind you. Too much a Texan for that. But for a time I lived as one. And when I am in the city, as I was just last month, I have that old school kind of homecoming feeling. It’s like I know Boston like that back of my hand. Andrew Cohen has more to say about this in his poignant notice in The Atlantic, “You May Leave Boston, But Boston Never Leaves You.”
When I was in the city this last time, my son and I had had dinner at an Italian place on Newbury Street, exactly, and I mean exactly, one block north of where the second Marathon bomb went off on April 15.
We sat at the bar, shared chicken cacciatore and something else with mussels, and watched a Red Sox spring training game on the television. “Italian fare, a seat at the bar, dinner with the kid, Irish whiskey on Boylston Street, and a ballgame,” I crowed to the bartender, “God, I love this country!” And then we walked back near the Boston Public Library and up Boylston and passed by the spot of this week’s explosions exactly.
As I write this brief notice, we know little about the bombing, who the perpetrator is, or why. But I’ve been thinking about Robert Lowell’s great poem quite a bit the last 24 hours. Not because it provides any easy answers to the feelings of loss and outrage and defiance (an anthem like “Dirty Water” by the Standells is better suited for what I’m feeling now), nor because it has great bearing on the events of this week.
But because it’s a great poem about a great city in crisis.
“For the Union Dead” recalls the nobility of Boston. It portrays the city at the center of human drama, and as a flashpoint of national drama too — immigrant usurpation of Brahmin privilege, Irish and African American tensions, Civil War prestige, Cold War anxiety, and a city on the verge of civic warfare.
Finally, it flashes with survivalism mixed with despair. Lowell was a Bostonian through and through. He understood the city and New England’s stoic toughness: “On a thousand small town New England greens, / the old white churches hold their air / of sparse, sincere rebellion.”
For the Union Dead by Robert Lowell
“Relinquunt Omnia Servare Rem Publicam.”
The old South Boston Aquarium stands
in a Sahara of snow now. Its broken windows are boarded.
The bronze weathervane cod has lost half its scales.
The airy tanks are dry.
Once my nose crawled like a snail on the glass;
my hand tingled
to burst the bubbles
drifting from the noses of the cowed, compliant fish.
My hand draws back. I often sigh still
for the dark downward and vegetating kingdom
of the fish and reptile. One morning last March,
I pressed against the new barbed and galvanized
fence on the Boston Common. Behind their cage,
yellow dinosaur steamshovels were grunting
as they cropped up tons of mush and grass
to gouge their underworld garage.
Parking spaces luxuriate like civic
sandpiles in the heart of Boston.
A girdle of orange, Puritan-pumpkin colored girders
braces the tingling Statehouse,
shaking over the excavations, as it faces Colonel Shaw
and his bell-cheeked Negro infantry
on St. Gaudens’ shaking Civil War relief,
propped by a plank splint against the garage’s earthquake.
Two months after marching through Boston,
half the regiment was dead;
at the dedication,
William James could almost hear the bronze Negroes breathe.
Their monument sticks like a fishbone
in the city’s throat.
Its Colonel is as lean
as a compass-needle.
He has an angry wrenlike vigilance,
a greyhound’s gentle tautness;
he seems to wince at pleasure,
and suffocate for privacy.
He is out of bounds now. He rejoices in man’s lovely,
peculiar power to choose life and die —
when he leads his black soldiers to death,
he cannot bend his back.
On a thousand small town New England greens,
the old white churches hold their air
of sparse, sincere rebellion; frayed flags
quilt the graveyards of the Grand Army of the Republic.
The stone statues of the abstract Union Soldier
grow slimmer and younger each year–
wasp-waisted, they doze over muskets
and muse through their sideburns . . .
Shaw’s father wanted no monument
except the ditch,
where his son’s body was thrown
and lost with his “niggers.”
The ditch is nearer.
There are no statues for the last war here;
on Boylston Street, a commercial photograph
shows Hiroshima boiling
over a Mosler Safe, the “Rock of Ages”
that survived the blast. Space is nearer.
When I crouch to my television set,
the drained faces of Negro school-children rise like balloons.
is riding on his bubble,
for the blessèd break.
The Aquarium is gone. Everywhere,
giant finned cars nose forward like fish;
a savage servility
slides by on grease.