Radiant with Terror: Lowell and the Uncertain Country of Love

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The first months of my pregnancy were intoxicating. I was in thrall to my body, so little under my own control; I was turned ever inward listening for the subterranean changes I could only sometimes see and feel. Nothing felt more present or real in my life than my body—at times sick, at times ebullient at what felt like the cellular level, at times shipwrecked in a gooey torpor I could barely lift myself out of, always infused with a fecund power I had never felt before in my life. I did not want anything on Earth to touch me, my skin raw and otherworldly. It seemed equally possible that at any moment the surface of my skin would break into hives or begin to flower.

It was not all rapt solipsism. As my body changed and I passed the first trimester and the thing inside of me began to grow, I increasingly felt my lack of control. It occurred to me in a new material way as I felt the first movements of what would one day be my child, that I did not know how to be a caretaker of a life. That I did not know how to bring someone into a world like the one I lived in. Dread, regret: this had all been set into motion by my past thoughtless self—who had only been eager to love this hypothetical creature, to travel further and more strangely and deeply into love—a self whose eager imagining could not have dreamed the godlike power of procreation and the immediate terror that follows when the hypothetical transforms magically into something with a heartbeat.

I read an article about the Flint water crisis on a Thursday evening at a coffee shop. By the end of the article, I had opened more tabs, researching childhood lead poisoning. By the end of the night, I had lead tested several surfaces in the beautiful old apartment we lived in, and realized, a highly anxious amateur epidemiologist, that the very foundations of the apartment were toxic.

My husband painted, but the anxiety persisted, twisting into me until I felt poisoned, too, the creature inside of me growing steadily, feeding off my dread, for better or worse, until it felt like I carried my doom with me wherever I went, a kicking, cartwheeling promise at the very heart of me: Here I come, whether the world is ready or not.

Increasingly, the world did not seem ready, and neither did I. I cycled anxiously through worries about police violence, climate change, and cockroaches, but lead paint recurred again and again, the perfect metaphor for what felt to me to be the world’s insidious, inherent violence, and my inability to stop it—in my own life, due to lack of resources, and in others’ lives. Invisible poison. I grew obsessive. I texted all my mom friends. I obsessively talked about it with my husband, who eventually, gently, told me he couldn’t have another conversation about it. I cried and cowered in my therapist’s office. I researched with the help of the EPA and CDC websites. I lurked on Internet message boards, each first-person narrative of safety discarded when I read another detailing calamity. I treated the research process like a Magic 8-Ball, shaking up the page results again and again, sifting for the answer that would abate my fear, would allow me to go back to the ‘right’ world, where I could function, where I could sleep, where my body didn’t hum at high frequency like a sick tuning fork. The question I asked the Internet was one it could not answer: But MY child, will my child be okay? The childish, selfish prayer for exceptionalism hidden in its asking: Please let MY child be okay. Please.

In part, I found an answer to my question in poetry. During this period I was reading Robert Lowell, Life Studies and For the Union Dead in particular. I was first struck by Lowell’s vivid imagery, charmed by his description of an infesting, murderous muskrat as “a mop of hair and a heart-beat on the porch,” in his poem “Those Before Us.” The poem is a melancholy remembrance of family as the speaker leads us through an aging family home, infested both by a furious rodent and the shades of long-dead family members, loosening their belts after a Sunday meal, playing cards. I too felt haunted by the little thing inside of me, unable to picture it as quite human, but rather imagining its half-formed body haunting the antechamber of my own, a wheezing, uncertain little heartbeat furiously attending to its own making. A feral little muskrat. I felt in Lowell’s speaker and myself a bit of the fascinated, reluctant host. Family is both ghostly and, Lowell seems to imply, feral: living in memory, feeding off the still-living, bent on a kind of infection in their insistence on persisting into the future.

Infection is littered throughout Lowell’s poetry, I found, to my delight. I remember one morning in January, again having risen anxiety-struck and sickly to drudge through the day, reading “Fall 1961,” a poem written in response to the nuclear standoff during the Cold War. In particular, I was drawn to Lowell’s infusing of the speaker’s personal dread into the landscape and life of American culture:

All autumn, the chafe and jar
of nuclear war;
we have talked our extinction to death.
I swim like a minnow
behind my studio window.
Our end drifts nearer,
the moon lifts,
radiant with terror.
The state
is a diver under a glass bell.
A father’s no shield
for his child.
We are like a lot of wild
spiders crying together,
but without tears.

In Lowell’s telling of the Cold War, even the moon has been corrupted by fear, radiating terror onto the world. The state operates far out of the field of experience of the normal citizen, protected and observing from its place of remote analysis. Lowell’s speaker is the small observer caught on the tide of destruction: the ineffectual minnow. Despite his exhaustion and weariness (“we have talked our extinction to death,”) the speaker cannot help but observe the terror of his surroundings, unable to look away as “Our end drifts nearer.” This act of witnessing is functionally useless, however, in the face of the enormity of the horror of nuclear war, as Lowell’s speaker reveals in his bald line of surrender, exposing the absurdity of government safety protocols in the event of nuclear attack: “A father’s no shield / for his child.” The poem ends with Lowell gathering the fearful together in huddled insectival cowering, unable, even, to cry.

Lowell’s poem reads like obsessive anxiety: the same smallness in the face of events beyond your control; that blurring of the divide between terror originating in the self and terror radiating from the world; the simultaneous disinterest in or inability of the world to attend to your personal pain; the weariness that is so often a byproduct of intense fear; and, at last, the surrender, because the feeling that the world contributes to or somehow colludes with your terror is not knowledge that, finally, saves you (or your family) from danger, no matter how much you might want it to.

I found comfort in the way that Lowell’s poems frequently explore the landscape of mental illness and blur the lines between the self and the world. Lowell himself struggled with mental illness in the form of bipolar disorder, and his description of sickness always seems to creep in to or out of the body, an effective metaphor for the way that anxiety can be felt to insidiously permeate the self and color the self’s surroundings, like fog. Like the effects of lead dust. In “Skunk Hour,” perhaps Lowell’s most famous poem, there is a creeping unease that accumulates throughout the piece in Lowell’s speaker’s description of the ailing seaside town, primarily through images of financial ruin and disrepair that the town and its residents experience. “The season’s ill—” Lowell’s speaker says, unwilling or unable to cast blame upon the townspeople themselves, and instead locating the sickness in the tourist season, the lack of people visiting, the ramshackle houses, the stasis brought on by a scarcity of money. It takes until the fifth stanza for the speaker to reveal himself, and by then he has been infected himself, or perhaps the sickness originated in him all along: “My mind’s not right,” he says, skulking in his car to the local make-out point, looking to scare teenagers, or perhaps to puncture their idylls with his illness.

The insidiousness of lead poisoning is that you can’t know if your child will be harmed except retroactively, when the damage has or hasn’t already been done. It’s the insidiousness of motherhood, itself a love that has all the symptoms of burgeoning illness: you can’t know how the world will hurt your child, you can’t know how much of the bone-sick fear you’re feeling is justified, how much of that fear will save your child, protect them from the ill world, and how much of it is your own madness that has been produced by and has accumulated in your body. (“I hear / my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell, / as if my hand were at its throat… / I myself am hell,” Lowell’s speaker wretchedly says, in an image that doubles the harm the self inflicts on its own body and mind.) Lowell’s poetry knows that safety is one of the great, shining myths of American culture, and his poetry examines the undoing of that promise of safety: an unraveling that happens by turns in the self and in the world. In Lowell’s vision, there is no world in which the self is ever safe. In Lowell’s poetry, a child will never be okay, and this knowledge taints the topography of the country of love, something I now suspect most mothers know.

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Image credits: Feature image and image of Robert Lowell via Creative Commons.


Katie Schmid is a poet living in Lincoln, NE. Her chapbook, Forget Me, Hit Me, Let Me Drink Great Quantities of Clear, Evil Liquor, is available from Split Lip Press. More from this author →