In the spring of 2019, two seemingly unrelated things happened. The first was that the publishing house Farrar, Straus and Giroux announced it would be releasing, in December, a book called The Dolphin Letters, 1970-1979: Elizabeth Hardwick, Robert Lowell, and Their Circle—a volume that gathered letters from the worst years of Hardwick and Lowell’s marriage. The second was that I received an invitation to a wedding in Maine, not far from Portland. I had never been to Maine.
Hardwick was an essayist, critic and novelist, raised in Lexington, Kentucky, the daughter of a plumbing and heating contractor. Lowell was a poet, an only child of Mayflower stock, “born under the shadow of the Dome of the Boston State House.” The story of The Dolphin Letters begins 21 years into their marriage, in 1970, when Lowell took a position at the University of Oxford, leaving Hardwick and their daughter, Harriet, back home in New York. After arriving in England, Lowell started an affair with a woman named Caroline Blackwood, an Irish writer and heiress of the Guinness family. Lowell eventually moved to Blackwood’s country estate in Kent, fathered a second child, divorced Hardwick and married Blackwood. He then wrote a collection of poems, The Dolphin, which incorporated quotations from Hardwick’s own letters—pained and private letters sent during the collapse of their marriage.
The Dolphin was published in the summer of 1973. It caused a scandal, drove Hardwick nearly to suicide and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1974.
In the weeks leading up to The Dolphin’s publication, Hardwick and Lowell were not corresponding about the poems but instead having a prolonged, bitter exchange about a house in Maine. For fifteen years of their marriage, they had gone to Castine almost every summer—either driving up from New York or Boston, or flying to Bangor and driving down—and it had become one of the main coordinates of their life and work.
Why not go to Castine? I thought.
I could drive up a few days before the wedding, rent a room in town and visit the home of the letters, poems and essays—Main Street, the tennis courts, the Trinitarian church, the town common, the crab-apple tree, the harbor, the graveyard—and maybe the house of Hardwick and Lowell. I had spent the past few years in graduate school reading an unnaturally large amount of their work: essays and poems, novels, plays and letters. If there was still a pilgrimage site of some kind, this was likely it.
The house was old and historic, it was located in an old and historic New England town, and it featured in their work more than any other home they had shared. More than the house on Marlborough Street, in Boston, where they had stayed in the early years of their marriage, and certainly more than the duplex on West 67th, in Manhattan, eight unrecognizable rooms that were now owned by an Oklahoman energy executive and self-described libertarian, who is (supposedly) not very fond of Hardwick or Lowell.
I had no idea who the current owners of the house in Castine were, much less whether they were accepting random visitors. But it seemed harmless to ask around and, if that failed, to politely knock on the door.
I requested an advance reader’s copy of The Dolphin Letters from the publisher in April; in May I began loosely planning my trip to Castine; and on June 4th, in the late afternoon, I received a message, out of the blue, from a friend named Edith.
I hadn’t seen Edith in two or three years, at least. We agreed to meet the following week after work. At the bar, we settled in and ordered drinks. Edith asked what I had been reading. I told her about Hardwick, a writer who had written about x, and done y, and was married for a period of time to the American poet Robert Lowell. As I was about to mention The Dolphin Letters, she leaned forward and widened her eyes.
Didn’t I remember?
I remembered that her family had a house in Maine. I vaguely remembered photos from high school, on Facebook, of her friends sitting by a harbor on picnic benches and walking through a small seaside town. I did not remember that her family owned the house of Hardwick and Lowell.
As we paid the check and were getting ready to leave, Edith looked over at me.
“Will you come to Castine?” she said.
There is something mildly shameful about literary pilgrimages. They are, or were, considered a kind of emotional and intellectual junk food. A literary tourist climbs a hill to the writer’s house, peers through the windows, photographs the bookshelves, the wall sconces, and then feels a sudden shiver of presence in the living room. It is almost grotesque. The tourist has gone in search of pre-packaged feeling. The tourist has looked for profundity in the absence of knowing why it is profound. You want to shake them. Where is your sense of perspective? Where is your imagination? The tourist has forgotten that the real business of literary appreciation begins and ends with the work of literature, and that everything else is window dressing.
I have trouble remembering this. The event that sealed my relationship with Lowell’s work was not when his poems were assigned in my high school English class, in a unit on “confessional poetry,” or when I read them in college from time to time. It was when I found myself in a small smog-filled town on the Ligurian coast called Rapallo. I partook there in the most shameful kinds of literary tourism. I stayed in the building where Hemingway had written “Cat in the Rain”; I walked in the public gardens where Yeats had walked; I stood on the shoreline where Nietzsche had envisioned Zarathustra; and I made not one but two visits to the outer wall of the home of the “minor” English essayist Max Beerbohm. My final act was to climb the hill to a clinic where Robert Lowell’s mother had died, and where he collected her, before returning to America.
When I embarked from Italy with my Mother’s body,
the whole shoreline of the Golfo di Genova
was breaking into fiery flower…
Standing there, watching the residents of the clinic shift and decay in their sun-chairs, seeing the gulf stretch out from the coastline, holding a book of Lowell’s poems—I felt the all-too-predictable shiver. It was that sense of here. Not over there, or just in the grooves of the writer’s mind, which have long since turned into dust. But here.
If this was the reaction I experienced at an Italian clinic—admittedly a very unusual and beautiful clinic—I wasn’t sure what to expect from Castine. I couldn’t imagine much about the house itself, except for the unassuming facade, which was in a photograph in Ian Hamilton’s biography of Lowell. But I could imagine Castine, or something like Castine. A long and twisted coast with jagged rocks, wharf piles and oyster shells; water and wind.
At the end of August, I packed a suitcase with a week’s worth of clothes, a wedding suit and eight books—all but one by, or about, Hardwick and Lowell—and rented a car in Brooklyn.
The drive to Castine was estimated to take eight hours door-to-door. On the highway, past Moose Point State Park, there was an unusual number of station wagons and antique shops on the roadside. Some of the station wagons were filled with antiques; you could see through the hatchback windows. I crossed over the Penobscot River, around Bucksport, and hooked south.
In the days before the trip, I had started rereading Hardwick and Lowell, returning in particular to the Maine poems, like “Skunk Hour,” “Soft Wood,” “Fourth of July in Maine” and “Long Summer,” and a few of Hardwick’s essays, including “Wives and Mistresses” and “In Maine,” and also her novel Sleepless Nights.
Hardwick is the first writer who made me aware of prose as prose. I didn’t grow up reading fiction or poetry; I didn’t read many books at all. But when I read Hardwick in college—specifically her essay “Grub Street: New York”—I was fascinated by how blurred and beautiful the opening paragraph was. The sentences were sentences, the language was certainly English, but somewhere the meaning had leaked out between the words.
Reading Hardwick is like walking in a gilded, smoke-filled room, the light barely revealing the furniture. With Lowell, it’s all clarity and suddenness—a succession of bright images.
I thought that maybe if I read them slowly, lines consumed one clause at a time, rolled around in the mouth, some written down and memorized, that maybe I could be pulled into the particular mood and logic of their writing, that by the time I reached Maine, I would already be there—in Hardwick and Lowell’s Maine.
In his poems, Maine is a place of essences and purities, where things are more than they are. Water is more than water, white is more than white, salt is more than salt.
Here too in Maine things bend to the wind forever.
After two years away, one must get used
to the painted soft wood staying bright and clean,
to the air blasting an all-white wall whiter,
as it blows through curtain and screen
touched with salt and evergreen
In Hardwick’s writing, it is a place of attractive surfaces—sun-dappled houses and spires and sloops—that conceal a dark inner core: loss, devastation and brutal cold. The winter behind everything.
“Here, in Maine, every stone is a skull and you live close to your own death. Where, you ask yourself, where indeed will I be buried?”
Even though The Dolphin Letters begins with Lowell’s departure to England, in 1970, you have to first go back about twenty years, to the winter of 1948, to understand Hardwick and Lowell’s relationship. They had crossed paths in New York a number of times but didn’t start dating until that winter, while they were both in residency at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, New York.
Lowell, who suffered from manic depression (as it was then known), progressively “accelerated” during his stay, first leading a frenzied campaign to dethrone the colony’s director, and then setting off on a missionary trip out West to spread Roman Catholicism. He ended up in the streets of Bloomington, Indiana, shouting, convinced that he was a reincarnation of the Holy Ghost and could freeze traffic with his mind. After stealing a roll of tickets from a movie theater, he assaulted a police officer and was straitjacketed at a local precinct. His friends and family swooped in to help, escorting him to Baldpate Hospital in Georgetown, Massachusetts, where he was held in a padded cell and received multiple rounds of electroconvulsive therapy. He refused most visitors, including his mother and longtime psychiatrist, but agreed to see Hardwick.
Lowell wrote to her from the hospital: “How would you like to be engaged? Like a debutante. will you? … How happy we’ll be together writing the world’s masterpieces, swimming and washing dishes … P.S. Reading The Idiot again.”
There was a small gloomy wedding a few weeks later at his parents’ house. It was “as tho a bear had married a greyhound,” Lowell wrote.
They spent the next six years on the move, living in Iowa City, New York, Florence, Amsterdam, Cincinnati, Duxbury, Boston—traveling, writing, teaching. They first went to Castine in the summer of 1955, after Lowell’s cousin Harriet Winslow suffered a stroke and offered the use of her property. The following year, in 1956, Harriet set aside some money for taxes and maintenance of the house. She wrote, in a letter to Lowell, “I left the life income to Elizabeth instead of to you so that if she outlives you she can have it.”
By the time Hardwick and Lowell arrived in Castine, most of the town’s official history was behind it: the colonial land grabs and raids in the seventeenth century; the bombardments during the Revolutionary War; the commercial boom in the nineteenth century, with lots of fish and salt and ship-building. In the 1950s, it was a town of fort ruins and white boxy federal-style houses, a harbor and lighthouse, a maritime academy and Fourth of July children’s parade. A calm New England enclave, with a population of under one thousand people and a steady summering crowd.
At half past three, I crossed a stream of water called the “British Canal” and arrived in Castine. On the edge of town there were stands of wiry trees and tall rough-cut grass. I pulled over at the top of Main Street to check the map on my phone. It was a long sloping descent through town, down to the harbor, lined with trim white houses and perfect lawns. The stage for Lowell’s “Skunk Hour.” You could see the steeple of the Trinitarian church, “the chalk-dry and spar spire,” further down the street.
The address Edith had given me was a house on School Street, on the perimeter of the town common. It had a picket fence and a brick walkway leading to the front door, American flag bunting hanging from the shutters, hedges and hydrangeas and tall trees—big shaggy firs and cypress—all over the lawn. It looked nothing like the house from the photograph.
I opened my suitcase in the backseat and fished out Ian Hamilton’s biography of Lowell. I thought I had flagged the page with the picture of the house, but instead I found a quotation starred with pencil: “I’m sitting in a little barn my Cousin Harriet made over and painted (against all town advice) with aluminum paint a sort of pewter color inside,” Lowell wrote to William Carlos Williams. “It’s right on the bay, which on one side looks like a print of Japan and on the other like a lake in Michigan as the rocky islands with pine trees ease off into birches and meadows.”
I got out of the car and looked around. There was no bay and no print of Japan and no rocky islands. I seemed to have the wrong address. Or maybe I had misunderstood. Maybe Edith had said she lived near the house of Hardwick and Lowell, not in the house itself.
The front door opened and Edith walked into the street with bare feet and red toenails. “How was the drive?” she asked, hugging me.
I tried to protest as she began hauling my suitcase toward the house, but she waved me away. We passed through the picket fence, and I started to feel off-balance: I saw the town spreading out around us, the quiet streets and lawns and New Englandish endurance, Edith, in front of me, who looked the same as when we were fifteen. I reached out my hand, as if to balance myself against a wall, and she opened the door of the house.
Inside, it was a different century. The rooms seemed shrunken, and the wood groaned when you leaned into it. We brought my bag upstairs to a narrow bedroom with long white wooden planks, the floor sloping toward the windows like a pinball machine.
Edith took me on a tour of the house, small rooms spilling into other small rooms, and I tried to think of a way to ask whether it was in fact the home of Hardwick and Lowell, or if there had been a misunderstanding. I let my knuckles graze the walls while Edith wasn’t looking, trying to imagine something lodged into the pores of the wood, anything—poetry, memory, history, pain.
I noticed the low ceiling in the kitchen with long dark beams, a pile of Lowell’s books on a table in the sitting room and a decorative element on the edge of the stairs, a winding thin black line that looked familiar. I saw it again in the living room, this time on the face of a book sitting on a coffee table. It was an old edition of The Oresteia of Aeschylus—Lowell’s modern retooling of English translations of The Oresteia. The turquoise cover had the same winding detail under the title.
We passed through the kitchen a second time, and Edith’s mother, Stefanie, was standing at the sink. She was also barefoot and wearing the same nail polish. It was striking how similar they were—the straight dark hair, the raised cheekbones.
Supposedly Edith looks identical to her mother when she first came to Castine in the 1970s, after Stefanie’s parents bought the house. “When I’m walking in town,” Edith said, “sometimes people stare at me. They think I’m her!”
Stefanie nodded. “It’s true,” she said. “I think you’ll see that time kind of stands still in Castine.”
This instantly reminded me of Hardwick: Time seems to hang in the air, thick, motionless. The stillness of the old, small village is complete, the rhythmical flow peculiar, as if repeating moments lived before, perhaps long ago, or by someone else.
“There’s an essay by Elizabeth Hardwick,” I said, “where she says something similar.”
“I heard you were interested in Elizabeth,” said Stefanie, casting a glance over at Edith.
“Yes, both Hardwick and Lowell—” I paused. “There’s actually a barn I was wondering about.”
“Well there are technically two barns,” Stefanie said. “There’s a barn connected to this house, which Harriet, his cousin, who owned the house originally, converted into a kind of summer room.” She gestured toward one side of the house. “It’s where they would entertain, and have friends over for dinner and drinks.”
She turned, squaring her shoulders with the coastline.
“The other barn is a separate building down by the water. It’s where Lowell would write during the day.”
“Oh, so this is the house,” I said, pointing to the floor, “the house where they lived?”
Hardwick and Lowell kept to a routine in Castine. Hardwick would stay at home to work, her desk overlooking a crab-apple tree, and Lowell would leave the house around 9:30 a.m. with his packed lunch—sometimes just pimento cheese. He would walk down Main Street, stop at the post office, gather the daily haul of letters, requests and books, and then head down to the barn on the water. Inside, there was a table, a chair, a typewriter and a cot stationed in front of the windows. He spent his days propped on an elbow—beds being his preferred work surface. He would eat peaches, sip coffee, smoke constantly; if he wasn’t drinking liquor, it was large quantities of Welch’s grape-juice concentrate, ginger ale or milk. He would stare at the white hairs on his chest as the tide rose outside his window, or entertain a visiting writer or friend, to exchange poems or talk. If it was too hot, he sat outside in the sweetgrass.
In the afternoons, there was tennis. Doubles for a few hours, every day, starting at four. Most of the letters Hardwick and Lowell wrote from Castine mention the tennis—the fun, the frequency, the quality of sport. There is a passage in Hardwick’s essay “In Maine” where she writes about a storm that swept into town one day, and the wind on the court becoming as “soft as water”:
It was like swimming to raise your arm to serve—and on and on we played, all of us drowned in the magic of the cool rushing wind and the heat of running. A peculiar happiness sometimes comes upon you in these northern places and you feel—ecstasy.
At night, they took baths, made drinks, had dinner, entertained guests in the converted barn and sat by the fire, Harriet Winslow’s old Magnavox playing Nadia Boulanger records. It was a recursive summer plot that made room for writing, diffusing the stress and heat of New York, assimilating it into the slower forces of poetry and prose. Lowell, in particular, felt that he could stave off his manic attacks with the consistency of the days, that he wouldn’t “boil over.”
I followed Edith and her mother as they walked from the kitchen into the connecting barn. A light-flushed room, everything white or clear. They had installed a rope swing from the hayloft and turned a sheet of glass into a makeshift ping-pong table. There were rusted bells and found wooden road signs hanging from the walls.
We paused in a small room on the way back to the kitchen. Stefanie said that Hardwick and Lowell’s daughter, Harriet, would play here with her long-haired guinea pigs while the adults were in the barn. We stood still in the passageway, in silence. I let my eyes wander the walls and furniture, and looked over to see Edith and Stefanie doing the same thing. We were all looking at the room but not, as if the objects in front of us were incidental to what we were seeing.
This gaze, I realized, was probably common in the house. What I couldn’t tell, and felt unprepared to ask, was whether they were imagining Hardwick and Lowell moving through the rooms, or if it was their own life they were seeing, or both at once, overlaid.
Stefanie walked up the stairs, Edith behind her, and we went into a room that had shelves with books and rows of pink lusterware pottery. There was a new hardback of Jia Tolentino’s Trick Mirror sitting on the desk.
Stefanie opened her hands toward the middle of the room, like she was unfurling a little cloth.
“This is probably where they slept,” she said. “It’s the master bedroom.”
I looked at Edith’s bed and walked over to the window. You could see the crab-apple tree, pale little fruits hanging from the branches. It was hard not to imagine Hardwick and Lowell here, night after night—talking and sleeping, the relationship slowly eroding, the sex. I tried to unimagine the sex.
marriage with its naked artifice;
two practiced animals, close to widower
I had no idea how their bodies moved in space. How it looked when she rolled over to turn off the light, or whether he slept on his stomach, or propped on his side. The more trivial the detail, the more out of reach it was, the more important it seemed.
It was the literary-tourist logic exerting itself. Cramped little circuits of desire and shame. I wanted to know what kinds of pillows they used, and how many, and just as much, I wanted to be absolved of a desire to know these things.
Back downstairs, Edith filled up two glasses of water and handed me one. We were standing in the kitchen when the front door opened. An older woman, who I recognized as Edith’s grandmother—the one who had purchased the house from Hardwick in the 1970s—walked into the sitting room with a group of people. It was unclear how she knew them, but it seemed natural in Castine to walk in and out of houses and to pay random visits. One of the men explained to us that he was interested in seeing the house because his mother, Eileen Simpson, was the first wife of John Berryman, the famous confessional poet, who was friends with Lowell.
By coincidence, I had read Simpson’s book, Poets in their Youth, a few weeks earlier on a recommendation. It is one of the better firsthand accounts of the wounded sense of genius and masculinity that throttled mid-century poets like Lowell and Berryman and Delmore Schwartz.
“Maybe you have my mother’s book?” the man said. “It’s called Poets in their Youth.”
“I’m not sure we have it,” Stefanie said. “But you’re welcome to look.” She pointed to the bookshelf in the sitting room.
I had a copy in my suitcase upstairs.
The man went over to the bookshelf and halfheartedly poked around, then joined the circle.
They had just come from the Blue Hill Fair, made famous by E. B. White, who used it as the basis for the county fair in Charlotte’s Web. There was a lull in the conversation and this man, Eileen Simpson’s son, started to tell an off-color joke that I couldn’t exactly follow, and it felt like we were all participating in a terrible one-act play where people of varying degrees of remote affiliation to literary greatness crowd into a room. The further the joke went, I began to have a series of second-order thoughts—i.e. “I am standing in the house of Elizabeth Hardwick and Robert Lowell, with a person who purchased the house from Hardwick, listening to the son of the first wife of John Berryman tell an off-color joke.” Edith leaned over and suggested we go outside for a walk.
In the summer of 1970, shortly after Lowell began seeing Caroline Blackwood, he was admitted to Greenways Nursing Home, in London’s St. John’s Wood. This time, the final manic episode was him locking Blackwood inside of her flat at Redcliffe Square for three days, refusing to let her leave or phone out.
Hardwick was planning to go up to Castine for the summer when she learned about the affair and his hospitalization. She wrote to Lowell at Greenways and tried to remind him of the life he was leaving behind: “Well, you are certainly not gone from here. Your red wool shirt, your black and white checked wool, your sneakers, your dungarees, your bed in the barn and up here, your field glasses, your old muddy boots…”
At the end of July, Hardwick flew to London. She had heard that Lowell was being allowed out of the hospital in his pajamas, and that he was going to pubs and stealing from people’s handbags. She booked a room at the Clive Hotel, near the hospital, and spent a week attending to him. One day, she wrote directly from the hotel:
Please don’t erase Harriet! A child can destroy herself over that, I get the feeling that with you she is like a cottage that once was near but has been lost to memory when a new building went up.
Are you prepared, happy to give us up for the rest of your life? … Do you remember Maine, the fire in School Street, friends, wine, music? Do you remember your barn & your seals & your long, lazy days?…
My heart is broken, but I must make a clean break. I am strong & still get joy out of life. I do not believe in destruction, though I am often wild.
Hardwick flew back to the United States and their marriage unraveled. Over the course of the next three years, Hardwick and Lowell divorced, Lowell married Blackwood, and Lowell started working on the unrhymed sonnets that would form The Dolphin.
It was scheduled to be published in the summer of 1973, and in May of that year, Hardwick wrote to Lowell, saying that she was selling the house on School Street and building out the barn on the water. “I said to someone the other day that Maine was precious to me, you, Cousin Harriet, poems, our Harriet as a little summer girl,” Hardwick writes, anticipating Lowell’s reservations about selling the house. “But I will not be dishonoring, erasing, you and Cousin H.”
Hardwick was now the legal owner of the Castine properties. Harriet Winslow (“Cousin Harriet”), who died in 1964, left both of the houses to Hardwick in her will, and Hardwick wanted to sell the house on School Street to cover the costs of renovating the barn, and also because the house had become a big expense to maintain. It was perpetually damp and cold, the basement flooded often, and the roof was in bad shape. But Hardwick needed Lowell’s signature to complete the sale, owing to an old Maine law, and Lowell resisted signing for weeks.
At first, Hardwick sympathized with him. “I feel a great deal about Maine,” she wrote, “but I know you feel many things in addition: the deprivation of the past, the idea that I have everything that belongs to you, money, houses, everything. You always felt very strongly about Castine, about its not being really mine—and I agree to that.”
Lowell felt that the sale of the house was “a kind of death.” He continued to resist signing, even after Hardwick went up to Castine and packed their things. “The house is empty. It took me nine, lonely, cold days, with bones and heart aching; all has gone to storage in Bangor for the year. Your eagle, your fish, your father’s pearl-handled sword, everything.”
On June 21st, The Dolphin was published, and Hardwick, hemorrhaging money on lawyers’ fees, worried that the buyers (Edith’s grandparents) would back out of the sale. She wrote to Lowell, who was now citing Caroline’s concerns as a justification for his not signing: “Your letter saying Caroline didn’t understand what she was signing away has driven me nearly to the brink of suicide. I have written, cabled, done all I can.”
When Hardwick finally read The Dolphin for the first time, in early July, Lowell had still not signed the deed, and reviews of the book were forthcoming. “I feel that our marriage has been a complete mistake from the beginning,” she wrote:
We have now gone down in history as a horridly angry and hateful couple. … I am near breakdown and also paranoid and frightened about what you may next have in store, such as madly using this letter. I do not wish to write you again. Your life is your own and has nothing to do with me.
On July 8th, Lowell signed the deed.
“I think of you all through these five sultry days, and haven’t called again lest I further trouble things,” he wrote. “I swear I never in all this business have wanted to hurt you—the very opposite.”
Lowell was aware that his poems would hurt Hardwick. He was not aware how much they would hurt her, or how withering the press would be. What could he do to make it right? His name, a signature. The house was not just a house, or even a writer’s house. It was a compensation for the injury of the poems.
I had trouble sleeping the first night. The house was, in fact, very damp and cold. That much had stayed the same. Even if the furniture was not the furniture, even if the shutters had been replaced and relacquered, the dampness was still there. It felt essential to the house, like the proportions of the rooms and the sloping floorboards.
For a moment, lying in bed, I thought that maybe I could intuit the shape of Hardwick and Lowell in the relationship between these things, between the dampness and the width of the room, between the slope of the floor and the light pitching down through the window. Maybe Hardwick, one night, had crawled out of bed, restless and thirsty, walked into this room, perceived these same relationships with her mind; if so, she would have used that same mind to produce a work of prose; and if I had read that work of prose, it was somewhere in my mind, which was now in bed, inside of the house, and thus inside of Hardwick’s mind itself.
This made no sense at all. The more I tried to think about Hardwick and Lowell, the more they receded.
In the morning, Edith and I took a pair of bikes from a shed in the backyard and rode through town. First down Court Street and out to Fort Madison, then to Dyce Head Lighthouse, and back to the harbor. There were sailboats moored across the bay, their masts pricking up. The water was intensely blue, and the sun bright, so much so that everything seemed overexposed and raw. We stopped at a seafood shack on the harbor and had lobster rolls for lunch.
On the way back to the house, I followed Edith up a quiet, empty road. Toward the top, I saw a row of tombstones and realized where we were. It was the setting for the two most famous stanzas of Lowell’s “Skunk Hour,” perhaps the two most famous stanzas of the confessional canon:
One dark night,
my Tudor Ford climbed the hill’s skull;
I watched for love-cars. Lights turned down,
they lay together, hull to hull,
where the graveyard shelves on the town. . . .
My mind’s not right.
A car radio bleats,
“Love, O careless Love. . . .” I hear
my ill-spirit sob in each blood cell,
as if my hand were at its throat. . . .
I myself am hell;
A mind lucidly writes its own breakage. This is part of the allure of the poem, the sense of confession. The term “confessional” was first bestowed on mid-century American poetry by M. L. Rosenthal, in a review of Lowell’s Life Studies, of which “Skunk Hour” is the final poem. It is often said that poets like Lowell and Plath and Sexton and Berryman do not actually confess. That they are not helpless spouts of emotion or autobiography. They bend life into art. They craft and mold their feelings into something controlled and greater.
I have never understood the appeal of this claim. Why are we so eager to rescue writers from their emotion? Why do effort and artifice necessarily improve the quality of art? It arrives in many ways.
“My sin (mistake?) was publishing,” Lowell wrote in a letter to Elizabeth Bishop. “I couldn’t bear to have my book (my life) wait
hidden inside me like a dead child.”
It was the late afternoon by the time we returned to the house. We retreated to our rooms, and I pulled out my notebook, crawled into bed and tried to gather the landscape. I imagined the inside of my skull painted like the ceiling of a church, with Castine’s whites and blues and greens, the low clouds and faded porch timber, the bay and the sky, the mantle of leaves on the trellis in the backyard, the house melting into the town, the town fading out off the coast.
When I woke up, it was still light. I went over to the window, barely awake, and saw Stefanie sitting in a lawn chair in the backyard, reading the copy of The Dolphin Letters I had lent her. It was strange—seeing her hold the book in the middle of the grass. The letters were on the property they had helped dispense with. The situation seemed abyssal and mirror-like. I placed my hand on the window and pinched the transom of the wood, probing its hardness.
Hardwick and Lowell had lived here. Not over there, or in the pages of a book, but in this house. They had sheltered and eroded, together, here. The house was a gift from Harriet Winslow, and one day a wound, and then a home for other lives, other parents and children, memories that lived alongside the old ones, stored in the white wood and damp air. You could feel it if you wanted.
“I have sold the big house in Maine and will make a new place to live, beginning with the old barn on the water,” Hardwick writes at the end of Sleepless Nights. “As for the other, sluffed-off house, I mourn and regret much. The nights long ago with H.W. and her worn recording of Alice Raveau in Gluck’s Orfeo. I hear the music, see H.W. very tall, old, with her stirring maidenly beauty. The smell of the leaves outside dripping rain, the fire alive, the bowls of nasturtiums everywhere, the orange Moroccan cloth hanging over the mantel. What a loss. … Well, we go from one graven image to the next and, say what you will, each house is a shrine.”
Photo credit: Postcard of the Hardwick-Lowell House. Courtesy of Edith and Stefanie Scheer Young.