Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Robert Lowell and McLean Hospital: Waking In The Blue

Robert Lowell, the noted poet, was hospitalized at McLean Hospital on and off for many years. When I worked on Bowditch Hall at McLean Hospital in the early 80's there was a framed copy of his poem "Waking In The Blue" hanging on the wall in our Staff Room. "Waking in the Blue" recounts Lowell's time as a patient on Bowditch Hall in the late 50's and 60's. Some years after I became aware of Bowditch's history I sent a letter commenting on the poem, and the poem itself to the then Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky. He put my letter and the poem in the first edition of his anthology "America's Favorite Poems. " Here it is:

" This poem is significant to me because it takes place at McLean Hospital, where I've worked since 1982. I run a couple of poetry groups for psychiatric patients. Every patient that I talk to can relate to Lowell's line ' each of us holds a locked razor.' The poem captures the privileged milieu of Brahmin mental patients at a very elite hospital in the 1950's. I am stunned by the contrast of the present environment. The poem presents men in their most vulnerable condition, despite all the patrician posturing and trappings." ( Doug Holder) p. 179.

Waking in the Blue
by Robert Lowell
The night attendant, a B.U. sophomore,
rouses from the mare's-nest of his drowsy head
propped on The Meaning of Meaning.
He catwalks down our corridor.
Azure day
makes my agonized blue window bleaker.
Crows maunder on the petrified fairway.
Absence! My hearts grows tense
as though a harpoon were sparring for the kill.
(This is the house for the "mentally ill.")
What use is my sense of humour?
I grin at Stanley, now sunk in his sixties,
once a Harvard all-American fullback,
(if such were possible!)
still hoarding the build of a boy in his twenties,
as he soaks, a ramrod
with a muscle of a seal
in his long tub,
vaguely urinous from the Victorian plumbing.
A kingly granite profile in a crimson gold-cap,
worn all day, all night,
he thinks only of his figure,
of slimming on sherbert and ginger ale--
more cut off from words than a seal.
This is the way day breaks in Bowditch Hall at McLean's;
the hooded night lights bring out "Bobbie,"
Porcellian '29,
a replica of Louis XVI
without the wig--
redolent and roly-poly as a sperm whale,
as he swashbuckles about in his birthday suit
and horses at chairs.
These victorious figures of bravado ossified young.
In between the limits of day,
hours and hours go by under the crew haircuts
and slightly too little nonsensical bachelor twinkle
of the Roman Catholic attendants.
(There are no Mayflower
screwballs in the Catholic Church.)
After a hearty New England breakfast,
I weigh two hundred pounds
this morning. Cock of the walk,
I strut in my turtle-necked French sailor's jersey
before the metal shaving mirrors,
and see the shaky future grow familiar
in the pinched, indigenous faces
of these thoroughbred mental cases,
twice my age and half my weight.
We are all old-timers,
each of us holds a locked razor.

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