'The Union Dead's' a rather special poem that - I found when I finished the autobiographical book Life Studies that I'd shot my wad and had nothing more to say and poems came very slowly - I did one poem about a drunkard, a sort of portrait sketch, and the only other poem I did that winter was 'For the Union Dead'. It grew out of three little poems of personal experience that never got under way. Then I was asked to read on a public occasion at the Boston Spring Festival, near the Boston Common and the Boston State House. Though I wasn't required to do an official occasional piece it seemed a possibility - it's the only time I've done that. Oddly ...
'The Union Dead's' a rather special poem that - I found when I finished the autobiographical book Life Studies that I'd shot my wad and had nothing more to say and poems came very slowly - I did one poem about a drunkard, a sort of portrait sketch, and the only other poem I did that winter was 'For the Union Dead'. It grew out of three little poems of personal experience that never got under way. Then I was asked to read on a public occasion at the Boston Spring Festival, near the Boston Common and the Boston State House. Though I wasn't required to do an official occasional piece it seemed a possibility - it's the only time I've done that. Oddly enough - and it took me...I think I began in January writing and I was still revising in the second week in June just before I read it and for a long time it seemed like a rather pompous occasional poem that didn't come to anything, and finally in the end the really sort of infinite work of cutting it and breaking it and changing it and so forth, it seemed to come off and to be something that a more private poem couldn't be. It was an interesting stylistic test - could you write...(it's in unrhymed, unscanned quatrains) a poem that would have the resonance and the sort of grandeur of a metrical poem that would compare with, say, 'The Quaker Graveyard', and yet be able to get in much more detail, be less on stilts and I think it kind of worked probably.
For the Union Dead
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 bless?d break.
The Aquarium is gone. Everywhere,
giant finned cars nose forward like fish;
a savage servility
slides by on grease.
Interviewer: Did you have Alan Tate’s ‘Confederate Dead Ode’ in mind when you wrote it or did you just change…you rather imply you changed the title…
Lowell: Well I remember we had arguments then…I have somewhat two minds about the Civil War – I wish it hadn’t been fought – but I know arguing with southerners I do sometimes say it matters that we were right. And it gets under your skin a little bit that there’s so much southern celebration of the Civil War and none in the North which lost as many men as the South did. I think our two poems reflect the difference – that it was a different war for the South, not a war of ideas and freeing the slaves – anything as abstract as the Union wouldn’t come into the southern war. It’s easier perhaps to write from the southern point of view. So a northern poem couldn’t be like Tate’s ‘Confederate Dead’, sort of musing on the heroic past – I think you’d have to bring in what the war was fought for and the meter…his is very…I’m crazy about his poem and it’s a very grand piece of sounding, very… – mine the trick was to make it look almost prosy then have it rise in places.
Interviewer: It has a sort of dying fall rhetoric doesn’t it – a splendid piece in its own way. But I can see you couldn’t very well go on to write another Union Dead.
from Collected Poems (Faber, 2003), by permission of the publishers, Faber & Faber and Farrar Straus & Giroux. Recording used by permission of the BBC.