Sarah Luria

Associate Professor, Department of English


For the Union Dead

by Robert Lowell

Lowell's Reading of Poem (requires Real Player)
"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.
5         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 hands draw back. I often sigh still 
10      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 
15       as the 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 
20       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.
25      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 
30       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; 
35       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, 
40       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
           grow slimmer and younger each year- 
           wasp-waisted, the doze over muskets 
           and muse through their sideburns…
           Shaw’s father wanted no monument 
50       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; 
55       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, 
60       the drained faces of Negro school-children rise like balloons.
           Colonel Shaw 
           is riding on his bubble, 
           he waits 
           for the blesséd break.

65      The Aquarium is gone. Everywhere, 
           giant finned cars nose forward like fish; 
           a savage servility 
           slides by on grease.

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