Memories of West Street and Lepke

Robert Lowell

 
Only teaching on Tuesdays, book-worming
in pajamas fresh from the washer each morning,
I hog a whole house on Boston's
"hardly passionate Marlborough Street,"
where even the man
scavenging filth in the back alley trash cans,
has two children, a beach wagon, a helpmate,
and is "a young Republican."
I have a nine months' daughter,
young enough to be my granddaughter.
Like the sun she rises in her flame-flamingo infants' wear.
These are the tranquilized Fifties,
and I am forty.  Ought I to regret my seedtime?
I was a fire-breathing Catholic C.O.,
and made my manic statement,
telling off the state and president, and then
sat waiting sentence in the bull pen
beside a negro boy with curlicues
of marijuana in his hair.
Given a year,
I walked on the roof of the West Street Jail, a short
enclosure like my school soccer court,
and saw the Hudson River once a day
through sooty clothesline entanglements
and bleaching khaki tenements.
Strolling, I yammered metaphysics with Abramowitz,
a jaundice-yellow ("it's really tan")
and fly-weight pacifist,
so vegetarian,
he wore rope shoes and preferred fallen fruit.
He tried to convert Bioff and Brown,
the Hollywood pimps, to his diet.
Hairy, muscular, suburban,
wearing chocolate double-breasted suits,
they blew their tops and beat him black and blue.
I was so out of things, I'd never heard
of the Jehovah's Witnesses.
"Are you a C.O.?" I asked a fellow jailbird.
"No," he answered, "I'm a J.W."
He taught me the "hospital tuck,"
and pointed out the T-shirted back
of Murder Incorporated's Czar Lepke,
there piling towels on a rack,
or dawdling off to his little segregated cell full
of things forbidden to the common man:
a portable radio, a dresser, two toy American
flags tied together with a ribbon of Easter palm.
Flabby, bald, lobotomized,
he drifted in a sheepish calm,
where no agonizing reappraisal
jarred his concentration on the electric chair
hanging like an oasis in his air
of lost connections. . . .
 
From Selected Poems by Robert Lowell, published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc. Copyright © 1976, 1977 by Robert Lowell. Used by permission.

Poems by This Author

"To Speak of Woe That Is in Marriage" by Robert Lowell
The hot night makes us keep our bedroom windows open
Dolphin by Robert Lowell
My Dolphin, you only guide me by surprise,
Epilogue by Robert Lowell
Those blessèd structures, plot and rhyme--
For the Union Dead by Robert Lowell
The old South Boston Aquarium stands
History by Robert Lowell
History has to live with what was here,
Home After Three Months Away by Robert Lowell
Gone now the baby's nurse,
Homecoming by Robert Lowell
What was is . . . since 1930;
Man and Wife by Robert Lowell
Tamed by Miltown, we lie on Mother's bed;
Skunk Hour by Robert Lowell
Nautilus Island's hermit
The Drunken Fisherman by Robert Lowell
Wallowing in this bloody sty,
The Public Garden by Robert Lowell
The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket by Robert Lowell
A brackish reach of shoal off Madaket--
Waking in the Blue by Robert Lowell
The night attendant, a B.U. sophomore


Further Reading

Related Poems
Oracle
by Cate Marvin