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The World Becoming

"Notebook, 1967-68," by Robert Lowell. Farrar, Straus, Giroux, $6.

By Robin V. B. davis

THE WORLD becoming--Lowell sees the present (the scene of May--the contents of the president of Columbia's study as he re-enters with the police. De Gaulle, the New York intellectual, "this house of twenty-foot apartments. . . .the voices of its tutees, their fortissimo Figaro, sunk into dead brick") the just-dead friends and great, April, before summer, in summer, the old-dead and long-ago-great.

The book is a Life study--but a study which explores far beyond Lowell's personal circumference. In Notebook Lowell is a public poet. He writes: Of politicians and insects, "All excell, as if they were key-note speaker, first of the twenty first-ballerinas in the act, all original or at least in person. . ." Of Clytemnestra, "Orestes, the lord of murder and proportion, saw that the tips of her nipples had touched her toes--a population problem and bad art." Of civilization, power, and Caracas, "through another of our cities without a center, as hideous as Los Angeles, and with as many cars per head, and past the 20-foot neon sign for Coppertone on a Church. . .on to the White House of El Presidente Leoni, his small men with 18-inch repeating pistols. . .while we had champagne. . ." Lowell sees through to the surreal dimension, his own eye "sprouting bits of string gliding like dragonkites in the Chinese sky."

NOTEBOOK begins with poems to his daughter Harriet--throughout he invokes her, age 9, 10 1/2, 11, for what she can be, love, and know beyond him--"God as seaslug, God a queen with forty servants, God. . .she gave up--things whirl in the chainsaw bite of whatever squares the universe by name and number." Harriet--outside, in life, sometimes is able to see through "the fog" which her father like "the first philosopher. . .trying to pick up a car key clumsily opaques with his headlights." Harriet appears frequently in the poems--to clarify, identify, be, to be hoped for: Harriet growing up. The book ends with poems to Lowell's wife, Elizabeth, his foil and sharer.

Lowell set his task as the impact of a year's time, and his book is a service to the temperament of his age--a record, an essence, and a unit. Lowell says, "the poems in this book are written as one poem. . . .My plot rolls with the season."

The largeness of impulse--Lowell's ambition to respond to so many happenings--results in uneven inspiration. Some, the beautiful Father and Sons poem for Alan Tate, the Writers series, Caracas, some of the Dream poems, others--are among Lowell's most brilliant. The three poems to R.F.K. seem low-key and common at first-then resonant and vital. The Mexico series on the whole is mediocre--although it has brilliant lines and cadences. Lowell's use of the sonnet to frame his vision emphasizes the uneven inspiration. A few poems are written long to fulfill the form and must take all their life from one or two wonderful lines. Butt others are made taut and alive by their structure.

After a first reading, Notebook seems to need editing, but with re-reading the book's unevenness is less important. Perhaps the reader learns to use the book, to play with the order and ideas; or with the year in mind the quality and sense of each poem comes to mean the quality and sense of a moment, a day--some flat, banal, moody, hopeful, senseless, surreal, clear, brilliant. And Lowell has the license of the great poet to use dead moments in his designs. The images in Notebook circulate around the poet and his time--describing a curious age in sadness, in chaos, in revolution, and--if weary and bitter-in health, "unconquerable flux."

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