Although the much more famous and anthologized “Skunk Hour” is included in [from] Life Studies, my favorite poem in this section is “Terminal Days At Beverly Farms” because it seems to lie at the heart of this section focusing on Lowell’s family, particularly his father, but also his grandfather and his mother, and, finally, the narrator’s own life.
The poem is preceded by a much longer poem entitled “Commander Lowell 1887 – 1950” which contains the revealing lines “Smiling on all, Father was once successful enough to be lost/ in the mob of ruling-class Bostonians.” These poems, in their own inexplicable way, the same way life often fails to shed light on itself even while revealing its final secrets, provide a strange insight into a poem like “Walking in the Blue,” a poem which seems to take place in a “house for the “mentally ill.'”
TERMINAL DAYS AT BEVERLY FARMS
At Beverly Farms, a portly, uncomfortable boulder
bulked in the garden’s center
an irregular Japanese touch.
After his Bourbon “old fashioned,” Father,
bronzed, breezy, a shade too ruddy,
swayed as if on deck duty
under his six pointed star-lantern-
last July’s birthday present.
He smiled his oval Lowell smile,
he wore his cream gaberdine dinner-jacket,
and indigo cummerbund,
His head was efficient and hairless,
his newly dieted figure was vitally trim.
Father and mother moved to Beverly Farms
to be a two-minute walk from the station,
half an hour by train from the Boston doctors.
They had no sea-view,
but sky-blue tracks of the commuters’ railroad shone
like a double-barreled shotgun
through the scarlet late August sumac,
multiplying like cancer
at their garden’s border.
Father had had two coronaries.
He still treasured underhand economies,
but his best friend was his little black Chevy,
garaged like a superficial steer
wtih gilded hooves,
yet sensationally sober,
and with less side than an old dancing pump.
The local dealer, a “buccanneer,”
had been bribed a “king’s ransom”
to quickly deliver a car without chrome.
Each morning at eight-thirty,
inattentive and beaming,
loaded with his “calc” and “trig” books,
his clipper ship statistics,
and his ivory slide rule,
father stole off with the Chevie
to loaf in the Maritime Museum at Salem.
He called the curator
“the commander of the Swiss Navy.”
Father’s death was abrupt and unprotesting.
His vision was still twenty-twenty.
After a morning of anxious, repetitive smiling,
his last words to Mother were:
“I feel awful.”
There is something deeply dismaying in this father whose “figure was vitally trim” and spent the morning of his death in “anxious, repetive smiling,” all the time feeling “awful.”
It is a portrait of an ineffectual man so out of touch with his very self, so fascinated with an image of himself, that he never recognizes the spotlight of the train of history aimed at him “like a double-barreled shotgun,” approaching so fast that in the end his death is “abrupt and unprotesting.”
When death finally comes I won’t be greeting it with polite civility (my apologies to Emily). No, I’ll be raging, raging against the dying of the light, not standing around with my “cream gaberdine dinner-jacket,/
and indigo cummerbund sipping an “old-fashioned.”