My Last Afternoon With Uncle Devereux Winslow - Poem by Robert Lowell
1922: the stone porch of my Grandfather’s summer house
“I won’t go with you. I want to stay with Grandpa!”
That’s how I threw cold water
on my Mother and Father’s
watery martini pipe dreams at Sunday dinner.
... Fontainebleau, Mattapoisett, Puget Sound....
Nowhere was anywhere after a summer
at my Grandfather’s farm.
Diamond-pointed, athirst and Norman,
its alley of poplars
paraded from Grandmother’s rose garden
to a scary stand of virgin pine,
scrub, and paths forever pioneering.
One afternoon in 1922,
I sat on the stone porch, looking through
screens as black-grained as drifting coal.
clumped our Alpine, Edwardian cuckoo clock,
slung with strangled, wooden game.
Our farmer was cementing a root-house under the hill.
One of my hands was cool on a pile
of black earth, the other warm
on a pile of lime. All about me
were the works of my Grandfather’s hands:
snapshots of his Liberty Bell silver mine;
his high school at Stuttgart am Neckar;
stogie-brown beams; fools’-gold nuggets;
octagonal red tiles,
sweaty with a secret dank, crummy with ant-stale;
a Rocky Mountain chaise longue,
its legs, shellacked saplings.
A pastel-pale Huckleberry Finn
fished with a broom straw in a basin
hollowed out of a millstone.
Like my Grandfather, the décor
was manly, comfortable,
What were those sunflowers? Pumpkins floating shoulder-high?
It was sunset, Sadie and Nellie
bearing pitchers of ice-tea,
oranges, lemons, mint, and peppermints,
and the jug of shandygaff,
which Grandpa made by blending half and half
yeasty, wheezing homemade sarsaparilla with beer.
The farm, entitled Char-de-sa
in the Social Register,
was named for my Grandfather’s children:
Charlotte, Devereux, and Sarah.
No one had died there in my lifetime ...
Only Cinder, our Scottie puppy
paralyzed from gobbling toads.
I sat mixing black earth and lime.
I was five and a half.
My formal pearl gray shorts
had been worn for three minutes.
My perfection was the Olympian
poise of my models in the imperishable autumn
of Rogers Peet’s boys’ store below the State House
in Boston. Distorting drops of water
pinpricked my face in the basin’s mirror.
I was a stuffed toucan
with a bibulous, multicolored beak.
Up in the air
by the lakeview window in the billiards-room,
lurid in the doldrums of the sunset hour,
my Great Aunt Sarah
was learning Samson and Delilah.
She thundered on the keyboard of her dummy piano,
with gauze curtains like a boudoir table,
accordionlike yet soundless.
It had been bought to spare the nerves
of my Grandmother,
tone-deaf, quick as a cricket,
now needing a fourth for “Auction,”
and casting a thirsty eye
on Aunt Sarah, risen like the phoenix
from her bed of troublesome snacks and Tauchnitz classics.
Forty years earlier,
twenty, auburn headed,
grasshopper notes of genius!
Family gossip says Aunt Sarah
tilted her archaic Athenian nose
and jilted an Astor.
Each morning she practiced
on the grand piano at Symphony Hall,
deathlike in the off-season summer—
its naked Greek statues draped with purple
like the saints in Holy Week....
On the recital day, she failed to appear.
I picked with a clean finger nail at the blue anchor
on my sailor blouse washed white as a spinnaker.
What in the world was I wishing?
... A sail-colored horse browsing in the bullrushes ...
A fluff of the west wind puffing
my blouse, kiting me over our seven chimneys,
troubling the waters....
As small as sapphires were the ponds: Quittacus, Snippituit,
and Assawompset, halved by “the Island,”
where my Uncle’s duck blind
floated in a barrage of smoke-clouds.
stuck out like bundles of baby crow-bars.
A single sculler in a camouflaged kayak
was quacking to the decoys....
At the cabin between the waters,
the nearest windows were already boarded.
Uncle Devereux was closing camp for the winter.
As if posed for “the engagement photograph,”
he was wearing his severe
war-uniform of a volunteer Canadian officer.
Daylight from the doorway riddled his student posters,
tacked helter-skelter on walls as raw as a boardwalk.
Mr. Punch, a water melon in hockey tights,
was tossing off a decanter of Scotch.
La Belle France in a red, white and blue toga
was accepting the arm of her “protector,”
the ingenu and porcine Edward VII.
The pre-war music hall belles
had goose necks, glorious signatures, beauty-moles,
and coils of hair like rooster tails.
The finest poster was two or three young men in khaki kilts
being bushwhacked on the veldt—
They were almost life-size....
My Uncle was dying at twenty-nine.
“You are behaving like children,”
said my Grandfather,
when my Uncle and Aunt left their three baby daughters,
and sailed for Europe on a last honeymoon ...
I cowered in terror.
I wasn’t a child at all—
unseen and all-seeing, I was Agrippina
in the Golden House of Nero....
Near me was the white measuring-door
my Grandfather had penciled with my Uncle’s heights.
In 1911, he had stopped growing at just six feet.
While I sat on the tiles,
and dug at the anchor on my sailor blouse,
Uncle Devereux stood behind me.
He was as brushed as Bayard, our riding horse.
His face was putty.
His blue coat and white trousers
grew sharper and straighter.
His coat was a blue jay’s tail,
his trousers were solid cream from the top of the bottle.
He was animated, hierarchical,
like a ginger snap man in a clothes-press.
He was dying of the incurable Hodgkin’s disease....
My hands were warm, then cool, on the piles
of earth and lime,
a black pile and a white pile....
Uncle Devereux would blend to the one color.
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