“New Year’s Day” by Robert Lowell (with special free associative bonus)
Okay, it’s almost 3PM now, so I guess I better start pulling it together. The passed-out girl is officially getting up off the picnic table, and trying to figure out where she threw her top. A week or so ago I was buying a book for a friend on Amazon, and figured what I always figure when I buy from Amazon, which is that I should put the money I was going to spend on shipping charges into another purchase, because once you nudge up to $25 the shipping becomes free. So which book?
I have this old copy of two of Robert Lowell’s books in one edition (Life Studies + For the Union Dead). It was a used book when I bought it, as an undergrad (assigned reading in a poetry workshop run by William Logan, which is itself a story for another day), and it has all of someone else’s notes and scribblings plus my own (sample: “metonymy- part for whole”). I’d guess I probably read less than half of it for the class, and then didn’t think about it much after, but for some reason I’ve found myself coming back to it and sort of trying to investigate or whatever, and just being really intrigued by the whole thing.
So back to Amazon- I decided to go all-in on Lowell and bought myself The Collected Poems of Robert Lowell. I’m working my way through his first book, Lord Weary’s Castle, which it turns out is named for a character in an ancient and wonderful folk ballad about revenge-murder called “Bo Lamkin” which I have often myself considered referencing or adapting or somehow using in my own poetry/fiction/other. (Good to know it’s been taken care of already.) So then this morning I opened the book up and the first poem I came to was “New Year’s Day.” This isn’t that great of a story, I guess, but the point is that the whole thing makes me feel “on the right track.” Okay, you probably want your poem now. Here it is:
“New Year’s Day”
Again and then again . . . the year is born
To ice and death, and it will never do
To skulk behind storm-windows by the stove
To hear the postgirl sounding her French horn
When the thin tidal ice is wearing through.
Here is the understanding not to love
Our neighbor, or tomorrow that will sieve
Our resolutions. While we live, we live
To snuff the smoke of victims. In the snow
The kitten heaved its hindlegs, as if fouled,
And died. We bent it in a Christmas box
And scattered blazing weeds to scare the crow
Until the snake-tailed sea-winds coughed and howled
For alms outside the church whose double locks
Wait for St. Peter, the distorted key.
Under St. Peter’s bell the parish sea
Swells with its smelt into the burlap shack
Where Joseph plucks his hand-lines like a harp,
And hears the fearful Puer natus est
Of Circumcision, and relives the wrack
And howls of Jesus whom he holds. How sharp
The burden of the Law before the beast:
Time and the grindstone and the knife of God.
The Child is born in blood, O child of blood.
*********SPECIAL FREE ASSOCIATIVE BONUS***************
Well there are a million version of “Bo Lamkin,” but one of the more famous ones is by a guy named Frank Proffitt, a legendary folk singer, notable for–among other things–teaching “The Ballad of Tom Dooley” to The Kingston Trio. I can’t find any video of Frank Proffitt himself, or any recording of “Bo Lamkin” by anyone for that matter, but here’s Pete Seeger and Frank Warner doing “Tom Dooley” on Seeger’s old Rainbow Quest show. And here’s the first version of the song I ever heard, by Doc Watson. And the Kingston Trio version, which is probably the most famous one, though to my mind the weakest of the three. And while we’re at it, here’s Jean Ritchie and Mike Seeger–two of my all-time favorite folk musicians, or maybe just musicians period–singing and playing “Uncle Joe” with some other guy, on Jean’s front porch. And here’s just Mike, playing “Darling Cory” at that same session. “Darling Cory” is a version of a song that’s also known as “Little Maggie.” I’ve been lucky enough to see Ralph actually play this in concert. In this video, he teaches you how to play “Little Maggie.”