Dislodge the house

I like a home with lots of windows.  I like to look outside.  I like outside, but I like to look outside even more.  I am a potted plant.

Lowell’s narrator in “Eye and Tooth” is, too.  He never goes outside, though he refers to things just outside, things that come inside his house and his body.

Nothing can dislodge
the house . . .

Of course, the house, we go on to learn, or the doorknob in the house, is where he lost his eye and his tooth, the former first figuratively and later literally, and the latter literally.

“Eye and Tooth” scales from body and its components (eye and tooth) to house and its components (doorknob and bathroom) to outside and its components (rain, roof, and hedge) so that the narrator never escapes.  Watch stanzas three through five in this nine-stanza poem:

Outside, the summer rain,
a simmer of rot and renewal,
fell in pinpricks.
Even new life is fuel.

My eyes throb.
Nothing can dislodge
the house with my first tooth
noosed to a knot in the doorknob.

Nothing can dislodge
the triangular blotch
of rot on the red roof,
a cedar hedge, or the shade of a hedge.

The only thing dislodged, after all, is the tooth.   Because the tooth is dislodged (executed, as it were, for the sin of the eye we learn about later), the house can’t be dislodged.  The moral impossibility is reinforced by the logical and ironic impossibility of dislodging a house, itself a lodging.

The house scales down to a blotch, suggesting sin and close in sound and sense to the earlier and later “rot” as well as the first stanza’s “unwashed goldfish globe.”  Wonderful assonance and consonance.  “Blotch” also re-shushes the “sh” and “dge” sounds in its stanza’s “dislodge,” “hedge,” and “shade.”

This blotch, this sin, is the poem’s nub.  Nothing dislodges the narrator’s guilt.

But the poet’s prerogative to scale up and down so is only acknowledged in that softening, dreamy transition, the final line in that fifth stanza:

a cedar hedge, or the shade of a hedge.

The “or” is the poem’s first direct acknowledgement of the poetic imagination and suggests the imagination’s complicity in the poem’s retribution.  But this softening, this movement from a hedge (itself only suggested by the cedar roof’s blotch) to only the hedge’s shade, also amounts to a three-way scale, and in that soft rush we move fully into the poetic imagination.  One senses night (outside), or a nap (inside), in which the objects inside and out may assert themselves more strongly.

And we’re not disappointed.  The imperial, ascetic hawk makes his appearance to quote, raven-like, the harrowing “eye for an eye” scripture.  But he’s not outside rapping on the narrator’s chamber door.  He’s only in the “birdbook there.”  (The birdbook is the Bible at some level.)  The hawk, which is the climax of the poem’s imagery and figurative language, presages the narrative climax, which is the boy’s illicit use of the house’s doorknob in the eighth stanza to spy on the ladies’ bodies.

This first “or” anticipates the only other “or,” which in the poem’s final stanza anchors a three-word summary of the earlier imagery: “waters or flames.”  The implacable “waters or flames” well summarizes, for instance, the poem’s third stanza:

Outside, the summer rain,
a simmer of rot and renewal,
fell in pinpricks.
Even new life is fuel.

But “waters or flames” compresses imagery into judgment, though the “or,” as opposed to an “and,” keeps the poem’s light touch and acknowledges, by echoing the first “or,” the role of poetic imagination in the narrator’s guilt and loss.

Because poetic imagination, and by extension the poem itself, is as complicit in the narrator’s moral and physical loss as the house and the world beyond it.

I’ve selected Robert Lowell’s “Eye and Tooth” for my celebration of SoloPoMo.

Poetry & prose

The self-absorbed speaker in Robert Lowell’s “Eye and Tooth” who can’t connect with his surroundings reminds me of the narrator in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.  Both narrators have poetic flights that fall into prosaic prose – a sort of never fully getting off the runway.  Prufrock’s attempts are based more on imagery and are more the product of an active imagination.  Eliot keeps up the meter even in the most prosaic expressions.  But Lowell collapses the meter to emphasize his narrator’s inability to get beyond himself.  Compare, for instance:

I grow old . . .  I grow old . . .
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Shall I part my hair behind?  Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.


Outside, the summer rain,
a simmer of rot and renewal,
fell in pinpricks.
Even new life is fuel.

My eyes throb.

I’ve read that Lowell is widely credited with making poetry personal again after the likes of Browning and Eliot focused on dramatic monologue.  I don’t see that clean of a break, though.  Four Quartets is as personal, in its way, as “Eye and Tooth” is.  And a poem’s narrator is never exactly the poet.

I’ve selected Robert Lowell’s “Eye and Tooth” for my celebration of SoloPoMo.

Line 1, part 2

I inherited my father’s sunny disposition, my mother frequently says.  Depressing things don’t depress me.  I tried sharing a recording of Faulkner’s short story “That Evening Sun” with Bethany, but she hated it, finding it too depressing.  A lot of people find most of Faulkner depressing, but I never would.

I’ve lived long enough to know that “Eye and Tooth” is not only about depression but that it is, to many – to most, maybe – in and of itself depressing.  But if you’re not subject to the black bile, you can find much beauty in depressing things.  Perhaps this explains the attraction between air and earth, between the sanguine and melancholic humors.  (Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin again!) Surely they see a completion in each other; surely they encounter a kind of wholeness together!

I just wish more people around me liked my poem.  (I can’t claim that anyone’s depressed around here.  And – I admit – you don’t have to be depressed or even given to a melancholic disposition to dislike depressing things.)  Oh, well.  I go around the house quoting parts of the poem, so people are bound not to hate every line equally.  I love saying, for instance, “I chain-smoked through the night, / learning to flinch / at the flash of the matchlight.”

(The narrator learns “to flinch at the flash of the matchlight” as a kind of penance for unflinchingly staring through a keyhole as a boy, “when the women’s white bodies flashed / in the bathroom.”  “Penance” is too strong a word, perhaps: his “learning” is hardly religious.  Instead, it may be at the outset the inevitable guilt he associates with his chain-smoking habit.  But isn’t that snatch of verse wonderful (“learning to flinch / at the flash of the matchlight”)? I mean, disassociate yourself from the poor wretch for a moment.)

Speaking of depression, we return to the first line:

My whole eye was sunset red,

Comparing his eye to the setting sun introduces a major contrast in the poem: interior vs. exterior.  The outside world is frequently referred to, but the narrator never escapes to it; instead, he posits his own experiences on it.  We are to understand through this that he never escapes himself.  His world – his reality – is his depression.

Depression seems to some who don’t suffer from it as solipsistic or even self-centered.  To suggest that his eye is the sun, even a setting sun!  It’s megalomania; it’s the manic side of manic depression.  But he’s no megalomaniac, and he’s not manic.

Let’s say a person going through depression sees a beautiful sunset, but the experience doesn’t lift his spirits as much as it lifts his friend’s.  His friend needn’t judge him: don’t we all tend to imprint every scene, even nature itself, with ourselves, even as we claim to experience it?

And isn’t poetry an imposition?  So much connects.  You could clone “Eye and Tooth” from any line of it, I think.  You can read a good poem back and forth and find symbiotic relationships among sound, rhythm, layout, and theme similar to the benefits that inure to the sea anemone from its relationships with the clownfish and single-cell green algae.  Or that inure to the sanguine from the melancholic.

I’ve selected Robert Lowell’s “Eye and Tooth” for my celebration of SoloPoMo.

Line 1, part 1

You could clone Robert Lowell’s “Eye and Tooth” from its first line:

My whole eye was sunset red,

For instance, the poem starts with the Trochaic meter it abandons and returns to throughout the poem.  It fluctuates between a traditional, carry-all-before-it meter and a prosy and truncated metrical collapse.  The poem’s Trochaic opening fits the meter and syllable count of Blake’s famous “Tyger, tyger, burning bright.”  But the meter begins to fail in the first stanza (“darkly / as through”), anticipating when we later learn that the narrator’s “eyes began to fail” from a moral basis when he was young.  There’s always a foreshortened line, a slant rhyme (the first stanza’s throbbed / globe, for instance), or an extra unstressed syllable to resist the meter and to put the breaks on any progress.

The first line contains examples of the two devices that will carry the poem aurally when the meter fails it: hard vowel contrasts and consonance / assonance “elbows.”

Hard vowels start here with the i – o – i of “My whole eye.”  And sunset red has both assonance (soft e sound) and consonance (the two s’s in “sunset”) – the first of the assonance / consonance elbows that keep the poem turning in on itself.

“Whole,” the poem’s second word, works on at least five levels.  We see the eye as a globe and not just as a surface – the white, the pupil, and the iris – that we might otherwise see.  “Sunset” reinforces the spherical, and so does “goldfish globe” three lines later.  These spheres anticipate the doorknob on which the poem’s theme of retribution turns: eye as a setting sun, eye as an unwashed goldfish globe, and eye as telescope.

“Whole” and “hole” are homonyms, and it’s a sphere’s hole – a keyhole – that gets the younger narrator in trouble later in the poem (and earlier in life).

“Whole” also keeps first line’s meter Trochaic, and it ties to the second line’s “old” with a near-rhyme.

“Whole eye” hints at the religious notion of eyes and sight, too, and Lowell later draws on some well-known biblical analogies in both the Old and New Testaments that use eyes and sight.  The King James refers over and over to Jesus making people physically “whole.”  And the whole eye, the single eye, of course, is a metaphor for something spiritual that I’ve never been able to pin down:

If therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light.

It’s precisely this moral cast of the eye that the poem addresses.

The first line’s notion of the narrator’s eye as a setting sun also introduces the motif of the narrator’s inability to get beyond his depression.  Line 1, part 2 is next.

I’ve selected Robert Lowell’s “Eye and Tooth” for my celebration of SoloPoMo.


It’s funny: some days every funny’s funny. I was so tickled by two last night that I cut them out and glued them in my journal. One of the strips struck me hard this morning after I’d slept off my first impression. Frame #1: A kid calmly rolls up his sleeves for his turn at show and tell. Frame #2: He puts his face in his hands, as if to prepare for some feat. Frame #3: He juggles his eyes and teeth. Frame #4: He’s sitting in the classroom corner wearing a dunce cap.

Rachel and Shai have taught me that part of celebrating week two of the Omer is examining boundaries. Some of my boundaries are my bedtime, my early morning time, and my exercise. I overthrew them all, pretty much, to get this site up this past month.  I do that every now and then.  I’m like Lio, dialing up my eyes and teeth if necessary to satisfy my urge to create and my perfectionism that joins it.

My creativity comes best as a fruit of cultivating my half-acre of spirit, soul, and body.  I’m happier that way.  When I go beyond myself, I’m deluding myself.

Personal relations, too. Two people have misunderstood me for some time, but I knew I could do nothing about it. Both came to me this past month and came away (I hope) with something new to think about. I had no choice but to be patient in both situations – to recognize boundaries in both situations; nevertheless, patience and an adherence to boundaries paid off.

I had two other situations in which my enthusiasm blinded me to boundaries and caused me some embarrassment over the past month.

I’m more conscious than ever of needing to pace myself for the future.  There’s a few things I’d like be in the position to do in a few years, and I’ll need good habits of sleep, diet, and exercise to lead a long life in which to do them.

Boundaries qua boundaries fight against the essence of creativity.  But, in another sense, are not creativity and boundaries the inspiration and expiration of a single pair of lungs?

Stay. Steady, and stay. The things I’d give my eyeteeth for aren’t that cheap.

I’ve selected Robert Lowell’s “Eye and Tooth” for my celebration of SoloPoMo.

Lowell never used eaves

Lowell never used eaves.

Nothing can dislodge
the triangular blotch
of rot on the red roof,
a cedar hedge, or the shade of a hedge.

No ease to the eye

“Eaves” sound like “ease”; eaves are overhanging roofs.  Maybe he put eaves in the white space, in my white space.

“Eaves” would have made an elbow of sound and sense.  It’s sound; makes sense.  We use sounds and looks the same way, metaphorically, I think.  But is there a difference between “sounds good” and “looks good”?  ”Sounds good” is signing off on a plan — still sounding things out — while “looks good” is inspecting the product, the plan’s execution. A time delay between looks and sounds, like a time delay between lightning and thunder.  (Though “looks good” could mean approval of a written plan or a set of blueprints, certainly.

My parents will have lived in my childhood home fifty years summer after next.  I remember my father carrying around those blueprints when I was four or five, and spreading them on the white metal kitchen table with those thin, corrugated, steel sides that reminded me of the old house’s gutters where the paint had flaked off.  A father at that age is all sound and sense.)

I’m getting a head start on SoloPoMo, using some material I posted on an obscure WordPress.com blog while I mulled over how to redo my blog.   I’ve selected Robert Lowell’s “Eye and Tooth” for my celebration of SoloPoMo.

I come to the edge

I come to the edge of things and then back off.

I’d like to buy that green house in Bluemont.  I just see us there.  But certain things would be inpractical, and it would be more upkeep than here, probably.  Then again, I’m tired of suburbia’s good life.

I am tired.  Everyone’s tired of my turmoil.

“Eye and Tooth” never gets anywhere.  That’s the point.  Lowell goes from past to present tense, but it’s present tense when he has the childhood recollection that precedes the final stanza.

I’d like to start voys.us, but it’s so much work.  Yet I’ve pushed right up to the edge twice now.

It’s fun to work on.  Maybe I should keep pretending even when it’s live.  That was my approach to slow reads, after all.

Backing off isn’t like me twenty or even twelve or ten years ago. Is it my age, or is the timing not right?  A different conception of time now, maybe.  Maybe I’m play-acting for when we’ll be empty-nesters four or five years from now.

I think I’m coming to the end of something, and these are the birth pangs of something new.  Complicated by the fact that I’m past menopause.

I’m getting a head start on SoloPoMo, using some material I posted on an obscure WordPress.com blog while I mulled over how to redo my blog.   I’ve selected Robert Lowell’s “Eye and Tooth” for my own celebration of SoloPoMo.

Other elbows

Other elbows or triangles or rummy cards (assonance and consonance shared in at least a trio of words or syllables) in Lowell’s “Eye and Tooth”:

saw things darkly

flinch / at the flash of the matchlight

a simmer of rot and renewal

in pinpricks

tooth / noosed in a knot to the doorknob

rot on the red roof

sharp-shinned hawk

hawk in the birdbook

No ease for the boy at the keyhole

when the women’s

bodies flashed / in the bathroom

And some of the elbows are eye candy only, contradicting the ear:

tooth / noosed in a knot in the doorknob  [the oo]

No ease from the eye  [the two e’s in both “ease” and  “eye”]

Couldn’t memorize it.  So I re-memorized a Charles Wright poem from last year for our recital.  You read Lowell silently with your lips moving, but you quote Wright at anything — a shower head, a flock of pigeons, a bad memory.  If you say Wright’s stuff in conversation, people might not realize you’re quoting a poem, but they’ll know you’re being arch, anyway.

I’m getting a head start on SoloPoMo, using some material I posted on an obscure WordPress.com blog while I mulled over how to redo my blog.   I’ve selected Robert Lowell’s “Eye and Tooth” for my own celebration of SoloPoMo.