Robert Lowell's Lightness
A daughter considers her father's lifelong friendship with the poet he once called "the most unlovable man ever".
by Diantha Parker
Robert Lowell with Frank Parker
I have only one memory of meeting Robert Lowell, though I'm told he visited my childhood home a lot. Lowell (or Cal, as he was known in our house) and my father, Frank Parker, were close friends. My father made most of the images that illustrate Lowell's books: theirs was a word and picture collaboration they began as teenagers.
In my only extant memory, Cal has come for dinner and is sitting on our hard bottle-green sofa, talking to my father. I am four. Lamplight shines on Cal's messy hair and reflects off his glasses so I can't see his eyes. I am cutting squares of paper from a puzzle in a kids' magazine with safety scissors, and my father asks me to show the pieces to our guest. I bring them over in handfuls, which he accepts with grave interest.
This is what I remember. What I now know is that I was a year younger than his son, whom I played with a few times, and more than a decade younger than his older daughter. He and my father had both had late second families. On this evening they were men near 60 who'd just seen out the toddler years again, creakier but hopefully wiser.
Almost 35 years have passed since then, and my career has taken me pretty far from poetry and even painting. Yet: I am the voice that introduces the Poetry Foundation's Essential American Poet podcasts, so I've been crossing paths with Lowell again.
* * *
Lowell and my father met at St. Mark's School in Southborough, Massachusetts (class of '35). It was here that Lowell got his nickname "Cal," a shortened version of both Caligula (the despised Roman emperor) and Caliban (the monster of The Tempest). My father always described his best friend as someone other boys seemed instinctively to shun. Watching my father attempt to explain this on tape--in an early 1980s interview on British television--makes me anxious. As a broadcaster I feel for the host, facing a source who speaks in elliptical metaphors. As the source's daughter I think: Oh no. But he pulls it off.
"Can you imagine," he says, looking brightly at the interviewer, "have you ever seen, um, those drawings by patients where there's sort of a long barrack room with a figure in the end, sort of--and then it's darkened? And the devil and so on. . . ." And here my father waves his fingers quickly from side to side, as though putting in the intense cross-hatching he used in most of his own drawings.
"That's rather what Cal was like at St. Mark's," he says, leaning forward. "There was a darkness wherever he went."
The two recognized something in one another. Photos from this era show a brooding Cal, long limbs confined in his suits, while my father sports Alfred E. Newman ears and shredded, formerly white Keds. Here they are, unsmiling, in the staff photo of the Vindex, the St. Mark's magazine. (Cal was associate editor, my father art editor.) Here they are looking semi-hale as counselors at Brantwood Camp, a New Hampshire retreat that St. Mark's ran for underprivileged boys.
In this black-and-white snapshot, they are a symmetrical but opposite study of darkness and light. Now Cal wears the dingy Keds, paired with a dark shirt and a pensive downward gaze. Next to Cal's washed-out sneakers, Dad's feet appear to swelter in inky leather boots. But his shirt is pale--and a striped sweater drapes his shoulders with incongruous Preppy Handbook ease. In this moment, as throughout their lives, it's in my father that the lightness dominates. Here it's his face that's raised toward the camera, squinting with sunlight or pique or both, and he is speaking. He is looking out for both of them.
My father appears again and again this way in articles and books about Lowell and in letters from Lowell and others: somehow present for moments of transformation, danger, and happiness. Dad and their friend Blair Clark accompanied Lowell to Nantucket in 1935 to form their three-person crucible of an art camp. Dad was best man at Lowell's wedding to Elizabeth Hardwick. He also visited Lowell at McLean, the psychiatric hospital featured in "Waking in the Blue," and declined--as gently and respectfully as possible--when his friend pressed him to sniff his pajamas: to see if Dad, too, could smell the sulphur Cal was sure was emanating from him--"the brimstone of Hell," as my father put it to me.
This symmetry lasted their whole lives. Dad was a pallbearer at Lowell's funeral. And when my father died five years ago, Lowell was in the headline of his obituary.