Mar. 4, 2004


by Robert Lowell

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Poem: "Water," by Robert Lowell, from Collected Poems (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).


It was a Maine lobster town--
each morning boatloads of hands
pushed off for granite
quarries on the islands,

and left dozens of bleak
white frame houses stuck
like oyster shells
on a hill of rock,

and below us, the sea lapped
the raw little match-stick
mazes of a weir,
where the fish for bait were trapped.

Remember? We sat on a slab of rock.
From this distance in time
it seems the color
of iris, rotting and turning purpler,

but it was only
the usual gray rock
turning the usual green
when drenched by the sea.

The sea drenched the rock
at our feet all day,
and kept tearing away
flake after flake.

One night you dreamed
you were a mermaid clinging to a wharf-pile,
and trying to pull
off the barnacles with your hands.

We wished our two souls
might return like gulls
to the rock. In the end,
the water was too cold for us.

Literary and Historical Notes:

On this day in 1952, Ernest Hemingway wrote a letter to his publisher, telling him that he'd finished his latest novel, The Old Man and the Sea. Hemingway's previous novel, Across the River and Into the Trees (1950), had gotten horrible reviews, and people were starting to think he was washed up. He was working on a huge novel that he called The Sea Book, and The Old Man and the Sea was originally written as an epilogue to the novel, but he thought it was good enough to publish by itself. In the letter to his publisher, Wallace Meyer, Hemingway wrote, "I know that it is the best I can write ever, for all of my life I think. . . . [It's] an epilogue to all my writing and what I have learned, or tried to learn, while writing and trying to live."

The Old Man and the Sea was published in a single edition of Life magazine, which sold over five million copies. It was also published as a book, which stayed at the top of the bestseller list for six months. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1953, and it was a big reason that Hemingway won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954.

It begins: "He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. In the first forty days a boy had been with him. . . . It made the boy sad to see the old man come in each day with his skiff empty and he always went down to help him carry either the coiled lines or the gaff and harpoon and the sail that was furled around the mast. The sail was patched with flour sacks and, furled, it looked like the flag of permanent defeat."

It's the birthday of crime novelist James Ellroy, born in Los Angeles (1948). He's best known for four novels about the Los Angeles crime scene in the 1940s and '50s, known as the "L.A. Quartet"—The Black Dahlia (1987), The Big Nowhere (1988), L.A. Confidential (1990) and White Jazz (1992). He grew up in Los Angeles, and his mother was murdered when he was ten years old. He has said that it was then that he began to think of Los Angeles as two separate cities—the glitzy "Outer L.A." that everyone sees, and a seamier "Secret L.A.", full of crime and violence and corruption. He started reading crime novels by authors like Dashiel Hammet and Raymond Chandler, and when he couldn't afford to buy any more, he would shoplift them. He got kicked out of school when he was seventeen, and fell into drug addiction and alcoholism. He lived on the street for years, stealing food from stores and sleeping in dumpsters. He continued to shoplift books, and at one point had a collection of more than two hundred crime novels.

In 1975, after going to the hospital for brain and lung problems, he decided to give up drugs and alcohol and begin writing. He got a job as a caddy at a fancy country club, and three years later he started writing a novel about country club caddies, a private investigator, and an alcoholic who is obsessed with 1940s Los Angeles. The novel became Brown's Requiem, which was published in 1981.

Ellroy began his "L.A. Quartet" series in 1987, with the publication of Black Dahlia, about the famous 1947 unresolved murder of a mysterious Los Angeles woman who liked to wear black dresses. The third novel in the series, L.A. Confidential, was made into a hugely successful movie in 1997.

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