“Back and forth, back and forth
goes the tock, tock, tock
of the orange, bland, ambassadorial
face of the moon
on the grandfather clock.”
These are the opening lines of Robert Lowell’s poem FALL 1961. Anyone who has stood in a hallway as a child and watched and listened to the old grandfather clock understands the image.
For a child a grandfather clock is a majestic tower. Its precise movements and intricate pieces stir the imagination with flights of fantasy—childhood lore of mystical lands.
For adults the “tock, tock, tock” is a constant reminder that time is proceeding. There’s nothing that can be done to delay or hasten the hands on the grandfather clock.
Lowell continues with the second verse:
“All autumn, the chafe and jar
of nuclear war;
we have talked our extinction to death.
I swim like a minnow
behind my studio window.”
Autumn is a prelude to winter. Nuclear war would have ushered in a nuclear winter from which few would have survived.
Extinction of a species is always a tragic occurrence on this planet traversing the cosmos. Unlike animals humans can ponder, plan and carry out mass destruction.
Like the minnow looking out of the studio glass life rushes on. Like a minnow many humans feel like fishing bait dangling on a hook as they are tossed out into the sea to be the lure of destruction for the unsuspecting fellow just looking for lunch.
In verse three:
“Our end drifts nearer,
the moon lifts,
radiant with terror.
is a diver under a glass bell.”
For Lowell the growing tension between the USA and the Soviet Union signaled a terror which could not be fathomed by the mind. A glass bell may provide temporary air with its apparent view of the sea, but like all objects the glass would crack with pressure.
A new President, John F. Kennedy, and an old Communist, Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev, played a dangerous game of Russian chess or Russian roulette. Adding to the mix was the new leader of Cuba, Fidel Castro, who decided to toss his fate with the Soviet east winds.
The growing tension in Berlin was like an off Broadway play waiting for its chance to play in theatre row. A small country, South Vietnam, which most people never heard of, was being stocked with young boys and men for a conflict of wills. It would leave a bloody wound for years to come and many mourners for those youth who paid for the drama with their precious blood.
In verse four:
“A father’s no shield
for his child.
We are like a lot of wild
spiders crying together,
but without tears.”
A father’s instinct is to provide and protect his children. A nuclear blast and fallout offered a paradigm shift in which protection was an illusion, a deadly fallacy.
The reality of the hopelessness of protection caused parents to huddle like arthropods. In private they had cried their river of tears, but they reached a point where the tear wells of the souls were as dry as the Sahara.
In verse five:
“Nature holds up a mirror.
One swallow makes a summer.
It’s easy to tick
off the minutes,
but the clockhands stick.”
The natural cycles continued as humans played games of extinction. For the fauna of earth a ticking clock holds no meaning in their world view. Only humans are governed by hands on a face. When the moving hand stalls, time continues as the human face worries about the eventuality of death.
In the final verse:
“Back and forth!
Back and forth, back and forth –
my one point of rest
is the orange and black
oriole’s swinging nest!”
Orioles are beautiful, shy, and avoid public appearances as much as possible, but their vocal choruses are discordant and irritating. We return to the grandfather clock which has continued its time march as we wandered in the dark shadows of a world gone mad with the power of creation.
For Robert Lowell the world was a boiling cauldron with a tight lid. The fires under the pot were stoked with great fury by the two greatest nations on earth.
In 2014 we cannot sense the apprehension in the air which he breathed day and night. Those days were troubling nightmarish times from which awakening was a gamble to discover that one’s roulette chips had no value on the casino floor.
Games of chance with red phones and buttons on the desks were deadly dice rolls. The reality of snake eyes on the global table harkened back to the serpent in the mythical apple tree where the games of death began.
Poets see the world in a different frame of reality. Sometimes, like Robert Lowell, the reality of the world without the frames is expressed in the words on the written page which touch current realities like the night tides.
G. D. Williams ©2014
Robert Lowell (March 1, 1917 – September 12, 1977)