The Power of the Broken Pattern in Robert Lowell’s “Father’s Bedroom”

Robert Lowell’s poem “Father’s Bedroom,” stands out in Life Studies because it separates from his usual techniques and uses the break from habit to his advantage. “Father’s Bedroom” is a poem made up of concentrated images without exposition on the part of the speaker. The poem opens:

In my father’s bedroom:
blue threads as thin
as pen-writing on the bedspread,
blue dots on the curtains,
a blue kimono,
Chinese sandals with blue plush straps.

This first sentence immediately grabs attention because the reader has come to expect explication, but the sentence is built on brief language and images alone. Lowell has, up to now in the book, used titles as anchors, grounding the reader immediately, which hasn’t changed. Lowell has begun his poem with a description. From it we glean that the speaker’s father has an interest in Chinese culture, and has left blue marks around the room. Lowell also, at this point, has not used word repetition this way. He has used the word ‘blue’ four times in one sentence. After having read section two of Life Studies, “91 Revere Street,” the reader knows the fate of Lowell’s father’s career in China. But reading this poem alone, the blatant repetition sets the reader up in a serene and odd setting that suggests sadness.

The description of the setting continues to bring out the mood and personality of the speaker and the father. The poem continues, “The broad-planked floor / had a sand-papered neatness.” Again, the images provide another clue about the father’s personality. Not only is the floor neat, but actively neat in a very deliberate way, suggested by the “sand-papered” adjective. The next sentence of the poem brings in the turn in which more is revealed:

The clear glass bed-lamp
with a white doily shade
was still raised a few
inches by resting on volume two
of Lafcadio Hearn’s
Glimpses of unfamiliar Japan.
Its warped olive cover
was punished like rhinoceros hide.

Through the description, we know that this is not an unfamiliar sight. By adding in the word “still,” Lowell has cued us that this book has been there a long time. The word also adds a note of nostalgia to the speaker’s tone. The wear-and-tear on the cover denotes long use. The book’s title also informs the reader that the Father’s interest went beyond China to other parts of Asia. The part that really stood out, though, was Lowell’s ending:

In the flyleaf:
“Robbie from Mother.”
Years later in the same hand:
“This book has had hard usage
on the Yangtze River, China.
It was left under an open
porthole in a storm.”

This ending is different for Lowell because he has still refrained from explanation. He has stated matter-of-factly what was written on the inside of the book, and left the description to speak for itself. He didn’t write, “His mother wrote on the inside, ‘Robbie from mother.’” The reader is left to make up his or her own mind as to what the written interaction meant.

An example of what the reader expects by now of Lowell is found in “For George Santayana.” The second stanza describes where Santayana was buried:

Lying outside the consecrated ground
forever now, you smile
like Ser Brunetto running for the green
cloth at Verona – not like one
who loses, but like one who’d won…
as if your long pursuit of Socrates’
demon, man-slaying Alcibiades,
the demon of philosophy, at last changed
those fleeting virgins into friendly laurel trees
at Santo Stefano Rotondo, when you died
near ninety,
still unbelieving, unconfessed and unreceived,
true to your boyish shyness of the Bride.

Here, the speaker gives facts and impressions. In “Father’s Bedroom,” he doesn’t even say outright that the father has died. He begins the stanza with the detail that he is buried off of consecrated ground, much like the opening of “Father’s Bedroom,” in which we are given the setting. But in “Father’s Bedroom,” we are not given, as we are in “For George Santayana,” what the detail means in context of the speaker’s and the subject’s life.

Both are strong poems, but “Father’s Bedroom” stands out in the context of Lowell’s other poems because of the departure from his norm.

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