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This review is taken from PN Review 69, Volume 16 Number 1, September - October 1989.

THE SURVIVOR'S ART Robert Lowell, Collected Prose, edited by Robert Giroux (Faber & Faber) £17.50

This is, for the most part, Lowell sunny-side-up - relaxed, generous, authoritative - and after Ian Hamilton's reductive biography, in which the conscientious external record of a difficult life failed to do full justice to its subject, it is good to be reminded of Lowell's essential sanity and discriminating intelligence. Nevertheless, given the manifest strength of Lowell's poetic achievement, I found this volume perhaps inevitably disappointing, a useful appendix to the poetry rather than a major extension of the oeuvre.

Among the miscellaneous contents, the exception, and the editor's major find, is 'Near the Unbalanced Aquarium', the autobiographical fragment that concludes the collection. Cross-cutting between the Payne-Whitney clinic, where Lowell is interned in a mood "tireless, madly sanguine, menaced, and menacing", and memories of childhood and his parents' deaths, the prose here balances a cool, obsessive objectivity against the threat of loss, death, implosion. In the two other autobiographical pieces, 'Antebellum Boston' and the more familiar '91 Revere Street', the stakes are lower and the tension slacker; although both are convincing in their recall of a child's sensitivity to objects and moods. Lowell here is less vulnerable, protected by his adult wit and ironic analysis: "Boston and my grandfather proudly worked at lagging behind the fashions, a precise and mysterious degree of lagging, just as difficult to comprehend as the latest fashion itself."

Part Two of this volume comprises essays on general themes and dead authors (Ovid, Hopkins), and includes an essay written at the ...


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