Nigel contemplates another spell of boulder rolling
Previously in ENVOI
ROBERT LOWELL AND THE RING-TAILED LEMUR
Museums might have been created for the inveterately curious with time to spare rather than for students of all ages who can always find what they are seeking, if necessary behind closed doors.
I was in London to attend a concert at the Royal Festival Hall, always for a lad from the provinces a day out, when I decided to take a tube to the Natural History Museum, the best repository of all for roaming and gawking.
I was about thirty at the time and well into ten-year-old rebellious or madcap writing - Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs, that sort of wild side stuff - and even had a paperback of Alexander Trocchi's Cain's Book buried in my pocket. I had studied botany and zoology, which accounted for my being a decade out of date in fashionable reading matter. I still am.
One of the by-products of literary devotion is the ability to recognise your heroes from photographs. Even now, I score full marks on TV's University Challenge whenever contestants are required to identify artists, writers and composers from snapshots or portraits, being particularly good on what I suppose for me are only slightly older contemporaries, such as John Braine, Bridget Riley and Peter Maxwell Davies, but which wet-eared, narrowly-focused students who don't read never know from Adam and Eve.
In the same category as writers who rode boxcars, dossed on Amsterdam barges and took pot-shots at their wives was the poet Robert Lowell. I spotted him instantly, slumped before a family of small, stuffed marsupials and with - I believe but still cannot say for sure - a couple of kids in tow.
At that time I was little interested in biographies except those that peeked through fictional texts like pentimenti, the surfaces of old paintings on which artists limn their better ideas, so I didn't know why Lowell should have been in London. Moreover, 'celebrities', if he could be included as one, then had no reputation for punching strangers on the nose. So I asked him if he were Robert Lowell and he replied, "I am he."
Actually, 'hero' didn't apply to Lowell, whose reputation in the confessional verse I knew of suggested someone who might have punched you on the nose for no reason that he could explain. Mad as they come, as he himself admitted in the poem Skunk Hour ('no-one's here') and as the biographer Jeffrey Meyers was later to explore in a book that included kindred zanies, such as Theodore Roethke and John Berryman. But this must have been one of his happy hours, for he was a model of politeness.
I couldn't summon the nerve to ask him anything about his poetry and it didn't seem right to do so anyway, in a public place and at a time which was clearly off limits. However, I mumbled something about a museum's being a treasure-house of inspiring objects, and with this he concurred, adding, "But not necessarily the prosimian Lemuridae." My brow furrowed before he pointed, smiling, to the exhibition case in front of us. I noticed that his hair was unkempt and that his nose was covered in beads of sweat. Also, 'slumped' was the right description: at one point, one of the kids tripped over his outstretched legs. Before I'd rummaged in my memory for 'prosimian', he carried on unprompted.
"I always find that there's two-way traffic between external reality and what's inside here (he jabbed at his forehead). There's a bit of jostling but what's inside always wins. And you?"
This caught me unguarded. I told him I was a reader, not a writer.
"Are you hoping it will come?" he asked. I looked puzzled again (he must have thought this was idiotic). "The writing. Writers are just readers who want to get in on the act. Some of us do it fairly successfully and get paid."
I told him I'd never thought of it like that.
"But it's never the other way about," he continued. "Except when you've lost it, when it's gone. A reader is then a writer who has nothing more to give."
At this, his eyes, behind horn-rimmed glasses perched on the end of his nose, seemed to inflate and for a second he really did look manic, but the comparison I drew was with my Uncle Vernon, who suffered from thyroid trouble and whose eyes were always out on stalks, with independent lives of their own.
Then, unaccountably, he got up and walked off, without a farewell. Perhaps my adulating gaze and stupidity had become too much for him. But the curious thing was that the two kids, tomboy girls, remained playing tag in the exact same spot. I wandered away to a vantage point but he was nowhere to be seen. Were they the children of a friend or relative? Did they spend time there regularly? Did the little ones belong to someone else who'd gone to the loo and accidentally stumble over the limbs of a languorous poet?
With poetry, so much the art of the camera-shutter, it always seems as if the work and a picture of its maker are sufficient - or, if not a photograph, the briefest of pimpernel glimpses that nevertheless says enough.
I went back to the spot ten minutes later to find the girls gone, too. Now, 35 years later, I not so much recall meeting Robert Lowell as entertain the fancy of possibly having witnessed the figments of his imagination frolicking at his feet. I remember his words almost verbatim.