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The Little Shove

In this summer of profound discontent American poet Robert Lowell (1917 to 1977) ponders our desires in his poem, “July in Washington” –  

The stiff spokes of this wheel
touch the sore spots of the earth.

On the Potomac, swan-white
power launches keep breasting the sulphurous wave.

Otters slide and dive and slick back their hair,
raccoons clean their meat in the creek.

On the circles, green statues ride like South American
liberators above the breeding vegetation—

prongs and spearheads of some equatorial
backland that will inherit the globe.

The elect, the elected . . . they come here bright as dimes,
and die disheveled and soft.

We cannot name their names, or number their dates—
circle on circle, like rings on a tree—

but we wish the river had another shore,
some further range of delectable mountains,

distant hills powdered blue as a girl's eyelid.
It seems the least little shove would land us there,

that only the slightest repugnance of our bodies
we no longer control could drag us back.


On first reading Lowell provides a calming, restful antidote to the discordant dramas taking place in Cleveland and Philadelphia this summer with their grand promises offering only the thinnest veneers over self-absorption and ambition.  Swan white power launches, otters, raccoons, sturdy green statues testify to daily rhythms that defy Washington’s sultry, overheated intrigue.  Poetry reminds us of what POLITICO fails to see.  And yet, sharp disappointment remains where across the globe the sore spots from Baton Rouge and Dallas to Palestine and Iraq wait in vain for America’s salve, prodded instead but by stiff imperial and xenophobic spokes, and the elect are, more often than not, dimes turned disheveled and soft. 

The poet moves between romantic yearning and rugged hope – “we wish the river had another shore, some further range. . . ,” as if a wilderness still offered fresh beginnings or perhaps a beckoning mountain range might provide new vantage points from which to glimpse and claim our public responsibilities.  One stirs remembrance of generative myths, the other grounds action beyond calculating today’s advantage.  This poetry offers neither program nor prescription, but rather invites musings deeper than CNN’s endless blather.  Here we touch – again? – a civic and religious spirituality that just might be the little shove beyond the once fresh Potomac, Cuyahoga, and Schuylkill, turned this July into sulphurous and stagnant swamps.

                  John H. Thomas

                  July 21, 2016


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