One of my favorite poets is Robert Lowell and one of my favorite Robert Lowell lines isn’t from one of his poems at all. It’s from a letter he sent Elizabeth Bishop from a mental institution in 1958. “Talking about the past is like a cat’s trying to explain how it climbed down a ladder.”
It’s one of those lines that you read and then it gets lodged in your brain and sticks around long after you’ve forgotten the context. I must have read it in college and everything else wilted away but that one line hung around. I used to think about it all the time, by itself, not remembering many of the words that preceded it. I did vaguely recall that it was a letter in which Lowell was talking about progress he had made at McLane’s hospital. And, given that and the talents of a cat, I thought it was about how impossible it is to articulate your own innate talent for survival.
Then a few years ago I broke up with a girlfriend I was very much in love with. I had gotten myself into a total state of stress and thought our relationship was never going to work and ended it. Very soon after that I regretted it and set upon trying to win her back. But I had hurt her and I thought, I can’t think why, that what I needed to do was prove to her that the real me, the one sitting before her in a bar in Chinatown, was not the one who had acted so brashly and insanely months before. I was not making a lot of progress winning her over. Suddenly the Lowell line came back into my mind and it brought with it the context I had forgotten.
He was telling Bishop about the state of his relationship with his wife, the poet Elizabeth Hardwick. In an earlier letter he had suggested to Bishop that his marriage was terminal. That the relationship couldn’t be saved.
The full quote is: “Elizabeth and I are happily back together; I spend long weekends at home and will soon leave the hospital entirely. All the late froth and delirium have blown away. One is left strangely dumb, and talking about the past is like a cat’s trying to explain climbing down a ladder.”
It’s not about surviving, at least not forever. It’s about climbing down from a state of drama, where emotions swirl with catastrophe and combine into a sort of fatalism. Cats can climb. They’re very good at it. They can climb up and they can climb down. And they do. Humans can scale walls of emotion and mentalities. And we do. And, like the cat, when we find ourselves on the ground safe again, we can’t really tell you how the journey happened.
Lowell was bipolar and one of the motifs of his correspondence from McLane is his struggles to reconcile the person he is on the ground with the memories of the person he was on the roof. He would refer to the version of himself that was unwell or having an episode as “unreal.” As though there were a real Robert and that real Robert was the one talking to you now, “with no bravado or moodiness.” Not unlike how I tried to convince my ex-girlfriend that the real me was the sane and rational young man who loved her in that bar. But the truth is they’re all the real us. The cat is the cat at every height. Robert Lowell is Robert Lowell when he’s mad just as he’s Robert Lowell when he’s sane. It was me when I broke up with her. It was me when I wanted to get back together with her.
And what a terrible fact that is! We are ourselves when we are our worst selves just as when we are our best selves. And this isn’t true just of cats or manic depressive poets. It’s true of everyone, though our swerves are hopefully less severe than they were for Lowell. We are ourselves on a train and in the rain and with green eggs and ham and without. We are ourselves when we are optimistic and when we are pessimistic and when we are self-destructive and when we are filled with righteous intent. We contain myriads.
I was thinking about this over the weekend because of a thing I said in Friday’s post about how humans are changeable, constantly climbing up and down ladders, unable to explain how or why, locked away in ourselves.
Anyway, she never did get back together with me, which was very depressing for me at the time, but fair enough. In all honestly, rambling extemporaneously about Robert Lowell and cats was probably not the best shot to take.