old china doorknobs

Oh to break loose, like the chinook
salmon jumping and falling back,
nosing up to the impossible
stone and bone-crushing waterfall—
raw-jawed, weak fleshed there, stopped by ten
steps of the roaring ladder, and then
to clear the top on the last try,
alive enough to spawn and die.

Stop, back off. The salmon breaks
water, and now my body wakes
to feel the unpolluted joy
and criminal leisure of a boy—
no rainbow smashing a dry fly
in the white run is free as I,
here squatting like a dragon on
time’s hoard before the day’s begun!

Time to grub up and junk the year’s
output, a dead wood of dry verse:
dim confession, coy revelation,
liftings, listless self-imitation,
whole days when I could hardly speak,
came pluming home unshaven, weak
and willing to read anyone
things done before and better done.


Empty, irresolute, ashamed,
when the sacred texts are named,
I lie here on my bed apart,
and when I look into my heart,
I discover none of the great
subjects: death, friendship, love and hate—
only old china doorknobs, sad,
slight, useless things to calm the mad.

Oh to break loose now. All life’s grandeur
is something with a girl in summer…

Excerpts from Robert Lowell's 'Waking Early Sunday Morning' as originally published in the 8/5/1965 NYRB.

The stanzas beginning 'time to grub up' and 'empty, irresolute, ashamed' were rewritten into something else for the book version, but I love the bare directness of the original lines. I know the feeling of looking in and seeing doorknobs.