A peculiarly fascinating volume containing hundreds of letters between poet Robert Lowell (1917-1977) and his estranged wife, novelist and critic Elizabeth Hardwick (1915-2007).
Beginning in 1970, Lowell was living in England, where he met and later married his third wife, Caroline Blackwood. Hardwick was living in New York with their teenage daughter, Harriet, during the school year and on the coast of Maine during the summer. This is a long, lush, and impeccably footnoted volume, and yet some of the most intriguing action happens between the lines. Poet Hamilton (English/Barnard Coll.; Corridor, 2014, etc.), who also edited The Letters of Robert Lowell (2005), sets up the book with a well-informed section of biographical context and a chronology covering both the two writers and the broader political arena. As a result, before the exchange of letters begins, readers knows what Hardwick doesn't: that Lowell, playfully depicting his time in England and dithering about when he will return to the States, is already deep in a relationship with Blackwood. This quality gives the letters the sometimes-voyeuristic thrill of watching a slow motion train wreck. As Hardwick gains awareness, the dynamic between the two becomes apparent: Hardwick, forced to be the practical one, dealt with Harriet's daily life and begged Lowell to pay his taxes while Lowell, frequently hospitalized for bipolar disorder, wrote whimsical letters to Harriet and focused on his own internal feelings. All the while, they exchanged their thoughts about their work and their reading. In addition to the marital betrayal, the volume covers another, more insidious one: Lowell, writing the confessional volume of poetry called The Dolphin, appropriated and changed lines from Hardwick's letters to create a series of poems about his estrangement from her and love for Blackwood. The book includes not just Hardwick's shocked responses to the poems, but also the more outraged reactions of poets Adrienne Rich, who broke off her friendship with Lowell, and Elizabeth Bishop, who famously told Lowell that “art just isn't worth that much.”
A devastating examination of the limits of the written word.