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The Lost World by Randall Jarrell, with a foreword by Mary Jarrell and an appreciation by Robert Lowell (Collier: $7.95; 88 pp.)

February 02, 1986|John Espey | Espey is emeritus professor of Emglish at UCLA

The poems in "The Lost World," Randall Jarrell's final book of poetry, were written in 1963 and form a self-contained unit. During the preceding year, Jarrell had been unable to write any poetry; in 1964, he was in depression. The book was published in March, 1965. In October of that year, Jarrell was struck by a car and killed.

In 1963, that last productive year, he had been triggered into writing by receiving from his mother an old Christmas-card box that contained all the letters he had written her during his 1926 stay in Los Angeles with his grandparents and great-grandmother. They had all lived in a house on a street off Sunset Boulevard with grounds large enough to have eucalyptus trees and a tree house in which the 12-year-old Randall read Dumas and other authors whose books he could get from the public library on his own personal card. In his room, he had his own headphones connected to a crystal-set radio. He saw a senior high school production of "The Admirable Crichton," overheard adult conversation about such writers as Rupert Hughes and such books as "Jurgen."

The memory of the high school play prompted these lines:

\o7 In the black auditorium, my heart at ease,

I watch the furred castaways (the seniors put

A play on every spring) tame their wild beasts,

Erect their tree house. Chatting over their fruit,

Their coconuts, they relish their stately feasts.

The family's servant, their magnanimous

Master now, rules them by right. Nature's priests,

They worship at Nature's altar; when with decorous

Affection the Admirable Crichton

Kisses a girl like a big Wendy, all of us

Squirm or sit up in our seats. . . .

Jarrell's young aunt Bettie had a friend who owned a lion, and he wrote to his mother: "I went to Bettie's and had a grand time. The new cubs sure are cute. They're not bigger than a cat. I played with Tawny. He wants everybody to play with him." Years later, waking from a dream, he would write:

The lion's steadfast

Roar goes on in the darkness. I have been

Asleep a while when I remember: you

Are--you, and Tawny was the lion in--

In Tarzan. In Tarzan! Just as we used to,

I talk to you, you talk to me or pretend

To talk to me as grown-up people do,

Of Jurgen and Rupert Hughes, till in the end

I think as a child thinks: "You're my real friend."

After a day of watching the resident mockingbird defend its territory from all invaders, the boy relived the hours at night in the bird's echoes:

Now, in the moonlight, he sits here and sings.

A thrush is singing, then a thrasher, then a jay--

Then, all at once, a cat begins meowing.

A mocking bird can sound like anything.

He imitates the world he drove away

So well that for a minute, in the moonlight,

Which one's the mocking bird? Which one's the world?

\f7 Thrown back into that other world as he reread his letters, Jarrell re-created it in his poetry. Mary Jarrell traces the origins of many poems in the 12-year-old boy's enthusiastic comments on this wonderfully freeing life in California, a life that he was reluctant to give up when he had to return to his parents. She also illuminates what she calls her husband's thralldom "to the feminine mystique," remarking that "life gave him a habitat rich with mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother; an aunt and aunt-figures; two wives, two mothers-in-law, and two step-daughters." No wonder that his dream world of poems like "The Lost Children"--one he called "sure fire" for his readings--was peopled with girls and women and that he often borrowed a woman's voice for his own.

But the California boyhood poems give this last collection its particular flavor. That he should return to it later is as inevitable as his finding that it was now truly a lost world. "Back in Los Angeles, we/ missed Los Angeles" he was to write, but he had already left what Robert Lowell calls "the divine glimpse" and record of that world.

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