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Revelations and rehabilitation 

In 1977, the Force was with us, Annie Hall taught the middle class to cross-dress, and Robert Lowell died in a Manhattan taxi.

That it all happened too soon (Lowell was only 60) is perhaps the one truly forgivable cliche in a life condemned to critical paraphrase and high-concept summary. Certainly, the image of the tormented genius bard, imprisoned by his own bumbling narcissism, has a distinguished history in our literature, from Walt Whitman to Allen Ginsberg. But Lowell's public struggles with women, depression and other poets set against the backdrop of post-Nixon, pre-AIDS New York was not only great copy, it was big business. He was the undisputed exemplar of East Coast Literary Establishment Despair.

Robert Lowell: Collected Poems (Farrar Straus & Giroux), the new comprehensive edition of the poet's works, is an unapologetically big book with big ambitions -- nothing less than the rehabilitation of a central figure in American letters.

Here we find the poetry of calculated self-disclosure, compelling, dishy and often undisciplined. But with the imposed continuity of this single volume and the perceptive commentary of editors Frank Bidart and David Gewanter, we begin to see revelation where once there was merely confession.

His fearless, sometimes alarming, titty-shot candor, dating as far back as his 1959 book Life Studies and as late as his posthumous Day By Day, is a shimmering avatar of our peep-show sensibilities. And if his poems are not in perfect synchronicity with our times, they are at least in perfect syncopation. As documents of human fragility, hope, betrayal, love, fear and madness, this collection traces with macabre precision a chalk outline of the poet at the scene of some future calamity.

The real crime is, of course, that Lowell is not more widely appreciated. But in the shifting mosaic of market forces and fame fetishism, the appearance of a "compleat Lowell" is a triumph indeed. Now perhaps his legacy can be restored and the question of his cab fare forever settled in the rhyme of humility's healing grace.


Shelf Space is a weekly column on books and Atlanta's literary scene.

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