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Theodore Roethke, I think, drank from the same fountains as W.B. Yeats--his rhythm; --and e.e. cummings--his playfulness-- though he did not have their turbulent life-styles. He was a settled poet. Though he suffered bouts of depression, he also had a delicious sense of humor as we shall see in a couple of his poems presented here.

 

He said that the greenhouse “is my symbol for the whole of life, a womb, a heaven-on-earth!” His father was a greenhouse manager, a rough hewn but apparently kindly man. Theodore’s childhood was a source of inspiration as we see in the first poem below and the many poems he wrote for children.

 

The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.

We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother’s countenance
Could not unfrown itself.


The hand that held my wrist
Was battered on one knuckle;
At every step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle.

You beat time on my head
With a palm caked hard by dirt,
Then waltzed me off to bed
Still clinging to your shirt.

I remember the neckcurls, limp and damp as tendrils;
And her quick look, a sidelong pickerel smile;
And how, once startled into talk, the light syllables leaped for her,
And she balanced in the delight of her thought,

A wren, happy, tail into the wind,
Her song trembling the twigs and small branches.
The shade sang with her;
The leaves, their whispers turned to kissing,
And the mould sang in the bleached valleys under the rose.

Oh, when she was sad, she cast herself down into such a pure depth,
Even a father could not find her:
Scraping her cheek against straw,
Stirring the clearest water.

My sparrow, you are not here,
Waiting like a fern, making a spiney shadow.
The sides of wet stones cannot console me,
Nor the moss, wound with the last light.

If only I could nudge you from this sleep,
My maimed darling, my skittery pigeon.
Over this damp grave I speak the words of my love:
I, with no rights in this matter,
Neither father nor lover.

 

It wasn’t Ernest; it wasn’t Scott---
The boys I knew when I went to pot;
They didn’t boast; they didn’t snivel,
But stepped right up and swung at the Devil;
And after exchanging a punch or two,
They all sat down like me and you
---And began to drink up the money.

It wasn’t the Colony; it wasn’t the Stork;
It wasn’t the joints in New York, New York;
But me and a girl friend learned a lot
In Ecorse, Toledo, and Wyandotte
---About getting rid of our money.

It was jump-in-the-hedge; it was wait-in-the-hall;
It was “Would you believe it---fawther’s tall!”
(It turned out she hadn’t a father at all)
---But how she could burn up the money!

A place I surely did like to go
Was the underbelly of Cicero;
And East St. Louis and Monongahela
Had the red-hot spots where you feel a
---Lot like losing some money.

Oh, the Synco Septet played for us then.
And even the boys turned out to be men
As we sat there drinking that bathtub gin
---And loosened up with our money.

 

It was Smooths Matuna and Bugs Moran;
It was Fade me another and Stick out your can;
It was Place and Show and Also Ran
---For you never won with that money.

Oh, it wasn’t a crime, it wasn’t a sin,
And nobody slipped me a Mickey Finn,
For whenever I could, I dealt them all in
---On that chunk of Grandpa’s money.

It was Dead Man’s Corner, it was Kelly’s Stable,
It was Stand on your feet as long as you’re able,
But many a man rolled under the table
---When he tried to drink up the money.

To some it may seem a sad thing to relate,
The dough I spent on Chippewa Kate,
For she finally left town on the Bay City freight
---When she thought I’d run out of money.

The doctors, the lawyers, the cops are all paid---
So I’ve got to get me a rich ugly old maid
Who isn’t unwilling, who isn’t afraid
---To help me eat up her money.

If the Poem (beginning “I knew a woman, lovely in her
bones”) in The London Times Library Supplement has
not appeared here, we offer you $75 for it. Could you wire
us collect your answer?
Sincerely yours,
Alice S. Morris
Literary Editor, Harper’s Bazaar

 

Sweet Alice S. Morris, I am pleased, of course,
You take the Times Supplement, and read its verse,
And know that True Love is more than a Life-Force
---And so like my poem called Poem.

Dan Cupid, I tell you’s a braw laddie-buck;
A visit from him is a piece of pure luck,
And should he arrive, why just lean yourself back
---And recite him my poem called Poem.

O print it, my dear, do publish it, yes,
That ladies their true nature never suppress,
When they come, dazedly, to the pretty pass
---Of acting my poem called Poem.

My darling, my dearest, most-honest-alive,
Just send me along that sweet seventy-five;
I’ll continue to think on the nature of love,
---As I dance to my poem called Poem.

What can the spirit believe?---
It takes in the whole body;
I, on coming to love,
Make that my study.

We are one, and yet we are more,
I am told by those who know,---
At times content to be two.
Today I skipped on the shore,
My eyes neither here nor there,
My thin arms to and fro,
A bird my body,
My bird-blood ready.

My pillow won’t tell me
Where he has gone,
The soft-footed one
Who passed by, alone.

Who took my heart, whole,
With a tilt of his eye,
And with it, my soul,
And it like to die.

I twist, and I turn,
My breath but a sigh,
Dare I grieve? Dare I mourn?
He walks by, He walks by,

If I could send him only
One sleeve with my hand in it,
Disembodied, unbloody,
For him to kiss or caress
As he would or would not---
But never the full look of my eyes,
Nor the whole heart of my thought,
Nor the soul haunting my body,
Nor my lips, my breasts, my thighs
That shiver in the wind
When the wind sighs.

 

Before this longing,
I lived serene as a fish,
At one with the plants in the pond,
The mare’s tail, the floating frogbit,
Among my eight-legged friends,
Open like a pool, a lesser parsnip,
Like a leech, looping myself along,
A big-eyed edible one,
A month like a stickleback---
A thing quiescent!

 

But now—
The wild stream, the sea itself cannot contain me:
I dive with the black hag, the comorant,
Or walk the pebbly short with the humpbacked heron,
Shaking out my catch in the morning sunlight,
Or rise with the gar-eagle, the great-winged condor.
Floating over the mountains,
Pitting my breast against the rushing air,
A phoenix, sure of my body,
Perpetually rising out of myself,
My wings hovering over the shorebirds,
Or beating against the black clouds of the storm,
Protecting the sea-cliffs.

 

O what could be more nice
Than her ways with a man?
She kissed me more than twice
Once we were left alone.
Who’d look when he could feel?
She’d more sides than a seal.

The close air faintly stirred.
Light deepened to a bell,
The love-beat of a bird.
She kept her body still
And watched the weather flow.
We live by what we do.

All’s known, all, all around:
The shape of things to be;
A green thing loves the green
And loves the living ground.
The deep shade gathers night;
She changed with changing light.

We met to leave again
The time we broke from time;
A cold air brought its rain,
The singing of a stem.
She sang a final song;
Light listened when she sang.

 

 

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.

We think by feeling. What is there to know?
I hear my being dance from ear to ear.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Of those so close beside me, which are you?
God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there,
And learn by going where I have to go.

Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?
The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Great Nature has another thing to do
To you and me, so take the lively air,
And, lovely, learn by going where to go.

This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go.

 

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