From the notebooks of Theodore Roethke

Today, Mom is with Ronan all day. He sleeps so well through the night; each morning I wake up and feel like I must learn all over again that I will lose him. Yesterday I spent the afternoon working in N’s light-filled, view-saturated house, reading a book about one writer’s exquisite observation of the progress of her very rare neurological illness. How I wish I’d known that Ronan was sick before I filled my syllabus with memoirs about disease, death, and depression!  (Or, in another class, a book detailing the drama of nuclear waste in the desert and how it relates to the suicide rate in the United States. More light reading on the elliptical trainer.) This morning it’s Roethke (weirdly but mercifully) to the rescue.

Theodore Roethke was a strange, pensive dude (alas, a poet), and the fragments from his notebooks (following, apparently, his own breaks from reality) read like a list of aphorisms and random phrases and sayings that however seemingly unconnected manage to hang together as a whole in idiosyncratic ways difficult to unpack. He’s a bit of a psalmist in nature, probing the mysteries of life in astute one-liners and chunky paragraphs of wisdom. And he’s a bit like some of the first essayists, like Montaigne and Seneca and Sei Shonagon, writers who collected impressions, listing feelings, emotions, tiny instances of wonder or grief or fear, pondering always “what is meaning? what is life?”  Roethke snaps off a lot of subjects in his poetic jaws as he wrangles, line by line, with meaning. Thinking out loud and on the page.

In “In the Lap of a Dream” there’s a line: “I practice walking the void.” This is how mornings often feel to me; an exercise in delicate emotional acrobatics. The magnetic pull of grief and the self’s instinct of preservation that resists it. I used to find Roethke annoying, like a doddering old uncle you tolerate but make no effort to understand. Now I feel like he’s sitting across from me, speaking these poems directly to me, even for me. I can see flecks of color in his eyes (greenish-yellow, I imagine); I smell his breath; I reach out for his veiny, greenhouse-trained hands and blink at him mutely.

Today, remembering yesterday’s session at the long table in the N’s dining room looking west, watching the sky change as the day moved from late morning to afternoon to early evening, lights going on, a bony dog out for a walk with his owner, out again an hour later to trace the same path, his tail a white whip in the air:

From “All My Lights Go Dark”

The feeling that one is on the edge of many things: that there are many

worlds from which we are separated by only a film; that a flick of the wrist,

a turn of the body another way will bring us to a new world. It is more than

a perpetual expectation: yet sometimes the sense of richness is haunting: it

is richness and yet denial, this living a half a step, as it were, from what one

should be. The valleys are always green, but only the eyes, never the feet,

are there…The feeling is always with us, but most in the middle morning.

How are you this morning? – the eternal question.

(1943-47)

One response to “From the notebooks of Theodore Roethke

  1. I’ve never read his notebooks before, Emily, but he is Michigan-born and bred and inspired by Yeats, but I’ve only lately come to appreciate him, also. There is a story that goes around here–I don’t know if it’s true or not. But he taught at Michigan State for a time (before they fired him because of him manic-depression). Anyway, a student in one of his classes said he didn’t have anything to write about because he’d never seen or done something exciting. So Theodore, a big man, climbs out the window of his Morrill Hall (http://www.aisgsc.net/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/MSU_Morrill_Hall.jpg) classroom and proceeds to shimmy the white ledge on the building that I’ve just linked to. He makes it around the building safely, climbs back in and says, “There. Now you’ve seen something exciting.”

    The Waking
    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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