On "Frau Bauman, Frau Schmidt, and Frau Schwartz"
The Lost Son and Other Poems established both the reputation Roethke craved and the world of his imagination— with its greenhouse and its field, bounded by The City and The Abyss. Not only did it inaugurate important technical innovations, but it also exposed the raw center of his dilemma: the consequences of self-consciousness and the inability to construct an identity. But it is important to note first the arrangement of the volume, for the so-called "greenhouse poems" with which it begins ground the series of long poems in one half of Roethke’s effort to escape the self-consciousness that torments the four anchor poems—and for that matter, the ten which follow in his next two collections. This initial group of detailed, sensuous poems seeks to recreate the "manmade Avalon, Eden, or paradise" of his father’s greenhouse. The last poem of the group, "Frau Bauman, Frau Schmidt, and Frau Schwartze," though added later, sets the retrospective tone of the sequence
Now, when I’m alone and cold in my bed,
They still hover over me,
These ancient leathery crones,
With their bandannas stiffened with sweat,
And their thorn-bitten wrists,
And their snuffladen breath blowing lightly over
me in my first sleep.
The reimagining not only seeks to evoke the security of childhood, of his "Eden." The poet seeks further to submerge himself in the natural, unconscious process of organic life
I can hear, underground, that sucking and sobbing,
In my veins, in my bones I feel it,—
The small waters seeping upward,
The tight grains parting at last
When sprouts break out,
Slippery as fish,
I quail, lean to beginnings, sheath-wet. (37)
From "Sweating Light from a Stone: Identifying Theodore Roethke." Modern Poetry Studies 3.1 (1972)
Richard Allen Blessing
The poem conveys an impression of an elusive, darting "reality," for the three Fraus move so swiftly as to manage to be in two places at once, to be "Gone" and "still hovering]" simultaneously. The ladies, like the Old Florist, have the power to transfer their energy creatively into the life around them, and it is that power which commends them to the memory and to the apotheosizing power of the imagination. The Fraus are glimpsed through a blur of active verbal forms--creaking, reaching, winding, straightening, tying, tucking, dipping up, sifting, sprinkling, shaking, standing, billowing, twinkling, flying, keeping, sewing, trellising, pinching, poking, and plotting. Even nouns such as Coils, loops, whorls, nurses, seed,, pipes, and others are potential verbs, reminding us that the names of greenhouse things are squirming with metaphorical action. The ladies are never still, for even when they stand astride the greenhouse pipes, their skirts billow and their bands twinkle "with wet." Their movement is always that of "picking up," and the movement of the poem, like the movement of the climbing roses, is upward from the earth toward the sun. So swiftly do the ladies scurry that the memory blurs fact into fiction, the historical ladies into the mythic. Flying "like witches," they become more and more enormous in their activity until at last they trellis the sun itself, giving support to that strange flower which is the life of our planet.
As the remembered ladies become apotheosized into mythic figures, Roethke imagines them to take on the fecund powers of earth mothers. They straddle the phallic pipes of the greenhouse, pipes belonging to Roethke's father, until their skirts billow "out wide like tents"--as if someone might live there. They have, we are told, the power to "tease out" the seed, to undo the lifeless "keeping" of the cold. And finally, they give the poet himself a symbolic birth. Acting as midwives to themselves, they pick him up, pinch and poke him into shape, "Till I lay in their laps, laughing,/ Weak as a whiffet." The ladies, trellisers of the sun, also trellis "the son," the boy fathered by the greenhouse owner.
Though the old women are, as the first word of the poem indicates, "Gone," they "still hover" in the air of the present. All of the verbs in the first stanza are, as one would expect in a remembrance, in the past tense. Nevertheless, Roethke refers to the Fraus as "These nurses of nobody else" as if they were present, as if the memory had established them in the poet's room. And, of course, he says that "Now, when I'm alone and cold in my bed,/ They still hover over me,/ These ancient leathery crones. . . ." The relationship between poet and crones is a highly dynamic one. On the one band, the hovering mothers "still" have the power to give him life. He lies like a seed, cold and in his bed, and they breathe over him the breath of life, a snuff-laden blowing that lifts him from the keeping of the cold into a life that manifests itself in poetic blossoms. On the other hand, it is the poet who "keeps" the Fraus alive, whose breath gives to the dead the power to move and be again. Their energy is entirely dependent upon his ability to intensify the language until their movement becomes tangible in the empty air, becomes an event in the viscera of the reader. The poem itself takes its cadence not from a man named Yeats, but from the German Fraus--takes it and gives it back again. As for the poet, he has, by the end of the poem which is the end of the Greenhouse Sequence, lost himself in two places at once. He is in his bed and the time is now, yet the crones who hover above him breathe "lightly over [him] in [his] first sleep," presumably that sleep from which one wakes at birth. They are the remembered gateway to the house of glass, these witches capable of collapsing time so that the cold sleep of the adult is as one with the first sleep from which he wakened into life. They are the means by which Roethke demonstrates the dynamic reach of the "Now" in which we always live; for, through the Fraus who were, through the Fraus mythologized, and through the Fraus who remain as a felt presence, he has made a poetic representation of the living extension of the past into the ever-moving present.
From Theodore Roethke's Dynamic Vision. Copyright © 1974 by the Indiana University Press.
The shape of Theodore Roethke's "Frau Baumann, Frau Schmidt, and Frau Schwartz," narrow at the top and gradually widening, first to the pentameter of the break line, then, after an opening pentameter, back into eight two- and three-stress lines, abruptly resolves in the expansion and powerful stabilization of the heptameter. It moves from the passive declaration of the first line, through the furious activity of the next seven and three-quarters lines to the stop of the semicolon after "chrysanthemums." Then, after a slow interval of four lines--where all the windings and climbings of the opening are undercut by "the stiff / stems, jointed like corn" which the old women "tie and tuck," flat, truncated words and actions--it hurls itself into the next sequence and builds to its grand conclusion. These old women bring life out of cold sleep, they order the very light of the day, they plan beyond their own concerns.
The old women, long dead, return in the second stanza to the object of their plotting, or, perhaps, to the one who has made himself imaginatively the object of their plotting--the poet, lying cold in his bed, the seed asleep in him. They hover over him, the poem turns back on itself to all the doubleness of meaning that is in everything, and we are required to draw parallels between the poet and the forces that manipulate him, that order his wildness, that draw out his life--that work, as he must work, beyond themselves, for more than themselves.
In other words, these old women, like poets, are caretakers, orderers of plenitude, who take joy in their work. They creak, they wind, they straighten, tie, and tuck, dip, sift, sprinkle, and shake, straddle and billow and twinkle and fly. They do these things in the world of a greenhouse crammed to overflowing with flowers whose reality is their names; sweet-peas, smilax, nasturtiums, climbing roses, carnations, chrysanthemums, and their lively extensions--tendrils, coils, loops, and whorls.
All this takes place in short, three-stress lines, strongly enjambed, ending in twenty-one nouns, six verbs, and four adjectives, breaking over to nine lines that begin with verbs, six with nouns and two with strong adjectives, including five that consist of nothing but action: "to wind, to wind," "they tied and tucked," "they trellised ... they plotted," "pinching and poking." Further, the first nineteen lines are dense with verbs, the poem as it resolves trailing off into the relative passivity of the dream of the old women, long gone, but still in attendance on the speaker "in his first sleep" "alone and cold in his bed."
These old women, tenders of the greenhouse, are "witches" who tease out all those spiralings, inward-turnings, reachings-out, and relentless vegetable graspings that in the greenhouse poems and throughout his career signified for Roethke the obduracy of life. The old women are life-givers, who provide the same service to the "spindly kid," as to the flowers, pinching and poking him, who, like the plants, would otherwise lie forever "cold in his bed." They come to him, muses whose responsibility it is to "tease out the seed that the cold [keeps] asleep." And lest it seem that he has transformed them beyond themselves and out of real breath, Roethke at the end of the poem is emphatic that the world is their province--they have awakened from their first sleep and fallen into their last, but they still sweat and bleed, and "their snuff-laden breath blows lightly over [him] in [his] first sleep."
I've always preferred Roethke's earlier poems. The later ones seem to me often overwrought and over-wrought, while the early poems, though certainly not always understated, usually display a control beyond their obvious formalities. They play off a considerable exuberance of language and feeling against a base restraint, and exhibit a controlled wildness of voice and spirit that in some of the later work is gone at too hard and can seem manufactured.
My favorite of the greenhouse poems is "Frau Baumann, Frau Schmidt, and Frau Schwartz." I admire its massing of detail, its rapid accumulation of disparate elements until suddenly, quite unexpectedly, a critical mass occurs, and the whole edifice ignites, develops the momentum that jazz musicians call drive, and that force the music critic of Time once attributed to Helen Traubels voice, saying it was like a steel girder abruptly flung across the auditorium. I like the effect of the long coordinate sentences run through and over short lines, that Yeatsian trick, forcing the reader at every line ending to the life-threatening little decision as to whether or not to go on, as the sentence requires, or to stop, as the line with an equal imperative insists--and in making that decision, feeling the orchestration of tiny propulsive shocks that manipulate the poem's tempi and rhetorical strategies.
Roethke is not addressing us expositorily in this poem. As he says elsewhere, the poet always "perceives the thing in physical terms." He is realizing the substance of an emotion. In another genre he might have been more analytical, or dealt with matters more fully, paying more attention, for example, to characterization, narrative, or setting. But here, in the especially immediate and concentrated vision of the poem, he is re-presenting and reimagining a particular experience that at the same time provides us the name for something we suddenly are required to realize we have always known.
"Frau Baumann, Frau Schmidt, and Frau Schwartz" is a poem that demonstrates particularly well this characteristic double vision of the artist, this illumination of the simultaneity of two realities. Thus the three old ladies of this poem are at the same time quite literally three old ladies with sensible Teutonic names, greenhouse workers, sweaty, smelly, "thorn-bitten," but strangely passionate about their work, at the same time that they are mysteriously transubstantiated to keepers of Creation.
A great poem is an improvisation, something both individual and collective, ending in something new and strongly punctuated by bursts of ego in the solos, during which the rest of the world riffs. But nothing is ever given up by one vision to the exclusion of the other. As Marvin Bell points out, "poetry is a quality of the imagination and language inextricably bound up with the recognizable world ... a kind of flying, that ... gets up and goes." In other words, a poem, though it begins and ends in time and the world, is never simply a representation of nature--for, as someone has said, "a mirror returns to us not our identity but our anonymity." We require to be brought to our identities, to the source of the common life we recognize intuitively in one another.
Thus the sense we have, in any lively work of art, of dimension, of more than one thing happening at the same time, of contingent existences, mutually energetic, none disposing of the other for its own sake, nor of itself for the other. The poet must generalize the subject, without destroying its particularity, in order to extend its significance beyond the limits of that particular experience. The result is to merge our understanding with others, to enlarge it--to emphasize community. Experience is not univocal, but orchestral, and cannot be expressed adequately in templates of experience.
Lev Loseff points out that "words are accumulations of immense practical experience. Language is a million matters of thought, and the aim in a poem is to make it untranslatable." Roethke succeeds especially well here, I think. Still, poets are devious, and this poem is interpretable, as I hope we have seen, if not paraphrasable. We come to its truths as in the real world we come to conclusions, first through the provision of our senses, the practical intellect that feeds the speculative.
We are dealing here with the issue of indirectness, the meaning of the poem as a complex interrelationship of expressive elements, a resonant matter. What happens, for example, when one tries to paraphrase "Frau Baumann, Frau Schmidt, and Frau Schwartz"? What is the poem doing, except describing an action? How does one paraphrase an action? There is no meditative process here, no interpretation of the action, no exposition, no metaphor, and, despite its allusiveness, not much in the way of symbolism. This poem seems to be doing no more than reporting what it sees and appears at first glance to be almost nothing but literal surface.
But poets are not much in favor of the self-evident; they are not only concerned, in the words of R. P. Blackmur, with "the matter in hand," but wish to add "to the stock of available reality." For poets, as for an artist, the world is not expendable. No artist wants to abandon its determinations, but always to transform the observable without destroying it, to incorporate realities into the unified vision of the work. And so in "Frau Baumann, Frau Schmidt, and Frau Schwartz," beyond the description and apart from the narrative, there occur points of transformation at each of which the literal surface, while powerfully presented and sustained, is extended to what Caesar Pavese has called the double vision "through which, from the single object of the senses vividly absorbed and possessed, there radiates a sort of halo of unexpected spirituality."
Thus the catalysis of the phrases "these nurses of nobody else" who "keep creation at ease," "teased out the seed the cold kept asleep" and "plotted for more than themselves." These inform the poem to its extension from what until that point has been--however resonant, active, and richly textured--no more (or less) than a vivid recreation of the quotidian. At such nodes in all great concatenations of language, the drive is given impulse, the voice flung out into and over the anonymities of the auditorium, and the incarnation takes place--in short, there commences the poem.
From Touchstones: American Poets on a Favorite Poem. Ed. Robert Pack and Jay Parini. Middlebury College Press, 1996. Copyright © 1996 by the President and Fellows of Middlebury College. Reprinted with the permission of the author.
Old, dark, working harpies haunt Roethke's early poetry. "Frau Bauman, Frau Schmidt, and Frau Schwartze" are revered as greenhouse earth goddesses, real women reified in myth who godmother Edenic flowers:
They teased out the seed that the cold kept asleep,
All the coils, loops, and whorls.
They trellised the sun;
The tenacity of these midwifing muses hovers over the boy's first night sense of loss:
Now, when I'm alone and cold in my bed,
They still hover over me,
These ancient leathery crones,
With their bandannas stiffened with sweat,
And their thorn-bitten wrists,
And their snuff-laden breath blowing
lightly over me in my first sleep.
The hard Frauen life is lightly born, their feminine legacy elegized in the boy's coarse loving lines, no less than Dylan Thomas with his agrarian aunt in "After the Funeral." Young Roethke knew a calloused father, too, an unsettled mother, in the dancing trimeter of "My Papa's Waltz," from which the boy could never recover:
The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I held on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.
Four trochees spring against the waltzing monosyllables of the iambic quatrainwhiskey, dizzy, waltzing, easyand the slightly giddy rhymes, straining for reassurance, leave the sense of something celebrated, yet not quite right. An American mixture of violence and gaiety, a touch inebriate, tinges a moment when "mother's countenance / Could not unfrown itself." Something wrong, and can 't be righted with form or bonhomie. The third stanza records the small signs of brutality and love that trouble the poem:
The hand that held my wrist
Was battered on one knuckle;
At every step I missed
My right ear scraped a buckle.
Still absolutely iambic, the narrative is bruised from pain behind the father's belt, and a "battered" knuckle on the child's wrist imprints the young poet's ear, wounded by the hard-rhyming "buckle" of a man's labor. And then the rhythm breaks, troubling time, form, and memory: "You beat time on my head / With a palm caked hard by dirt." The boy addresses his dad directly in a whisper of anapestic spondees, a love-banged stutter-step hard to scan. Time is battered, knuckled into the boy's brain by his gaily obtuse, work-beaten father. We are left puzzling a drunken dad waltzing his son off to bed. Is this Adam's curse, to sweat and swear on the earth for bread, to come home drunk to a disapproving wife and bewildered son, "Still clinging to your shirt," who win record the genesis of his own broken time, wounded ear, and grief-joy of growing up inebriate to sleep? In America, the poet staggers under Adam's heritage.
from Sing with the Heart of a Bear: Fusions of Native and American Poetry, 1890-1999. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000. Copyright © 2000 by the Regents of the Unviersity of California
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