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On "The Lost Son"

D. McClatchy

The mingled awe and fear in the image of his father, arrested by death, inspires both the terrible dependence and longing, and a terrifying sense of guilt in his own autoerotic urges, both of which paralyse the necessary struggle for psychic and sexual identity—the "spiritual crisis" of the poems. The opening section of "The Lost Son," which fishes in "an old wound," deals with this "hard time," associating the death of his father and the discovery of the phallus:

Voice, come out of the silence.
Say something.
Appear in the form of a spider
Or a moth beating the curtain . . .

The shape of a rat!
        It's bigger than that.
        It's less than a leg
        And more than a nose,
        Just under the water
        It usually goes . . .

        Take the skin of a cat
        And the back of an eel,
        Then roll them in grease,—
        That's the way it would feel.

And the cycle of need and guilt, of discovery and repression, informs the rest of the poem:

Dogs of the groin
Barked and howled,
The sun was against me,
The moon would not have me.

The weeds whined,
The snakes cried,
The cows and briars
Said to me: Die . . .

What gliding shape
Beckoning through halls,
Stood poised on the stair,
Fell dreamily down?

From the mouths of jugs
Perched on many shelves,
I saw substance flowing
That cold morning.

The guilt at his hands' "perpetual agitation," the childhood fears of castration and the adult fears of impotence, alternate with defiant gestures to taunt or exorcize the guilt—usually expressed in terms of exposing his nakedness.

from "Sweating Light from a Stone: Identifying Theodore Roethke." Modern Poetry Studies. 3.1 (1972).

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