An Essay by Cary Nelson on "North American Sequence"
It is not until "North American Sequence" that Roethke fully realizes his own combative need for sheer verbal performance. In that poem, he also accepts the cultural pressure behind his art. "North American Sequence" is a more faulty achievement than "Meditations of an Old Woman" because it risks much more, but it is also, finally, a greater poem. It is the only major poem in which Roethke accepts his specifically American roots. Because of that, the poem cannot wholly succeed, but that is its strength. The willingness to fail becomes for Roethke the aesthetic equivalent of his temptation to die. For the first time in his career, it is not merely the mystical speaker who would die, but the poem in which he speaks.
In "The Longing," the first poem in "North American Sequence," the search for light incarnate begins in a demonic version of the greenhouse world. Vitality has degenerated into corruption: "A kingdom of stinks and sighs, / Fetor of cockroaches, dead fish, petroleum." This resembles the landscape Roethke mentions in his "First Meditation," where the self and the world converge in despair: "I have gone into the waste lonely places / Behind the eye; the lost acres at the edge of smoky cities." Here again "the slag-heaps fume at the edge of raw cities" and "the gulls wheel over their singular garbage." This is a specifically American vista and its concomitant sense of a jaded, guilty sexuality is equally American. The speaker calls himself "a loose worm / Ready for any crevice," and the sexual image is not accidental. In "The Longing" this sense of physical revulsion is particularly intense. It is as though the greenhouse life has been distributed all over the landscape, exposed to cultural forces, and left to decay. More significantly, perhaps, the inside of the poet's own body is now vulnerable to the body politic. The once potent vegetable shoots, and those sheath-wet sproutings in the poet himself, have succumbed to an unfulfilled lust that "fatigues the soul"; the figure of the worm now offers a cowardly reversion to shapelessness.
"How," Roethke asks, "to transcend this sensual emptiness?" His answer is his own version of America's ever more belated cultural optimism. Despair, we convince ourselves, is the foreknowledge of our oncoming joy. The very proximity of death will return us to our revitalized origins. For Roethke, then, the very decomposition of the spirit presages its salutary immersion again in the world of the flesh. "What dream's enough to breathe in?" he asks, "A dark dream"--a dream illuminated by the dark light of eyes turned toward the body's depths, a dream of "a body with the motion of a soul." Thus the worm and slug, verging on formlessness and insensate matter, suggest a new beginning for a self ravaged and vulnerable. Shapelessness becomes universality and self-transcendence: "I'd be beyond; I'd be beyond the moon, / Bare as a bud, and naked as a worm." Purgative journeys are apparently pre-eminently cleansing; spiritually on the other side of the moon, he recovers a virginal sexuality. Reduced to the empty vertical shape of a man--"to this extent I'm a stalk"--the poet is open to an influx of life outside himself. And the life outside will have to revive him, for even an industrial swamp is democratically procreative. Like Whitman, he pleads simply to participate in unselfconscious becoming: "I would with the fish, the blackening salmon, and the mad lemmings, / The children dancing, the flowers widening."
The wish for otherness is just that--a wish, but it appears to be sufficient. The shift from slag heaps to salmon streams is entirely willful and arbitrary. It is sanctioned by a cultural fantasy that now has post-Freudian justification--the wilderness is still psychologically accessible in all of us. Not in each of us, but in all of us; collectively we still harbor the continent in its original fertility: thus the plea for otherness and the inclusive listing. One can believe the same thing elsewhere, of course, though Conrad thought the journey to origins needed the analogy of a trip to the Congo, and Lawrence thought it might help to come to the New World. In America, however, one simply embraces all things and places. Nowhere else could a poet be thought other than foolish for flinging together fish, children, flowers, "great striated rocks" and even "buffalo chips drying."
"North American Sequence" alternates rhythmically between periods of emotionally-charged self-exploration and precise though kaleidoscopic descriptions of nature. These different types of discourse are so readily identifiable that a reader could collect and rearrange them to make several more consistently coherent poems. Yet the result would not be so powerful. It is precisely the willed rhythm of movement between inside and outside, between the self and the world, and the complementary alternation between depression and joy, which propel poet and reader into the final vision. The introspective personal sections become increasingly ecstatic and mystical as the poet tries to move more deeply into the organic world he contemplates within himself, but this movement is checked by continuing reversals. The self is repeatedly nullified or emptied; nature again presents its dying face. As a poetic device, this kind of rhythm is unavoidably imprinted with echoes of Whitman's Song of Myself; Roethke, then, is compelled to find some way to repossess this rhythm and make it his own. He cannot entirely succeed, however, and his accomplishment here, contrary to Harold Bloom's analysis in The Anxiety of Influence, is founded on this very limitation.
Roethke brings this tension to the surface, exploiting it to dramatize the poem's verbal battle. In "Meditations of an Old Woman," he has his title character say that "the body, delighting in thresholds, / Rocks in and out of itself." In "North American Sequence," the Whitmanesque assurance that this rhythm is preeminently biological is abandoned. The juxtaposition of self and other parallels natural rhythms because the language has usurped nature; nature is a felicitous manifestation of will. The poem itself becomes the "Beginner, perpetual beginner" that the old woman proclaims herself to be.
The poem's continuous rhythm of expansion and withdrawal is reinforced when Roethke watches the tide at the beginning of "Meditation at Oyster River." Since the dying salmon, the mad lemmings, and the opening flowers of the first poem would fulfill themselves as inevitably as the tide, it is appropriate for young crabs and tiny fish to ride the tide shoreward in the second poem of the sequence. Nature begins to respond to the poet's call; the water surrounds him momentarily, and we anticipate his joining the tide, but instead he retreats to a safer perch. The decision is a partial rejection. He resists the natural world even while reaffirming his need for it. Then suddenly he unveils a full experience of the tide that could only be achieved from within the water. Not, however, the literal water at the shoreline, for the tides have been reconstituted in the water of words. The pull and tug is now inherent in the temptation to speak. Perched on his rock, he verbalizes the inward stresses of the oncoming waves-the forward thrust of the tide, the water sculpted by sandbars and fringed by beds of kelp, "topped by cross-winds, tugged at by sinuous undercurrents." He receives the benediction of the tide when the water laps his toes, but only that. Then he appropriates the energy, internalizes it, and dreams of a final cleansing. It would be like ice melting in the spring-weakening, shattering, and flowing, suddenly unburdened of both its human and its natural debris:
And I long for the blast of dynamite,
The sudden sucking roar as the culvert loosens its debris of branches and sticks,
Welter of tin cans, pails, old bird nests, a child's shoe riding a log,
As the piled ice breaks away from the battered spiles,
And the whole river begins to move forward, its bridges shaking.
In a few lines, we move from the "tongues of water, creeping in quietly," to this image of violent evacuation. The shock is considerable, not only because the passage is intrinsically destructive but also because it is a deliberate aggression against the Whitmanesque listing in "The Longing." The import is difficult to escape: there will be no loyalty to nature here except as it can be used to suit the poet's spiritual imperatives. This is an aesthetic alternative to the more literal historical usurpation of the American wilderness--rather less damaging, of course, but in service of needs no less dark. "I have left the body of the whale," Roethke writes, "but the mouth of the night is still wide." Free from the self's restrictive darkness, there is yet the wider darkness of the communal self. Emptied of himself, the poet comes into "the first heaven of knowing," a knowledge revealed when the poem celebrates its power. The power is a freedom to remake nature, almost to obliterate it. Like Whitman, Roethke reconstitutes nature in his speaking voice, though Roethke makes the violence of the process more visible. The poem summons its landscapes only to discard everything but their essential energy. It is not only a mystical, trance-like tone we hear in the poem's final meditation; it is an assertion of priority: "I rock with the motion of morning; / In the cradle of all that is." To this impersonal voice, the tide is now an intimate otherness that originates within: "Water's my will, and my way, / And the spirit runs, intermittently, / In and out of the small waves." For an instant his body seems part of the mutual vibrancy of landscape and self, though it is really the text that is holding them together in its net. There his consciousness is dispersed over its own perceptual field: "All's a scattering, / A shining."
The third poem begins by reversing this euphoric mood. The self retreats to its anguished territory and bodily darkness closes in again, through darkening thickets and contorted ravines. The poem juxtaposes its title, "Journey to the Interior," with its first lines: "In the long journey out of the self, / There are many detours." It is a paradox the poem will nullify by force. The journey out of the self will proceed into a true interior we will share with the heart of a new world.
When we start the third poem, we assume that the poet has symbolically cleansed himself of civilization. The bleak clutter of an industrial wasteland in the first poem was exchanged for a world of sandpipers and herons in the second. Though a collection of trash intrudes again, it is carried away on a flood of water. The problem would seem to be solved, so we expect Roethke's experience to be less compromised. Thus the car that introduces "Journey to the Interior" is divisive and unsettling. Surprisingly, Roethke does not reject this standard symbol of the contemporary wasteland; he embraces it. Roethke provides what for him would seem an unlikely tribute to the teenage myths of the late 1950s. He recalls risking his life to drive eighty miles an hour on a dangerous road, and his celebration of this bravado is no less loving than his catalogues of natural life: "A chance? Perhaps. But the road was part of me, and its ditches, / And the dust lay thick on my eyelids, --Who ever wore goggles?" By now this memory would be hopelessly sentimental, but "Journey to the Interior" was first published in 1961, and Roethke just manages to be innocent of the specific cultural self-consciousness that would have made the passage impossible. Instead, the homage to America's mechanical fantasies is more general; on that level, Roethke is quite aware of his inverted pastoralism. The poet has traded in his greenhouse for an automobile. Nonetheless, at the still center of his car ride he finds the greenhouse again.
Through the windows of the car, Roethke discovers that "all flows past"--dead snakes and muskrats, hawks circling above rabbits, "turtles gasping in the rubble," and even "a buckled iron railing, broken by some idiot plunger." All this detritus of nature's cruelty gathers in a catalogue evoking the rhythms of universal change. The passage obviously extends the breaking of the ice-jam passage in "Meditation at Oyster River." There he wished the self, like thawing ice, could be freed as though blasted by dynamite. Here the violence is more literal and commonplace; it is thereby at first more resistant to visionary synthesis. If this landscape "exceeds us all" it does so only by asserting a brute reality beyond our intervention. That, of course, is exactly Roethke's intention--to demonstrate that even the Darwinian side of America's landscapes can provide the raw material for textual transformation. Thus it would be a mistake to conclude that this "detour" into rude violence is peripheral to the poem's chief ambitions. Structurally and rhetorically, "Journey to the Interior" parallels all the poems in the sequence with its movement through descriptive catalogues to a visionary moment. Its dark world of dying things is not a lapse into a negative apocalypse that the sequence later overcomes; it is a necessary stage in the poem's development. It captures the one purgative experience essential to all visions of American communality--trial by visual fact.
What we see tends simply to contradict what we believe. Moreover, in a nation obsessed with the desire to create an ideal community, belief is generally codified before it is tested against reality. That was very much Roethke's artistic situation when he came to write "North American Sequence." His poetic world had been mapped out long before, and there was little if anything he could discover about it in his last years. What he could do, however, was to expose his vision to history, to open his greenhouse to the world at large. That is what he does most daringly in "North American Sequence." The result is a poem whose visionary synthesis must virtually contradict the catalogues of loss on which it is founded. The poem's transcendent moments depend so much on sheer assertion that they are always on the verge of becoming merely manic artifice. Yet Roethke's power of conviction just manages to sustain our trust in his vision. He convinces us that on the edge of our cultural hysteria is a zone of beneficial calm:
I rise and fall, and time folds
Into a long moment;
And I hear the lichen speak,
And the ivy advance with its white lizard feet--
On the shimmering road,
On the dusty detour.
Roethke succeeds for a moment in fusing a traditional opposition in American culture. The machine and the garden are brought together and shown to have a common core. Indeed, the machine is hurled into what is left of the garden and, at least as a metaphor, gets closer to the garden's source than did any of America's historical expeditions. Roethke's vision from the car is almost a mechanistic recapitulation of Wordsworth's boyhood memories in The Prelude of running, then stopping short to see the earth still whirling past him. For a moment, Roethke believes that not he but the things around him are moving.
The poem builds to a new pastoral ecstasy, though it is an ecstasy dependent on a poetic will symbolized by an onrushing car. As so often in his work, Roethke describes his meditative immersion in the physical world in terms of elemental transformation earth to water, air to fire, stone to light. In "The Dream," where sea and shore meet wood and meadow, the image of a woman changes a field to a glittering sea. Here in this willed poetic space where all dying things commingle, he declares, "I rise and fall in the slow sea of a grassy plain." These wide plains of vision gather the separate things of America into a common dance of death. In the territory of her poem, Roethke's old woman recovers all her past in her present, both love's worst day when "the weeds hiss at the edge of the field" and the meadows where she remembers herself as a young girl--"running through high grasses, / My thighs brushing against flower-crowns." In "North American Sequence," the prairie recalls the more public fuming wastes at the opening of the sequence and foreshadows the far field of the eternal near its close. Floating on this field of American locations, the poet tries to find them all a place in his greenhouse Eden. Outside history, the new greenhouse will nurture a set of landscapes themselves imprinted with history's image. Each time is to be a collection of times, each moment a whole cycle of moments. Each voice and every movement will be democratic. Making himself the stage for this drama of simultaneous events, Roethke gives voice to America's special version of negative capability. He is bereft of purposeful motion--"beyond my own echo, / Neither forward nor backward, / Unperplexed, in a place leading nowhere"--committed to being only one unique vehicle for the country's self-expression. Roethke verges on an image of himself emptied, almost unborn, yet ripe, with the nation's earth filling his mind. He wants, as Galway Kinnell has described it, to make himself "vacant as a / sucked egg in the wintry meadow, softly chuckling, blank / template of myself." For Roethke, to unveil this empty, original form would be to see his own face reflected in a generalized image of the genesis of the nation's natural life.
In the closing stanzas of "Journey to the Interior," Roethke begins to articulate the shape and texture of an image that has hovered, halfvoiced, throughout his career--the central form of forms. As we shall see, the notion of a form of forms runs through Robert Duncan's work as well. For Roethke it is not so much a mystical talisman, though if Roethke's visionary passages are severed from his descriptive reveries, the form of forms would be reduced to that; it is more his obsessive creation and recreation of a central project that can never be wholly achieved because our history continually denies it. This primary form must combine erosive, temporal flux with subsuming, atemporal pattern. His phrase for this aboriginal goal is "the flower of all water." In the midst of the natural processes gathered together by the poem's advancing and retreating tide, Roethke asserts that these opposing rhythms are fulfilled in a single place: "I see the flower of all water, above and below me, the never receding, / Moving, unmoving in a parched land, white in the moonlight." Every fluted wave, all the endless curving arcs of water, rise up through him to turn inward on a central flowering. The passage suggests that he has discovered the hidden paradigm of sheer fluidity, but the image is really a fiction sustained by intratextual associations. "I rehearse myself for this," he admits, for "the stand at the stretch in the face of death." Each poem in the sequence is a new rehearsal, and the sequence as a whole is a series of rehearsals. Roethke's verb implies not so much a preparation for the inevitable as an elaborately staged ritual that will enable him to possess the inevitable within the poem.
Throughout "Journey to the Interior" our anticipation of that end is partly anxious. From the opening car ride, "where the shale slides dangerously / And the back wheels hang almost over the edge," through the descriptions of a conventionally picturesque town rendered foreboding, to the catalogue of vulnerable or dying creatures, a sense of threat continues. His images are adaptations of his more secure pastoralism, but with a new nervousness. Earlier in his career, he could write of a wish to hear "a snail's music," and we could accept this as an extension of his greenhouse attentiveness to minute and soundless motion. Now a surreal uneasiness invades these dreams. When he claims to "hear the lichen speak, / And the ivy advance with its white lizard feet," we may reasonably wonder if these images communicate not only heightened awareness but also a sense of inexorable violation.
A similar ambivalence is at work in Roethke's evocation of the flower of all water; it is set against a sterile background--"a parched land, white in the moonlight." The flower, it seems, both opposes and fulfills its surroundings. Roethke casts his vision as an affirmation; the spirit of wrath," he writes, "becomes the spirit of blessing." Yet the final line extends Whitman's dream of a democratized, luxuriant death to an image whose joy could easily turn to terror: "And the dead begin from their dark to sing in my sleep." Ten years later W. S. Merwin would be writing lines like these to summon the communality of collective dread.
At its moment in time, the end of the 1950s and the beginning of the 1960s, Roethke's poem can offer these images of collective renewal straightforwardly; they are not yet totally undermined by their historical context. Within a few years, Roethke's optimism would have appeared complicit with more dubious cultural enthusiasms. To maintain some independence for his vision, Roethke might have had to distance himself from arguments for open forms outside the world of poetry, at the risk of damaging his vision by its own defensiveness.
By the mid-1960s "Journey to the Interior" would have been undone by too many bitter ironies. As at other points in American history, the image of a hawk circling above its prey would have had a military correlative. Similarly, the ruined landscape of "The Longing" and the catalogue of dying things in "Journey to the Interior" would have been ineluctably demonic in five years, merely commonplace in ten. By then, Roethke could hardly describe the rippling tide as "burnished, almost oily" without being literal and therefore unintentionally comic. Yet I am not arguing that "North American Sequence" would not have succeeded had it been written later; I am saying it could not have been conceived at all. Like the car Roethke recalls driving, the poem's route skirts disaster; it travels the edge of his historical moment, hanging halfway over the abyss. From our perspective, the poem is filled with poignant vulnerability. Like many credible American affirmations, it is designed to age instantly, to appear from the outset to have been written in the past. We can believe, then, that the dead have sung in Roethke's sleep, even though we know that their voices in our darkness would be more harsh.
"North American Sequence" draws its strength from Roethke's acceptance of the categorical frailty of its vision. Like us, he knows that the poem's Edenic pastoralism is already a nostalgic artifice. It exists in the poem's "long moment" and nowhere else; it is, Roethke writes in the next poem, "a vulnerable place, / Surrounded by sand, broken shells, the wreckage of water." This place is Whitman's shoreline, the narrow vantage point where continent and sea may be exchanged so rapidly that neither seems troubled by its past. Roethke returns to this territory in "The Long Waters" to show us that he, like Whitman, can still perform this aesthetic sleight of hand. Moreover, he tells us, he can play this game with the same ingenuous rapture: "How slowly pleasure dies!" he exclaims, then later: "I embrace the world."
If there is excessive bravado in these claims, it is touched with saving selfmockery. This playfulness is made possible by the poem's confidence in its own textual ground. As we enter the fourth poem, "North American Sequence" now contains its own reserve of organic life. Like the country at large, the poem is itself a wellspring of energy. When Roethke returns to descriptive reverie in "The Long Waters," he is recovering familiar poetic territory. Indeed it is territory now incorporated in the poem's form. When he moves from meditation to description, he is no longer duplicating a transition from the self to the external world; instead he is balancing two kinds of poetic language. The rhythm of excursus and return is a verbal rhythm. As the language moves forward, the natural settings already detailed are carried along as well. Each particular animal and place, exact in its isolation, echoes the other things the poem describes. It is therefore no longer necessary to worry that the land is finally unknowable. Whatever can be seen and named suffices: "Whether the bees have thoughts, we cannot say, / But the hind part of the worm wiggles the most." The part of nature that can be aesthetically co-opted serves, synecdochically, to redeem the rest. It is not only the poem, then, which is renewed by these successive visual catalogues; nature itself is revitalized when the poem gives attention to its changes.
The catalogues in "The Long Waters" are variously humorous and reverent. Thus "the worm's advance and retreat" comically invokes the motion of the tides, and Roethke even proceeds to ask protection from such essential rhythmic force. Yet there are also intense and almost overawed descriptive celebrations: "A single wave comes in like the neck of a great swan / Swimming slowly, its back ruffled by the light crosswinds." Both these images draw attention to the poem's power of vision, to its ability at once to specify and to exaggerate. Whatever the poem sees, it changes and perhaps also fulfills. Throughout "The Long Waters" Roethke is supremely confident of his transformative resources. That security enables him to move between the comic and honorific without disrupting the poem's tone. Overshadowed slightly by the darker vision of "Journey to the Interior," yet also partly freed by that preceding poem's purgative fear, "The Long Waters" establishes a new perspective of bemused respect. In that gaze, both "the butterfly's havoc" and "the heaving sands" are at home.
Roethke has generalized his greenhouse ambience. What was once a quality of perception dependent on a particular place has been adapted to any location. That alone would not represent a radical development in Roethke's aesthetic. We might expect that he would, in Bachelardian fashion, internalize the greenhouse world and become capable of extending its nurturing warmth to the rest of his experience. A series of little greenhouse poems about different miniature landscapes would naturally follow. But a long poem sequence, moving rapidly through a wide range of settings and emphasizing the act of poetic transformation, is another matter. It asks whether the American landscape at large can become a greenhouse for the questing self. That is one of our culture's founding questions. Roethke's private greenhouse space thereby suddenly becomes both characteristic and public.
That sense of larger ambitions lends a covert uneasiness to the first four sections of "The Long Waters." The uneasiness is anticipatory. We know that the variations in mood are building to a need for another visionary synthesis. Another verbal resolution will have to draw these new images together. Salmon leap for insects, ivy puts down roots, a fisherman dawdles over a bridge. Each of these things is unique, yet they share a common rhythm; their separate actions verge on commonality. That union will have to be verbal, for it is not given to us in the natural world. Indeed, our sense of verbal expectation is increased by allusions to the language of resolution used earlier in the sequence. Roethke names the gestures of plants, animals, and men, then he summarizes those names in the poem's demonstrated rhetoric: "These waves, in the sun, remind me of flowers." This statement can be rationalized--trout and pine trees may gesture as instinctively as unfolding flowers; they can register on the eye as successive waves of phenomena. Yet the memory Roethke invokes is really of a relation to the poem's language. In these descriptive sections, Roethke relaxes into a daydream of naming in order to gather energy for a new articulation of the poem's depths. Once again, he will speak of the flower of all water.
As with each of the first three poems, the penultimate moment is one of self-abnegation. He claims to be merely the passive recipient of the vision, to be first the land's breath and only then its voice. "I have come here," he writes, "without courting silence," and the irony in a poet's making that particular assertion is apparent. Yet he is in a sense merely the vehicle of imagery already present in the landscapes described. Of course, he has selected, arranged and vocalized those settings; he has given them whatever imperative toward communal form they now display. Nonetheless, the poem increasingly communicates a sense of inevitable force that gives Roethke's posture of passivity some justification. Having set all this in motion, he can step back and pretend innocence. "I remember," he writes, "the dead middle way, / Where impulse no longer dictates."
Roethke would have us believe that he is no longer governed by the fatal self-pity of the first poem. His need to be reborn is collective, involuntary, and it can be realized through the instinct of the elements to play at metamorphosis. Nature, or at least nature apprehended, is a series of analogies. Moreover, those analogies converge on one another in the poem's space. There they do not merely clarify one another, they touch. And in touching they waken to a new life, "as a fire, seemingly long dead, flares up from a downdraft of air in a chimney." Roethke wants to speak from the point where these forces meet. He wants to occupy the verbal shoreline, the textuality, between self and other. Ambiguously, then, he can be both witness and agent, actively propounding a vision of selfless empathy. The destination of all he sees and describes, he is also the point of departure for its fresh emergence. He will consummate all nature in a single form, while scattering everywhere seeds of himself. The eyes of his poem see inwardness everywhere:
I see in the advancing and retreating waters
The shape that came from my sleep, weeping:
The eternal one, the child, the swaying vine branch,
The numinous ring around the opening flower,
The friend that, runs before me on the windy headlands,
Neither voice nor vision.
I, who came back from the depths laughing too loudly,
Become another thing;
My eyes extend beyond the farthest bloom of the waves;
I lose and find myself in the long water;
I am gathered together once more;
I embrace the world.
These are the last two stanzas of "The Long Waters," and they present what is so far Roethke's fullest vision of the form of forms. Rather than a single unifying figure, his vision is a series of parallel and perhaps equivalent images. In that sense, it merely testifies again to the poet's desire to make multiple images seem simultaneous. Yet this "shape" that rises out of the poem's "advancing and retreating waters" does carry the impulse further. Part of that effect is simply cumulative, but the cumulative force still requires suitable language with which to stage its re-emergence. Roethke makes several passes at that language here, and they provide a dramatic glimpse of the synthesis toward which he is working.
The passage is a kind of retrospective and anticipatory summary of Roethke's poetic goals. It reaches back through "North American Sequence" and uses it to gather together the poet's previous work. The sequence of equivalent descriptions serves to conjoin all the paired opposites Roethke has celebrated during his career. At their center is this ambiguous "shape" now openly used to contain a variety of restorative images. Like Yeats's image of the dancer, from which Roethke drew inspiration, the shape he sees is paradoxically both an object and an action. In two of his most well known love poems, Roethke saw this universal form manifested in a woman's body; he called it "a shape of change, encircled by its fire" and marvelled at "the shapes a bright container can contain." Here the shape is encircled as well by the play of light and movement about an opening flower; it is an eternal figure, summoning child and vine branch to its common ground. Like the body of the old woman in Roethke's "Meditations," the form of forms is at once dense and airy. It is a universal shape of change through which all birth and death, must pass.
The figure Roethke wants to describe is partly a very abstract and generalized extension of a body image primitive enough to represent all embodiment. Like the shape of the human body bent by age or curved in foetal sleep, it would resemble the earliest curled form shared by men, animals, and plants. To the extent that the image is organic and relatively static, Roethke's early greenhouse poems account for its imperatives toward growth and change. Yet Roethke also extended this archetype to inorganic matter. Through much of the middle part of his career, therefore, bodily process is used to draw the elements into association with the body image. When we breathe, for example, the body fills with air, and when we sleep, the body acquires the heaviness of stone. As stone and light, earth and fire, permanence and change coalesce verbally in the body image, it becomes an increasingly representative figure the enduring and decaying house where each of us lives.
Yet the body that is so verbally allusive is not really the natural body but the body of the poem. The rapturous and playful catalogue in the conclusion to "The Long Waters" dramatizes the collective force of the poem's language. We are to imagine, with Roethke, that the descriptive and exclamatory appositives in the first of these two stanzas impinge on a single figure. They do so here, in the text we read. With the poem's senses dispersed in several landscapes, the poem itself is at once the poet's body and the thinking of the world's body. "Small waves," he wrote earlier, "repeat the mind's slow sensual play." Now he has learned that the poem that counterpoints such likenesses between external physical movement and his own perceptual processes can create and contain their entire interaction: "So the sea wind wakes desire. / My body shimmers with a light flame." "I roam elsewhere," he writes, "my body thinking." The poem draws each of these elsewheres together, so that the rhythm of the tides is transferred to the poem's breathing.
The shape emerging from the poem's waves seems both familiar and separate, both a friend and the poet himself. It reflects everything of himself he had forgotten, yet makes him "become another thing." It is both personal and archetypal. Thus it emerges at once from the poet's sleep and from the ocean's depths. It is greeted with tears of relief and benediction that flow from himself and from the ocean's salt water. The poet is himself, he is a stranger, and finally he is everyone. Only through the poem's disguise can he maintain this multiple role. It is a role that American poets have often assumed in more blatantly prophetic form. Nor is this the first time Roethke himself has sought to become a representative and unifying figure. Yet "North American Sequence" is perhaps the first time he hints that the slug and worm of his private greenhouse poems are actually vestigial culture heroes, explorers working toward the source of a greenhouse Eden that belongs to all of us.
The "I" in the last two stanzas of the fourth poem in the sequence stands not only for Roethke and for the poem itself but also for a broad American audience. We too are gathered into the poem's voice. As a speaker, the poet fills the traditional American role of prophetic witness. That role had been functioning covertly in Roethke's poetry for some time, but "North American Sequence" makes it considerably more apparent. As a result, the quality of sheer performance becomes central to the experience of the poem. Roethke is trying for a definitive reintegration of self and nature, and we watch him try over and over again. That sense of continual recapitulation, of assaying yet another time the same textual synthesis, makes his creative effort here more patently self-conscious and deliberate than it has ever been before. What some critics experience in Roethke's poetry as embarrassing self-promotion, too artificially orphic, becomes the actual subject of "North American Sequence." In the process, Roethke's vision acquires a new credibility. We no longer have to believe that the vision exists outside the poetry, that it is so pervasively real it is "neither voice nor vision." We only have to recognize that Roethke wants the vision to succeed and that his desire is characteristically American.
The composite landscape of "The Long Waters" is unashamedly synthetic. It is a made place where the poet can summon all of nature's seasons to one mind. By shuffling together a collection of natural sites, the poem would create a varied but harmoniously accessible textual space, a continent on the printed page open to all of us. The project, of course, cannot literally succeed. Yet Roethke accepts the provisional status of his poem's solution, and he even admits that its implicit contradictions are as much comic as mystical. That gives the poem a genuine poignancy; it cannot achieve what it sets out to do. Moreover, each time the poem makes large claims for its vision, the purely verbal quality of those claims will make them seem mere posturing.
The ecstatic synthesis of these two stanzas gives us a glimpse of a personal and cultural unity that will not be. It echoes the partial and anticipatory conclusions of the first two poems in the sequence, recovers the more dramatic synthesis at the end of "Meditation at Oyster River," and leads us to expect yet more radical summations from "The Far Field" and "The Rose." Yet these parallel statements of formal apotheosis are also equivalent and even interchangeable. Delayed, diverted, repeatedly almost achieved, the poem's form is imminent throughout. It is a tentative form in continuous motion, at once scattered and whole. "I lose and find myself," Roethke writes, and the poem too is "gathered together" and dissolved in "the long water."
Roethke would like to exist simultaneously in visionary transcendence and ironic deflation. Thus it is appropriate, though unsettling, that each of his verbal resolutions is discarded when the next poem in the sequence begins. As Richard Blessing has observed, "The narrator has slipped back into spiritual despondency in the space between poems." Each of these regressions brings us up short, yet they are implicit in the precarious rapture of the preceding vision. If we can learn to move back and forth between the dark and light of vision at will, we will have internalized the poem's lesson. It is a lesson addressed both to Roethke's own sometimes violent emotional reversals and to the country at large. For the American dream of a humanized wilderness must have its darker side as well.
Into that darkness once again the sequence descends at the beginning of the fifth poem, "The Far Field": "I dream of journeys repeatedly:/ Of flying like a bat deep into a narrowing tunnel." This repeats the movement toward and into closed space that opened "Journey to the Interior." The visionary synthesis at the end of "The Long Waters," then, is not a natural given; it is a feature of the poem's performative force, and Roethke will have to work his way toward it again through fear and loss. We have, however, brought with us a sense of the potential interchangeability of human artifacts and natural life, so the car of "Journey to the Interior," which returns as well, no longer seems to violate the poem's wider focus. Roethke imagines being trapped in a sand-rut "Where the car stalls, / Churning in a snowdrift / Until the headlights darken." The image of the car wheels churning echoes the description in "Meditations of an Old Woman" of a "journey within a journey," lost, "the gate / Inaccessible," possessed of tremendous futile energy, like "two horses plunging in snow, their lines tangled." It is a paralysis of fear endured in slow motion, yet savored, as when Roethke (elsewhere in the same volume) imagines that a meadow mouse which escapes after he captures it must now live under the owl's eye, like a "paralytic stunned in the tub, and the water rising."
The feeling of paralysis amidst danger, one of the most common dream events, puts Roethke in touch with one of his childhood memories--the field "not too far away from the ever-changing flowerdump," whose end drops off into a culvert. There collects, as in the ice-flow passage of "Meditation at Oyster River," a mixture of human and animal debris: tin cans, tires, and "the shrunken face of a dead rat, eaten by rain and ground-beetles." There too he finds a tom-cat, shot by a watchman, "its entrails strewn over the half-grown flowers."
A few years later, Galway Kinnell describes a similar scene more vividly in "The Porcupine"; its effect on both poets is comparable, as Roethke begins to think of himself emptied, simplified by death.
First, however, he needs to elevate these specific images into a general image of death that can be a more manipulable verbal resource. "At the field's end," he writes, "one learned of the eternal"; these deaths are the common voice of all the worldly things the poem has assembled. He suffers for them, but his "grief was not excessive, for there are also "warblers in early May." The natural rhythms of life and death give him, in the poem, a context for contemplating himself with "another mind, less peculiar." Perhaps, he muses with a playfulness resembling that of the poetry he wrote for children, he'll return in another life as "a raucous bird, / or, with luck, as a lion." The choices are all willed and fanciful, even the more primitive ones. He writes of lying naked in sand, "Fingering a shell, Thinking: / Once I was something like this, mindless," and he thinks he might "sink down to the hips in a mossy quagmire." The image of envagination and the empty shell invoke both the evacuated, archetypal template of the self and the moist greenhouse where it acquires its face. Yet the birds and far field suggest the vast reaches of air and the self opened to the infinite. "The Long Waters" laid the groundwork for a figure unifying self and world; "The Far Field" extends that synthesis to the two poles of nature introduced early in Roethke's life--the close greenhouse and the wide field.
Roethke is working to create a far field, deep and open but as close as the page he writes his poem on, whose verbal rhythms can unify greenhouse and field and do so not for himself but for all of us:
I learned not to fear infinity,
The far field, the windy cliffs of forever,
The dying of time in the white light of tomorrow,
The wheel turning away from itself,
The sprawl of the wave,
The on-coming water.
This is the far field where the poem's many waters will gather to flower together. There all outward movement returns to itself, folding disparate things into a single flowering: "The river turns on itself, / The tree retreats into its own shadow." The field will fold together all North American landscapes, as mountain meadow water and a glacial torrent flow together in the alluvial plain. Thus each distant spring, each American tributary feeds our inward reservoir, while the self, brimful of its inwardness, overflows everywhere. From the center of this Whitmanesque self, as from a single stone, spread concentric rings of water, carrying reflected and diffused light ever outward: "The pure serene of memory in one man,-- / A ripple widening from a single stone / Winding around the waters of the world." This outpouring water is also a benediction and an embrace, both freeing and bringing home what it touches. The poet's vision, conferring on each thing the dignity of its single name, meanwhile draws each thing within its reach to possess it. In the final lines of "The Far Field," a collective consciousness can appear to be cleansed of longing, for it contains everything. An omnipresent force in nature, the poet's will suffuses inanimate matter and sets it to dream in words: "A man faced with his own immensity / Wakes all the waves, all their loose wandering fire."
"I have come to a still, but not a deep center," he writes, "a point beside the glittering current." There "My mind moves in more than one place, / In a country half-land, half-water." This mediating land, the territory between self and world, between earth and water, is the textuality the poem maps out for itself. Into this land, and into his poem, he must die to be reborn as a collective figure. "I am renewed by death, thought of my death." Yet there is not one death, but many, and each is a renewal. Each time the self is lost, it is regained in the image of the world, in every immediate dying change before his eyes: "The dry scent of a dying garden in September, / The wind fanning the ash of a low fire." "He is the end of things, the final man," the first and last man-Adamic, for the end of things is foretold by a true beginning; each final man begins his life anew. The self--mysterious sea-cave in which the world drowns to breathe again--will be repeatedly buried and uncovered by the tides. In the body of the poem he can become, as he puts it elsewhere, "A phoenix, sure of my body, / Perpetually rising out of myself."
At the field's end, hovering over the ever-renewing grave of the sea, Roethke recovers the lost innocent self in a new image of his text as a body. Now the sea-shape of this body, foolish and ancient, green and dying ("In robes of green, in garments of adieu"), can forgo all anxious postures. Its form, sea-blessed, is not imprisoning slime or unmoving stone. It is the site of all changes, the nexus where movement must pass whether to be contained or freed. "The body," he writes elsewhere, is "but a motion in a shoe." All movement is thereby imprinted with this image of the empty self--all things fulfill themselves under the sign of the body, whose shape of change is the sign of the form of forms. "Flesh, flash out of me" he writes in a notebook, but the need to be free of a body is supplanted by the discovery of his body anywhere in North America he looks. "The flesh," he once wrote, "can make the spirit visible." Thus "the flesh fathers a dream" as wide as the world. "And I became all that I looked upon." The greenhouse body grows until the far field itself is enfleshed.
The greenhouse world of his childhood, which Roethke explicitly summons to his side in "The Rose"--the final poem of the sequence--now nurtures even the farthest bloom of the waves. "The leafy mind" of his early poems "that long was tightly furled" has thick leaves opening in every elsewhere. Roethke thinks of roses in a tiny childhood world at last granted its true space, in greenhouses six hundred feet wide. He remembers his father lifting him high over the elaborate hybrids: "And how those flowerheads seemed to flow toward me, to beckon me, / Only a child, out of myself." In "The Rose," the distant field flowers through the poet--out of the ground on which he stands. "There are those to whom place is unimportant," he writes in the poem's first line, "but this place, where sea and fresh water meet, / Is important." The rose of baffled wonderment in the first poem ("The rose exceeds, the rose exceeds us all") is transformed into a figure for a self exceeding the limits of time and space, yet supremely flowering in its place:
But this rose, this rose in the sea-wind,
Stays in its true place,
Flowering out of the dark,
Widening at high noon, face upward,
This place is the collective sign of all the sites the poem celebrates and engenders. Roethke therefore catalogues anew the beach and the meadow, the sea and the air, filling "The Rose" with diverse American places in the culmination of his sequence. So that any place, any moment, is the scene of the entire continent's survival. He lists the songs of several birds, "the mimetic chortling of the catbird" and "the bobolink skirting from a broken fencepost," then orchestrates a cacophony of sound--cicadas, the shriek of nails ripped from a roof, horns and bulldozers. But he absolves the raucous clatter of its variety in a comprehensive gesture:
I return to the twittering of swallows above water,
And that sound, that single sound,
When the mind remembers all,
And gently the light enters the sleeping soul,
A sound so thin it could not woo a bird,
"Beautiful my desire," he continues, "and the place of my desire." When desire is deeply rooted in its immediate place, it can surpass self-mortification to voice the collective will of the land, but only the poem has so flexible and representative a location. The sequence of poems began in a paralyzed "agony of crucifixion on barstools" where "not even the soot dances." It ends when the crown of thorns smiles and takes flight: "I sway outside myself / Into the darkening currents ... Was it here I wore a crown of birds for a moment?" "I played in flame and water like a boy / And I swayed out beyond the white seafoam":
Near this rose, in this grove of sun-parched, wind-warped madronas,
Among the half-dead trees, I came upon the true ease of myself,
As if another man appeared out of the depths of my being,
And I stood outside myself,
Beyond becoming and perishing,
A something wholly other,
As if I swayed out on the wildest wave alive,
And yet was still.
And I rejoiced in being what I was:
In the lilac change, the white reptilian calm,
In the bird beyond the bough, the single one
With all the air to greet him as he flies,
The dolphin rising from the darkening waves;
And in this rose, this rose in the sea-wind,
Rooted in stone, keeping the whole of light,
Gathering to itself sound and silence--
Mine and the sea-wind's.
The rose is a universal figure, but here it is also uniquely American, symbolizing the cohering self-expression of North America's land. The America that flowers here is, of course, largely a visual one. Roethke has not opened his poetry to specific historical events but rather to a variety of sites, including those that have become industrial wastelands. The landscapes, then, represent both possibilities lost and possibilities yet untried. This attributes a static, spatialized character to American history, a tendency Roethke shares with many other American writers.
The resolution Roethke offers us in "The Rose" is exclusively verbal, almost gratuitously so, yet this fragility increases its force. Culturally and personally, the poem offers a momentary way of attaining a harmony the world does not offer. As Adrienne Rich will do ten years later, Roethke works out verbally a synthesis not available elsewhere in human experience. Unlike Rich, however, Roethke does not really expect the poetry to change his life. For a man at times unhinged by guilt and self-doubt, the poignancy and necessity of a vision that is wholly a willed artifice should be apparent.
"North American Sequence" is an artifice that also reaches out to gather all of Roethke's poetry together. We can hear in it echoes of images recurring throughout his career, though that is true of almost any of his poems. More important is the poem's effort to be the apotheosis of that imagery, liberating its heaviness and its edge of despair. If the rose in the final poem is rooted in stone, then stone thereby flows and looses the weight whereby "his thought is tied, the curving prowl of motion moored to rock." There is energy in even that absolute repose: "I touched the stones, and they had my own skin." "My flesh," he wrote earlier, "is breathing slower than a wall," "I know ... the stone's eternal pulseless longing," "I know the motion of the deepest stone." He has lodged himself verbally at the center of the earth's most eternal substance, and he feels his spirit, too, bound up in the body's unyielding matter. But the immobility of body and stone is only a thickening of the circle of changes; so the spine, emblem of the body's rigidity, is the vortex of a new unfolding. "I turned upon my spine, / I turned and turned again," he writes, so as to become a rose, "a blaze of being on a central stem."
In the deepest stone starts that slow-moving curve traced later by the opening flower and the cresting wave. The original poles of nature are abandoned for a continuum in motion, where the elements are interchanged and self and other become one another unpredictably. Yet in the final moments of the poem, a further resolution appears. Water and flame, stone and light, the fecund "lilac change" and sterile "reptilian calm," seem almost to coalesce. Here, where world and body interpenetrate the poem's flesh, "North American Sequence" holds its forces in momentary stasis. In the image of the rose unfolded in the sea-wind, at once vulnerable and eternal, intimate and indifferent, the poem voices a dream of all motion taken up by form. Deep within the self, and everywhere outside us, is this far field where water flowers in stone.
From Our Last First Poets: Vision and History in Contemporary American Poetry. Copyright © 1981 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.
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