May 25, 2003

I Knew a Woman

by Theodore Roethke

SUNDAY, 25 MAY 2003
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Poem: "I Knew a Woman," by Theodore Roethke from The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke (University of Washington Press).

I Knew a Woman

I knew a woman, lovely in her bones,
When small birds sighed, she would sigh back at them;
Ah, when she moved, she moved more ways than one:
The shapes a bright container can contain!
Of her choice virtues only gods should speak,
Or English poets who grew up on Greek
(I'd have them sing in chorus, cheek to cheek.)

How well her wishes went! She stroked my chin,
She taught me Turn, and Counter-turn, and stand;
She taught me Touch, that undulant white skin:
I nibbled meekly from her proffered hand;
She was the sickle; I, poor I, the rake,
Coming behind her for her pretty sake
(But what prodigious mowing did we did make.)

Love likes a gander, and adores a goose:
Her full lips pursed, the errant note to seize;
She played it quick, she played it light and loose;
My eyes, they dazzled at her flowing knees;
Her several parts could keep a pure repose,
Or one hip quiver with a mobile nose
(She moved in circles, and those circles moved.)

Let seed be grass, and grass turn into hay:
I'm martyr to a motion not my own;
What's freedom for? To know eternity.
I swear she cast a shadow white as stone.
But who would count eternity in days?
These old bones live to learn her wanton ways:
(I measure time by how a body sways.)

Literary Notes:

It's the birthday of poet Theodore Roethke, born in Saginaw, Michigan (1908). His parents were the owners of a greenhouse, which later appeared as a dominant image in Roethke's poetry symbolizing the self. Roethke struggled with bipolar disorder throughout his life and spent months in the hospital, but he used these times to explore his dark side. Roethke wrote The Lost Son and Other Poems (1949), Praise to the End! (1951), and I Am! Said the Lamb (1961), a collection of children's poetry. He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1954 for his poetry collection The Waking. He said, "Art is the means we have of undoing the damage of haste. It's what everything else isn't."

It's the birthday of Raymond Carver, born in the town of Clatskanie, Oregon (1938), who was, in his own words, a "poet, short story writer, and occasional essayist-in that order." He got married just out of high school and had two children by the age of 21. To support his family, Carver worked as a gas station attendant, deliveryman, and janitor while his wife worked for the phone company. Carver wrote about the lives and problems of ordinary working people. He wrote about alcoholism, domestic abuse, and isolation, and characters who are more resilient than they think they are. His first collection of stories Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? was published in 1976 and established him as a writer. He also wrote Furious Seasons and Other Stories (1977), Cathedral (1983), and Where Water Comes Together With Other Water (1985). Carver struggled with acute alcoholism for most of his life. He often said that he lived two lives, one that ended the day he quit drinking and another that began the same day. He died of lung cancer in 1988 at the age of fifty. He had been sober for eleven years.

Today marks the 200th anniversary of the birthday of poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, born in Boston, Massachusetts (1803). He studied to become a Unitarian minister like his father, but left the pulpit in 1832 after the death of his wife. He had a crisis of faith and said that if his teachers had known his private thoughts, they would never have allowed him to become a minister. He went to England and met William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Thomas Carlyle, who all admired him. In his essay Nature (1836), Emerson claimed that each person could discover God by looking deep into themselves and the world around them. He wrote, "To go into solitude, a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society."

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