Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Theodore Roethke, "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 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).

~

From Words for the Wind (1958)

The mode of today's love poem might best be described as 'adoration.' I had thought of posting something by Neruda, in the mode of 'passion', but I don't have access to a volume of Neruda. Anyway, perhaps better to stick to favorites in the English tongue, though it would be fitting to quote from a Romance language. Perhaps others will provide a few choice examples from that Spanish master of love poetry.
A bit like Cummings, Roethke sometimes verges on nonsense, his language rarely operating as literal reference. At the same time, he echoes traditional tropes of romantic devotion - enumerating his lover's exceptional qualities, boasting of the fervor of their passion - but the content of these tropes is something more evocative than referential or even hyperbolic description. Roethke's statements participate in a rarefied, almost fairy-tale world - the other plane which is the realm of love. Such sweet musing is supported by the sing-song cadences and rhymes. The poem expresses a love that has gone deeper than particulars of appearance or personality, to manifest the metaphysical influence the being of the other person has on the speaker: "(She moved in circles, and those circles moved)"; "I'm martyr to a motion not my own".

(More about Roethke here:
www.poets.org/troet)

3 comments:

Dorothea said...

A little late, but here's my favorite love poem and something from Neruda. (My apologies for the odd formatting. Blogger comments formatting rules: 1, Me: 0)

Sonnet XVII

I don't love you as if you were a rose of salt, topaz,
or arrow of carnations that propagate fire:
I love you as one loves certain dark things,
secretly, between the shadow and the soul.

I love you as the plant that doesn't bloom and carries
the light of those flowers, hidden, within itself,
and thanks to your love the tight aroma that rose
from the earth lives in my body in darkness.

I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where
I love you directly without problems or pride:
I love you like this because I don't know any other way to love

except in this form in which I am not nor are you,
so close that your hand upon my chest is mine,
so close that your eyes close with my dreams.

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