The Last Poems of Theodore Roethke

The Far Field

by Theodore Roethke
Doubleday, 96 pp., $3.50

Sequence, Sometimes Metaphysical

by Theodore Roethke, with wood engravings by John Roy
Stone Wall Press, 88 pp., $15.00

Everything Roethke wrote has, of course, demanding interest for anyone who cares at all about American poetry. His best poems are such courageous explorations, couched in such authoritative and original language, that even his lesser efforts gather significance from them. His last book, The Far Field, has poems that would make a career for a lesser man; they do not seem to me Roethke’s best. Nonetheless, they are important beyond their considerable creative power, in what they tell of his impending death, and the light they cast back on his earlier poems, revealing that death to have been long implicit there.

These poems reveal anew the conflicting drives in Roethke’s poetry and his life. His long war against form, against shape and size, against the “anguish of concreteness” is in part finally resolved, especially as reflected in his metrical forms. One might expect a further greatness from this; instead, he finds a slackening, in Roethke’s word, a “shrinking.” Perhaps the answer was not to resolve the conflict but to try to endure and expand it. Yet, clearly, the anguish was unspeakably great—indeed, he does not here fully speak it. His language grows imprecise with pain, or with growing numbness and half-sleep as an escape from pain. Perhaps it is foolish to think there was any answer.

Yet one must lament the loss. And that these poems, recording that withdrawal and regression, also suffer from it. They bear less the knowledge of pain, than the knowledge of numbness after pain. They seem less a regression to capture something and create it anew, than a regression for its own sake, to lose something and uncreate it.

The book has four sections: North American Sequence; Love Poems; Mixed Sequence; and Sequence, Sometimes Metaphysical. This final section, Sequence, Sometimes Metaphysical, has appeared separately in a fine edition with wood engravings by John Roy. I am not capable of judging the engravings; the book as a whole is certainly very beautiful. Anyone who can afford one, however, should order it at once; only 330 copies were made.

Here, then, are all Roethke’s poems since Words for the Wind, his collected verse of 1958. “Meditations of an old Woman,” the last poem of that collection, seemed almost overwhelming in its promise of new powers, further journeys:

All journeys, I think are the same:
The movement is forward, after a few wavers…

I was specially taken by passages like the following, both for the promise in the statement and the vigor of style:

As when silt drifts and sifts down through muddy pond-water,
Settling in small beads around weeds and sunken branches,
And one crab, tentative, hunches himself before moving along the bottom,
Grotesque, awkward, his extended eye looking at nothing in particu- lar,
Only a few bubbles loosening from the ill-matched tentacles,
The tail and smaller legs slipping and sliding slowly backward—
So the spirit tries for another life,
Another way and place in which to continue;
Or a salmon, tired …

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