Sunday, March 18, 2012


Roethke had died that summer. His new book appeared a month short of a year later and contained the "North American Sequence," six poems that immediately became Bobby’s favorite Roethke poems. The man was one of a kind, as Wagoner knew and Bobby was learning. Bobby took his poems to Roethke and not much time passed before the bear of a man gave them back, growling his praise, encouragement, all Bobby needed to hear. So this was it, Bobby vowed, it’s poetry then, and how does a man live in a city writing poems? And if Roethke was dead at fifty-five how long in God’s name do poets get?

Bobby remembered the first time, how the man limped out to the stone terrace beyond the door to the fading brown English building named for Vernon Parrington, who wrote Main Currents in American Thought in the thirties. Roethke descended the stone steps and Bobby walked with him down the path to the street, Roethke’s gait never faltering even with what he called his "tennis limp." They drank coffee in Aggie’s, where Earlene had worked. Bobby listened to him say, diplomatically it seemed, Lawrence Durrell was a poet Bobby would probably not bother rereading, and when Bobby said he’d read the first novel of the Alexandria Quartet before Durrell’s Collected Poems, Roethke soon shifted attention to the poems Bobby had written. One, "The Returning," Roethke said was very good and Bobby needed to follow where it led him. "The Returning" went this way:

I have gone down all the streets you married,
found only the sorrow you left behind,
my food and drink, and the sweet opium
smuggled into my sleep for you to share,
where no other woman’s hair is so black,
her polished skin so dark, and I am done
with desire’s tentacles, its remorseless
circles I fail to see before the curve
in the street, where you disappear and I
mark time with footfalls, then the muffled hush
of your body walking with flesh-bare feet
tracing the path back where I am waiting
to close the circle and know the craving
that grows so great before the returning.

The next time he brought his poems Roethke was in a hurry to catch a plane to New York to accept the Shelley award. He’d just taught his winter seminar on Yeats. He stuffed the poems in his briefcase and said he’d read them while he was away. A few days later he gave them back with fewer words, though he said Bobby should stick around another year and take his verse writing class. Meanwhile, he advised, you should read Louise Bogan, you could learn from her poetry. In the gray paperback of her Collected Poems, Bobby read and reread "Medusa," "The Alchemist," "Cassandra" "Hypocrite Swift," "The Sleeping Fury," "The Dream," and "Evening in the Sanitarium," but the poem that spoke to him with more meaning on the first reading, and would not let go, was "Several Voices Out of a Cloud," where Bogan wrote:

Come, drunks and drug-takers; come perverts unnerved!
Receive the laurel, given, though late, on merit; to whom
          and wherever deserved.
Parochial punks, trimmers, nice people, joiners true-blue,
Get the hell out of the way of the laurel. It is deathless
          And it isn’t for you.

Roethke said it was the nine muses speaking from Parnassus. Bobby thought they must be akin to the street muses, each one of whom knew something he had not yet learned, try as he may. As for Parnassus, it gave a sobering view of what was not poetry, a kind of X-ray of those who would in later years declare Roethke was not so great, he was actually quite ordinary, or so one punk from Portland declared long after the burly man was gone. Bobby usually felt welcome when he moved among the addicts and the so-called perverts, none of whom gave a damn about praise from anyone who didn’t understand their unending work that when it happened they would know was–yes, say the word–art . . .

(13 March 2012)

copyright 2012 by Floyce Alexander

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