Roethke, Theodore Entries

Lovely in her bones


In honor of the nicest weekend of 2007, and walking 18 miles in two days after remaining totally sedentary for four months, the poem I've decided to memorize for March is Theodore Roethke's buoyant ode "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 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.)

What is not to love about this poem? In a season starved for the beginning of springtime, it is a light wiff of summery playfulness and lovely sunny language. I love the roguish, slightly goofy sense of humor in lines like "But what prodigious mowing we did make!" (nudge nudge, wink wink!) and the reference to "English poets who grew up on Greek" being uniquely endowed to speak of the love interest, along with gods. But mostly I take a sheer, visceral delight in the quality of the language, the way the words trip along so musically and unexpectedly. "She played it quick, she played it light and loose" is a line that embodies so perfectly its own content, that it makes me smile to myself every time. Try saying it out loud; it trips so joyously off the tongue that I almost feel like singing the melody rather than saying the words.

Also breathtaking for their word-candy quality are "I'm martyr to a motion not my own" and "These old bones live to learn her wanton ways." The uncontrolled exuberance implied by all of the poetic devices employed in the second line - assonance between "old" and "bones"; alliteration between "live" and "learn," as well as between "wanton" and "ways"; the fact that the entire line rhymes with the line above it AND the line below it - encapsulates so perfectly the overwrought lover intoxicated by the object of his affection as (perhaps) only an older man in love with a younger woman can be. Or maybe the speaker only felt old before meeting the woman who reinvigorated his state of being and taught him to delight in making a happy, sensual fool out of himself. That, too, is a satisfying interpretation.

I like the poem's accepting, even celebratory, attitude toward the less dignified aspects of falling in love: "She was the sickle; I, poor I, the rake, / Coming behind her for her pretty sake / (But what prodigious mowing we did make!)" Whether because one is the old (feeling) man being blessed with an infusion of youthful beauty, or for myriad other reasons, loving another person usually involves humbling oneself and coming off as a bit ridiculous on occasion; this poem joyfully proclaims the exercise more than worthwhile.

Of course, there is also a hint of sadness in the poem, a bit of the elegy even, since it is written in the past tense: the speaker knew a woman, but, he implies, no longer knows her in the present day. All of her flowing, dancerly actions are taking place in a gilded past of perpetual summer. Toward the end of the poem, in particular, are many reminders of mortality: "Let seed be grass, and grass turn into hay" being the most blatant. This gives the line "These old bones live to learn her wanton ways" a little more emotional weight, since the speaker may be carrying on a legacy in addition to imitating an inspiring lover. I think the joy of the poem works even better with the addition of this hint of sadness. Personally, though, I choose not to dwell on the tragic elements of the poem; or, more accurately, I have a hard time focusing on them because the astonishing lingual delight of the words and phrases keeps distracting me. I end up, like the poem's narrator, "martyr to a motion not my own," and that motion will, hopefully, keep me smiling until Spring arrives for real.

June 2012

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link to Wolves 2011 reading list
link to more disgust bibliography