"What is madness but nobility of soul at odds with circumstance." Theodore Roethke
There was a time in my life when I willingly embraced those things that both intrigued and frightened me. I was looking for the deeper meaning, always looking over the edge to get a glimpse into the darkness, the place where I thought all the answers to all the secrets were kept. One could say I was looking for life in all the wrong places.
It did lead to some interesting experiences and people and I have come to see that time as an invaluable precursor to what lay ahead, to the life I've come to know. I have tried to live my life since that time in the light of day, in an openness that doesn't allow for secrets to take hold, nor for shades of meaning to cloud my judgment. It's a good way to live and makes everything so much easier. Living with my cards on the table and letting the chips fall where they may has brought with it a sense of liberation that in and of itself brings deeper meaning, and with it a light and a lightness that provides reliable guidance with far surer footing.
What does this have to do with anything? Today, it seems to have to do with Theodore Roethke.
Roethke was no stranger to the darkness. He walked the edge many times during his life. For that very reason I have wrestled with him for many years, never certain if I wanted to pull him into my circle of imaginary friends, who just happen to write good poetry, or keep him at a safe distance where I can look but not touch, at least not too much nor too often. You might not have the same response to him, but with some poets I need space between their words and my world or I feel cornered, and I've never been good at feeling cornered. Plath and Sexton, Berryman and Bukowski come to mind, so I take my Roethke slow and measured, a few lines at a time, sort of feeling my way through.
In my first reading of this poem I felt as though I was drowning in dirt, but I pushed through, turning his words over and over, pausing and mulling, pausing and mulling, and I found this: they are rich and dark with a certain mustiness that smells and tastes like the first carrot I pulled from the earth all those years ago, carelessly brushing off the dirt before taking that first delicious bite. And this: despite the darkness a little sliver of light comes through. That, for me, is poetry of the best kind.
"In a Dark Time"
In a dark time, the eye begins to see,
I meet my shadow in the deepening shade;
I hear my echo in the echoing wood --
A lord of nature weeping to a tree.
I live between the heron and the wren,
Beasts of the hill and serpents of the den.
What's madness but nobility of soul
At odds with circumstance? The day's on fire!
I know the purity of pure despair,
My shadow pinned against a sweating wall.
That place among the rocks - is it a cave,
Or winding path? The edge is what I have.
A steady storm of correspondences!
A night flowing with birds, a ragged moon,
And in broad day the midnight come again!
A man goes far to find out what he is --
Death of the self in a long, tearless night,
All natural shapes blazing unnatural light.
Dark, dark my light, and darker my desire.
My soul, like some heat-maddened summer fly,
Keeps buzzing at the sill. Which I is I ?
A fallen man, I climb out of my fear.
The mind enters itself, and God the mind,
And one is One, free in the tearing wind.
~ Theodore Roethke
Theodore Roethke, above, won many awards for his poetry, including the Pulitzer Prize in 1954 for The Waking.
For more information: www.poets.org/troet/
Painting: "Roots," by Frida Kahlo