Theodore Roethke's The Lost Son
Theodore Roethke has long been one of my favorite poets. "Dolor," "The Minimal," "My Papa's Waltz," and "The Waking" are foundational pieces in my appreciation of poetry, but I realized recently that I knew very little about the poet or his full body of work. I didn't know, for instance, that he spent much of his childhood in his family's 25-acre greenhouse. I didn't know that so much of his early work dealt with the natural, physical world of roots and stems and soil. I didn't know that 3 of my aforementioned favorite poems and much of his best known work comes from the small collection The Lost Son.
Published in 1949, The Lost Son is divided into 4 sections. The first is the longest and comprises his "floral" collection. The second is my favorite, not only because it includes "My Papa's Waltz" and "Dolor." The third returns to the natural world but takes a wider view; it includes "The Minimal." Finally, the fourth section, holding only four longer poems (including the title poem), feels much more mature, more ambitious in scope and subject.
"The Lost Son" either anticipates or reveals the mental depression Roethke would suffer from during his lifetime. The opening line refers to Woodlawn, the cemetery where Roethke's father was buried. The struggle of the "lost son" to determine his identity in the body of his loss is definitely seen, although through a cloudy lens, in this poem. I love this passage from the first stanza of section 1, "The Flight":
I shook the softening chalk of my bones,
Snail, snail, glister me forward,
Bird, soft-sigh me home,
Worm, be with me.
This is my hard time. (6-11)
The poem is deliberately fragmented, lacking in cohesion of form or subject, but the questioning and questing feeling is consistent. There is a heaviness in each line, except perhaps the last few from the untitled section 5:
Was it light within light?
Stillness becoming alive,
A lively understandable spirit
Once entertained you.
It will come again.
Another interesting side-note from this collection is that section 3 includes a poem called "The Waking," but it is not the one that Roethke is well-known for. In fact, it is not a very good poem at all. A few of the poems that were new to me that I liked particularly were "Judge Not" from section 2 and "Flower-Dump" and "Old Florist" and "Root Cellar" from section 1. Though I don't love the whole poem, I do like the opening lines of "Last Words" from section 2:
Solace of kisses and cookies and cabbage,
That fine fuming stink of particular kettles,
Muttony tears falling on figured linoleum,
Frigidaires snoring the sleep of plenty (1-4).
The revelation of those everyday impressions is something I always appreciate, something I often strive for in my own work, albeit without regular satisfaction.
Once again, a poetry collection has given me a few quiet moments to dwell in a different world. I am so thankful for those moments and for Roethke and for all those who try to capture their words under glass and watch them begin to bead up, to sweat, to breathe.