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On "North American Sequence"

Charles Molesworth

The language of the "North American Sequence" gathers up the exfoliating parts of Roethke's sensibility; and, while this integral speech is something new and distinctive in Roethke's work (as well as in contemporary American poetry), its roots are many and traditional. Biblical rhythms, the long line and catalogue of Whitman, the ecstatic litany of Smart, the meditative energy of Stevens, and the commonplace grandeur of Eliot's Four Quartets: all these elements grace the sequence, though none dominates it. Roethke is here both litanist and botanist, to use terms Karl Shapiro once employed to distinguish the symbolist aesthetic of Poe from the native strain of Whitman. Roethke's work doesn't fit into any neat categorization of contemporary poetry, in part because he wasn't interested in theory and hence took little concern with groups or schools of poets, but also because he drew widely and unabashedly on both traditional and innovative currents of poetic energy. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the language of "North American Sequence," yet most appreciative readers of Roethke consider it his "authentic" voice, the fruition of his lifelong attempt to come to terms with his burdens and possibilities.

Not only the language but also the formal structure of this sequence rests on a complexity at once densely affective and semantically straightforward. The central image is that of a journey, both as a movement to a new place and as a change to a new form; the natural cycles and stages of physical growth are gracefully, almost tangentially aligned with emotional growth. Much of the pleasure of reading the sequence comes from the lyric and equitable distribution of its parts into circular meditations and unfolding exultations. Either the circle or the threshold subtends most of the poem's images and thematic developments. Both of these "figures" can be reassuring or threatening in their immediate thrust or their larger implications; for example, the cyclical return of plant life is counterposed by the circular spins of the wheels of an automobile stuck in a snowdrift, return balanced by frustration. Mixing the traditional tropes and arguments of landscape poetry and mystical literature, the sequence draws on a resonant symbolic background, but it never courts obscurantism for its own sake; though it has clear "autobiographical" contexts, it never becomes plangently confessional.

. . .

At the end the poet's voice achieves a status commensurate with a natural force. It is almost as if Roethke were reversing the story of Orpheus and, instead of leading the rocks and trees, joining them and being gathered at last into the first of rhythms, into himself.

From The Fierce Embrace: A Study of Contemporary American Poetry. Copyright © 1979 by the University of Missouri Press.

Anthony Libby

The union here experienced is most often defined by metaphors of death and flow, usually combined. . . .

Throughout "North American Sequence" water that does not already surround the poet threatens and promises to submerge him, as he correspondingly internalizes it; in "The Far Field" as the water approaches the poet feels within himself "a weightless change, a moving forward / As of water quickening before a narrowing channel," and there follows the meditation on the "thought of my death."

This immersion, the flow into water or into earth, "flying like a bat deep into a narrowing tunnel," implies a mysticism opposed to the mysticism of transcendence not only because it is described in immediately physical terms and because it contains a deep ambivalence in its imagery of darkness and its more literal suggestions of death. Because the water which receives the poet is usually internalized, the image of movement into watery darkness also suggests, unlike the images of transcendence, a movement into the depths of the self, and "down into the consciousness of the race," as Roethke wrote in a 1946 letter to Kenneth Burke.

From Mythologies of Nothing: Mystical Death in American Poetry 1940-1970. Copyright © by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

Rosemary Sullivan

The "North American Sequence" is, as it were, an attempt to recover attachment to place by immersion, almost a kind of baptism, in primal waters. . . .

Symbolic topography is crucial to this theme. The sequence begins at the Pacific, yet Roethke often reminisces back through the interior continent to the Saginaw, Michigan, landscape of youth and childhood, a movement which reproduces the interior journey into the deeper reaches of the self. It is through this regression and subsequent integration of past and present that the poet recovers the attitude of mind which will allow him finally to merge with the dark and oncoming waters. This process is one of decreation. The mind trapped by its memories roves backward in search of purification until a new category of memory - almost a racial memory - is discovered in the child's celebration of nature: "Once I was something like this, mindless,/Or perhaps with another mind, less peculiar." It is a radical metaphor of belief which asks for commitment to the natural world, trusting that it can accommodate the soul even as it annihilates the accepted categories of the self.

The sequence thus follows a loose but meaningful progression which, in Roethke's typical fashion, is also a regression. "The Longing" describes the poet isolated in a predatory world of death which offers no accommodation to the spirit. Yet toward the end of the poem he begins to sense an essential continuity with an earlier, primitive mentality which may afford the hoped-for release from egocentric isolation. In "Meditation at Oyster River," the long process of mergence with elemental waters through a lapsing of rational consciousness begins. Release from constriction is objectified in the image of the break-up of an ice-locked river in spring. "Journey to the Interior" and "The Long Waters" begin the return back, along detours and dangerous raw places, to the interior continent. It is symbolically a journey through the interior psychic landscape to the still center of the self. In "The Far Field," evocative as that image is of the greenhouse world of "The Lost Son," the poet recovers the world of childhood, its reverence before nature, its instinctive acceptance of death. This is a climactic poem offering a vision of man as a "sea-shape" returning to the sea of origins; the spirit, a wind that "gentles on a sunny blue plateau," a phrase that celebrates the mystery of incarnate carnal being. "The Rose" returns to the Pacific where the present is reinvigorated by a childhood memory from the greenhouse world, a vivid recollection of one of those moments "beckoning out of the self" that Roethke puzzled over and rehearsed all of his life. The memory brings interior reconciliation that is repeated in a symbolic fashion in the final vision of the sea-rose found at the junction of river and sea, land and water, rooted in stone, yet free in the seawind.

Roethke brings his sequence to resolution through the symbol of the rose, perhaps the most resonant of all literary symbols. He claims it as his own through characteristic images that define its context. His flower is a single wild rose struggling out of a tangle of matted underbrush, in that place of conjunction where fresh and salt water meet. Free in the wind, the sea-rose represents the reconciliation between rootedness and fluidity, between earth and water, stasis and motion that he was seeking. It is not Eliot's heavily acculturated symbol, but a single solitary bloom, growing toward clarity out of confusion. For Roethke, the symbol embodies the energetics of the life process itself. In the rose image, the polar tensions of life are brought to balance in a vision of "The imperishable quiet at the heart of form." The vision does not come out of a vacuum. It is the fruit of the long meditative process of the sequence, and can only be understood psychologically. It must be recognized that the rose in the sea-wind is an objective and emotionally satisfying expression of an inner subjective synthesis. In contrast to the superficial divisiveness of life embodied in the motion of the waves, there exists the stasis of the sea-rose. It is magically potent and mysteriously satisfying because it evokes the hybrid roses of the greenhouse, the two conflated in a union of past and present, a subjective synthesis that is symbolically a reconciliation with the father: "What need for heaven, then, / With that man, and those roses?" In one of those still moments held impressionably in the memory, the father suspends the child over the natural growth as the roses beckon the child out of himself. The experience is one when the firm, rational distinction between the inner world of feeling and the external world of sense breaks down, an experience of primitive atonement with nature. These moments of release are saving moments, shattering the sense of isolation and separateness which has haunted the poet. This is neither a simple nor a predictable recovery, since the early memories had themselves to be stripped of the old hostilities. For one of the few times in Roethke's poetry, the father is recovered in an intimate and personalized memory of reconciliation and love.

The poem ends with an explicit statement of the new change. In a still moment of synthesis, a profound readjustment of personality has taken place: what Roethke called, in a phrase often quoted in his notebooks, the abandonment of the egoistic center of personality to another center of being. It is as though spirit is something to be achieved, a goal in an on-going process, the aim of the self in its ascent on the scale of being. This is no withdrawal into pious mysticism. What is celebrated in the poem through the symbol of the rose is the mystery of incarnate, carnal being. D. H. Lawrence's description of the symbol is, in this respect, closest to Roethke's meaning: "We are like a rose, which is a miracle of pure centrality, pure absolved equilibrium. Balanced in perfection in the midst of time and space, the rose is perfect in the realm of perfection, neither temporal nor spatial, but absolved by the quality of perfection, pure immanence of absolution."

From Theodore Roethke: The Garden Master. Copyright © 1975 by the University of Washington Press.

Richard Allen Blessing

In Roethke, as in Eliot, time is conquered through time, through the recapturing in memory of those moments in which time and the timeless have had their intersection. For Roethke, of course, such moments are always characterized by an uncommon awareness of their dynamism, of the vitality of the greenhouse fraus, for example, or the velocity of a careening automobile. Thus, as the driver he has been speeds into the eternal present, Roethke's narrator becomes one with his youthful self and finds in that reunion his own vision of the rising and falling waters. . . .

The journey to the interior of the continent has led to the sea; the journey into the self has led out of the self. As the narrator gazes into the pool be suddenly "sees," flower and water join metaphorically, as if for a moment the lotus blossom rises in the glassy pool. Staring at his image, the narrator finds that the water around his reflection seems to be above him as well as below him; there is a kind of hypnotic confusion as self and reflection of self seem equally real and he is no longer sure "which I is I."

Roethke's North American expedition, like Thoreau's, moves outward from the "sensual emptiness" of the city to that wilderness of the spirit from which one may survey the boundaries between time and eternity. And, again like Thoreau, who experienced his symbolic winter death and spring rebirth at Walden pond, Roethke's old man finds himself renewed by contemplation of that energy which at once alters him and turns the seasons.

From Theodore Roethke's Dynamic Vision. Copyright © 1974 by Indiana University Press.

Susan R. Bowers

Roethke is careful to relate the final metamorphosis of the rose symbol in "North American Sequence" to the poetic world in which it appears. "The Rose," the culminating poem of the sequence, begins, "There are those to whom place is unimportant / But this place, where sea and fresh water meet, is important" (CP, p. 196). Roethke's first wild rose is not only situated near the convergence of fresh and salt water, but also on the edge between water and earth, between wild and domesticated nature, where "the tide rises up against the grass / Nibbled by sheep and rabbits" (CP, p. 196). Even the rose's location implies the resolution of contraries.

This rose is in no greenhouse, but open and exposed to the sea wind, anchored in an important place. It is "A single wild rose, struggling out of the white embrace of the morning-glory" (CP, p. 197).

The fact that the rose of "North American Sequence" is the only wild rose in any Roethke poem is significant for several reasons. First of all, its wildness divorces it from the image of the poet's early years amidst his father's rose-houses, and thus from the greenhouse-womb of the child. Yet the "divorce" is actually a re-discovery of "roseness," that is, of the original nature of a rose before hybridization for fashionable gardens. In returning to this wild rose in his symbolism, in the midst of a return to nature in its natural, unaltered state in this sequence, Roethke mirrors the return to his own beginnings which he exhibits in the lines in the second section of "The Rose," which occur immediately after a description of the single wild rose:

And I think of roses, roses,
White and red, in the wide six-hundred-foot greenhouses,
And my father standing astride the cement benches,
Lifting me high over the four-foot stems, the Mrs. Russells,
            and his own elaborate hybrids,
And how those flowerheads seemed to flow toward me, to
            beckon me,
Only a child, out of myself (CP, p. 197).

Sullivan cites the lines which follow, "What need for heaven, then, / With that man, and those roses?" (CP, p. 197) as proof of the symbolic reconciliation with the father which she claims is represented by the rose symbol. Sullivan's point, it seems to me, is valid inasmuch as it points to the synthesis of past and present achieved by the "North American Sequence" rose, but errs, I think, in reading "then" as suggesting a causal rather than temporal relation. In my view, the most consistent reading acknowledges only that for the "then" Roethke, the child, "heaven" needed no more than "that man," his father, and "those roses," the hybrids cultivated from cuttings. Roethke is recalling for us the first time a rose beckoned him out of himself, preparatory to his revelation of how the wild rose can beckon his adult self. The location of this stanza exactly in the middle of the poem, and the evolution of the rose symbol by this point, also argue for the felt necessity of a more mature definition of heaven which requires not a cultivated, but a wild rose that is independent of any man, even the poet's father. The wild rose is alone and free in the sea wind. It and the poet have metamorphosed to a state beyond the poems which preceded The Far Field, in which he did require the constant return to his childhood to seek rebirth and understanding.

The wild rose is Roethke's special adaptation of a very traditional symbol. Particularly because it is wild, his "rose in the sea wind" escapes the confines of what Sullivan calls T. S. Eliot's "highly acculturated rose." The wild rose is definitely of the physical world, neither an artificial creation nor a human-altered bit of nature. Moreover, as a single rose, its beauty is not in its bud form, as for the cultivated rose, but "Widening at high noon, face upward," when its "imperishable quiet at the heart of form" is perceived most clearly. The heart of the wild rose, "the numinous ring around the opening flower" (CP. p. 192), is an exhibit of form. Roethke's wild rose is struggling "Out of the briary hedge, the tangle of matted underbrush" (GP, p. 197), that is, the thorny tangle of living things.

In the wild state, roses are single, not layered, and have five or, rarely, four petals with numerous stamens and pistils. In the domestic state, the stamens (the male, pollen-bearing floral organs) are transferred into petals and the flowers become double. Therefore, the domestic rose is a strictly female flower, possessing only pistils, seed-bearing organs, and able to propagate only through cuttings. Roethke's female-associated rose in the love poems thus is consistent with the sexual identity of the cultivated rose. The rose in "North American Sequence" is both male and female, an androgyny symbolic of its objectification as the union of opposites. The self-fertilization capacity of the wild rose has metaphorical relevance, for it means that this rose guarantees itself unassisted immortality. The plant world, in its natural state, exists in order to continue. A plant uses nutrients, water, and light to re-create itself, an especially efficient process in a plant which flowers rapidly, moving from bud to blossom at the first blush of sunlight. Such a plant is the wild rose, "Flowering out of the dark, / Widening at high noon (CP. p. 197).

"The Rose" is a poem not only "about" roses, but also "about" movement. As in "The Dying Man," whose heart swayed with the world, and in "The Dream" when the poet-lover "swayed out beyond the white seafoam" (CP, p. 115), living things sway in "The Rose." The hawks "sway out into the wind, / Without a single wingbeat" (CP, p. 196); the poet announces, "I sway outside myself" (CP, p. 196), and, in what is perhaps the climax of the poem, he speaks of "swaying out on the wildest wave alive" (CP, p. 199). "Sway" originally meant "to be moved hither and thither by the wind." Roethke seems to intend this meaning, for his hawks and he move, when they sway, by trusting to the force of a natural phenomenon, either wind or wave, so completely that they need exert no effort or resistance, but only be. This relinquishing of control of one's self to some other force is described in the second stanza of the last section of "The Rose":

[quotes ll. 98-105]

The rose is the single symbol of life, growth and fertility in this wasteland of drying, dying things. It thus represents what Douglas Paschall has called Roethke's lifelong subject matter: "the mysterious shooting out of green life from the rich and rank fetor of dying."

The poet tells us in this stanza that he came upon "the true ease of myself" near this rose among the dying trees. "Ease" can mean "opportunity, means or ability to do something," as well as "comfort, absence of painful effort, freedom from the burden of toil." Roethke seems to intend both meanings, for, by risking the loss of self by giving up self, he has achieved the comfort that is beyond becoming and perishing, the opportunity to become something wholly other, which, free from the burden of toil, can sway out on the wildest wave alive and yet be still. And it was near the rose, significantly, that the poet came upon this true ease. The stanza goes on to amplify the stress on motion and energy:

And I rejoiced in being what I was:
In the lilac change, the white, reptilean calm,
In the bird beyond the bough, the single one
With all the air to greet him as he flies,
The dolphin rising from the darkening waves (CP, p. 199).

The poet is at last content in his own being, and expresses that contentment in dynamic terms: the lilac change; the silent, sinuous energy of a reptile; the single bird whose motion permits potential meeting with all the air; the dolphin moving up into the air from the dark water. These are celebrations of energy, of movement toward; they suggest that Roethke's mystical experience is neither transcendence over nor re-integration with things, but re-integrations with relations between and among things, with the energy that propells and is propelled by the world of living things.

Roethke's mystical experience, then, is his encounter with the life force. Why is the rose the symbol of that life force? Why does Roethke conclude the poem, and thus the sequence, with rejoicing that he is in this rose?

And in this rose, this rose in the sea-wind,
Rooted in stone, keeping the whole of light,
Gathering to itself sound and silence—
Mine and the sea-wind's (CP, p. 199).

This rose actually exemplifies that law of physics concerning static or latent energy which states that a body possesses the power of "doing work" by virtue of the stresses which result from its position in respect to other bodies. Thus place is indeed important for this rose growing where sea and fresh water meet, eagles soar above grazing sheep, and the tide ruffles the grass. Roethke's rose is solidly anchored on the edge of a cliff, yet free to move in the sea wind which will broadcast its fertilized seed to soil and water alike.

The union of female and male, which, as Jenijoy La Belle has named, Roethke celebrates in the love poems as a kind of religious experience, is represented in the wild rose symbol which incorporates not only the personal, human significance, but also stresses the energy of the union, of the universal creative principle of life. The wild rose gathers light and energy for the future of wild roses. The rose brings together the tensions of life into a vital balance which becomes "the imperishable quiet at the heart of form."

The last lines of the poem, "Mine and the sea-wind's," command a lasting image of the positive force of the sea-wind on the Northwest coast, on which wind hawks can "sway," and of the force of the Northwest's Roethke, gathered together by the wild rose. It is the force of nature united with the force of the poetic imagination in an eternal promise of renewal.

The explorer has mapped the regions of his soul. His reward is the wild rose, that metamorphosed symbol which enables the poet to achieve the mingling of contrasts, of turbulent energy and marmorean stillness in which Yeats claimed to lie the nobleness of the arts. Through the image of the wild rose in the sea-wind, Roethke has gathered to himself sound and silence.

from "The Explorer's Rose: Theodore Roethke's Mystical Symbol." Concerning Poetry 13.2 (Fall 1980).

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