I was sitting with my friend Curtis in his backyard the other night. It was balmy for March. I had my feet up and I was smoking a nice Arturo Fuente and drinking Curtis’s fine bourbon over ice. Since Curtis and I are both recently retired, we were soon talking about what we wanted out of life. We two got into the existential weeds pretty quick.
I said that I wanted to know my self. I said I wanted to feel that I am living, rather than merely waiting. I hoped, I said, to register my moments—to be present in them, to taste them—especially because, after all, they are finite.
Since—let’s face it—most of my moments are pretty conventional, such sentiments might have come across as a bit high-flown. But I was reminded once again why we have poets. Poets feel the same stuff as I but they ennoble these thoughts through language. They find the words.
“The words” are not merely precise words; in poetry, words carry a nimbus of meanings and associations, an atmosphere. This is why you often can’t translate a great poem into prose, no matter how many words you employ; precision, in the prose sense, disperses the atmosphere. In Curtis’s backyard, the atmosphere in which I want to live was what I was trying to communicate.
But I’m no poet. Which brings us to Theodore Roethke. “I Knew a Woman” and “The Waking,” both of which I have shared with you in prior posts, seem to have been written to comfort me. I needn’t feel bad for being unable to convey that atmosphere of mine, because Theodore Roethke did it: found the words.
Roethke was a manic depressive and an alcoholic. I think he was a hero. He engaged with life and drew from disorder and grief a consoling vision. Not one based on faith, but rather on the direct experience of one’s own conscious self—however terrible its torments—present at this moment in the world. My own torments are nothing by comparison yet I have need of that vision and find it in his poems.
“In a Dark Time” is the third poem of his that I wanted you to see. It is about the struggle to find one’s self, and, as it were, to struggle past the struggle to some universal awareness. This poem aches and exalts.
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.