When I was ten, I opened a cabinet in my mother’s art studio and discovered a package full of letters sent to my mom from my stepfather. The letters dated back to 1973; a dictatorship had begun in Argentina and my mom, at the age of seventeen, had to unwillingly leave my stepfather. I knew the letters were personal and private, but my curiosity was begging me to open a letter. “Just one,” I promised myself. In it, my stepfather had written a poem and one of the lines went as follows:
Te amo, de nada más vivo.
(translated: I love you, of nothing else I live.)
Till this day, it’s one of the most beautiful sentences I have ever read. My brother once told me that he knew he loved someone when he wanted to write poems for that person. I can’t think of anything more tender than writing love poems and giving them to someone. Writing poems leaves us naked - we let the depths of our hearts be shown, until nothing's left but our core. Theodore Roethke is able to beautifully put together these feelings in “Open House”:
My secrets cry aloud.
I have no need for tongue.
My heart keeps open house,
My doors are widely swung.
An epic of the eyes
My love, with no disguise.
My truths are all foreknown,
This anguish self-revealed.
I’m naked to the bone,
With nakedness my shield.
Myself is what I wear:
I keep the spirit spare.
The anger will endure,
The deed will speak the truth
In language strict and pure.
I stop the lying mouth:
Rage warps my clearest cry
To witless agony.
Roethke is inviting us to read his poetry; to go inside the depths of his heart. He is letting us know of the vulnerability of doing so, of how naked and defenseless he feels. He is in agony because all his love is left in the hands of someone else. He has nothing, and yet, he is showing everything: every fiber in his body, every thought in his brain, every chord in his heart.
In “Memory,” Roethke describes a dream he has of the one he loves. He is letting her know of his feelings towards her and, again, he is left naked - with nothing to hide. The woman knows all he is and all he is is love. Does she turn him away? Roethke poems contain images of nature and in this one there is a sense of otherness. We don’t know exactly where we are, or what she is, or why grass turns into stone but love is all we see and love is all the narrator knows.
In the slow world of dream,
We breathe in unison.
The outside dies within,
And she knows all I am.
She turns, as if to go,
The wind dies on the hill.
Love’s all. Love’s all I know.
A doe drinks by a stream,
A doe and its fawn.
When I follow after them,
The grass changes to stone.
Last but not least, another of my favorite poems by Roethke is the sonnet “To an Amorous Lady.” Here, Roethke is more light hearted. It’s as though he is at the peak of love, when you find that “one in a million.” Love is balanced because both partners are able to give and take; there is no selfishness, only love for each other. Again, we find many images of nature and nature here is unlike what we commonly know.
Most mammals like caresses, in the sense in which we
usually take the word, whereas other creatures, even tame
snakes, prefer giving to receiving them.
-- From a Natural-History Book
The pensive gnu, the staid aardvark,
Accept caresses in the dark;
The bear, equipped with paw and snout;
Would rather take than dish it out.
But snakes, both poisonous and garter,
In love are never known to barter;
The worm, though dank, is sensitive:
His noble nature bids him give.
But you, my dearest, have a soul
Encompassing fish, flesh, and fowl.
When amorous arts we would pursue,
You can, with pleasure, bill or coo.
You are, in truth, one in a million,
At once mammalian and reptilian.
I discovered Roethke ten years after I discovered my mother’s letters. Just like my stepfather's line, his poems left an indelible mark in my heart. He is one of those poets who can stir your emotions if you let it. And I hope you let it.