June 25 Theodore Roethke: I Knew a Woman

Been working a morning shift lately, so these posts end up happening in the evening.

Anyhow, we are resuming our “figures of speech” examinations of poems with another love poem, this one a bit later in the year, 1958 (we’re getting there). It’s funny, but even this poem admits that it’s not as romantic as the sonnets of old (“Of her choice virtues only gods should speak,/Or English poets who grew up on Greek”). The poet uses understatement in his phrase “Of her choice virtues only gods should speak.” In other words, his love for her is not quite poetic (certainly not sonnet-like). Perhaps saying “I know a woman” tells us he’s not really in love love.

But he is not a starry-eyed young man trying to capture a young girl’s heart. He refers to himself as “old bones” which means that he’s been around the block a few times. When he refers to himself as old bones instead of aged (or an old man), he using metonymy (substituting one word or phrase for another). Metonymy is used to enrich the text (just saying, “I’m old” is kind of boring) and to capture a deeper meaning; since this poem focuses so much on the body even his age is referred to in physical terms.

Perhaps the acknowledgement that this poem is not as romantic as a sonnet is a bit of a confession. It might be that he doesn’t worship her (she isn’t his sun and moon and stars in the sky – his entire world wrapped up in a small field), but rather someone who enjoys her in his free time (if you know what I mean – wink, wink, nudge, nudge), less soulmate, more playmate. “She taught me Touch, that undulant white skin”, “what prodigious moving we did make”. And this more obvious phrasing, “Her several parts could keep a pure repose,/Or one hip quiver with a mobile nose/ (She moved in circles, and those circles moved).” How interesting that we’re back to circles (yesterday had many), but these are less wholesome (not about the ring a poet is about to wear, but about the rings he makes on her).

And if you want a bit more obvious he states, “Let seed be grass, and grass turn into hay.” “Making hay,” is a bit of an antiquated expression for “knocking boots” – sex, okay, I said it, he’s talking about sex. And does she seems to be able to get away with any lack of virtue as “she cast a shadow white as stone”? Perhaps she is a sly woman always able to cover her tracks, able to get away with anything she pleases. “Shadow white” is a paradox, because shadows are always black, but not hers. This might be a hint to us that she is able to be both virgin and seductress, or at least appear to be both.

There is a bit of the tongue wedged in the cheek (and, no, not in that way – god! you guys!) when he states, “My eyes, they dazzled at her flowing knees.” I think that that is a funny statement, because the poet usually looks at her flowing hair, the knees seem to be implying that he’s trying to say something without saying it. But I’m going to punctuate it (and embellish it) the way it reads to me. “My eyes, they dazzled at her flowing…er, uh, knees, yeah, that’s it, knees! (please don’t think I’m a dirty, old man!)”

With that, here is Theodore Roethke’s less than a sonnet sonnet.

I Knew a Woman

by Theodore Roethke

I knew a woman, lovely in her bones,
When small birds sighted, she would sigh back at them;
Ah, when she moved, she moved more ways than one:
The shapes a bright container can contain!
Of her choice virtues only gods should speak,
Or English poets who grew up on Greek
(I’d have them sing in chorus, cheek to cheek).

How well her wishes went! She stroked my chin,
She taught me Turn, and Counter-turn, and Stand;
She taught me Touch, that undulant white skin;
I nibbled meekly from her proffered hand;
She was the sickle; I, poor I, the rake,
Coming behind her for her pretty sake
(But what prodigious moving we did make).

Love likes a gander, and adores a goose:
Her full lips pursed, the errant note to seize;
She played it quick, she played it light and loose;
My eyes, they dazzled at her flowing knees;
Her several parts could keep a pure repose,
Or one hip quiver with a mobile nose
(She moved in circles, and those circles moved).

Let seed be grass, and grass turn into hay:
I’m martyr to a motion not my own;
What’s freedom for? To know eternity.
I swear she cast a shadow white as stone.
But who would count eternity in days?
These old bones live to learn her wanton ways:
(I measure time by how a body sways).

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About penneloppe

I like to write horror, dark fantasy and crime fiction. Sometimes, I'll write science fiction, but usually I like to write science fact. I also write screenplays and stage plays. My day job is office work. I live in Seattle and I have a cat.
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