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This review is taken from PN Review 168, Volume 32 Number 4, March - April 2006.

LEAVES OF GLASS THEODORE ROETHKE, Selected Poems, edited by Edward Hirsch (Library of America) $20

The lumbering, alcoholic and mentally unstable Theodore Roethke insisted, 'This shaking keeps me steady.' But his soaring lyrical poetry was suffused with fear: of poetic sterility, nervous breakdowns, madness and early death - 'I'm dying piecemeal, fervent in decay.' He was especially afraid of being forgotten: 'I would put myself, pit myself against oblivion... As the thick shade of the long night comes on.' Punning on 'advantage' as well as on 'edginess' and proximity to the abyss, he declared: 'The edge is what I have.' This tame, bear-like Roethke, 'This animal remembering to be gay', danced because he trod on fire.

In 'Sailing to Byzantium', Yeats wrote: 'Once out of nature I shall never take / My bodily form from any natural thing.' Roethke, by contrast, was at ease with the natural world, if not with himself. He knew what was moving under the water and swarming beneath the ground, knew the thingness of things and the feelings they evoked. He had a palpable wonder, a sensuous understanding of creation. He marvels as 'The sharp stars swing around' and celebrates, with three long 'i' sounds, 'The after-light upon ice-burdened pines'.

Edward Hirsch has written a sympathetic and perceptive introduction to this handsome edition. But he omits 'The Pike' and three of the 'Four for Sir John Davies', major poems. He explains only three references, should have supplied considerably more annotation, and fails to note several important allusions. Roethke's 'Can the bones breathe?' echoes Ezekiel 37:3; ...


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