Invention sleeps within a skull
No longer quick with light,
The hive that hummed in every cell
Is now sealed honey-tight.
His thought is tied, the curving prow
Of motion moored to rock;
And minutes burst upon a brow
Insentient to shock.
Nothing less than the life post-mortem is the subject of Roethke’s violently concise little “Death Piece” (Open House, 1941)—a poem unabashedly scion to the green primogenitor of Dickinson. It’s a packed stack of wonderful reminders, in this time of metrical exiguity, of how a paradoxical blend of imposition (rhyme, meter) and receptivity (the ichor which draws down into those carved channels) is key to the deeper workings of poetics in general. That’s what really separates poetry from the idea of prose, isn’t it—that there’s something conveyed in the poetic that’s gnomic in both content and form?—thereby the whole mechanism (both process and result) involves a reckoning with Truth, whatever incarnation it may take. Mastery and surrender are the telltale marks of a great poet.
“Death Piece” is two stanzas: each four lines long, iambic tetrameter followed by iambic heptameter, an ababcdcd scheme—and while there is no getting round of its formal groundwork, the current of its substance relegates all structure to the riverbed—visible, and surely there, but secondary to the river itself.
Not perished or absent, but in a state beyond conscious reckoning (lest it should wake again!) is the life post-mortem. ‘Insentient to shocks’—yet existing still in a world where such shocks persist—is the brow, the skull, likened to a stone. And thought, though moored, still sways upon a vast sea, begging the question ‘Why?’ of its motion, and ‘Upon what deep brine does the dead consciousness sway?’ But most gnomic of all is ‘the hive that hummed in every cell,’ which invokes the multiplicity of being, and our biological/spiritual kinship with that most Otherly insect kingdom. This ‘now sealed honey-tight’ begs the next mortal question—’Where?’—so magically as to present, simultaneously, an alchemical vial of hermetic transformations, a sphere of amber, and the sense that what one finally gives herself over to create (as honey to the hive) is the substance that seals her in death.
5 responses to “Thoughts on Roethke’s “Death Piece””
Stunningly beautiful analysis. “That’s what really separates poetry from the idea of prose, isn’t it—that there’s something conveyed in the poetic that’s gnomic in both content and form?—thereby the whole mechanism (both process and result) involves a reckoning with Truth, whatever incarnation it may take.” What separates the Poet from the poet, as well. And writers of prose would do well, it seems to me, to at least attempt such conveyance.
Agreed, MG—’Poet from the poet,’ indeed.
Being a laughably bad occasional poet myself (can’t seem to find a way to make that “p” smaller, damn computer) is why I touchdown occasionally, with a cup of tea, into the midst of the Pack–to partake in the wonder of its wonders. Learn quite a bit, too, I must say. . . .
I feel like the reading of the poem outdoes the poem at bit =D
How does “surrender” happen for a poet, what do you mean there?
Hm. I’d say our best knowing must be gnomic, too.
Isn’t surrender what lies behind all great and true revelations?—a moment in which your preconceptions lie down, or break all together, allowing the mind to pass?
As a teacher, I might say surrender happens when the mind admits to its sensuality, when it feels. When you allow the thought to be an Eye and not a stone. Or, complicate the stone.
The immense, but unfulfilled energy of the curving prow tied to rock: Roethke must have felt his own thinking in a very physical way, and also in the connection to Sea, must have felt the waves as well. Surrender to the senses—the mystic animal in us—is the only thing that could have brought him to that image, I reckon.