KR Blog

Rank and Silo-Rich

I’ve been writing about Theodore Roethke’s greenhouse poems, the fourteen lyrics at the beginning of his second collection, The Lost Son and Other Poems. The effort has been humbling; the writing is for an audience of avid gardeners. (Meanwhile, I’ve been known to kill the hardiest philodendron.)

I float in Roethke’s greenhouse lines long after I’ve shut the essay down for the day. A clear, free verse style was once new for Roethke, departing from the more tightly wound cornices in his first collection, Open House. The greenhouse poems are short, steady shots of self projected into the life of plants. “Root Cellar” is one example:

Nothing would sleep in that cellar, dank as a ditch,
Bulbs broke out of boxes hunting for chinks in the dark,
Shoots dangled and drooped,
Lolling obscenely from mildewed crates,
Hung down long yellow evil necks, like tropical snakes.
And what a congress of stinks!–
Roots ripe as old bait,
Pulpy stems, rank, silo-rich,
Leaf-mold, manure, lime, piled against slippery planks.
Nothing would give up life:
Even the dirt kept breathing a small breath.

I love these layers leading to “obscenely”–an adverb choice determined to give us a sign of a more removed mind at work in all this thickening root stuff. The layering of plant life builds in these poems, strangely clearing the way for Roethke to talk about working within one’s own life, obscene and “silo-rich” as it is.

Roethke grew up in greenhouses, twenty-five acres belonging to his family’s florist business in Saginaw, Michigan. Oscillating us within the glass houses he described as both heaven and hell, Roethke makes something kinetic. Peter Balakian talks about Roethke’s greenhouse activity as part of William Carlos Williams’s influence, a “belief that words must exist in a field of motion so that a poem can create a sense of a living process.”

Words in a field of motion: how peculiar for us to get piles of “leaf-mold, manure, lime,” then be carried off the line on slippery planks.