The beauty of the female body has generated lyrical outpourings from poets and songwriters since language began. My favorite poet of the joyous and playful appreciation of female charm and sexual attraction is Theodore Roethke, an American poet who died in 1963. Harold Bloom wrote of him: "There is no poetry anywhere that is so valuably conscious of the human body as Roethke’s . . . . He more than any other is a poet of pure being . . . . When you read him, you realize with a great surge of astonishment and joy that, truly, you are not yet dead" (Bloom 117-118).
His “Elegy to Jane (My student thrown by a horse)” mournfully expresses avuncular affection for a dead girl, recalling “her sidelong pickerel smile,” comparing her to “A wren, happy, tail into the wind,” and calling her “my skittery pigeon.” While not the language of sexual attraction, it nevertheless captures “the words of my love:/ I, with no rights in this matter,/ Neither father nor lover.”
The same playfulness displayed in his elegy for a student appears in his poem about sexual attraction “I Knew a Woman.” The verb of the title indicates that the relationship, vital earlier, no longer exists. Roethke’s opening line is arresting in its artful refutation of the cliché about beauty being “only skin deep.”
I knew a woman, lovely in her bones,
When small birds sighed, 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).
Certainly the verb of line one is intended to be interpreted in the biblical sense of carnal knowledge as well as simple acquaintance. “Lovely in her bones” is a phrase so compressed that it beggars extended translation. Suffice it to say that her loveliness was both exterior and interior, a structural quality rather than a façade. Line 2 indicates her empathic relationship with nature. It is a mere pause before the mind-stopping line describing her movements. Various denotations of movement are soon to be played upon, but the first suggestion is that her lovely bones in motion are an emotionally moving sight to behold.
I sense a smile when the poet writes of the “shapes a bright container can contain.” The verb “can” is also a noun describing a container of light-reflecting metal but one that cannot change shape. At another level of meaning the container is the woman’s flesh within which her bones are located and which is capable of graceful movement and shape change. The ensuing mention of gods and English poets learned in Greek lends an elevation that prevents a reader’s attaching slang meanings to “can” and “cheek to cheek.” Almost.
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 mowing we did make).
Earlier mention of poets learned in Greek and the word chorus direct those knowledgeable in ancient drama to interpret Turn, Counter-turn, and Stand as translations of strophe, antistrophe, and epode – the movements of the chorus in ancient Greek drama. Others may be satisfied with a suggestion of dance movements, lovemaking, and sexual interpretation of the verb “stand.” “Touch” gathers meaning beyond the reference to one of the five senses. It includes the denotation of skill and mastery as in the touch of a musician, artist, billiard player, etc. However, “undulant” skin seems more associative with breasts than any other body part, and sexual foreplay is strongly suggested. In this context of double entendres, the word “behind” is simultaneously an adverb of both time and location and its nominal reference to a body part cannot be ignored.
Repeated images of curvature, circularity and straightness receive emphasis in the metaphorical comparison to the female curved sickle and the male straight rake that act together to produce a “prodigious mowing.” A rake, needless to say, is not just a garden tool but also a licentious male. The rake progresses.
Love likes a gander, and ignores 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).
Clearly “gander” and “goose” are not restricted to avian denotations, and the “full lips” of the stanza’s second line pucker with ambiguity. The musical references of the earlier “sing in chorus” and “Touch” are reinforced by “played,” “quick,” “light,” and “loose,” but those words are not restricted to a single area of meaning. The sexuality of the final four lines is an area I wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot rake. The woman was an instructress skilled in the art of lovemaking, blessed with beautiful legs, rabbit-like in her enthusiasm and other “-asms.” The parentheses that conclude this and other stanzas are reminiscent of E. E. Cummings’ poetry in their visual demonstration of curvature. They are sickles and they cycle. And within those parts of circles are moving “circles” harking back to the earlier turn and counter-turn as well as the wordplay in which the speaker/poet is demonstrating his own virtuosity, of which only gods should speak.
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 could count eternity in days?
These old bones live to learn her wanton ways:
(I measure time by how a body sways).
The concluding stanza is dizzily and dizzyingly philosophical and fittingly so, after all of the turning, whirling, and circling motions of the previous verses.Note the musicality of the alliterative “martyr . . . motion . . . my,” “freedom . . . for,” live . . .learn,” “wanton ways” – ear-pleasing aspects not mentioned in the examination of preceding stanzas.Reminders that this relationship took place long ago and that the speaker is advanced in age rise with “These old bones,” seed becoming grass and turning into hay, eternity and time.” Ironically, the final stanza is in present tense whereas the previous three were past tense. The woman is gone, perhaps dead if one chooses to see a tombstone in the fourth line. The speaker has been martyred but is still alive, perhaps a reference “la petite mort” or the “little death” of orgasm. The woman will live on in the speaker’s memory, and her lessons have been well learned. The musical thread continues to click with the metronome heard in “I measure time by how a body sways.”
The poem is a complex, lilting, playful and joyous celebration of a woman deserving of those same adjectives.
Work Cited: Bloom, Harold, ed. Modern Critical Views: Theodore Roethke. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988. Bloom, Harold, ed. Modern Critical Views: Theodore Roethke. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988.