Theodore Roethke

                        What Can I Tell My Bones?


Perpetual beginner,
The soul knows not what to believe,
In its small folds, stirring sluggishly,
In the least place of its life,
A pulse beyond nothingness,
A fearful ignorance.

      Before the moon draws back,
      Dare I blaze like a tree?

In a world always late afternoon,
In the circular smells of a slow wind,
I listen to the weeds' vesperal whine,
Longing for absolutes that never come.
And shapes make me afraid:
The dance of natural objects in the mind,
The immediate sheen, the reality of straw,
The shadows, crawling down a sunny wall.

      A bird sings out in solitariness
      A thin harsh song. The day dies in a child.
      How close we are to the sad animals!
      I need a pool; I need a puddle's calm.

O my bones,
Beware those perpetual beginnings,
Thinning the soul's substance;
The swan's dread of the darkening shore,
Of these insects pulsing near my skin,
The songs from a spiral tree.

      Fury of wind, and no apparent wind,
      A gust blowing the leaves suddenly upward,
      A vine lashing in dry fury,
      A man chasing a cat,
      With a broken umbrella,
      Crying softly.


It is difficult to say all things are well,
When the worst is about to arrive;
It is fatal to woo yourself,
However graceful the posture.

      Loved heart, what can I say?
      When I was a lark, I sang;
      When I was a worm, I devoured.

      The self says, I am;
      The heart says, I am less;
      The spirit says, I am nothing.

Mist alters the rocks. What can I tell my bones?
My desire's a wind trapped in a cave.
The spirit declares itself to these rocks.
I'm a small stone, loose in the shale.
Love is my wound.

The wide streams go their way,
The pond lapses back into a glassy silence.
The cause of God in me – has it gone?
Do these bones live? Can I live with these bones?

Mother, mother of us all, tell me where I am!
O to be delivered from the rational into the realm of pure song,
My face on fire, close to the points of a star,
A learned nimble girl,
Not drearily bewitched,
But sweetly daft.

      To try to become like God
      Is far from becoming God.
      O, but I seek and care!

      I rock in my own dark,
      Thinking, God has need of me.
      The dead love the unborn.


Weeds turn toward the wind weed-skeletons.
How slowly all things alter.
Existence dares perpetuate a soul,
A wedge of heaven's light, autumnal song.
I hear a beat of birds, the plangent wings
That disappear into a waning moon;
The barest speech of light among the stones.

      To what more vast permission have I come?
      When I walk past a vat, water joggles,
      I no longer cry for green in the midst of cinders,
      Or dream of the dead, and their holes.
      Mercy has many arms.

Instead of a devil with horns, I prefer a serpent with scales;
In temptation, I rarely seek counsel;
A prisoner of smells, I would rather eat than pray.
I'm released from the dreary dance of opposites.
The wind rocks with my wish; the rain shields me;
I live in light's extreme; I stretch in all directions;
Sometimes I think I'm several.

      The sun! The sun! And all we can become!
      And the time ripe for running to the moon!
      In the long fields, I leave my father's eye;
      And shake the secrets from my deepest bones;
      My spirit rises with the rising wind;
      I'm thick with leaves and tender as a dove,
      I take the liberties a short life permits–
      I seek my own meekness;
      I recover my tenderness by long looking.
      By midnight I love everything alive.
      Who took the darkness from the air?
      I'm wet with another life.
      Yea, I have gone and stayed.

      What came to me vaguely is now clear,
      As if released by a spirit,
      Or agency outside me.
      And final.

Theodore Roethke, The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke,
Anchor Books, 1974.