Today I found a poem by Theodore Roethke sitting in my inbox.  My good friend Neil Vance sent it without a message.  It hardly needed one.  The poem is entitled “Infirmity.”  I read it and my soul was enlarged a thousand times.

Theodore Roethke passed away in 1963.  At the time he was living on Bainbridge Island near Seattle and teaching at the University of Washington.  I was introduced to his work by a professor, Leota Willis, a colleague of Roethke’s in the English Department.  Professor Willis revered his work, saying it was second only to Shakespeare in importance, and paid tribute to him by developing a class on his poetry.  In so doing, she blessed the life of any student who took the class.

That class was as transformative to me as any I took at the university.

Through Roethke she taught us the importance of poetry as an art form, its singular role in translating the experience of being human.  It speaks when there is no other way.

Roethke documented his work in the two hundred-plus journals and notebooks he dutifully kept throughout his life.  A measure of the devotion given to his craft can be found in his statement, “I’m always working,” and indeed his pockets were seemingly always filled with jottings of striking thoughts and conversations.  In his biography of Roethke, The Glass House, Allan Seager estimated that only three percent of the lines of poetry in the more than two hundred notebooks was ever published.

I share these lines with you:

~ by Theodore Roethke

In purest song one plays the constant fool
As changes shimmer in the inner eye.
I stare and stare into a deepening pool
And tell myself my image cannot die.
I love myself: that’s my one constancy.
Oh, to be something else, yet still to be!

Sweet Christ, rejoice in my infirmity;
There’s little left I care to call my own.
Today they drained the fluid from a knee
And pumped a shoulder full of cortisone;
Thus I conform to my divinity
By dying inward, like an aging tree.

The instant ages on the living eye;
Light on its rounds, a pure extreme of light
Breaks on me as my meager flesh breaks down—
The soul delights in that extremity.
Blessed the meek; they shall inherit wrath;
I’m son and father of my only death.

A mind too active is no mind at all;
The deep eye sees the shimmer on the stone;
The eternal seeks, and finds, the temporal,
The change from dark to light of the slow moon,
Dead to myself, and all I hold most dear,
I move beyond the reach of wind and fire.

Deep in the greens of summer sing the lives
I’ve come to love. A vireo whets its bill.
The great day balances upon the leaves;
My ears still hear the bird when all is still;
My soul is still my soul, and still the Son,
And knowing this, I am not yet undone.

Things without hands take hands: there is no choice,—
Eternity’s not easily come by.
When opposites come suddenly in place,
I teach my eyes to hear, my ears to see
How body from spirit slowly does unwind
Until we are pure spirit at the end.

Just a thought…


Copyright © 2019 Patrick J. Moriarty. All Rights Reserved.

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One thought on “Infirmity”

  1. eileen

    Wow. That is a really profound poem. I am understanding this “deterioration of body but freedom of soul” more and more these days. My massage therapist puts it thus: “smile to the pain”.

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