- “I Knew a Woman”: Or, Learning the Hard Way
Poetry has gotten me into bed, but only once. We’d been out a few times, and there we sat, idling in front of her second-story apartment, not knowing what to say. The engine of my ‘98 Honda Civic hummed like a stricken child. Cradled in her lap, a doggy bag of overpriced linguine—which, in the restaurant, had seen much agitation by a fork—kept the windows steamy and opaque. I’d rehearsed this critical moment thoroughly, and often. I was prepared to say things like, “Sure, I’ll have some coffee.” But instead of giving the cue, she said, “I work early tomorrow. What time is it?” My hands continued to sweat on the wheel, steering nothing. “I measure time by how a body sways,” I replied, surprised even at myself. Then, a minor miracle: “Okay, you can come up.”
I didn’t mention that Roethke’s poem, “I Knew a Woman,” was the only piece I’d committed to memory, nor would I understand until much later on how ironic—and, alas, prophetic—my invocation was. (Never trust a love poem that begins in the past tense.) The business about a body swaying comes at the very end; the poem begins:
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). [End Page 107]
Who could have resisted such dewy romantics while in the thrall of two first, and simultaneous, loves? To wit: I’d found not only my beloved, but also a poem whose apotheosis approached my own misguided adorations. It was as though I’d been delivered to a parallel universe in which reality lived up to the promises of poetry—and I could tire of neither.
As proof of this dual exuberance, my copy of X. J. Kennedy’s An Introduction to Poetry (Third Edition) would, if picked up by the back cover, open automatically to page 97, where “I Knew Woman” appeared in a section called “Figures of Speech.” Despite this placement, the poem struck me as eminently sensible in the way its convolutions refused to give love a constant, predictable shape. In those lines, the tenets of Greek tragic form butted up against bawdy puns, which then sobered toward a bold fiat in the final strophe—all in declaration of love for a woman of high literary magnitude. I could relate. What eluded me was the poem’s lack of real movement, rhetorical flourishes notwithstanding. Here was the circular self-talk of a man whose impressive wit and intelligence would always fail to parse the obvious: she left. No remodeling of the poetic clay would change that bald fact.
What eluded me was the way in which Roethke’s excessive praise becomes a cipher for loss. Like an English poet trained in the courtly tradition, Roethke’s speaker convincingly defends an untenable concept—not for sport, but out of necessity. In other words, by presenting his irrational love in the language and figures of rational discourse, he constructs a credible literary figure more stable, and more ideal, than any real woman. To speak more eloquently and more quickly than reason is to overtake it, if only for a time. “I Knew a Woman” does exactly that; its circular locutions fuel the ecstasy of a mind speeding toward a conclusion both irrational and true: as long as the poem continues spinning, she hasn’t left. She can’t leave.
What she can do is take on new appearances. The poem’s beauty hasn’t diminished with the years since I first read it, but where I once took pleasure in its lavish praise, I now take pleasure in its presentation [End Page 108] of a mind too readily convinced by its own fabrications: the poetry, rather than the woman herself. Still, “I Knew a Woman” is a deeply humane...