Rosemary Sullivan: On "North American Sequence"

The "North American Sequence" is, as it were, an attempt to recover attachment to place by immersion, almost a kind of baptism, in primal waters. . . .

Symbolic topography is crucial to this theme. The sequence begins at the Pacific, yet Roethke often reminisces back through the interior continent to the Saginaw, Michigan, landscape of youth and childhood, a movement which reproduces the interior journey into the deeper reaches of the self. It is through this regression and subsequent integration of past and present that the poet recovers the attitude of mind which will allow him finally to merge with the dark and oncoming waters. This process is one of decreation. The mind trapped by its memories roves backward in search of purification until a new category of memory - almost a racial memory - is discovered in the child's celebration of nature: "Once I was something like this, mindless,/Or perhaps with another mind, less peculiar." It is a radical metaphor of belief which asks for commitment to the natural world, trusting that it can accommodate the soul even as it annihilates the accepted categories of the self.

The sequence thus follows a loose but meaningful progression which, in Roethke's typical fashion, is also a regression. "The Longing" describes the poet isolated in a predatory world of death which offers no accommodation to the spirit. Yet toward the end of the poem he begins to sense an essential continuity with an earlier, primitive mentality which may afford the hoped-for release from egocentric isolation. In "Meditation at Oyster River," the long process of mergence with elemental waters through a lapsing of rational consciousness begins. Release from constriction is objectified in the image of the break-up of an ice-locked river in spring. "Journey to the Interior" and "The Long Waters" begin the return back, along detours and dangerous raw places, to the interior continent. It is symbolically a journey through the interior psychic landscape to the still center of the self. In "The Far Field," evocative as that image is of the greenhouse world of "The Lost Son," the poet recovers the world of childhood, its reverence before nature, its instinctive acceptance of death. This is a climactic poem offering a vision of man as a "sea-shape" returning to the sea of origins; the spirit, a wind that "gentles on a sunny blue plateau," a phrase that celebrates the mystery of incarnate carnal being. "The Rose" returns to the Pacific where the present is reinvigorated by a childhood memory from the greenhouse world, a vivid recollection of one of those moments "beckoning out of the self" that Roethke puzzled over and rehearsed all of his life. The memory brings interior reconciliation that is repeated in a symbolic fashion in the final vision of the sea-rose found at the junction of river and sea, land and water, rooted in stone, yet free in the seawind.

Roethke brings his sequence to resolution through the symbol of the rose, perhaps the most resonant of all literary symbols. He claims it as his own through characteristic images that define its context. His flower is a single wild rose struggling out of a tangle of matted underbrush, in that place of conjunction where fresh and salt water meet. Free in the wind, the sea-rose represents the reconciliation between rootedness and fluidity, between earth and water, stasis and motion that he was seeking. It is not Eliot's heavily acculturated symbol, but a single solitary bloom, growing toward clarity out of confusion. For Roethke, the symbol embodies the energetics of the life process itself. In the rose image, the polar tensions of life are brought to balance in a vision of "The imperishable quiet at the heart of form." The vision does not come out of a vacuum. It is the fruit of the long meditative process of the sequence, and can only be understood psychologically. It must be recognized that the rose in the sea-wind is an objective and emotionally satisfying expression of an inner subjective synthesis. In contrast to the superficial divisiveness of life embodied in the motion of the waves, there exists the stasis of the sea-rose. It is magically potent and mysteriously satisfying because it evokes the hybrid roses of the greenhouse, the two conflated in a union of past and present, a subjective synthesis that is symbolically a reconciliation with the father: "What need for heaven, then, / With that man, and those roses?" In one of those still moments held impressionably in the memory, the father suspends the child over the natural growth as the roses beckon the child out of himself. The experience is one when the firm, rational distinction between the inner world of feeling and the external world of sense breaks down, an experience of primitive atonement with nature. These moments of release are saving moments, shattering the sense of isolation and separateness which has haunted the poet. This is neither a simple nor a predictable recovery, since the early memories had themselves to be stripped of the old hostilities. For one of the few times in Roethke's poetry, the father is recovered in an intimate and personalized memory of reconciliation and love.

The poem ends with an explicit statement of the new change. In a still moment of synthesis, a profound readjustment of personality has taken place: what Roethke called, in a phrase often quoted in his notebooks, the abandonment of the egoistic center of personality to another center of being. It is as though spirit is something to be achieved, a goal in an on-going process, the aim of the self in its ascent on the scale of being. This is no withdrawal into pious mysticism. What is celebrated in the poem through the symbol of the rose is the mystery of incarnate, carnal being. D. H. Lawrence's description of the symbol is, in this respect, closest to Roethke's meaning: "We are like a rose, which is a miracle of pure centrality, pure absolved equilibrium. Balanced in perfection in the midst of time and space, the rose is perfect in the realm of perfection, neither temporal nor spatial, but absolved by the quality of perfection, pure immanence of absolution."

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Criticism Overview
Title Rosemary Sullivan: On "North American Sequence" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Rosemary Sullivan Criticism Target Theodore Roethke
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 22 May 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Theodore Roethke: The Garden Master
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