Kenneth Lincoln: On "Frau Bauman, Frau Schmidt, and Frau Schwartz"

Old, dark, working harpies haunt Roethke's early poetry. "Frau Bauman, Frau Schmidt, and Frau Schwartze" are revered as greenhouse earth goddesses, real women reified in myth who godmother Edenic flowers:

They teased out the seed that the cold kept asleep,—

All the coils, loops, and whorls.

They trellised the sun;

The tenacity of these midwifing muses hovers over the boy's first night sense of loss:

Now, when I'm alone and cold in my bed,

They still hover over me,

These ancient leathery crones,

With their bandannas stiffened with sweat,

And their thorn-bitten wrists,

And their snuff-laden breath blowing

lightly over me in my first sleep.

The hard Frauen life is lightly born, their feminine legacy elegized in the boy's coarse loving lines, no less than Dylan Thomas with his agrarian aunt in "After the Funeral." Young Roethke knew a calloused father, too, an unsettled mother, in the dancing trimeter of "My Papa's Waltz," from which the boy could never recover:

The whiskey on your breath

Could make a small boy dizzy;

But I held on like death:

Such waltzing was not easy.

Four trochees spring against the waltzing monosyllables of the iambic quatrain—whiskey, dizzy, waltzing, easy—and the slightly giddy rhymes, straining for reassurance, leave the sense of something celebrated, yet not quite right. An American mixture of violence and gaiety, a touch inebriate, tinges a moment when "mother's countenance / Could not unfrown itself." Something wrong, and can 't be righted with form or bonhomie. The third stanza records the small signs of brutality and love that trouble the poem:

The hand that held my wrist

Was battered on one knuckle;

At every step I missed

My right ear scraped a buckle.

Still absolutely iambic, the narrative is bruised from pain behind the father's belt, and a "battered" knuckle on the child's wrist imprints the young poet's ear, wounded by the hard-rhyming "buckle" of a man's labor. And then the rhythm breaks, troubling time, form, and memory: "You beat time on my head / With a palm caked hard by dirt." The boy addresses his dad directly in a whisper of anapestic spondees, a love-banged stutter-step hard to scan. Time is battered, knuckled into the boy's brain by his gaily obtuse, work-beaten father. We are left puzzling a drunken dad waltzing his son off to bed. Is this Adam's curse, to sweat and swear on the earth for bread, to come home drunk to a disapproving wife and bewildered son, "Still clinging to your shirt," who win record the genesis of his own broken time, wounded ear, and grief-joy of growing up inebriate to sleep? In America, the poet staggers under Adam's heritage.


Title Kenneth Lincoln: On "Frau Bauman, Frau Schmidt, and Frau Schwartz" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Kenneth Lincoln Criticism Target Theodore Roethke
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 22 May 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Sing With the Heart of a Bear: Fusions of Native and American Poetry, 1890-1999
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