Skip to main content

Roethke once described the greenhouse as a tropics in the savage climate of Michigan. The first six poems of the greenhouse sequence show it to be precisely this: a closed artificial world concentrating and accelerating growth, in itself a morbid metaphor for the degrading biological processes of life. "Cuttings" is a poem written in two sections--an early and a later view of severed plants struggling to recover life. With a compulsive fascination, the poet watches, or rather imagines, the desperate effort of the delicate slips for growth beneath the seemingly dead and dried surface of sticks-in-a-drowse. With slow, tenacious energy, the plants penetrate the barrier into life in an atmosphere of pure suspension, as if the silent process had no relation to human time. As Roethke himself said: "Intensely seen, image becomes symbol." "Cuttings" discovers the unobtrusive, mysterious coming into being of all life as it "Pokes through a musty sheath / Its pale tendrilous horn."

"Cuttings (Later)" recovers the process at a more advanced, more violent stage of pure incipience. Here, creation is a humiliation, with the plants "sucking" and "sobbing" in a struggle which the poet feels at the core of his own anatomy: "In my veins, in my bones I feel it." Roethke's analogy to the saint is remarkable, as though the biological struggle were a penitential process. The dead stems struggling to regain vitality are engaged in a naturalistic resurrection which he wishes to duplicate: "Slippery as fish, / I quail, lean to beginnings, sheath-wet." For the first time, he uses the metaphor of the fish, the irreducible denominator of all life, the half-way point, as it were, between plant and animal, which defines the interdependence of all living matter. It is as though he wishes to recover from the biological the pure unidirectional impulse toward life, but it is an impulse which is, at present, terrifying to him in its sheer tenacity.