Theodore Roethke

Four for Sir John Davies

1. The Dance 

Is that dance slowing in the mind of man 
That made him think the universe could hum? 
The great wheel turns its axle when it can; 
I need a place to sing, and dancing-room, 
And I have made a promise to my ears 
I'll sing and whistle romping with the bears. 

For they are all my friends: I saw one slide 
Down a steep hillside on a cake of ice,— 
Or was that in a book? I think with pride: 
A caged bear rarely does the same thing twice 
In the same way: O watch his body sway!— 
This animal remembering to be gay. 

I tried to fling my shadow at the moon, 
The while my blood lept with a wordless song. 
Though dancing needs a master, I had none 
To teach my toes to listen to my tongue. 
But what I learned there, dancing all alone, 
Was not the joyless motion of a stone. 

I take this cadence from a man named Yeats; 
I take it, and I give it back again: 
For other tunes and other wanton beats 
Have tossed my heart and fiddled through my brain. 
Yes, I was dancing-mad, and how 
That came to be the bears and Yeats would know.

2. The Partner 

Between such animal and human heat 
I find myself perplexed. What is desire?— 
The impulse to make someone else complete? 
That woman would set sodden straw on fire. 
Was I the servant of a sovereign wish, 
Or ladle rattling in an empty dish? 

We played a measure with commingled feet: 
The lively dead had taught us to be fond. 
Who can embrace the body of his fate? 
Light altered light along the living ground. 
She kissed me close, and then did something else. 
My marrow beat as wildly as my pulse. 

I'd say it to my horse: we live beyond 
Our outer skin. Who's whistling up my sleeve? 
I see a heron prancing in his pond; 
I know a dance the elephants believe. 
The living all assemble! What's the cue?— 
Do what the clumsy partner wants to do! 

Things loll and loiter. Who condones the lost? 
This joy outleaps the dog. Who cares? Who cares? 
I gave her kisses back, and woke a ghost. 
O what lewd music crept into our ears! 
The body and the soul know how to play 
In that dark world where gods have lost their way.

3. The Wraith 

Incomprehensible gaiety and dread 
Attended what we did. Behind, before, 
Lay all the lonely pastures of the dead; 
The spirit and the flesh cried out for more. 
We two, together, on a darkening day 
Took arms against our own obscurity. 

Did each become the other in that play? 
She laughed me out, and then she laughed me in; 
In the deep middle of ourselves we lay; 
When glory failed, we danced upon a pin. 
The valleys rocked beneath the granite hill; 
Our souls looked forth, and the great day stood still. 

There was a body, and it cast a spell,— 
God pity those but wanton to the knees,— 
The flesh can make the spirit visible; 
We woke to find the moonlight on our toes. 
In the rich weather of a dappled wood 
We played with dark and light as children should. 

What shape leaped forward at the sensual cry?— 
Sea-beast or bird flung toward the ravaged shore? 
Did space shake off an angel with a sigh? 
We rose to meet the moon, and saw no more. 
It was and was not she, a shape alone, 
Impaled on light, and whirling slowly down.

4. The Vigil 

Dante attained the purgatorial hill, 
Trembled at hidden virtue without flaw, 
Shook with a mighty power beyond his will,— 
Did Beatrice deny what Dante saw? 
All lovers live by longing, and endure: 
Summon a vision and declare it pure. 

Though everything's astonishment at last, 
Who leaps to heaven at a single bound? 
The links were soft between us; still, we kissed; 
We undid chaos to a curious sound: 
The waves broke easy, cried to me in white; 
Her look was morning in the dying light. 

The visible obscures. But who knows when? 
Things have their thought: they are the shards of me; 
I thought that once, and thought comes round again; 
Rapt, we leaned forth with what we could not see. 
We danced to shining; mocked before the black 
And shapeless night that made no answer back. 

The world is for the living. Who are they? 
We dared the dark to reach the white and warm. 
She was the wind when wind was in my way; 
Alive at noon, I perished in her form. 
Who rise from flesh to spirit know the fall: 
The word outleaps the world, and light is all.