Theodore Roethke’s “The Geranium”

Bloedel Reserve Zen Garden on Bainbridge Island where Theodore Roethke drowned in 1963
Bloedel Reserve Zen Garden on Bainbridge Island where Theodore Roethke drowned in 1963

Theodore Roethke was born in 1908 in Saginaw, Michigan, to German immigrant parents. Roethke’s father, Otto, owned and operated 25 acres of commercial greenhouses, and many of Roethke’s poems, early and late, view nature and the world, shaped by that early lens, as both wondrous and cruel. Roethke received the Pulitzer Prize, The National Book Award, and the Bollingen Prize for his poems during his lifetime, though he started writing poetry at a late age. He taught at the University of Washington in Seattle until his sudden death while swimming in 1963. His collection, The Far Field, published posthumously in 1965, received a second National Book Award.

Near the end, she seemed almost to hear me–
And that was scary —

Though I think it would be difficult to make a case that Roethke was a poet of protest, there are strong themes of the struggle between life and death in many of his poems. Roethke’s protest, if one could call it that, is exemplified in Roethke’s vision of nature, the cruelty of death, and our willingness to seek truth and survival at all costs. In many of his poems, Roethke questions our human actions, seeking for himself a kind of “edge” (a term he used a lot) between light and dark. In “The Geranium,” we see his poetic method at work, turning a simple act — the throwing out of a sick geranium — into a crime against the spirit. Note how Roethke varies his tone throughout the poem, like an irregular animal breathing, and how the rhythm of the lines taken together intensify his feelings of loneliness.

The Geranium

When I put her out, once, by the garbage pail,
She looked so limp and bedraggled,
So foolish and trusting, like a sick poodle,
Or a wizened aster in late September,
I brought her back in again
For a new routine —
Vitamins, water, and whatever
Sustenance seemed sensible
At the time: she’d lived
So long on gin, bobbie pins, half-smoked cigars, dead beer,
Her shriveled petals falling
On the faded carpet, the stale
Steak grease stuck to her fuzzy leaves.
(Dried-out, she creaked like a tulip.)

The things she endured! —
The dumb dames shrieking half the night
Or the two of us, alone, both seedy,
Me breathing booze at her,
She leaning out of her pot toward the window.

Near the end, she seemed almost to hear me —
And that was scary —
So when that snuffling cretin of a maid
Threw her, pot and all, into the trash-can,
I said nothing.

But I sacked the presumptuous hag the next week,
I was that lonely.

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