A Convergence of Symbols

I tend to see my whole life through metaphors and symbols, perhaps explaining why I love poetry, painting, and photography so much. In fact, I sometimes wonder which came first, my love of poetry or my propensity for seeing the world through symbols. I suspect that I have always seen the world through metaphor and symbolism, and poetry and photography simply met those needs.

I think I love symbols as much as Jeff Ward of Visible Darkness loves definitions. Two of my most-referred-to books are The Secret Language of Symbols and A Dictionary of Symbols. In fact, at this very moment, after having written most of this essay, I decided to look up the word "swan" in The Secret Language of Symbols. Under birds it says, "In Greek myth, Zeus took the form of a swan to seduce Leda. Queen of Sparta, and the swan therefore came to symbolize love and the gods. It also stands for solitude, music and poetry and its whiteness represents sincerity." A swan is obviously not a goose, but the symbolic meaning of the swan discussed here seems to fit fairly well with the way the goose appears in the following poems, and the two birds are similar enough that it would not be unusual for poets to take "poetic license" to adapt it to their own particular situation.

Irregardless, I find special pleasure and meaning in moments when symbols from different books seem to converge. Such a moment took place when I was re-reading Carolyn Kizer’s The Ungrateful Garden. Her poem about Morris Graves appeared opposite the following poem about Theodore Roethke:

A Poet’s Household
Three for T.R. in the Tanka form
The stout poet tiptoes
On the lawn. Surprisingly limber
In his thick sweater
Like a middle-age burglar.
Is the young robin injured?
She bends to feed the geese
Revealing the neck’s white curve
Below her curled hair.
Her husband seems not to watch,
But she shimmers in his poem.
A hush is on the house,
The only noise, a fern,
Rustling in a vase.
On the porch, the fierce poet
Is chanting words to himself.

Now, it seems like more than coincidence that this poem comparing Roethke’s wife to a goose or swan should appear opposite a poem dedicated to Morris Graves, whose paintings often emphasize the spiritual aspect of birds, as pointed out in the poem.

It’s obvious that Roethke’s life tooka dramatic turn for the better after he married his young wife Beatrice, and he often used bird metaphors to express his love for her in lines like, "I cried, and the birds came down/And made my song their own," "Love likes a gander, and adores a goose;" and "If she but sighs, a bird puts out its tongue." The cental image, or symbol, in "The Happy Three" is of Roethke, Beatrice, Marianne, the goose, frollicking in the back yard.

The Happy Three

Inside, my darling wife
Sharpened a butcher knife;
Sighed out her pure relief
That I was gone.

When I had tried to clean
My papers up, between
Words skirting the obscene –
She frowned her frown.

Shelves have a special use;
And Why muddy shoes
In with your underclothes?
She asked, woman.

So I betook myself
With not one tiny laugh
To drink some half-and-half
On the back lawn.

Who should come up right then,
But our goose, Marianne.
Having escaped her pen,
Hunting the sun.

Named for a poetess,
(Whom I like none-the-less),
Her pure-white featheriness
She paused to preen;

But when she pecked my toe,
My banked up vertigo
Vanished like the April Snow;
All rage was gone.

Then a close towhee, a
Phoebe not far away
Sang out audaciously
Notes finally drawn,

Back to the house we ran,
Me, and dear Marianne –
Then we romped out again,
Out again
Out again
Three in the sun.

These coincidences, in essence, bring me full circle. A little over three months ago John Logan’s poem got me interested in Graves. Since then I’ve researched Graves’ works, sought them out, and now, a month later, I’m re-reading Kizer and she ties together Graves’ works with Roethke’s works, who is has always been one of my favorite poets. While such synchronicities have not yet caused me to forecast the Second Coming, they do remind me a lot of Yeats’ spiral, a model of life which I tend to subscribe to. I like to think that as I grow older and seem to end back in the same old situations that I have grown and become more capable of understanding and appreciating my situation.

Oh, by the way, didn’t Yeats also write some poems with swans in them? I wonder if that should fit in here somewhere?