To me, Roethke’s “North American Sequence” is one of the one of the greatest sequences of poems ever written, though I’ll have to admit to a certain bias since much of it is set in the Pacific Northwest, and I first read it while at Fort Knox, longing for home.
Here is the opening section from
There are those to whom place is unimportant,
But this place, where sea and fresh water meet,
Where the hawks sway out into the wind,
Without a single wingbeat,
And the eagles sail low over the fir trees,
And the gulls cry against the crows
In the curved harbors,
And the tide rises up against the grass
Nibbled by sheep and rabbits.
A time for watching the tide,
For the heron’s hieratic fishing,
For the sleepy cries of the towhee,
The morning birds gone, the twittering finches,
But still the flash of the kingfisher, the wingbeat of the scoter,
The sun a ball of fire coming down over the water,
The last geese crossing against the reflected afterlight,
The moon retreating into a vague cloud-shape
To the cries of the owl, the eerie whooper.
The old log subsides with the lessening waves,
And there is silence.
I sway outside myself
Into the darkening currents,
Into the small spillage of driftwood,
The waters swirling past the tiny headlands.
Was it here I wore a crown of birds for a moment
While on a far point of the rocks
The light heightened,
And below, in a mist out of nowhere,
The first rain gathered?
It is here that the poet claims to find his true self,
And I stood outside myself,
Beyond becoming and perishing,
A something wholly other,
As if I swayed out on the wildest wave alive,
And yet was still.
I probably didn’t understand this poem at the age of 22, but it left an impression that has stayed with me since first reading it, and it rings truer today than it ever has.
Judging from the photographs I’ve posted here this year, some might even believe that I’ve been trying to illustrate this poem the last year. I haven’t, but I have. I suspect I understand the poem much better having spent the last year at Nisqually and at Pt. Defiance.