Flute Over Walden:  A Review

By Donna Bauerly


            (Flute Over Walden by Raymond Roseliep. Published by Vagrom Chap Books, 103 Waldron Street, West Lafayette, Indiana, 47906, at $2.95 a copy. Payment must accompany orders.)


            Flute Over Walden is a demanding book—forty pages of “Thoreauhaiku” requiring a push-up stamina to match Raymond Roseliep’s lean strength in the poetic word.

            Haiku is a deceptive seventeen syllable spareness of form—fulfilling, but concentrated as a handful of granola. A neophyte reader of the ancient Japanese art of haiku might wonder at the prodigality of a poet (or of a printer) who devotes an entire page to a mere three lines:

            —until, that is, the reader accepts this challenge of intensity, the rest of the world shouldered aside for a while.

            True to the content as well as the form, Roseliep gives us miniatures of the season and the self: a shutter snapped on the essence of a moment. Nothing there is didactic. Trained as this priest-poet was to the pulpit and the sermon, he does not preach, but presents—and enters in.

            In the brief introduction to his volume, Roseliep tells us, “The voice in the poems is sometimes the Waldener’s, sometimes mine, and I hope also my reader’s. Sometimes maybe all three. Once it is the swamp gods’.” Yet for all this oneness and identification, Roseliep is not pantheistic; his haiku are not Nature’s voice—rather, they are the conscious observer’s recognition of simple things. More than mere recognition, they are celebration.

            The energy required for the control of this distillation of expression makes one wonder why Roseliep has disciplined himself for an entire volume of haiku. One could search his past poetry for answers. From his previous collections—The Linen Bands, The Small Rain and Love Makes the Air Light—one soon learns that Roseliep has long been a man of restraint. The lines of his poetry often seem to rebel at their boundaries while his mind, as he says in his “Linen Bands” poem, “re-girds the will.” Here is a priest of passion, one who learned well from the mother “who bought him [the child] red things.”

            Passion is controlled, however, safe-guarded sometimes by being addressed to the young—the four year old, for example, who asked to marry him underneath the “mulberry sky.” In this poem one hears echoes of the restrained passion of Hopkins, the nineteenth century priest-poet who wrote, “Margaret are you grieving,/ Over Goldengrove unleaving?” Even in Roseliep’s longer poems there is the frequent control of one, two or three words to a line. Learning to live on the little, Roseliep has discovered (or perhaps, wisely, always knew) the resonance of single words, and the way a few letters can resound, if given the space to amplify. The Small Rain is filled with poems of this kind, the volume’s title poem perhaps being the best example. The first of the poem’s three sentences reads:


                                    After the small


                                    has rained


                                    and sky is


                                    clean and I

                                    am untroubled again



                                    near the clock

                                    spring of no-



                                    I will lie


                                    for simple

                                    light to twine


                                    my body

                                    peaceful as a

                                    star in rain



The Small Rain contains only two haiku-form poems—“Spider” and “For My Last Anointing”—but these are multi-stanza poems, wearing the seventeen syllable form only as an outer garment. Violating the traditional haiku content, both poems are overtly didactic. In Love Makes the Air Light, however, Roseliep gradually gives the haiku form-content its way, using haiku sequences that are thematically centered; but he burdens the reader with titles, crams too many on a page and still indulges in mini-sermons.

            Flute Over Walden, by contrast, is pure; nothing pollutes the crystal spring-fed depths. Seventeen syllables, seasonal essence. Roseliep does not disturb his reader with excessive capitalization; punctuation is minimal. Here, finally, he captures the Orient’s ideal way of Truth—thereness: no beginning, no end, no dichotomy—a journey chronicled most appropriately by simplicity. Wallace Stevens could easily find here his own “Man on the Dump,” waving a prized possession—“The the.”

            Poems in Flute Over Walden are not a symphony of sound; they are, as the title tells us, the voice of the flute, one note following one note. “Nothing too much.” Roseliep gives us first an introductory haiku, bursting from its seventeen syllable seams:


                                    moon, find my bedroom

                                                the sweet Walden ghost tramping

                                                            its pine-needle floor


Wait, the poet seems to be saying, as we begin to turn the page; do not move too quickly to the next poem. Take time, slow down, enter in: it’s evening, the moon is just rising. Be a watcher with me for the kind of light that Hawthorne knew was magical, a precursor of the land of romance; no boundaries there; and yes, ghosts! mergings, all sorts of wondrous happenings. The Walden ghost is here; my bedroom is cabined now along Walden’s shore, a pine-needle floor beneath Thoreau’s feet, your feet, my feet. And we have yet to meet the swamp gods.

            Hushed, emptied of that all-too-realness, we can go, with Thoreau, to a magic woods to find seasons, nature, self. “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

            Walden, written over the seven years after Thoreau left his cabin by the lake, is a compression of his actual two year stay there. Thoreau’s compression gives us only a year—four seasons of the woods and his soul. He began constructing his cabin in March, and the reader spends, with Thoreau, the outer seasons of that spring, through summer, autumn and winter, to the re-birth of a second spring. The reader also experiences Thoreau’s inner seasons: the exuberance of beginnings; the fulfillment of ripeness; the satisfaction of harvest, a security of provision against the onslaught of withdrawal; the loneliness of a silenced, whitened and wintered world. Thoreau almost fails to know that second spring. He struggles for re-birth, and there are moments of dire suspension. Walden, however, attests to his victory—we know he survived, strengthened, with “more lives to live.”

            So, too, Roseliep. Flute Over Walden is his assurance of survival. He gives us seasons—external, internal. This book of Thoreauhaiku is divided, as is Walden, into spring, summer, autumn and winter. Roseliep uses Thoreau’s voice directly to introduce the numbered divisions of his book. Excerpts from Walden, Thoreau’s first spring sparrow, his hoe, his pumpkin “chair,” and his wintered cabin are the landmarks of Roseliep’s own seasonal journey.

            Nature’s miniatures abound. Roseliep delights in the “velour bumblebee,” the “carpenter titmouse,” an “arc of perch,” an “asterisk of daisy,” the “hearth-born cricket,” and the “wassailer bullfrog.” Experiencing his poetry, we often lose exact identification: where we are and who. Sometimes Roseliep puts us on the surface of Walden Pond, sometimes in the middle of the night just awakened by a bean sprout who “hacks away darkness.” Once we find ourselves at a toadstool table, surrounded by—no, one with—


                        we Swamp Gods bid you

                                    grace our toadstool Round Table,

                                                Lord Druid Thoreau


            Incongruities of Nature are frequently the springboard for Roseliep’s Fancy:


pale blue butterfly

lifting diaphanous skirts

above skunk cabbage


Juxtapositions of this type make us laugh—sometimes at our own seriousness. Lest we take ourselves too intently, we need only listen:


                                    Walden Pond quiets,

                                                a man reckons his account,

                                                            a bullfrog tr-oonks


            Roseliep often makes us search our own lives for meaning. Consider—


lichens for a nest,

brown thrasher, not a trapeze—

ask any white spruce


I’ve never seen a thrasher’s nest, but it seems that Roseliep has. That takes some looking. I live by the edge of a woods, watch our backyard birds often, and I wonder—does Roseliep mean the thrasher’s movements when he says “not a trapeze,” or the way the nest moves, or both. I don’t have a white spruce handy to ask; maybe I can ask the poet. I know Raymond Roseliep, though, and he will only tell me where I can find a white spruce.

            Who cares about thrashers anyway? or beansprouts? If you ask those questions, the Flute Over Walden (or Walden) may seem but an exclamation point following nothing.

            If you’d look for a white spruce, however, there’s a long and arduous journey—no

beginning, no end. Roseliep’s last Thoreauhaiku is a first, a preparation for reading or re-reading:


hush, Walden spirit,

helicopter hummingbird,

my grasshopper blood


            Quieted, we begin again. Thoreau’s loon, making a plaything of the sky and water, dives down to rise, beaded. A flute song rises too and touches Walden on those wings.


Work Cited


Bauerly, Donna.  “Flute Over Walden: A Review.” Delta Epsilon Sigma Bulletin, Vol. XXI, No. 3, October 1976: 98-101.