One More Roseliep
In search of a focus for this critical reassessment of Roseliep’s poetry, I returned to his first red-bound volume, The Linen Bands (1961). Thumbing through a well-worn copy, tracing poems and lines that have been deeply etched in me for years, I rediscovered the poem “For a Seventy-Fifth Birthday.”
Against the night my world will feather—
shake when the last breath of you has dropped
its syllable on me, my mother,
and you will be younger than I hoped,
I come running with berry buckets
damp from woodgrass and the passed meadow,
a pocketful of active crickets,
and a myth about them to read you:
a son is a boy is an ocean
of wine stored in soils of his loving;
a manchild is the child in motion
faster than a field song caught and sung.
I come leaping against the structure
of Novembers shortening the years,
at your table become a fixture
where candles in a diamond pierce.
Those of you well-acquainted with this poet already know that the first three words, “against the night,” were chosen by him to be carved into the headstone on his grave. You also know that Roseliep’s love for his mother was a touchstone of emotion all his life and that directly or indirectly she and her passion for living appear in all of his volumes. In Rabbit in the Moon (1983) the last haiku invoking her by name—
click of pine
my mother’s needle (105)
unites worlds: the present, his priest quarters at Holy Family Hall where pines were a windbreak just outside the walls of his room; the past, never far from his poetic conjuring, when perhaps he sat listening to her knitting needles. The window is the term between: transparent (oh, God, the reverberations), simultaneously shutting out and letting in the night, providing the barrier which unites by becoming the medium for the “click,” the sound of pine and needle. Such recovery through serious word play absolutely destroys the distance of death and the fear of absolute loss.
Those of you who know Roseliep only through the haiku-freed form, the compression medium of all his latest volumes, might be surprised by the carefully rhymed syllabics and quatrain stanzas of this poem. But an in-depth study of all of Roseliep’s poetics reveals that he could master the easy externals of any form (sonnet, quatrain, terza rima, syllabics, blank verse); work through the essences of those structures; experiment with all their boundaries; and finally push those forms beyond their usual limits, freeing outward from true centers as he did endlessly with the haiku. The elasticity of rhyme “For in a Seventy Fifth Birthday” is already a clear sign that indeed he would “come leaping against the structures.”
After I’d received my reviewer’s copy of Rabbit and sent off a letter full of critical notes to Roseliep in the last November of his life, he wrote, “You have excited me with your groupings, your discoveries, your enthusiasms. You will be interested to know that David Dayton (Editor, Publisher, Alembic Press) picked out pages 30-32, labeled them a ‘superb sequence’…, I am glad you both can see how I loop poems together; that was my real fun in making the book. Getting the patterns to work….” (6 November 1983)
“Getting the patterns to work.” I take Roseliep’s challenge, knowing that he has intricate loopings throughout all of his poetry, and if I but trace a few of them, the “real fun” will be left for his readers.
Red. “Wine stored in the soils of his loving.” (The Linen Bands 58)
I know that red was carefully chosen for the binding of A Roseliep Retrospective (1980), but could Roseliep’s first publisher, Newman Press, have known how apt a binding in red would be for The Linen Bands?
If I were to choose one “looping” to characterize Roseliep’s life, it would be “red.” He acknowledged the importance of this color in a poem in The Small Rain, the second volume of his poetry:
MY MOTHER BOUGHT ME RED THINGS
My mother bought me red things, innocently enough;
an elegiac bear with sunset eyes that could blink
on and off at button touch, a small filling station
having “Danger/Inflammable” printed on each tank,
a fire engine to pedal with my bare summer feet,
a wagon the copy of our maple in autumn,
then a bicycle matching the lunch bucket apple;
and later, some cuff links of ruby glass echoing
the soft thud I heard (shamefully astir) in my blood.
Now I am older, my mother is gone. I have drawn
the drapery across the window to stop her hand
from heaping coals on my bed. Maybe tonight I can
clamber past boyhood and the growing years to meet these
abusive tears, violent as the red
velvet shroud she appointed to hang over my head. (14)
I remember, back in the ’60s, an audience reaction to a reading of this poem. Roseliep sat listening, smiling, as eager young analysts curiously agreed abut the negative aspects of various lines, interpreting the “violence” of the “red velvet shroud” only as a threat to the poet’s existence. Even then, I understood the ambiguous stance toward his own passion that would characterize his poetic expression throughout all twenty of his volumes. Clambering “past boyhood and the growing years” Roseliep gave us a pastiche of red: mulberry skies, wine, tanagers, burgundy carpets, clover, poppies, and plums—every volume of his poetry paid tribute in scarlet to the vitality and the anguish of his loving:
unable in Sobi-Shi’s glass
to get hibiscus red the dark rose
the artist eats the flower of a love ago
(Step on the Rain 27) (Sailing Bones 20)
A double quatrain from Sun in His Belly is titled “Variation on a Theme”—
rembrandt on the wall
tomcat in the hall
what to save
what to save
oil fur fire
I chose a lyre (27)
Roseliep was a house aflame, but he told the reader in this simple poem how he survived and what he saved: he knew the extent and the incredible gift of his passion; irony and wit and experiential wisdom gave him the way through the flame—the “lyre” of song, poetry.
“Danger/Inflammable” (The Small Rain 14) could well have been posted on the other side of Roseliep’s “I-Thou”/T-shirt (Rabbit 29).
Loopings are circles and cycles in Roseliep’s poetry. True to the ancient tradition of haiku with its seasonal cycles and to the cosmogonic life-cycles of even more ancient patterns, Roseliep traced and retraced the year—spring, summer, autumn, winter—in all of his haiku volumes. In Flute Over Walden (1976) the first of his all-haiku volumes, we go with the poet Roseliep and his guide, Henry David Thoreau, to a magic woods to find seasons, nature, self. The journey from one end of the year to the other is eventually a healing one for Roseliep as it was for Thoreau—
of wood and pond—my work done,
my house in order (47)
The evidences of a life cycled are even more evident in the longer haiku volumes, Sailing Bones (1978), The Still Point (1979), Listen to Light (1980), and Rabbit in the Moon (1983). Life-Death-Rebirth—“getting the patterns to work….” Each of these volumes opens with spring and an abundance of haiku which celebrates the youth of the poet:
the boy’s fingers but, child,
circle there is no song
the sweet volcano in the egg you break
(Sailing Bones 13) (The Still Point 17)
in the tool shed arrow in the bird
my father explaining the arrow of
my ‘growing tool’ my boy body
(Listen to Light 25) (Rabbit in the Moon 15)
The poems move us through summer and the passions of a grownup love to the waning of autumn’s power presaging the death consciousness of winter. In all these volumes there is an ominous threat of disappearance.
snuff the candle— the cricket cries
in my sailing bones our point
the pilot light of rest
(Sailing Bones 40) (The Still Point 50)
light who lived here before
lights left a web
light for the moon
(Listen to Light 123) (Rabbit 120)
Once in a previous critical assessment of Roseliep’s work to that date (1980), I wondered “where the poet Roseliep is headed now in choosing ways of expression. No more compression or distillation seems possible—the reader might worry that the poet will evaporate along with the ever-vanishing words. Master of the haiku, Roseliep seems to have trimmed the lean strength of his poetry to the bone” (A Roseliep Retrospective 36). That wondering was written before the publication of his volume of haiku of Mu, The Still Point (1980). Mu—Zen for “nothing; none; empty.” A way through nothing to all. Not easy. In the introduction to this volume Roseliep writes that “over a period of half a year, I began exploring the honeycomb and the catacomb of mu as themes for the haiku moment.” In truth, Roseliep had been writing mu for much longer. Witness—
We shut our eyes by the silence.
Dante’s God the father where a bee is singing
all color is caught. right into rock
(Love Makes the Air Light 78) (Light Footsteps 2)
one leaf-fall, bough limp glass
and empty, sky coffin gray is the way
my fingers, unlock your soul looks
(Flute Over Walden 35) (Firefly in my Eyecup 9)
Leapings, as well as loopings. Roseliep (true to his name) loved that motion and seemed to take a lot of practice jumps off this earth, getting “Therewhere,” Zen-like, often enough to dizzy his readers. He often punned his launchings. A favorite haiku, appearing first in Sun in His Belly (1977) was also stamped in gold into the back cover of A Roseliep Retrospective (1980).
While all your bowers
crisp in heat, gardener Christ,
have one more rose leap.
Name identification was strong and meaningful for this poet. He knew the derivation of his German patronym to be “the man of art who loves the rose,” so when he learned that Japanese “haijin” often took a special haiku-name—a “haigo”—he chose, with the advice of his Tokyo friend Nobuo Hirasawa, the name Sobi-Shi, literally translated as “a rose man of art.”
Red again. “Wine stored in soils of his loving.” Sobi-Shi, an alter-ego, distanced but paradoxically even more closely associated with the self, gave Roseliep a chance to proclaim more intensely the passions of his life. If possible, red became redder through the heart of Sobi-Shi.
seeing some fireflies
Sobi-Shi turns from the street
of red lights
(A Day in the Life of Sobi-Shi)
the figs hang loose:
the two of us
I said to Sobi-Shi
(Listen to Light 88)
But perhaps the loveliest of encounters with Sobi-Shi is recorded in “Night Peace,” a teasing triptych of sensuality:
bumping in the dusk
No power blackout
from Sobi-Shi’s candle
the beauty sighs
from Beauty’s bedroom
Sobi-Shi brings the moon
back to his own
(Sailing Bones 14)
If Sobi-Shi is a kind of safe-distancer for the rawer expressions of Eros, he also becomes, at times, the guardian against the age-old Eros companion: Thanatos—Death.
SOBI-SHI WRITES HIS EPITAPH
(Listen to Light 121)
And, finally, these farewells from Rabbit—as though Roseliep had a premonition of his final Visitor:
the firefly never alone
acting like he knows Sobi-Shi and the big dog
Sobi-Shi’s swan song in the southern sky
good eye closed, gone through a moon
Sobi-Shi views Sobi-Shi still
the last leaves on “Hold”
Some of us wanted to cry “Hold” when Raymond held precariously to life with breath and heartbeat. He would not have it so. Instead, Roseliep left us, perhaps leaving much more to us. We have his words for life.
Thoreau watched a winter rabbit at Walden Pond, fearing that it had succumbed to the cold. Fearing for his own survival, Thoreau’s heart leaped for joy when the rabbit scampered away over the frozen ground. So, too, Roseliep’s Rabbit leaps with life.
Would we look for him? Whitman told us at the end of “Song of Myself,”
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love,
If you want me again look for me under your boot soles.
And Raymond had carved on his tombstone—“against the night.”
Rabbit in the Moon ends//begins with a bravery of assertion about Roseliep’s own disappearance:
We know now where to look.
A note on Roseliep’s writings:
The Linen Bands (1961), The Small Rain (1963), and Love Makes the Air Light (1965) compose the first group of Roseliep’s poetry collections—all are full-length books. Tip the Earth is a pivotal collection prepared in 1969 but not yet published in its entirety. Poems in it are included in the four small press collections not devoted exclusively to haiku: Walk in Love (1976), A Beautiful Woman Moves with Grace (1976), Sun in His Belly (1977), and Wake to the Bell, a garland of Christmas poems (1977). The first all-haiku books appeared in 1976: Flute Over Walden and Light Footsteps. The latter’s seven haiku were included in Step on the Rain (1977). Sailing Bones, another major gathering of haiku, appeared in 1978; it includes the haiku published separately that same year in A Day in the Life of Sobi-Shi. Three more haiku volumes came out in 1979: Sky in My Legs, Firefly in my Eyecup, and The Still Point. A Roseliep Retrospective and other Words By and About Raymond Roseliep, as well as Listen to Light, another all-haiku volume, were published in 1980. Swish of Cow Tail, an accordion-pleated small press volume, was issued in 1982, and Roseliep’s last all-haiku volume, Rabbit in the Moon, appeared in 1983, the year of his death.
Bauerly, Donna. “One More Roseliep.” Studia Mystica, dedicated to Raymond Roseliep 1917-1983. Volume VII, Number 2, Summer 1984: 3-12.