Raymond Roseliep: “Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been?”
By Donna Bauerly
The poet Roseliep is a spare man. I remember one December afternoon when a spot of red in the winter greyness drew my attention to a lean striding figure. The flying red was Roseliep’s stocking cap, and as I neared that “frosty Ichabod,” I remembered an artist’s adage – if you introduce a color into a picture, be sure to repeat it somewhere. Roseliep’s stocking cap was echoed in his cheeks, and for all that grey winter world, I could see nothing but red.
I intend to answer Joyce Carol Oates’s query “Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been?” applied to the poetic career of Raymond Roseliep. I’ll use the cliché-old dualities of content and form.
Spareness will yield the form; winter and red, the content.
You would think Roseliep, greedy for words, would be fat on them by now. That, given the years for accumulation, they would pour out – a regular inundation of liquid sound. Instead, his pages usually trickle words, a distillation that slakes the reader’s thirst with droplets.
Roseliep has always been a careful craftsman. John Logan paid tribute to his skill in the Preface to The Linen Bands, Roseliep’s first published volume. After chronicling the various forms of which Roseliep was master – stanzaics, blank verse, the sonnet, quatrain, terza rima, syllabics – Logan wrote: “Indeed, this artist gives the impression that he can write well and competently in any form and idiom he chooses. His wide craftsmanship is fit friend to Father Roseliep’s long field of subjects and his good human sky of values.” So it has been throughout all of Roseliep’s books. The reader may become aware of the wide variety of form, but it must be a conscious turning-toward, since form is fitted to subject like worn leather glove to hand, and – with the exception of his latest works – it is rarely the form that first attracts attention.
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, the last too recently to be included in this essay.
Formal and syllabic verse predominate in the first three books. Free verse predominates in Tip the Earth and subsequent non-haiku volumes. Even in the haiku books, there is a progression from the formal 5-7-5 syllable arrangement of Flute Over Walden to freer forms.
Roseliep has never been Whitemanesque in his line length. Leafing through even his early volumes, the reader notices a great deal of “white space.” After Roseliep mastered the traditional sonnet forms, it did not take him long to liberate those fourteen lines, as in “Sonet” (the Provençal word for “little song” recalling the origin of the sonnet):
For William Carlos Williams
Cup your palms
at the open side of
blood is the color
and your sun
body will burn
wound of a poem
(The Small Rain, p.44)
Countless poems in the latter volumes compress on the page as though the poet has taken intensity of experience and literally pushed the boundaries of expression inward, creating a dynamic tension throughout. Many poems consist of one sentence, usually in some stanzaic form. “You Have” from Walk In Love (p.8) is typical:
You have come
and I build
and the numb
and the killed
cry to call
Such a poem attempts to transfer by gestalt the whatness, the essence of the experience. The eye can encompass all the words, allowing them to create a kaleidoscopic refraction of meanings.
In earlier volumes, particularly in the first section of The Small Rain, Roseliep often used syllabic verse, typically a 13-syllable line. These poems are rich in narrative texture, full of detail and insight; conversational contemplations, they move on observational wit. Though syllabics appear in most of his volumes, after The Small Rain Roseliep went to a shorter line length, adapting his poetic form to his continual distillation of expression. These are lines from “With Red Plums and Her Poems”:
This deep summer housefly
wakens me to my closed
room keeping out the heat
and the flesh of July
(A Beautiful Woman, p.12)
All poets use words as playthings. Language, their set of alphabet blocks, is built up, knocked down, strewn about, re-stacked, made to lose its wooden quality by stretching or compressing. Much of the play is serious stuff indeed, often a temporary bargain with the forces of destruction. Consider this poem from Love Makes the Air Light (p. 91):
But most of Roseliep’s playing is in a lighter mood, sheer delight in experiencing the elasticity of language, the infinite possibilities of words, syllables, and even of separate letters which combine and re-combine to give multiple meanings. This untitled poem from Sun in His Belly (p. 15) uses a pictorial arrangement to excellent effect:
Among the earth’s fragile
he makes out
on his door
For Roseliep there are no “old” words, no words he cannot coax to frisk around in any one of his poem springtimes. No wonder, then, that the haiku (which gives such attention to each of its words) should hold great attraction for this poet, the juggler of sound in search of essences and simplicity. Roseliep first used the haiku form in The Small Rain, but there only the externals of the haiku appear, usually with a didactic intent. In Love Makes the Air Light Roseliep begins to “free” the haiku to its original intent, the capturing of essences; but it is not until Flute Over Walden that the haiku appears in all its splendor – the Orient’s ideal way of Truth: thereness. In Flute Over Walden Roseliep consistently uses the 5-7-5 syllable pattern, but eventually he is quite capable of the same tricks he plays with the sonnet so that soon a haiku looks like this:
the budding rain
(High/Coo poemcard #1)
Or, he may take the typical seasonal springboard and use instead a season of the heart, as in this stiletto:
What lover is this
in her eyes? Not me! Where are
your pins, Jocasta?
(A Beautiful Woman, p. 39)
Like Flute Over Walden, the other all-haiku volumes are arranged according to the seasons, and mirror as well the inner progression of life, death, and rebirth. But in Step on the Rain (which includes the haiku published separately in Light Footsteps), Sailing Bones, Firefly in My Eyecup, and Sky in My Legs, poetic mastery of form is no longer simply evidenced by the traditional 5-7-5 lines. Rather, there is a radiance of form – the sureness of essence captured, as in these haiku in which spring and inner birth are heralded:
live inwardly the white crocus!
to hear and I haven’t changed
the pop of a bud my clothes
(Step on the Rain, p. 7) (Sailing Bones, p. 7)
Within the seasonal organization of a volume, Roseliep often groups haiku thematically. In Step on the Rain there is a sequence titled “O Eastern Wind.” Each poem carries us to Japan in some way and finally has us climb to the sacred mountain:
Iowa footstep of light
(Step on the Rain, p. 21)
Sometimes the grouping is inconspicuous. No title gives away the you-and-I intimacy of the four haiku on page 24 of Step on the Rain, or the autumn-scarecrow-death sequence on pages 25 and 26 that begins and ends with these two haiku:
Mother, why is I died a little
Father dying on the cross today . . tomorrow I’ll need
in our cornfield? my red hunting cap
The alert reader will find sequence surprises throughout the volumes of haiku. In Sailing Bones craftsmen who are shown as nature dwellers (excavators, roofers, bricklayers, and others) march across pages 30-31, a love sequence unfolds on pages 28-29, and duets of shadows and rain play on page 32.
The haiku whose arrangement mimics the climb up Mount Fuji is but one example of many haiku in which Roseliep displays a love for the visual impact a poem’s form makes; his most playful constructions fuse form and content and continue the tradition of emblematic verse. In one haiku (Step on the Rain, p. 11) he literally makes us
the man who passed in the fog
was it a woman?
Step on the Rain opens and closes with acrostic haiku. The last, “Epitaph: To His Body,” erects a small monument (turn it sideways) and inscribes it:
A fascinating group of haiku uses Roseliep’s “haigo” or haiku-name – Sobi-Shi. Best translated as “a man of art who loves the rose,” Sobi-Shi becomes both the poet and a doppelgänger or alter ego. The use of such a persona allows identification, distance, and reverberation all in one stroke. Sobi-Shi first appeared publicly among “50 Haiku” in the magazine Uzzano (Spring-Summer, 1978). In Sailing Bones he emerged again, first in “Night Piece” (p.14), a teasing triptych of love-encounter:
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
A Sobi-Shi “octet” appears in the middle of Sailing Bones (p. 20-21). Roseliep published seven of these haiku in a separate volume, A Day in the Life of Sobi-Shi. A pity that the final haiku of that sequence reads:
has no more to say
the frog said it
It seems too soon for Sobi-Shi to disappear forever.
Even though we have been assured by many rebirths in Roseliep’s poetry, it is still a bit disconcerting to end Step on the Rain with an epitaph and “slow time.” Even more daring is the quiet ending of Sailing Bones. Death, Winter, then the spare
of one bird
before the last braving of the title poem taking us – where?
snuff the candle –
in my sailing bones
the pilot light
One wonders 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. Perhaps, Raymond Roseliep, the answer to “Where are you going?” can be arrived at by mapping where your poems have been in content, as well as in form.
Traveling back to The Linen Bands and forward to Sailing Bones, one embarks on a long journey – an archetypal journey for reader and poet alike: the young man setting out on his own, renouncing old ties, choosing a new guide, withstanding the trials of an “underworld,” and emerging to a hard-won maturity. That is the way one could simplify the whole of the poet’s progress, but of course the journeys, the manifestations in poems of what ground has been gained (and what ground temporarily lost) are never quite that simple or that straightforward.
In “A Poet’s Belief,” an article for New Catholic World (January-February 1976, pp. 41-42), Roseliep asked of himself, “What then are my poems about if I select so parsimoniously from what many people regard as our vaster issues of life? . . . In one way or another nearly all of these pieces are about human relationships, which I consider equally vast issues, capable of striking deep into life.”
Every volume of Roseliep’s poetry bears witness to the truth of his choice of “human relationships” as the touchstone of his poetry. And though grief and loneliness are part of the glory of this “flood subject,” Roseliep is by far a celebratory poet. I often return to lines from “The Linen Bands” which, in that first book, set forth a theme that figures importantly in all his other volumes:
My hands are busy in a blessing way
since then, and they absolve and they unite,
and in our several sacraments, anoint:
they pour a water that is life. Today
I pause to wonder why they often shake
when lifting bread so light within the Mass,
or why, when sometimes touching other flesh
they want to yield: and yet they do not break.
Though Roseliep is continually conscious of his vocation, he understands the role of priest as one inextricably joined to that of poet. I have often heard him described as a “priest-poet,” but the hyphen separating the words is misleading, for there is no distance between. The “roles” are synonymous in the personhood of Raymond Roseliep. He may bless in the traditional sense, but his poetry is as much a blessing.
These lines from “The Linen Bands” present the major conflict in Roseliep’s life as well – what shall be the manifestation of his love? In order to understand the magnitude of this question we need only examine briefly the recurring image of red in Roseliep’s poetry.
Redness, in the myriad forms Roseliep uses, is a clear indication of his passion – its strength, its pain, its beauty, the terrible ability to feel life and love at a burning intensity – and at times the angst of a desperate holding on against a passion that threatens to plunge heedlessly out of hand. “Where Roots Tangle,” a sonnet from The Linen Bands (p. 31), shows that Roseliep has dealt with the intensity of his passion for a long time. The discipline of the sonnet creates a poignant counterforce to the wildness which threatens. The words tangle, plunge, sun, sweater, orange, fires, love, and burn are momentarily held in check by roots, hooks, oak, colder, moon, esthetic, and will. The form is paradigm for the conflict; the poem is paradigm for his life.
Where roots tangle the ground before their plunge
under, he hooks his heels. His backbone rests
keenly against the oak as the sun sets,
making his faded sweater more like orange.
his face reaches for chinks of light between
the leaves so he can time the moment day
is an equation with his fires that die,
and substitute a colder twig of moon.
The boy of love is moping while that hill
becomes a shadowgraph. But he must turn
from his esthetic distances almost
as sharply as he taught them to his will
once he discovers roots lead down and burn.
And he will mark the night, this light-heeled ghost.
Even roots “lead down and burn,” and the boy who thought he was secure finds that there is no escape from intensity.
An even more powerful statement of the quality, the meaning, and the agony of red in Roseliep’s life is given in “My Mother Bought Me Red Things” from The Small Rain (p. 14):
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.
At first, Roseliep takes an ambiguous stance toward his own passion. The struggle with intensity is his personal “daemon” – not a “demon” to exorcize, but eventually the “attendant spirit” of mediation. A warning against the danger of such intense passion sounds in lines such as these from “Homily for Robert”: “dance these Isaian coals I have strewn,/ or the flaming fox will kill, will kill” (The Small Rain, p. 30).
A pastiche of red: mulberry skies, wine, tanagers, burgundy carpets, clover, poppies, and plums – every volume of Roseliep’s poetry pays tribute in shades of red 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, p. 27) (Sailing Bones, p. 20)
A double quatrain from Sun in His Belly is aptly titled “Variation on a Theme” (p. 27):
rembrandt on the wall
tomcat in the hall
what to save
what to save
oil fur fire
I chose a lyre
Roseliep is a “house aflame,” but he tells the reader in this simple poem how he has survived and what he has saved: he knows the extent and the incredible gift of his passion; irony and wit and experiential wisdom have given him the way through the flame – the “lyre” of song, poetry.
“Human relationships.” Has there been anything in Roseliep’s path with which or with whom he has not entered into some sort of communion? Roseliep takes Genesis literally – God made the world and found it good. So does Roseliep, and goodness inspires love. This response often creates frightening possibilities, for there is just so much emotion one can handle. It was not because Emily Dickinson was by nature a recluse that she finally took refuge in the second floor of her home. Rather, the intensity of her emotions threatened her being. One of her last poems, written when her body was weakened by illness, speaks of the soul’s strength in confronting circumstances that might seem, to most, ordinary:
Elysium is as far as to
The very nearest Room
If in that Room a Friend await
Felicity or Doom –
What fortitude the Soul contains,
That it can so endure
The accent of a coming Foot –
The opening of a door –
(Complete Poems, #1760)
Dickinson’s receptivity to the world around her was like an exposed nerve. She could scarcely bear to hear the voice of a man whom she loved, and though she waited years for him to return to Amherst, she could not finally come down to see him face to face. Such emotional intensity causes many people to scoff – it ordinarily takes catastrophes, and personal ones at that, to move us.
Roseliep is akin to Dickinson in his intensity. He dedicated Walk In Love “to lovers, those I love, those who love me.” And these lovers are many and varied. Throughout Roseliep’s early volumes, the reader is most aware of the intensity of his caring for his students (particularly those suffering from love or the lack of it), for his teaching, for his priestly duties. Then, there is a parade of small children: the four-year-old Elizabeth “who asked to marry me”; the Barbara of “seven christmases” who “set a fire-/ work off/ in an old/ hive/ of my head”; the Christopher who questions “why my cheek is wet.” In all the poems about or addressed to children, two levels co-exist. In “Rachel” Roseliep answers the four-year-old’s question “What do you do all day?” by speaking to the child on her terms, entering her world perfectly. But, outside the conversation – protected by quotation marks – is an adult world a “Steppenwolf me” who must deal with adult loving. His final answer to Rachel’s query would probably make her laugh – for although she’d like to believe – could it be true?
“And I cut stars from sunlight
for your dream
and my night.”
(A Beautiful Woman, p. 15)
A child-adult answer. The adult reader might smile, too, but remembers that this poet’s night is real.
Roseliep writes perceptively of friendship, celebrating specific friends in some poems, exploring the nature of this form of human relationship in others, perhaps most poignantly in “The Friend” from The Linen Bands. In that poem the speaker relates his failure to bridge the inner distance that has separated him from a boyhood friend: “We stood besides the river/ not as boys/ but men who looked for answers to the love/ that neither had” (p. 41). Doubly aware, of his need and of the need of his friend, the poet looks into his own soul “and there I kicked the almost emptiness/ and licked at dark.” The only words he can find to offer objectify his predicament: “The water is a friendly place, but notice/ how that slender gull dips gracefully/ to touch a surface he will never probe.” The parting of these friends leaves a bitter taste – the speaker tells us that his friend goes to “search the oldest/ corners of our towns from end to end” and judges himself “little less than friend.” The most brooding poems in Roseliep’s opus deal with the problems of friendship and kinship; specifically, with the paradox that though “no weather can unbrother brothers” (“Tour. In Rain,” The Small Rain, p. 69), even a brother can return “a stranger” (“Silence Is a Meal,” The Linen Bands, p. 48). For Roseliep friendship also encompasses a host of writers, who receive by way of poems his loving praise and gratitude for their gifts. His two favorites are Katherine Anne Porter and
tooling the word
(Sailing Bones, p. 36)
but he writes, too, of others such as Emily Dickinson, e. e. cummings, William Faulkner, Ezra Pound, Robert Frost, Flannery O’Connor, Anne Sexton, Wallace Stevens, and William Carlos Williams.
The human relationship Roseliep explores most deeply and frequently is that of the man-poet to the boy-becoming-man. “Where Roots Tangle” and “My Mother Bought Me Red Things” show the poet’s direct return to his own youth – with an adult understanding. In other poems his return recreates some particular experience and its attendant awe, his contact with the scissors grinder, for instance – “I know I shall remember/ until the night I die/ the grindstone of a hairy hand,/ the blade of an eye” (The Linen Bands, p. 61).
Roseliep takes a critical stance toward his frequent return to his youth. In an early poem, “Some Men a Forward Motion Love,” he states the conflict:
“Still haven’t finished childhood” was the clause
that closed his letter; then he added, “In
more ways than one.” By childhood he had meant
those Joycean trips through alleys of the mind
I beg to leave unlanterned. He explains,
it takes a child to catch a child: and swears
by it. I do not tell him I am more
the usual coward who transfers a fear.
This lighting back perturbs me like the search
through darkness for a blacker cat not there.
Let midnight wicks inform a virgin’s fool-
ish wait, or scholar’s watch. My friend is I,
and I’m afraid of I, and want no back-
ward steps. Childhood is over, and we shove
ourselves to manhood, linking arm with those
who feign a forward motion, or we move
from shadow into shadow, not from love.
(The Linen Bands, p. 38)
Roseliep continues, however, to write poems centered on his own boyhood experiences or the experiences, vicariously felt, of his students and the many young children and young lovers he knows. He learns to love the man he is by discovering and loving the boy he once was:
the child is gone
the paper bell he made
cracks the wind
(Step on the Rain, p. 37)
The poems are not “backward steps.” They are love offerings to himself, his family – mother, father, brothers – to all youth and the bittersweet pain of growing up, offerings that teach, indirectly, acceptance and understanding, the necessary bedrock of maturation.
Roseliep’s love relationship with Nature is as long as his setting pen to paper. Nothing around him escapes his eye for long. In Tip the Earth, his as-yet-unpublished collection of poems, there is a sequence called “Some Small Creatures.” In direct and delightful address to two wee friends he says:
Spider Box-Elder Bug
Ho there! Keep off my Keats,
I didn’t order little red butt,
wall-to-wall sit on Shelley.
Although every volume of Roseliep’s is replete with poems that center on nature or use the natural world as springboard, his volumes of haiku especially prove his ability to see and become the conscious, articulate celebrator of the world. The haiku form encourages the seeker-after-essence and urges the poet to find the secret of life in the seasonal cycle. The progression in Roseliep’s poetry has been from using nature as ornament or accompaniment to recognizing nature as essence. A haiku from Sun in His Belly is but one instance of Roseliep’s sure touch:
autumn dies – we, too,
cricket with cymbal wings:
music of two spheres
No group of Roseliep’s human relationship poems creates such puzzlement as those which are addressed to an “ambiguous you.” Out of a reader’s propensity to pinpoint the “who” of these poems come real questions for which even the poet may not be able or willing to supply answers. “The “Poetic Muse,” a female counterpart to the male poet, has often served as one referent for the “you” in question. So has the “alter ego” concept. Searching for integrity, completion, the yin to the yang – the poet, of necessity, writes love poems.
The first of these “ambiguous you” poems appears in The Linen Bands – “Tonight, a miracle of air/ you touch my dead grove/ and the branches move/ with excellent fire” (p. 33). Sometimes the poet is careful to distance his “you” by time; the loved one is conjured from the past: “I wrote/ renouncement on your stone” (The Linen Bands, p. 37). But more often, particularly in the later volumes, the loved one’s presence is immediate: “This is the river, love,/ I’d been speaking of./ Come,/ it is a kinds of home” (Walk In Love, p. 9); “in my arms tonight:/ let the apple fall/ on our borrowed roof” (Sailing Bones, p. 27). Most of the love poems are celebratory. Only rarely does the agony of loving predominate, and then the pain is usually distanced by such words as these, spoken to a child (“For Barbara, Eight,” Love, p. 39):
You are the fearless jailer
of my growing child day fear
that I should never revel
in the adventure of thorn.
Increasingly, Roseliep dares to revel in the “adventure of thorn,” and the reader is left with questions – and lovely songs of passion:
could I house in me
the sundogs to unleash
on your dark ground
(Sailing Bones, p. 29)
Roseliep characterized his “parsimonious” selection of subjects as those about “human relationships,” and from a careful reading of his books, the reader can determine that Roseliep most often celebrates human relationship with nature, friends, students, family, self, and lover. But another aspect does exist – one akin to the mood and reality of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “dark sonnets.” Roseliep does not often write a pain or conflict, and when he does he characteristically adds a wry or ironic thrust –
With just that lightkeeper firefly
out on Mississippi
waves that grieve,
I’m afraid of Virginia Woolf.
(Sun in His Belly, p. 44)
Roseliep makes a forthright statement of his belief about revelation of pain: “Soul, I said, it is/ unworthy to spread/ your disturbance/ round” (Sun in His Belly, p. 46). Yet sometimes the darker regions are explored: “Today there is no singing bloodstream/ within the spring time of my body;/ the sunlight is mocking a shady/ pasture” (The Small Rain, p. 75). Existential fear underlies such early poems as “Professor Nocturnal”: “he pads in April dusk, afraid/ to be alive” (The Linen Bands, p. 17); and “The Mourning Dove” (The Small Rain, p. 20):
. . . it was midnight when I wept
beside Pygmalion, and prayed a small life
to death-with-no-dream. . . .
Even in the brevity of haiku there can be anguish:
I whispered of death
one winter night in a voice
we both never knew
(Step on the Rain, p. 36)
“In the Dry Light,” “Walk in Woods,” and “On His Return” are the final poems in Tip the Earth, the transitional manuscript in Roseliep’s opus. These poems are breathtaking, a wintry plunge almost too deep for comment. A teacher with whom I studied Dante’s Divine Comedy suggested that I take a day to read from the Inferno all the way through the Paradiso – in one sitting. I shall never forget the experience of the end passages – “and we walked out once more beneath the Stars.” The cumulative effect of Roseliep’s three companion poems is the same – a washing over of starlight as one emerges whole with the poet from the depths and purgation.
“I do not know a short-/ cut to God,” Roseliep states in “On His Return.” Having followed in his steps we can attest that Roseliep takes no shortcuts anywhere – his poems go by the true way: out wide, in deep. If we have gone where he has been, we have traveled with this spare man through his world of red and winter; we have heard with him “the music of two spheres” from “cymbal wings.”
Where are you going, Raymond Roseliep? Where have you been? Perhaps Theodore Roethke answers these questions best: “I learn by going where I have to go.”
Bauerly, Donna. “Raymond Roseliep: ‘Where Are You Going? Where Have You Been?’” A Roseliep Retrospective: 29-44.