Theodore Roethke

My Papa's Waltz

Here's a poem by a Michigan lad, Theodore Roethke, whose father ran a nursery and greenhouse business in Saginaw. This poem avoids all psycho-babble about love-hate relationships, childhood idealization of the father, family tensions and conflicts, the borderline between play and violence, whatever. It avoids those cliches and trite formulations by instead seeing  specific things and moments of experience -- by imagery, in a word.

As you read it, avoid cliché reactions having to do with dysfunctional families, alcoholism, child abuse, and other newspaper topics. Such matters are real enough, but stock responses can block your perceptions. Instead, concentrate on the particulars.

Every image here deserves to be pondered and tasted to the full, for its emotional richness. The overall tone and feeling contains love and pain and humor and nostalgia all blended. This is a poem worth memorizing.


 
 	MY PAPA'S WALTZ
 
 	The whiskey on your breath
 	Could make a small boy dizzy;
 	But I hung on like death:
 	Such waltzing was not easy.
 
 	We romped until the pans
 	Slid from the kitchen shelf;
 	My mother's countenance
 	Could not unfrown itself.
 
 	The hand that held my wrist
 	Was battered on one knuckle;
 	At every step you missed
 	My right ear scraped a buckle.
 	
 	You beat time on my head
 	With a palm caked hard by dirt,
 	Then waltzed me off to bed	
 	Still clinging to your shirt.


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