"I Knew a Woman" by Theodore Roethke
Theodore Roethke wrote of the beauty of a woman and how she captivated a man in his poem "I Knew a Woman." Roethke describes a sexual attraction radiating from the man towards the woman that eventually is explored. Who the man is to the women is never revealed but one may interpret him as someone who didn't get to spend his life with this woman but rather had a beautiful love affair with her long ago and is now reminiscing.
Roethke's opening verse is arresting in it's artful refutation of the cliche about beauty being "only skin deep." "I knew a woman, lovely in her bones,
When small birds sighed, she would sigh back at them;
Ah, when she moved, she moved more ways than one:
The shapes a bright container can contain!
Of her choice virtues only gods should speak,
Or English poets who grew up on Greek
(I'd have them sing in chorus, cheek to cheek)."
The verb of line one is intended to be interpreted in the biblical sense of carnal knowledge as well as simple acquaintance. "Lovely in her bones" is a phrase so compressed that it requires extended translation. The speaker is making a point to say that her loveliness was both exterior and interior, of structural quality rather than a mere facade. Line two indicates her somewhat empathetic relationship with nature. It is a slight pause before the mind-stopping line describing her movements. Various denotations of movement are soon to be played upon but the first suggestion is that her lovely bones in motion are an emotionally moving sight to behold. One can sense a smile on the speakers face when he says "shapes a bright container can contain." The word "can" is used here as a verb, not a noun describing a metal container that cannot change shape. Rather, the "container" is the woman's flesh within which her bones are located and are capable of graceful movement and shape change. The ensuing mention of gods and English poets learned in Greek lends an elevation that prevents a reader from attaching slang meanings to "can" and "cheek to cheek."
In the second and third verse, Roethke begins to incorporate more of a sexual feeling by the use of sensual word play. The reader begins to realize that the speaker and this woman have engaged in physical displays of affection. "How well her wishes went! She stroked my chin,
She taught me Turn, and Counter-turn, and Stand;
She taught me Touch, that undulant white skin;
I nibbled meekly from her proffered hand;
She was the sickle; I, poor I, the rake,
Coming behind her for her pretty sake
(But what prodigious mowing we did make)."
Earlier mention of poets learned in Greek and the word chorus lead those knowledgable in ancient theatre to interpret "Turn, Counter-turn, and Stand" as translations of strophe, antistrophe, and epode. These were the basic movements for the chorus in ancient Greek drama. However, a reader may interpret this line as a suggestion of dance movements or lovemaking, and put a sexual interpretation on the the verb "stand." Roethke obviously wanted his readers to sense the physical attraction that the speaker has towards this beautiful woman, as it is only natural for him to feel that way. "Undulant white skin" seems to be associative with breasts more than any other body part, and sexual foreplay is strongly suggested with the word "Touch." In this context of double meanings, the word "behind" is simultaneously an adverb of both time and location and it's normal reference to a body part cannot be ignored. Repeated images of curvature, circularity and straightness emphasize the metaphorical comparison to the female curved "sickle" and the male straight "rake" that act together to produce a "prodigious mowing." Roethke used the word rake because it is not just a garden tool but also a promiscuous male. The rake progresses: "Love likes a gander, and adores a goose:
Her full lips pursed, the errant note to seize;