A Trip to the Swimming Pool That Killed Theodore Roethke
It is midnight. It is drizzling. Somewhere in these woods, dogs are barking. They could be security dogs. Or they could be the coyotes. This place, the Bloedel Reserve, is a private 150-acre estate on the northern tip of Bainbridge Island. Neighborhood gossip has it that a family of coyotes has taken up residence here and has been killing sheep. It sounded awesome this afternoon, in my parents' kitchen, the idea of this neighborhood having wild, unpredictable residents—so much has been tamed, cut down, built over since I was a kid. But now the coyotes don't sound so awesome.
Then it's quiet and I continue on. I'm looking for a poet's deathbed.
I can never remember how to spell his name. Is it with an i? Where does the h go? And why do people pronounce it Rut-key? Roeth-key, with the first syllable somewhere between Rooth and Ruhth, is better. If you say it slowly, it sounds like water. Not the amplified fuzz of Pacific rollers or the shush of a stream—Roethke is the murmur of small waves, mixed with the soft slap against the walls of a swimming pool, which, if his ears weren't submerged, would be the last sound Theodore Roethke heard before he died, alone, in a pool near the shore of this island.
That's the story as it has existed in my head for 12 years, at least. I first heard it from Mr. Lawson, who has lived in these woods long enough to be a neighborhood authority. He is a sturdy man with a lush vegetable garden and a limp. He can build a shed, fell a tree, and load his own shotgun pellets with a machine in his tool shed. According to one old rumor, he once accidentally shot a certain endangered bird, panicked, tied some bricks to its body, hauled it to the bluff on the edge of his property, and sunk it in the Sound. Mr. Lawson is one of the disappearing breed of Old Bainbridge (just folks who lived in the woods), who have been losing ground against New Bainbridge (doctors and developers in glittering dream houses) for decades.
Roethke died in a pool next to one of those dream houses. He was a frequent guest of the Bloedels, who made millions in the timber business, at their estate of geometrical lawns and pools and arbors set like a diamond in the tangled, dripping forest. The Bloedel place, now a garden preserve, is just a few minutes' walk from Mr. Lawson's (and my parents') house: up our gravel road, past the creepy, rotting cabin that nobody knows anything about, down Agate Loop, past the field where the coyotes have been chewing up sheep.
Agate Loop is a paved lasso in the forest. It seems haunted. When my little brother was a kid, he said he saw a huge, awful-smelling man who "didn't move like a person" cross the road in three big strides. A high-school friend told me that when he was out sneaking cigarettes at night he heard strange rustling and breathing in the dark. I used to walk through these woods at night, half-hoping, half-afraid to see the fat, luminous ghost of Roethke playing bocce ball in the trees.
Mr. Lawson told me about Roethke's poetry and death and fondness for bocce ball when I was in high school. A few days after getting my driver's license, I wrecked my parents' car and, to pay it off, spent the summer helping Mr. Lawson reroof his house. One afternoon, over sandwiches, he mentioned "a famous poet" who drowned at the Bloedel place.
The story went this way: Roethke—who taught poetry at the University of Washington and was large, vivacious, and a heavy drinker—was by the pool with Mrs. Bloedel and her daughter one summer afternoon, fixing mint juleps. Mrs. Bloedel went to the main house for towels or a telephone call or something. The daughter followed. When they returned, the poet was floating face down in the water. Three perfect mint juleps sat on a table by the edge of the pool. The family, grieved by the death of their friend, filled in the pool and turned it into a Zen rock garden. There is no plaque.
I read a book of Roethke's poetry I borrowed from Mr. Lawson out of ghoulish curiosity, and reread it out of genuine admiration. I'm grateful I hadn't heard of him before, that his name was never mentioned by my high-school teachers, because I probably would have been less interested. To share him with others would have spoiled the romance.
I took to Roethke immediately. His poetry is easy to walk into and easy to linger in. He's not afraid to rhyme and, even when he doesn't rhyme, he keeps a rhythm that drives his words forward like dozens of tiny kites in the wind. His best poems carry a secret darkness, like the famous is-it-fond-nostalgia-or-is-it-child-abuse ambivalence in the first stanza of 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."
Roethke is a minor poet in major anthologies, but he is always the one I turn to first. Love for a writer, like love for anyone, is not predicated on prowess. It comes from something unpredictable, a sympathetic resonance, a chemistry between the reader and the read. In my case, proximity has something to do with it. Thinking of his death every time I passed the Bloedel place—at least twice a day, to and from school—I felt a morbid intimacy. Like we shared something. Like he could be my friend. It sounds foolish—it is the false intimacy of fame—but I felt it. I still feel it. I love Roethke and I want him, through his death-sleep, to love me back.
He was like Shakespeare's Falstaff—the guy who commits "the oldest sins in the newest kind of ways"—and who Prince Henry calls "the tutor and the feeder of my riots." Roethke was the tutor of my riots. Both Falstaff and Roethke preach a gospel of anarchic freedom. Both were heroically exuberant, corpulent, caustic, and drunk. You can sense Roethke's drinking in his writing—the bump, the rhythm, the rhyming, the jump-cut attention span, the fixation on immediate details and despair about the future—from the first line of "My Papa's Waltz" to the final chorus of "Gob Music": "Oh, the slop-pail is the place to think/On the perils of too early drink,/Too early drink, too early drink/Will bring a good man down." Roethke's poetry was familiar in its setting but dislocating in its movement, and produced, in my mind, the same thrilling trick of intoxication—making the familiar foreign.
I took my first legal drink in the Blue Moon tavern, mostly because I had heard that Roethke spent many hours draining glasses at its bar. I nervously nosed my way in on a gray winter afternoon and ordered a pint of stout (I was young; I thought I needed beefing up) and turned to my right to find a table. There was a portrait of Roethke hanging on the wall. He was rosy cheeked and round faced, hoisting a glass of dark beer. He's holding a stout! I'm holding a stout! It was my old friend, there to toast my maiden barroom voyage. At least that's how I remember it. I haven't been back to double check. I don't want to be wrong.
He also taught me about lust, made it seem less sordid and more sublime. He was a famously randy old bastard and not a little shocking to the high-school virgin who borrowed the book from Mr. Lawson. Here is Roethke on onanism: "Thrice happy they whose world is spanned/by the circumference of a Hand,/who want no more than Fingers seize,/and scorn the Abstract Entities." And here is Roethke on coupling, from "The Sensualists":
And she was right, for there beside
The gin and cigarettes,
A woman stood, pure as a bride,
Affrighted from her wits,
And breathing hard, as that man rode
Between those lovely tits.
He was my poet of adolescence, my supernatural teacher of love and death, who wrote about fields and flowers, strong drink and sweaty beds. He gave permission, as nobody else had, to the pleasures of the flesh. Roethke had no pretensions to being one with nature. He remains a creature of sin and civilization wandering in the woods, the modern man—honestly fascinated by, honestly alienated from, honestly frightened of the forests and beasts and their relationship with the human sphere. He gave his blessing to linger in the far field, where we while away our hours in the tall grass, waiting for the Reaper. From "The Far Field":
At the field's end, in the corner missed
by the mower,
Where the turf drops off into a grass-
Haunt of the cat-bird, nesting-place of
Not too far away from the ever-changing
Among the tin cans, tires, rusted pipes,
One learned of the eternal;
And in the shrunken face of a dead rat,
eaten by rain and ground-beetles
(I found it lying among the rubble of an
old coal bin)
And the tom-cat, caught near the
Its entrails strewn over the half-
Blasted to death by the night watchman.
Before the coyotes, before the sheep, the field across the street from the Bloedel Reserve was an open expanse of tall grass, whose tops grew waist-high and nodded hypnotically in the wind. It was the perfect place for a 16-year-old boy to wander into and disappear, lying hidden in the grass with a book. Or a bottle. Or a girl. Or all three. I called it the Far Field and, in my ignorance, believed it was. It was (I thought) Roethke's final classroom where I was taking private lessons—here, with the field mice and the tractor parts, the murdered cat and the moldering rat.
I have always wanted his moment with the Reaper—alone, hearing the sounds of water, his last creative act the mixing of three mint juleps—to be poetic, tragic, worthy of my one-boy cult of personality. But the New York Times obituary I dug up recently is deflating. It says Roethke died "apparently of a heart attack... while wading in a neighbor's swimming pool," which, in 1963, could easily be a euphemism for "drowned while drunk." No mention of the women who found him. No mention of the mint juleps.
The lack of detail made me wonder if the story in my head is a fabrication. So, 12 years after first hearing it, I called Mr. Lawson.
He said he didn't remember telling it that way. "But," he said, "it's possible. He was a heavy drinker. Or that was the scuttlebutt around the neighborhood. I don't remember much else."
Mrs. Bloedel, who, according to the story, left Roethke for the towels or the telephone call, is dead. The daughter, Eulalie Bloedel—now Eulalie Schneider—answered a letter I sent to her asking about Roethke with the following:
My parents were very fond of Beatrice [Roethke's wife] and Ted, and when I visited the Reserve, Ted would often be there as a guest. When we talked, he would talk about poetry and the poets of his generation often as a teacher would talk. I love his poetry and feel very lucky to have had a peek into his world. I am glad you feel such a connection to him and I wish you success in your writing... I really don't want to talk further on this subject, so I ask you kindly to respect my request to have our conversation end here.
Which is how I ended up here in the woods, at midnight, trying to get close to Theodore Roethke the only way I know how: by walking out my parents' door, up the gravel road, past the creepy, rotting one-room cabin that nobody knows anything about, onto the haunted road, past the Far Field, over the fence, among the coyotes, and through the 150 acres of the Bloedel estate. I trespass carefully and quietly, afraid of getting caught, occasionally stopping to assess the position of the barking dogs or admire the sinewy clouds illuminated from below by the lights of Seattle.
After some muddy hours, I stumble out of the forest in front of a Japanese-style guesthouse and a rock garden. This is it. This is the filled-in pool whose last swimmer was the floating poet. I squat by the edge, close my eyes, half-hoping, half-afraid he will appear, searching for his mint juleps. I want them to be the finest mint juleps ever made. Our friendship is very one-sided. But he is forever bowling, luminous and dead, in the forests of my youth.