Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

"Bare Life" and the Garden Politics of Roethke and Heaney

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

"Bare Life" and the Garden Politics of Roethke and Heaney

Article excerpt

This essay reads the poetry of Theodor Roethke and Seamus Heaney in the light of Giorgio Agamben's philosophy of plant and animal life and his notion of "bare life." It argues that both poets offer very different descriptions of the nature of the relationship between human and non-human life.

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Theodore Roethke's homage to fields and gardens knows no bounds. In "Unfold! Unfold," "the field is no longer simple: It's a soul crossing time," (Collected 89) and the voice of the later poem, "The Far Field," is "renewed" by the "dry scent of a dying garden in September" (201). These lines do not simply promote a morbid fascination for death. They also assign a special meaning to the life of the garden habitat and to its relation to human life. Seamus Heaney's early poetry, the poetry of his apprentice years, is also concerned with depicting humanity's relationship with the slightly larger garden habitat of the farmyard. Both writers offer what might be referred to as genealogies of the garden that respond to recent debates in philosophy that see the unique characteristics of plant and animal life being neglected by today's privileging of the "anthropological machine."

The work of Giorgio Agamben is most effective in expressing this philosophical concern. His conception of "bare life" reappraises the received dichotomy between human life and the life of plants and animals. In The Open: Man and Animal, Agamben discusses Western philosophy's reduction of humanity to an "anthropological machine," a state of being that conceives of the human in terms that privilege a difference between "man" and "animal." Agamben's concern rests with the "central emptiness" or "hiatus" in metaphysics and ontology that has come to separate "man and animal," not externally, but "within man" (92). In other words, if humanity's suppressed animalism is acknowledged as a vital element of being, it can inaugurate an appreciation for what Agamben refers to as "bare life." The process of acknowledging "bare life" does not depend on a better understanding of what is exterior to "man," but instead on a rethinking of the elements of "the animal" (36) already embedded in humanity's interior life. Roethke's and Heaney's genealogies of the garden, their representations of personae that come into being through experiences and encounters with the elements of garden habitats, offer interesting lyrical expressions of this philosophical question.

Roethke's collection The Lost Son and Other Poems frees itself of his pervasive early homage to Yeats and moves to a rigorous, metaphysical perception of the natural world. Stanley Kunitz writes that Roethke's "greenhouse poems" describe "the poet's protean journey of transformation out of the self" (qtd. in Williams 14), yet he achieves this without the tone of spiritual transcendence or epiphany that is very often found in nature poetry's depiction of the subject's experience with nature. Stephen Spender's reading of the movement of "self" in Roethke's poetry extends Kunitz's observation; he writes that Roethke describes a unique "manner of escaping from a self which seems snail-like [...] into an outsideness which turns out to be the reflection of this miniature inner world." Roethke's recognition of the creaturely aspects of the self is presented, for Spender, as an "ambiguity itself ambiguous" (6). In other words, Roethke's investigation of man's encounter with nature and of the self's proximity to the soil grasps something of Agamben's subtle unravelling of the dichotomy of man and animal. Roethke not only discovers a reflection of man in nature, but also creates a poetic voice that somehow overrides the reductive gaze that is most consistently assumed when a poet begins to look for solace in descriptions of natural phenomena. The Roethkean voice reverses the ontological order of nature poetry; it gradually becomes consumed by the objects of its description--"I became all that I looked upon" ("I Waited," Collected 247)--and enables the "ambiguity" of nature poetry's age-old reductive gaze to confront its alter ego, the voice of nature describing man and fashioning the vocabulary for its representation. …

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