Journey Into the Interior, Theodore Roethke
As we all do sometimes, I’m trying to get my assignment in at the last minute. Last year I asked about poems that you would like to see discussed, and Jenny suggested “Journey Into the Interior” by Theodore Roethke. Although I read it right away, it took me this long to think about it and feel like I had anything interesting to say.
At first I didn’t quite know what to make of the first line. Is this a journey out of the self in the sense that the speaker is trying to become less self-involved, see more of other peoples’ points of view? If so, there’s a paradox, as the harder he tries to journey “out of the self,” the farther in he goes, “path narrowing.” That reading kind of worked for me with the connotation of the title–the image of the explorer setting out to find a lost westerner and ending up in the Heart of Darkness.
But that’s not the way to read the poem literally. It’s a poem about a car trip. What kind of long journey do people make “out of the self”? We journey from birth to death. Now the poem is easy to interpret—we have places where it’s harder to drive, and some of them (“the back wheels hang almost over the edge”) make us more aware of how precarious life is. Then we get cautious. Eventually, though, no matter how careful we are, either we’re swept away by a flood or the path gets narrower and we find “the way blocked at last by a fallen fir-tree.” At the end of the journey is death.
In the long journey out of the self,
There are many detours, washed-out interrupted raw places
Where the shale slides dangerously
And the back wheels hang almost over the edge
At the sudden veering, the moment of turning.
Better to hug close, wary of rubble and falling stones.
The arroyo cracking the road, the wind-bitten buttes, the canyons,
Creeks swollen in midsummer from the flash-flood roaring into the narrow valley.
Reeds beaten flat by wind and rain,
Grey from the long winter, burnt at the base in late summer.
–Or the path narrowing,
Winding upward toward the stream with its sharp stones,
The upland of alder and birchtrees,
Through the swamp alive with quicksand,
The way blocked at last by a fallen fir-tree,
The thickets darkening,
The ravines ugly.
The ravines still appear “ugly” because we’re still looking at them from the vantage-point of this world, with our darkening sight. There is no other road, no more alternate scenery. We set out to journey into the interior of the continent, exploring, but no matter how many exciting escapes we have, the end of all our exploration is the “journey out of the self” of our bodies.
I remember my father, in his seventies, telling me he sometimes wondered about “that old man in the mirror” because the image didn’t look like what he still thought of as his self. I think of my mother now, taking a step with a cane for support. I rub my sore elbow and pet the frail back of my almost-sixteen-year-old cat, feeling each vertebrae through his fur, and think about how far we’ve come.