Theodore Roethke wrote two poems called “Cuttings.” In the earlier poem, Roethke seems hidden behind a mask of objectivity. He observes and imagines the cuttings from outside, objectively, almost like a scientist.

He does not refer to himself in the poem; he does not venture the word “I”. If he identifies with “the sticks in a drowse,” the identification is cautious, fainthearted. The cuttings “droop over sugary loam,” and “their intricate stem fur dries.” Nice images, but they seem too dry for the living subject. As the cuttings begin to grow, Roethke continues to observe and imagine from outside. “The small cells bulge” as “the delicate slips keep coaxing up water.” A “nub of growth … pokes through a musty sheath its pale tendrilous horn.”

In the later version of “Cuttings,” Roethke comes out from behind his mask of objectivity. Instead of stiffly observing and imagining from outside, he crawls inside his subject. He openly identifies with “the dry sticks” using “I” three times. He becomes the “urge, wrestle” of the cuttings, the “lopped limbs” rising “to a new life.”

“I can hear, underground that sucking and sobbing,” Roethke writes. He feels it in his veins and in his bones. “…I feel it./ The small waters seeping upward./ The tight grains parting at last.” The scene shows birthing, a new life emerging wet from the womb. “When sprouts break out,/ Slippery as fish,/ I quail, lean to beginnings, sheathwet.” In his quailing, the poet suffers the great I AM of all creation.

To me, a Christian, Roethke’s transformation from life observed to life itself, speaks of Jesus in the Gospel of John. “I am the resurrection and the life,” Jesus says in John 11:25. Earlier, in John 6:35, Jesus calls himself bread, but not any kind of bread. He says, “I
am…the bread of life.” Later, in John 14:6, Jesus accepts himself as the incarnated Word, saying “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” Jesus has come into the world, so all the world may come through him.

In the later version of “Cuttings,” Roethke imagines himself incarnated in the plant cuttings, in the natural world, so the natural world may come through him, and he may come through the natural world.

This is the incarnated “I” I love to meet in myself and others, the “I am” who has been so joined to God’s created order that they feel the pain and joy of living with every vein and bone, who quail unashamedly, sheathwet, and resurrected to new beginnings.

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