September 25, 2013
Volunteers pitch in to restore the Roethke House
by Sal Robinson
This Thursday and Friday, in Saginaw, Michigan, a group of volunteers will be hard at work on Theodore Roethke’s childhood home. There are two properties, at 1805 and 1759 Gratiot Avenue, which were for many years the home of the extended Roethke family — Roethke grew up at 1805, and returned there often as an adult, and his uncle Charles lived at 1759. The houses, which collectively make up the Theodore Roethke Home Museum, need painting, landscaping, an updating of the electrical systems, and other improvements to bring the site up to code and to restore original features.
This is the first part of a restoration project which will ensure that the museum meets the National Museum Association’s environmental and security standards, and will also allow for an expansion of the Roethke special collections holdings. Also in the works is a poetry library, which will be open to the community: Annie Ransford, President of the Friends of Theodore Roethke, said in an interview with Yfat Yossifor of the Michigan news site MLive, that she hopes “that children and adults will come sit down in an easy chair and ‘feast their eyes on it.’”
The volunteers are a combination of members of the Friends of Roethke group and a hundred employees from the Dow Chemical Company, which is supporting the restoration through its DowGives program. But for a poet like Roethke, who was deeply engaged with the natural world, Dow Chemical, whose environmental record has some bright spots, but is still decidedly mixed-to-horrible, seems like a strange partner — this is, after all, a poet who once wrote “What I love is near at hand/Always, in earth and air.”
He also wrote many poems about the Roethke’s family greenhouses — which were on the Saginaw property and supplied the W. Roethke Floral Company — including “Big Wind,” where he describes working through the night with his father in the midst of a storm:
Where were the greenhouses going,
Lunging into the lashing
Wind driving water
So far down the river
All the faucets stopped?
… We stayed all night,
Stuffing the holes with burlap;
But she rode it out,
That old rose-house,
She hove into the teeth of it,
The core and pith of that ugly storm,
Ploughing with her stiff prow,
Bucking into the wind-waves
That broke over the whole of her,
Flailing her sides with spray,
Flinging long strings of wet across the roof-top,
Finally veering, wearing themselves out, merely
Whistling thinly under the wind-vents;
She sailed until the calm morning,
Carrying her full cargo of roses.
It was a falling-out in 1922 between Charles and Roethke’s father Otto, which led to the sale of the greenhouses, that precipitated a series of tragic events that would mark Roethke’s life: first, Charles’s suicide in 1923, and then Otto’s death from cancer just a year later, when Roethke was only 14. After his father’s death, Theodore took on responsibility for the family: Roethke’s biographer, Allan Seager, wrote that “he took his father’s place at the head of the table and he sat there from that day on.”
But not always, and not uninterruptedly: in his adolescence and his early days at the University of Michigan, Roethke invented a tough-guy persona, saying of himself that “I was odious in a fairly literate way: a money-snob, a woman snob, a food snob. I looked rich—I really did—the bench-made suits, the soon-to-be-inevitable fur coat, the booze, the sexy dames.” He would, however, return to Saginaw to live with his mother and his sister throughout the years that followed, years in which he began to develop as a poet, through his studies at Michigan and Harvard, through a series of academic jobs where he discovered his talents as a teacher, during the Great Depression, and through his struggles with mental illness and alcoholism.
The house on Gratiot Ave. was Roethke’s retreat, and it’s only fitting that it’s being carefully and lovingly restored both by and for the community that surrounds it – I wish Dow’s money wasn’t involved, but Roethke might respond with these words from “The Reckoning”:
All profits disappear: the gain
Of ease, the hoarded, secret sum;
And now grim digits of old pain
Return to litter up our home.
Sal Robinson is a former Melville House editor. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.