Epidermal Macabre

Indelicate is he who loathes
The aspect of his fleshy clothes, —
The flying fabric stitched on bone,
The vesture of the skeleton,
The garment neither fur nor hair,
The cloak of evil and despair,
The veil long violated by
Caresses of the hand and eye.
Yet such is my unseemliness:
I hate my epidermal dress,
The savage blood’s obscenity,
The rags of my anatomy,
And willingly would I dispense
With false accouterments of sense,
To sleep immodestly, a most
Incarnadine and carnal ghost.

-Theodore Roethke (1908-1963)

epidermal macabre

A lot of people seem to think that all poets are depressed, mentally disturbed, suicidal blokes with a degree in Literature. Sure that’s almost true; but like most of us, these guys are merely looking for an avenue in order to explore life’s facets that cannot be explained.

Poetry is a way of expressing one’s self and understand the different aspects of life – its depth, what cannot be comprehended by the human mind alone. Somehow, it serves as a therapeutic outlet – because no matter what we do, we are surrounded by unexplainable things; driving us to an unwilling naivety.

I believe this was the case of Theodore Roethke – hailed the greatest American poet, who during his lifetime has questioned life, the spirit world, and what consists in between. Sure he did go mad, but his poetry somehow became an explanation not only to him, but to those who are inquisitive enough to explore such complex themes.

Whether the spirit world is indeed in existent or not, Roethke has expressed his curiosity in many of his poems – one of which is the Epidermal Macabre. To experience what lies beyond by unchaining himself from life was expressed in the lines 10-14, “I hate my epidermal dress/ the savage blood’s obscenity… And willingly would I dispense with false accouterments of sense/ to sleep immodestly.

He would rather “sleep immodestly” than wear “the rags of [his] anatomy”.

Roethke once said that “the spiritual man must go back in order to go forward.” This idea of waning from life is his way of saying that to rid of “the cloak of evil and despair” is a path to a purer soul.

Yes, Theodore Roethke does fit the stereotypical poet – mad, depressed, has a degree on his belt; but his poems are far from metaphoric ramblings. In order to fathom the connections of life, nature, and the whole universe, he utilized poetry instead, and how we humans are part of the whole accord.

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7 thoughts on “Epidermal Macabre

    1. One of the most creatively productive times of my life was when I was in pain and also in fear due to a very, very dark situation. Though looking back, some of the writing from that time was good I think but some, quite frankly, just turgid. One can be in too much pain, I believe, and end up just being self-indulgent, or at least I can!! 🙂 🙂

      Then again, when I wrote the novels that I am going to publish over the next year I was quite zen and so I relied on my imagination. So it’s an interesting question. This time round creativity arose not from depression but from a kind of lack, I think, and a need for balance. I’m not sure if each state bought about qualitatively different sort of writing – probably did. So its a fascinating subject that I feel ill-qualified to respond to, even about myself!:) What about you?

      1. Interesting. Somehow, I have the same reaction too. I believe that one of my most creative outputs were produced during the time I was really depressed; and for a while I really thought I could not put myself into writing If I was feeling good.

        But then I’m passed those days and yet I feel really contented with my quality of writing now. Yeah, maybe there are slight differences but it’s amazing how we can respond to such emotions 😉 Thanks for sharing!

  1. Yes well, we are not all so miserable. Although we may have a gift for reflecting this and other emotions.

    I will add only that I have no degree relevant to poetry, and precious little coursework; although often I wish I could boast of no such credentials at all, relevant or no!

    I have thrown off that yoke long ago. And have since discovered, as I seemed to intuit at your age, that autodidacts are: smarter, faster, better, more curious, brighter, make better connexions, etc. I could go on and on. The best engineers in any field in which I have worked have been autodidacts. The finest mathematician I work with every day is possibly a decade or two ahead of the pack (and it is a pretty brilliant pack, by the way)

    What was I saying?….. Poetry…. Yes that was it…. Um… it’s really really good stuff. I like it.

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