SELF ON A SHELF
On my soul like a shelf
sits my own self
small as an elf
all by itself.
These four lines have popped up in my mind at various times in my life, but they are unpinned to any further memory. Where did I read them? Perhaps in a poetry anthology used when I last taught poetry 35 years ago, or perhaps in college. Google fails me and I can’t find its author. I try various portions of the poem, but still, no cigar. Google takes the poem apart and shows me dozens of posts that contain all these words,but none where they are stuck together in order.
Finally, in an article from Southern Review, I find a piece by John Montague that references his last communication from Theodore Roethke, but it seems that once again my memory has failed me, for his version is:
In a hand like a bowl
Danced my own soul,
Small as an elf,
All by itself.
Since my favorite college writing professor was a student of Roethke’s, it makes sense that this is why I remember these lines and that it was Roethke who wrote them; but since Montague describes the lines as “Blakesian,” I have to make sure that Roethke wasn’t just quoting William Blake. I feed the correct lines into Google and finally, win success. They are the opening lines of the poem “Restored” written by Theodore Roethke!
So, the first two lines are my own, the second two Roethke’s–a sort of nonofficial collaboration that actually makes me think more than the original. Could “the soul” actually be our real authentic self and the rest of us just experimentation? If there is a ruling hand in the universe, is it playing games with us–sending us out lifetime after lifetime to see how we’ll do in various situations? Like cans of Campbell’s soup lined up on a shelf, our present life is merely the flavor of the day. Another reincarnation, another flavor.
As I grow older, I increasingly think of life as a game–the entire universe the amusement park of a colossal mind keeping itself entertained. If we call that mind God and profess that he sees even the smallest sparrow fall, it is a testament to both the intricacy and the incredible efficiency of that mind and the interconnectedness of nature as the organizational structure by which he keeps it all straight.