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Kenneth Koch talks to testosterone, his father's business, and the Ohio River in New Addresses, his latest volume of poems. Hilarious and quirky, Koch's "addresses" are a roller-coaster ride of characters, opinions, and anecdotes from decades spent on several continents.
While many poets throughout history have written direct addresses to a lover, Koch takes that well-worn precedent and lets it run wild. Forget about the simple "To My Beloved" poem. Koch's poems, all written in the second person, address Buddhism, the Roman Forum, old age, and living in the city. That's just the beginning. The poems then turn to marijuana, sleep, fame, orgasms, competitiveness, and "various persons talked to all at once."
The title "addresses" doubles as a reference to the poet's physical mailing addresses in Rome, New York, and Paris. Koch wandered and wrote, publishing 16 books of poems and several prose books on writing, including one on teaching writing in a nursing home. Every aspect of the poet's life, from his childhood to his urban environments to his religious and sexual explorations, is addressed as if it were a person -- and not an idea, event, or agonizing process.
Whimsical, honest, and very readable, these addresses make even the largest of topics seem approachable. While abundant use of the word "you" can often put a reader on the defensive, here the "you" makes the poems seem intimate. This is how Koch starts "To World War II," where he actually addresses the war:
Early on you introduced me to young women in bars
You were large; and with a large hand
You presented them in different cities,
Later, he asks the war what many soldiers probably thought, plowing forward day after day:
How could anyone ever win you?
How many persons would I have had to kill
Even to begin to be a part of winning you?
You were too much for me, though I
Was older than you and in camouflage.
Koch takes personification to new heights, comparing his chronological age to the duration of World War II. He also manages to go back in time to the thinking of a 20-year-old soldier, where a few years meant a great deal. Despite the wars, the ended marriage, and the coming of old age, Koch's new addresses have another big thing going for them -- unfettered optimism.
Looking back at his earlier life, Koch views much of it with rose-colored glasses -- and a heavy dose of gratitude. Here, for example, are the opening lines of "To My Twenties":
How lucky that I ran into you
When everything was possible
For my legs and arms, with hope in my heart
And so happy to see any woman --
O woman! O my twentieth year!
Koch takes advantage of his current point of view and looks back knowing what he could not have known in his actual 20s:
Basking in you, you
Oasis from both growing and decay
Fantastic unheard of nine- or ten-year oasis
A palm tree, hey! And then another
And another -- and water!
I'm still very impressed by you.
That rushing quality pervades many of these odes, along with an avalanche of exclamation points. Most interestingly, "To My Twenties" tries hard to make sure this poem is not just for the poet who wrote it, but for others:
Oh in what lucky fellow,
Unsure of himself, upset, and unemployable
For the moment in any case, do you live in now?
The addresses also include the heavier topic of religion. The poem "To Buddhism" is followed by a five-page address "To Jewishness" and two interesting additions to that theme -- "To Jewishness and China" and the distinctively titled "To Jewishness, Paris, Ambition, Trees, My Heart, and Destiny."
That religion detour leads to beautiful, exuberant odes to the French language and the Italian language, which Koch spent many years learning. Then there's a short offering called "To the Roman Forum," which is characteristically breathless:
After my daughter Katherine was born
I was terribly excited
I think I would have been measured at the twenty-five espresso mark
We -- Janice, now Katherine, and I -- were in Rome
(Janice gave birth at the international hospital on top of Trastevere)
I went down and sat and looked at the ruins of you
I gazed at them, gleaming in the half-night
And thought, Oh my, My God, My goodness, a child, a wife.
While I was sitting there, a friend, a sculptor, came by
I just had a baby, I said. I mean Janice did. I'm --
I thought I'd look at some very old great things
To match up with this new one. Oh, Adya said,
I guess you'd like to be alone, then. Congratulations. Goodnight.
Thank you. Goodnight, I said. Adya departed.
Next day I saw Janice and Katherine.
Here they are again and have nothing to do with you
A pure force swept through me another time
I am here, they are here, this has happened.
It is happening now, it happened then.
Past and present interact repeatedly in these poems, and in "To the Roman Forum," Koch seems particularly aware that a new era is beginning. What's nice is that he simultaneously realizes that he's not the only one who's gone through this change, just as he's not the only one who's been 20 or 50 or who has learned French or Italian. That "it is happening now, it has happened then" is what makes these poems widely relevant.
Finally, at the book's end, Koch looks forward in an unusual spot -- a poem titled "To Old Age." Instead of talking to the past from the vantage point of the present, he now addresses his own future, called "old age":
You disappeared for a year
That I spent in Paris, came back to me in my father's face
And later in my mother's conversation.
After all that traveling and personal history, and all that humor and Everyman viewpoint, Koch puts himself in the company of poets, mentioning the great English-language poets at the end:
You were left by Shelley
And by Byron and by Keats. Shakespeare never encountered you.
What are you, old age,
That some do and some do not come to you?
In New Addresses, direct confrontation is actually pleasant. This is understandable poetry, with no flab to hide the speaker's fear, joy, and confusion. Using humor, honesty, and verbal pyrotechnics, Koch has fashioned his old mailing addresses into art.