"[Koethe's] new collection is that rarity, a book of poems with a genuine philosophical dimension and an elegant but conversational poise."--The New York Times Book Review
The Late Wisconsin Springby John Koethe
'Solemn and playful, John Koethe's poems lock themselves gradually but firmly into one's memory. His new collection offers in his own words, 'happiness, for myself and strangers.' --John Ashbery
"[Koethe's] new collection is that rarity, a book of poems with a genuine philosophical dimension and an elegant but conversational poise."--The New York Times Book Review
Read an Excerpt
The Late Wisconsin Spring
By John Koethe
PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 1984 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
The Guarded Optimist
I can't tell you much about it yet.
I can offer only these general impressions
Of captivity, of the self as a creation of captivity,
A creation of delayed speech. They're less messages Than
the products of a desire to be there with you again
Talking with you, and being apart with you again that way.
It isn't a feeling so much of being alone
As of having been here too long, locked in a trance
Of expectation after the other, awkward shapes had moved
What were they? I thought I saw the reflection of my face
In the window, but it was merely some of those objects I have
Shrouded in a haze of personality like a perfume.
And if we could lose that, maybe it would return the sense
Of what all of this was like, with the blood roaring in the ears
Like the drone of something that used to live here
A long time ago, before you and I came to be.
All my life
I've meant something I don't really know how to say —
Roughly, that now and then
and here and there
Are different times and places, but not different ways of doing
And that every time and place is so dense
It can't hold any of the others,
But only sits next to them.
It's as though the "knowledge of experience"
Were that experience didn't matter all that much,
And that what I thought and meant and wanted
Didn't make very much difference, and that the past was a
Of how little weight the soul actually has.
And yet I still like most of the things
I used to like in high school, and I still think
Some of those wonderful, vague things are me.
I guess the things one has always liked
Don't have much to do with what one is, was, or ultimately
But I feel lost without them.
Fixed on something so far away my whole
Life seems prolonged out of proportion to the real world,
Things float in and stop and try to talk to me
And I agree with everything they say, though their voices
aren't mine anymore:
It's getting awfully late. And we've all
Been up for a long time. In just a little while
All of us are going to be sound asleep.
Sometimes I can almost visualize my life
As a succession of those states —
Feelings of finitude, inklings of infinity
And the occasional breath of a human detail —
And it terrifies me to think that those moments could comprise
everything I was ever actually going to feel.
But Dorothy 'Wordsworth went about her chores
In the throes of a dependency "so greatly loved
And so desperately clung to that it couldn't risk anything
But a description of the scenery in which it was lived";
And somehow accomplished her imagination.
And the long walks her brother took
In a phase of mind at one remove from description
Seem almost tangible now, and as funny and real
As the minutiae of real life.
Only they seem "absolutely small."
With the detachment that characterizes
The fanatic, to whom nights and days are like children's stories
That don't explain anything but, taken together,
Make a fundamental kind of sense,
The sense of the mirror —
I thought I'd composed my life
Around a series of weightless moments,
And that each moment culminated in one of those remarks
People made at home, or overheard,
Or lost track of in a conversation,
And which were supposed to be as light as feathers.
But now I don't think anything like that ever really transpired
Each One as She May
One life is enough. One private story
Lived out on a summer day. The play of the wind
And the fastidious vacuity of the mind
Lifting the chaos of emotion at the heart of life
Into these clouds of feeling, these reflections
Of the glancing voice upon the dark, unformulated sob.
The birds are singing and the mind is still.
This is how my life was always going to be.
But another time it might have quietly opened out
To take in all of the vulgar disarray
Sprawled out here under the uncomprehending sun.
A simplifying memory might have smiled and sighed
Because it knew its kind of happiness could never end
And that a moment of eternal recompense and peace
Lay in the cool sweetness of the summer shade.
But now the days go by and each one is the same
For life is reading and respite from reading,
And living in a vague idea of where the others are,
Or in dreams, or in these simple versions of the past.
So let the wind die and the birds fall silent
And the gladness of the summer afternoon dissolve
Into these light, distracted semblances of life
Drawn from a purely private story of unwritten grief
And happiness, for myself and strangers.
A Long Lesson
I spent a summer growing in that dream.
I looked — each day a little differently —
At what was there, and put it down:
The child, the family, the pets,
The ones who really tried to pray to God,
And the others, who only stared at him
In disbelief, excused themselves, and left.
I slammed the kitchen door and went outside.
It was a nice day. The flowers waved at me.
The little leaves vibrated in the breeze.
I lay down on the lawn and went to sleep
But it was always the same dream: the house
Was full of strangers; they were calling me
To come inside, but finally were still.
It was quiet and the backyard started
Glowing like a magic garden, cold
And green and full of trees, and when I tried
To wake I only grew, until I woke up looking
Into someone else's eyes at what I was:
What I would always be, but blind.
Let him sleep. And let the others
Heal in their hate: I hid my heart.
The child bore me down without a word.
His art was gentle, his emotions were
As vague as hills, and his spirit stank,
But the pockets in the air he breathed between
Were my whole life. He gave me everything;
He forgave; he took the world away.
If I was a wall about myself, still
I knew I lived in heaven: quiet rooms
Full of pleasant furniture and lots of plants
And all day full of sunshine; and at night
The light of tiny steel stars. Only
There was another world — it was a wonderland
Of happiness and ruined homes, that even God
Could only look upon in suffering.
But it was mine. I tried to live in it.
I felt it sob inside me like a child.
Sometimes I thought I heard him calling me;
Sometimes I knew that I was only crying,
That he was the other life we shared
Before we grew: our little sacrament,
My tomb, my throne, my poor God's body
Broken on his world, a world he made and
Opened to the boy in innocence. And later,
When he became a man, I knew I was alone.
O let him know the hurt, the happiness
That separates the hunger and the fall,
O bring him home] But he never healed.
He was my home. He was the altar where
I worshipped what I was, and made it die:
The garden where he slept; the dingy room
Where he was practicing the piano;
His school uniform; the funny little shoes
He wore in paradise; his attitudes; his eyes
That stared me back across the sweet decay.
It wasn't that he was unhappy or
Unsatisfied or too satisfied or mean —
But that he never went away. He led me
Deeper in his dreams, until I thought
That I could live alone with what I knew:
That far beyond myself I was a boy;
And that he was all of heaven that I had.
Where is that world, the one I made
From prayers for its return, the world where God
Is slowly dying for us through eternity?
Even to see it is to see it fade.
How could we stand the slow love, or
Endure the solitude that might have freed us,
Or the certainty that should have made us
Happy to be free? Where all day long
We wandered back and forth below the huge trees
And when night came and the summer moon
Was motionless, stirred in our dreams, as though
Even the slightest motion would have made them real.
Could we ever bear to be so happy? But it died
And died in us so differently it almost
Seems I might have never needed you:
I might have never looked at you
Through eyes the same as yours, through tears. Or
was that happiness? I could have dreamed
All those other lives. Wasn't it enough to dream?
He might have lifted me through the leaves,
Over the houses where the hate was sleeping,
Through the sunlight; and I might have seen,
Immaculate with snow, the floating mountains
Limiting the world, a world so beautiful.
Poor seed — poor blind seed shed from heaven,
Swollen in the earth until it grew —
Our lives change. And our worlds, like dreams
So absolute even our sorrow seems
A form of happiness, are being changed.
Objects in Autumn
"Either objects have life
And active power, as we have;
Or they are moved and changed
By something having life and active power;
Or they move and change us."
— The verbs are still in the mind
And the mind is still in the scenery
After thirty-seven years.
We must have seen what we came to see
And said everything we wanted to say
A long time ago: the terse
Survey and the faces of the angels
Reflected in it, which are like ours.
It's as though you and I had become
Caveats, slogans of speculation
In a world which is its own motto:
The bright colors of the trees
And the mild brilliance of the mind
In autumn, and the year-long helplessness.
Each thing speaks for itself
But with so much room around every word
And so sleeplessly, that the soul fails
And is left at the mercy of a few things.
Or is this waiting? Your quiet face
Crossed by glances, and my own mind
Stuck with secrets, indulging dreams
In which all its secrets explode?
But we have to swallow our dreams, for
As Thomas Reid observed, "A lively dream
Is no nearer to reality than a faint one,"
And the feelings of one or two people
Are theirs, are real, and can be contained.
Maybe we could have been as happy as
We are now, safe in that middle knowledge
Things have, and with complete lives
Lived out in detail, like the remote consequences
Of all that we'd ever wanted to say to each other.
But we never lived that way.
And now when I try to look at us
I can see only the settings, the distinct
Stages we inhabited just a little while ago
And this room where we started talking.
Eventually, our lives had to come true;
And the figures on the other side of the lens
(The figures in the living room)
Had to keep acting the same way,
Repeating the patient, perfect life
Ad interim, in a quiet room next to the mind
We never left there, did we?
You and I are still at home, meaning to leave
In a little while, and meanwhile
Drawing the same dream closer
And closer around us, like a shawl.
But the days and the nights
Don't cut anymore; and the confusion,
The repair, the little things I did
And what I talked to you about, are all held
In words like boxes, gentle worlds
Whose inhabitants aren't even human;
And the window over your right shoulder
Gives on a verbless worlds of things
We meant to live through, a landscape.
Like that bird there, it alights and sings a song
And flys away again. And I don't want it to stay —
It's too early and I'm not quite ready for them yet:
I'm still thinking about them. And I know that the only true
way is patience,
But if I could remember their names, remember what the trees
Or the details of that afternoon ...
But a soft summer rain fell last night, and this morning the
breeze was back.
It must have happened sometime during the night
Or early this morning while I was still sleeping,
And at first I didn't notice that anything had changed.
For I spend so much of my time alone,
Watching myself for the first, faint stirrings of a life
Which isn't mine anymore, and which I know can't be
apprehended that way,
That sometimes the moments seem to lapse entirely inside me
On a transparent screen, or in a world where nothing real is
ever going to happen.
Only this afternoon everything seemed changed: my friends
But somehow it didn't bother me that nothing was ever going
to bring them back again.
I kept listening to the wind: its purling sounded like time
Repeating something I'd been listening to for years, but hadn't
had the character to say:
That they weren't real. That they'd only inhabited my
Because it was empty. And that I didn't care what happened to
For as I thought about them this afternoon
They began to seem weightless, and the oppressiveness of
nearly twenty years
Seemed to fall away, leaving me alone in a small room
Trying to write a poem whose figures were unreal
Shadows cast by a single moment on the rest of time,
On the remainder of the world. After all, what were they
But the mirroring surface of a sob as it flooded a mind
Crammed full of useless details, like the traffic noises
Carried here on the wind, or something I said years ago,
One summer afternoon, to some friends whose names I can't
even remember anymore.
It doesn't matter who they were. They kept me alive,
Protected from the others by a child's picture of what the
world was like
Before they disappeared, like whole moments, back into time.
Barely a week later
I'd returned to myself again.
But where a light perspective of particulars
Used to range under an accommodating blue sky
There were only numb mind tones, thoughts clenched like
And syllables struggling to release their sense to my
I tried to get out of myself
But it was like emerging into a maze:
The buildings across the street still looked the same,
But they seemed foreshortened,
Dense, and much closer than I'd ever realized,
As though I'd only seen them previously in a dream.
Why is it supposed to be so important to see things as they
The sense of life, of what life is like — isn't that
What we're always trying so desperately to say?
And whether we live in between them,
Mirror each other out of thin air, or exist only as reflections
Of everything that isn't ours, we all sense it,
And we want it to last forever.
The Little Boy
I want to stay here a while, now that there came to me
This other version of what passes in my life for time.
The little boy is in his sandbox. Mom and Dad
Are puttering around in the backyard.
"I stopped it once because it made me nervous,
But now look at what the waiting has done to me:
Particulars passing in and out of my mind like notes of rain,
The waiting for the clouds to go away. I think that there's
A secret behind all this, and moments like the moment
Held in his eyes as they floated up through the surface of the
When one by one the feelings fall away, leaving only a lacy
Network of lightning cracks in the black china sky."
I don't want the little boy to die.
I think there's something in the air behind that row of trees
But whenever I look there's just sky, sky behind more sky,
And the moments unfold in it. I move around a little,
Rearrange some things, make a few minor adjustments,
And then night comes. Then I know what it was like today.
But what changes means much more than what comes later,
In the quiet hour after dinner, or in these quiet little
Waystations on the road to silence.
Picture of Little Letters
I think I like this room.
The curtains and the furniture aren't the same
Of course, but the light comes in the window as it used to
Late in the morning, after the others had gone to work.
You can even shave in it. On the dresser with the mirror
Are a couple of the pictures we took one afternoon
Last May, walking down the alley in the late sunlight.
I remember now how we held hands for fifteen minutes
Afterwards. The words meander through the mirror
But I don't want them now, I don't want these abbreviations.
What I want in poetry is a kind of abstract photography
Of the nerves, but what I like in photography
Is the poetry of literal pictures of the neighborhood.
The late afternoon sunlight is slanting through the window
Again, sketching the room in vague gestures of discontent
That roll off the mind, and then only seem to disappear.
What am I going to do now? And how am I going to sleep
A peculiar name flickers in the mirror, and then disappears.
These things left in your hands,
Part calculation, part the unguarded effects
Of casual introspection, hormonal swings,
The close weather we've been having lately,
Aren't less human for what they hide, for what they
Mean without, somehow, ever quite managing to say —
Only weird, and sometimes just a little bit hard to absorb.
The eye glances through them and moves along, restlessly
Like sunlight bouncing from wave to tiny wave,
Working the surface into an overall impression
Of serenity and mature reflection, a loose portrait
Of the face of early middle age. They are not meant
For anyone, yet reveal, like the tight corners of the mouth,
An intensity that overwhelms the things I wanted to say to
Blurring whatever it was that brought us together like this
Face to deflected face, shouting into the other as though it
were a cave
And I drew my life from the echo of what I told you, from
what you said to me.
Sometimes they even seem like enough, sufficient unto the
Excerpted from The Late Wisconsin Spring by John Koethe. Copyright © 1984 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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