Walking Backwards: Poems 1966-2016

Walking Backwards: Poems 1966-2016

by John Koethe


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374285791
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 11/20/2018
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 163,607
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.60(d)

About the Author

John Koethe has published many books of poetry, including North Point North, The Swimmer, Falling Water, and has received the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize, the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award, and the Frank O’Hara Award. He has also published books on Ludwig Wittgenstein, philosophical skepticism, and poetry, and is the Distinguished Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Read an Excerpt



Blue Vents



I've spent the whole day listening to you, or looking for paintings
  with you, the one I finally bought has a girl in a yellow dress standing next to a white wall that looks like cheese
  I carried it home under my jacket, it was raining
  you stumbled and caught your balance I think my Italian cookbook is all nonsense you move beautifully riding the subway or bending to put on a record
  when you sing hold the microphone, sing into it
  I say over drinks in a dark room your ears look red in front of the lamp I am sleepy, the record seems louder
  everything is moving


I get lost in your dresses. The grace You enlist as you join me In the room that is smaller than both of us Is emptier than you are and more part of us.

I wish you were a long movie —
Surprising as goodness, humorless, and really unclever.
I think of the places you'd visit.
I think of what you'd be like in a "context."

And I feel like a saucer of milk Or a car with its lights on in daylight.
For the day will accept us without noise

And your noise that is shaped like sound never changes.
And I can hear it, but like a screen

It divides me It makes you stay where you are.
At home we could understand pictures That enlarged as you became part of them,

That enlarged as you vanished into them, my stories Were all about trains with an outline of horses

And they were real trains. So my thoughts of you move Over all we've deliberately forgotten.
And our luck is all still out there.


Maps are a guide to good conduct.
They will not go away from your life,
But in return, they promise you safety And entertain you with political visions.

As investments in the commonplace The cowboy and mystic alike both need trains —
Formulaic, impersonal trains,
Warmed by the engineer's tears.

Theirs is a history of polite good sense Yet it has the perfect confidence of a dream.
Now nothing can alter your body,
But the dream changes when you go away

And information arises to take its place.
Carried from place to arrival,
Operating on a program of intense change,
You seem a part of the lives of those near you

But the horizon is made of expensive steel That dopes you with a sort of elastic energy Like a particular spot in the brain.
He is a precision-made man

Whose life is a series of privileged instants,
Examples — like greeting or going away.
But who can remember old entertainment?
The couple locked in a good hotel,

The hotel locked with a profound happiness.
Outside, the forest. These maps Prevent sadness, but really are nothing but history Of simple encounter, or dreams and geometrical charms.

They are samples. They move in the light.
The light continues to move in the eye Of a sleeping man. A tremendous hint Falls over the station: the man is about to be killed.

At best he will be permitted to live in an old mine.
The girl evaporates in back of a city official And in the mirror the boy holds up his hands To cover his face. Anyway, nobody comes.

Where are the acts you tried to conceal Like a hand you put away somewhere and forgot?
The spirit died when the man went into the cave But see what these maps have done with your hand.


Like that definite thing I'd postponed, calling you The sky's clear streak facing The porch — how can my emotions be So thin, and so lately recognized?
You remind me. Chords of you slumber fitfully

Tossing the bottled logic swans and Imperial necks, vases, counterpoints The lightning silent but "edgy."
This room must have a past,
I am living in it.
Here the rain though discontinued Comes out like thunder — that baffles You, and your innocence that I invent.


Eventually, I'd hoped, I would please you.
I would call you the right names,
Bend with your gestures, remember your actions,
Extracting them gladly, but within real limits.

I see I was wrong. Shall I find you different,
Easy, supple, and without pain?
Or is energy part of the music?
I try. I am trying to ask you.

O the noises that cannot be touched!
The faces have passed me like a brown dream

For how can they change?
Always unbearably tender, and constant,
Like a house that is tender and constant.

You are like other people. There is,
I suppose, no reason to want you Unless desire itself is a reason, drawing us Out of our kindness, leaving us terrified

Peace. Beauty, we know,
Is the center of fear, hammering,
Holding in a loose ring your purposeful Dream — and you see them

Looking painfully into your face, though you know They will never come back in the same way.


What bird has read all the books?
The crow lives by a passionate insincerity That means naturalness in an impossible world

And so is a unit by which we can measure ourselves In the real one. The swallow defines "exact place"
So that we know it exists beyond sight

And the criminal depth of the night sky.
Yet owls never move, flamingos just Stand there, victims of the tall trees

And emblems of space or beautiful hair.
Our little canary recalls the first crisis:
Inclined planes, the separate enterprises

Necessary if we are able to exist at all.
The birds cannot reach us.
But we hear the sleeping art of their music

And it hints at all the evaporated experience We need for our simplest move, our first Aspiration, "flight." Hummingbirds are just space.






I used to like getting up early
(I had to anyway) when the light was still smoky And before the sun had finished burning the fog away.
The sun rose behind a cool yellow mountain

I could see through my window, and its first rays Hit a funny-looking bump on the wall next to my head.
I would look at it for a little while and then get up.
Meanwhile, something was always doing in the kitchen,

For every day took care of itself:
It was what I got dressed for, and then it moved away Or else it hung around waiting for someone to turn Saying "I thought so." But it always ended.

— I know it's hopeless remembering,
The memories only coming to me in my own way, floating around
  like seeds on the wind Rustling in the leaves of the eucalyptus tree each morning,
The texture of light and shade. They feel the same, don't they,

All these memories, and each day seems,
Like one in high school, a distraction from itself Prefaced only by one of a few dreams, resembling each other Like parts of the same life, or like the seasons.

Come spring you'd see lots of dogs And summer was the season when you got your hair cut off.
It rained a little more in winter, but mostly,
Like autumn, one season resembled the next

And just sat there, like the mountain with the "S" on it,
Through weather every bit as monotonous as itself.
And so you'd lie in bed, wondering what to wear that day,
Until the light mended and it was time to get ready for school.

— Is there anything to glean from these dumb memories?
They let you sleep for a while, like Saturday,
When there was nothing you were supposed to do.
But it doesn't seem enough just to stay there,

Close to the beginning,
Rubbing your eyes in the light, wondering what to wear now, what
  to say:
Like the eternal newcomer with his handkerchief and his lunchpail,
Looking around, and then sliding away into the next dream.


A clumsy hillock Unmolded like a cake on the meadow In the Laguna Mountains. Tough yellow-green grass growing up to
  a tree As thick as a tooth. In winter, on the road from San Diego,
Thousands of cars crawl up to the snow And their passengers get out to investigate it And then drive, discoursing, back home. And that's California,
Solemnly discharging its responsibilities.

Meanwhile we breakfast on pancakes the size of a plate While the console radio goes on the blink.
Miss L'Espagnole looks out from her frame on the wall,
Completely prepared (though for what it is impossible to say).
Her left arm is white and dips into a puddle of fire Or a pile of cotton on fire. And each thing is severe:
The house hemmed in by pepper trees and Mexico
(This one is white and in Chula Vista), and the paraphernalia Strewn around home: a few magazines summing up politics,
A matchbox with a lavender automobile on the cover,
And a set of soldiers of several military epochs marching off to war
  on the raffia rug.
Unless you've grown up amidst palm trees (and buildings that are
  either unbuilt, or hospitals)
It's impossible to appreciate a reasonable tree.

  I sometimes consider the parrots that live in the zoo
  And are sold on the street in Tijuana. Colored like national
  Their heads are always cocked to pick up something behind
  And unless you have lived in a place where the fog
  Closes in like a face, it is impossible to be (even temporarily)
  When it lifts to expose the freshly painted trim of the city,
    and it seems
  Like a fine day for knowledge: sunlight sleeping on top of
    the rocks
  And lots of white clouds scudding by like clean sheets,
  Which, when the air in the bedroom is cold, you pull over
    your head
  And let the temperature slowly increase while you breathe.
  But California has only a coast in common with this.




Carved—indicated, actually—from solid Blocks of wood, the copper-, cream-, and chocolate-colored Cows we bought in Salzburg form a tiny herd.
  And in Dr. Gachet's etching, six Or seven universal poses are assumed by cats.

Misery, hypocrisy, greed: a dying Mouse, a cat, and a flock of puzzled blackbirds wearing Uniforms and frock coats exhibit these traits.
  Formally outlasting the motive Of their creation with a poetry at once too vague

And too precise to do anything with but Worship, they seem to have just blundered into our lives By accident, completely comprehending
  Everything we find so disturbing About them; but they never speak. They never even move

From the positions in which Grandville or some Anonymous movie-poster artist has left them,
A sort of ghostly wolf, a lizard, an ape
  And a huge dog. And their eyes, looking At nothing, manage to see everything invisible

To ours, even with all the time in the world To see everything we think we have to see. And tell Of this in the only way we really can:
  With a remark as mild as the air In which it is to be left hanging; or a stiff scream,

Folded like a sheet of paper over all The horrible memories of everything we were Going to have. That vanished before our eyes
  As we woke up to nothing but these,
Our words, poor animals whose home is in another world.


Tiny outbursts of sunlight play On the tips of waves that look like tacks Strewn upon the surface of the bay.
Up the coast the water backs up Behind a lofty, wooded island. Here,
According to photographs, it is less Turbulent and blue; but much clearer.
It seems to exercise the sunlight less Reflecting it, allowing beaten silver sheets To roam like water across a kitchen floor.
Having begun gradually, the gravel beach Ends abruptly in the forest on the shore.

Looked at from a distance, the forest seems Haunted. But safe within its narrow room Its light is innocent and green, as though Emerging from another dream of diminution We found ourselves of normal, human size,
Attempting to touch the leaves above our heads.
Why couldn't we have spent our summers here,
Surrounded and growing up again? Or perhaps Arrive here late at night by car, much later In life? If only heaven were not too near For such sadness. And not within this world Which heaven has finally made clear.

Green lichen fastened to a blue rock Like a map of the spot; cobwebs crowded with stars Of water; battalions of small white flowers.
Such clarity, unrelieved except by our Delight and daily acquiescence in it,
Presumably the effect of a natural setting Like this one, with all its expectations of ecstasy And peace, demands a future of forgetting Everything that sustains it: the dead leaves Of winter; the new leaves of spring which summer burns Into different kinds of happiness; for these,
When autumn drops its tear upon them, turn.


"Pleased in proportion to the truth Depicted by means of familiar images." That One was dazed; the other I left in a forest Surrounded by giant, sobering pines.
For I had to abandon those lives.
Their burden of living had become Mine and it was like dying: alone,
Huddled under the cold blue dome of the stars,
Still fighting what died and so close to myself I could not even see.
I kept trying to look at myself. It was like looking into the sun and I
  went blind.

O to break open that inert light Like a stone and let the vision slowly sink down Into the texture of things, like a comb flowing through dark,
Heavy hair; and to continue to be affected much later.
I was getting so tired of that excuse: refusing love Until it might become so closely mated to its birth in Acts and words of love; until a soft monstrosity of song Might fuse these moments of affection with a dream of home;
The cold, prolonged proximity of God long after night Has come and only starlight trickles through the dome;
And yet I only wanted to be happy.
I wanted rest and innocence; a place Where I could hide each secret fear by blessing it,
By letting it survive inside those faces I could never understand,
Love, or bear to leave. Because I wanted peace, bruised with prayer I tried to crawl inside the heavy, slaughtered hands of love And never move. And then I felt the wound unfold inside me Like a stab of paradise: explode: and then at last Exhausted, heal into pain. And that was happiness:
A dream whose ending never ends, a vein

Of blood, a hollow entity Consumed by consummation, bleeding so.
In the sky our eyes ascend to as they sweep Upwards into emptiness, the angels sing their listless Lullabies and children wake up glistening with screams They left asleep; and the dead are dead. The wounded worship
  death And live a little while in love; and then are gone.
Inside the dome the stars assume the outlines of their lives:
Until we know, until we come to recognize as ours,
Those other lives that live within us as our own.


Cut out of board And pinned against the sky like stars;
Or pasted on a sheet of cardboard Like the small gold stars you used to get for being good:
Look at the steeple —
All lit up inside the snow And yet without a single speck of snow on it.
The more I looked at it, the harder it became to see,
As though I tried to look at something cold Through something even colder, and could not quite see.
And like the woman in the nursery rhyme Who stared and stared into the snow until She saw a diamond, shuddering with light, inside the storm,
I thought that we could see each snowflake wobble through the air And hear them land.
Locked in her room With yellow flowers on the wallpaper That wove and welled around her like the snow Until she almost disappeared in them,
Rapunzel in her cone let down the string the whole world could
  have climbed to save her.
"Oh, don't save me right away," Rapunzel said, "just visit me,"
But only dead ones listened to her.
Only the dead could ever visit us this way: locked in a word,
Locked in a world that we can only exorcise, but not convey.


Orange is the hue of modernity.
Greater than gold, shaky and poetic,
Our century's art has been a gentle surrender To this color's nonchalant "stance"

Towards hunger and the unknown, and its boldness:
For it has replaced us as the subject of the unknown.
We still like the same things, but today we handle them differently.
Among the signs of occupation in this contemporary war

The twelve identical corduroy suits of Erik Satie Locate importance in repetition, where it really belongs,
There in the dark, among the lessons that sleep excludes.
I want to emphasize the contribution of each one of us

To a society which has held us back but which has Allowed love to flourish in this age like a song.
Unable to understand very much,
But prepared to isolate things in a personal way,

The acres of orange paint are a sign Of the machine that powers our amateur hearts.
The technical has been driven back By river stages, exposing a vacant lot

Strewn with these tools, food and clothing Awaiting the invention of limited strength.
We could begin selling ourselves, but the overture Brings no response and the connection remains unsketched.

I can see there has been no change.
The body's a form of remote control And its success is too exact to assist us.
Responding to the ulterior commandment

So much has failed in the abstract.
The phallus hid in the school bell While the difficult fluid rose in the night.
In the apartment wild horses took you away.


June, its weejuns shoot below the trees.
I was scraping this paste out of my pajamas Ready for graduation and the big green clot Of June to come and get in touch with me.
A group of students disappeared in foliage at my feet.

O for a room furnished with a radio And a complete set of National Geographic so I could grow up
As though I'd fallen through a telescope into the room I felt oversized, too near the people, and their things surround me,
Like a child who feels older than he really wants to be.


Excerpted from "Walking Backwards"
by .
Copyright © 2018 John Koethe.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
A Note on Chronology,
English 206,
FROM Blue Vents (1968),
Your Day,
FROM Domes (1973),
Below the Coast,
Tiny Figures in Snow,
Satie's Suits,
Power and Persuasion,
Copley Square,
The Hand in the Breast Pocket,
FROM The Late Wisconsin Spring (1984),
Dorothy Wordsworth,
Each One as She May,
A Long Lesson,
Partial Clearance,
Picture of Little Letters,
Malignant Calm,
The Late Wisconsin Spring,
The Near Future,
The Substitute for Time,
In the Park,
FROM The Constructor (1999),
Sunday Evening,
"I Heard a Fly Buzz",
The Other Condition,
Un Autre Monde,
What the Stars Meant,
The Constructor,
Fleeting Forms of Life,
Au Train,
A Parking Lot with Trees,
FROM Falling Water (1997),
From the Porch,
The Constant Voice,
Sorrento Valley,
Songs My Mother Taught Me,
The Secret Amplitude,
A Pathetic Landscape,
Morning in America,
Falling Water,
FROM North Point North (2002),
In Italy,
Songs of the Valley,
The Other Side of the Canyon,
The Proximate Shore,
Dellius' Boat,
Contemporaries and Ancestors,
Y2K (1933),
Moore's Paradox,
Theories of Prayer,
North Point North,
Gil's Cafe,
FROM Sally's Hair (2006),
The Perfect Life,
Piranesi's Keyhole,
When There Was Time,
The Middle of Experience,
Collected Poems,
Sally's Hair,
FROM Ninety-Fifth Street (2009),
On Happiness,
The Lath House,
Fear of the Future,
The Menomonee Valley,
The Adagio,
Venetian Coda,
The Distinguished Thing,
North Cambridge,
This Is Lagos,
Ninety-Fifth Street,
FROM ROTC Kills (2012),
Analogies and Metaphors,
The Red Shoes,
Alfred Hitchcock,
The Great Gatsby,
The Whole Creation,
ROTC Kills,
Like Gods,
Self-Portrait on YouTube,
The Emergence of the Human,
Watchful Waiting,
FROM The Swimmer (2016),
The Arrogance of Physics,
Von Freeman,
Miss Heaton,
Little Guys Who Live Here,
Melancholy of the Autumn Garden,
Dorothy Dean,
In the Louvre,
Against Immortality,
Fear and Trembling,
The Tenderness of Mathematics,
La Durée,
Covers Band in a Small Bar,
The Age of Anxiety,
A Private Singularity,
The Swimmer,
New Poems,
Prospects from the Palisades,
Rural Churches,
Poetry at Twenty-One,
Portrait of the Poet,
In Praise of Physical Forms,
Plastic Saxophone,
The Violet Hour,
After All,
Unnatural Light,
The Sin of Pride,
Tempting Fate,
Walking Backwards,
Cogito Redux,
The Reluctant Elegist,
Selfie Stick,
Thinking about Death,
Index of Titles and First Lines,
Also by John Koethe,
A Note About the Author,
Permissions Acknowledgements,

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