Poetry Daily: http://www.poems.com/

Watchful Waiting

                                                  Let's see what happens.

I'm waiting at the bar at Gene's, a place
On West Eleventh Street, just down the street
From the Larchmont Hotel, where I usually stay
When I'm in New York. I come to New York a lot
Since I've retired (from what? someone asked).
Gene's is down some stairs, and sitting at the bar
You can watch people walking by through a window
Above your head, the way I'd imagined New York
When I was a kid, or imagine Dawn Powell's New York.
I sometimes think of life as a vicarious attempt
To make sense of yourself, balancing what you did
And didn't do so that they'll come out even at the end;
And then I think that's probably a waste of time.
It's not a book at all: there's too much time,
And then it's gone; that sense of something waiting
To unfold is missing, leaving only the waiting,
And when something does occur it's always late,
Too late and incomplete, like a small residue of feeling.
We care too much about feelings—feelings for what?
Feelings can be stupid, maybe not in themselves,
But in the way they magnify and reduce, leaving you
Exhilarated and confused. I guess I'll call Diane
In a while, to see what I have to say. I could tell her
About the things I saw today: the anti-Kitty show
At the Japan Society; Shio Kusaka's white pots
With small blue dots; the drawings at the Morgan;
Eataly and the Shake Shack; these people in the window
Walking by on their way home, or God knows where.

That's the thing about time: it can take you anywhere,
And yet it takes you home. It leaves you the same person
In a different place, still always metaphysically alone,
But with friends that you can phone and tell your travels to.
I can't tell you what it is, but I can feel it flow, and flow away,
Until a memory breaks its spell and I'm in school again,
Or on a bus to college, or walking down Fifth Avenue in a daze.
The memory doesn't matter—what matters is the interval
It restores to life, the feeling of abstracted time made tangible,
Of duration without any destination, of a sense of a life.
I keep reading my story over and over again, my one story.
"Readers of this column are probably familiar with its details"
And I won't go over them again—they're as changeless
As the pages of those novels I keep rereading on the planes
To New York, washed in a noir California light, the scent
Of canyons after rain, the house on a canyon I won't see again.
Does it make any difference? I try to tell you these things
Not out of an urge to communicate—you have your stories too—
But for their own sake, and my sake too, and to make the days go by,
As though the point of taking stock were just to pass the time
Until there isn't any more, and the art of losing were its own reward.
Is that really the best one can do? To stay at home forever, living,
As Wittgenstein once put it, entirely in the present, burnishing the words
Until they're like a second nature, better than the first one, as though
Living in the moment weren't to simply let life happen, but to get it right?
Why is everything "as though," that great hope of the subjunctive life?
I ought to decide where I'm going to eat tonight. In Hebdomeros,
Giorgio de Chirico's novel in the form of an extended thought,
There's a passage about "those men who eat alone in restaurants,"
Inhabiting "the infinite tenderness, the ineffable melancholy"
Of a moment "so gentle and so poignant that one doesn't understand
Why all the personnel of the premises, the manager and cashier,
The furniture, the tablecloths, the wine jugs, down to the saltcellars
And the smallest objects don't dissolve in an endless flood of tears."
I think there's so much freedom in that thought: you stroll out
Into the night as (!) into a wilderness of traffic lights and neon signs.
I love feeling lost in the Village: crossing Seventh Avenue
Below West Tenth I get confused, and I love feeling confused,
Like a lamb in "The Whiffenpoof Song"—following the confusion
Wherever it may lead and (as I said a page ago) exhilarated too.
Later I can find my way back home ("wherever that may be"),
But now I'm wandering through a maze whose every prospect pleases,
Lingering on the curbs and corners as I make my way to nowhere
In particular, celebrating the end of the day with a drink and dinner
And a slow walk back to my hotel, pausing to look at the menu
Of a new restaurant at the end of Greenwich Avenue, across from
Mxyplyzyk, in the space where Café de Bruxelles used to be.

"Watchful waiting" is a way of handling prostate cancer.
It's such a gradual disease that rather than immediately rush in
With scalpels or radioactive seeds, you take a wait-and-see approach,
Ready for the worst if it should come to that, but meanwhile
Letting nature take its course. The worst is always on your mind
Of course, but at least it's not a foregone conclusion, as it is
With so many other cancers: browsing a famous blog last week
(A blog where poets seem to go to die), I saw that Paul Violi had died.
I'd always liked him, though I hadn't known him well. In January
He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer; ten weeks later he was dead.
It made me think of David Sachs, a philosopher and boyhood friend
Of my advisor Rogers Albritton (emphysema). He'd had his heart set
On retiring to Scandanavia, but as retirement approached was diagnosed
With pancreatic cancer too, and died. It "concentrates the mind,"
As Samuel Johnson said of hanging, but what it concentrates mine on
Isn't the past I usually brood about, but the idea of the future—
Not the political future, which I've given up on, but the personal
Future, with its fragile possibilities and plans. Starting from the past
You move along a settled arc of life that leads from then to now;
But since the future isn't fixed the road that leads you on from there
Is open-ended, like starting out in the evening without any end in view.
The journey, not the distant destination; the scenes along the way,
And not the long look back—all great advice I guess, if great advice
Is what you want, instead of simply waiting for a shoe to drop.
Hello Diane. I don't even know where I'm calling from anymore,
Because the scenery keeps changing: I'm wandering around New York,
And then I'm back in San Diego on a canyon, or I'm sitting on the
Deck at the Bean House, or at the Wright House in Two Rivers,
Looking at the view across the river as the fog rolls in and the light
Keeps changing, and the only constant is unchanging change.
"Unchanging change": that phrase is from "The Crystal Lithium,"
A poem of Jimmy Schuyler's I adore—his great long poems remain in
Place as they move forward, marking their time until there isn't anymore.
I know that I'm repeating myself, yet it's precisely what I want to do:
There's a kind of naturalness and grace that comes with repetition,
With advancing by accretion through a space of rediscovered possibilities
Into a new world, which is the old world once removed, where I can
Almost imagine your face, and my face too, you to whom I write
Without writing, as though in talking to myself I also talked to you.
We both know life is an adventure. Death is an adventure too,
Like an experiment to be concluded in the laboratory of the future,
One whose outcome is completely certain, yet impossible to observe.
The suspense is in the details, as it morphs from an abstraction
Into something personal and real, drifting from the dark shadows
At the back of the mind into the bland light of an ordinary day.
And just as the fear of death and the unknown becomes diminished
By coming out into the open, so life accommodates its end
By starting over, by leaving home to find another place to live.

Where was I, and where am I now? I know of course
Exactly where I am—at the desk in my study in Milwaukee—
But that's beside the point. It's where you are in your imagination
That's important, for the life of simply staying where you are
Is a shadow's life, that leaves you by yourself, alone and scared.
Why can't we just move on? The light up ahead is soft
And seems to beckon us, glowing with a promise of beginning
Once again, as if there were still time. Do you remember
The "death march" along Via Veneto, and the Big Happy Bed
In Berlin? I don't think of them as memories, but as opportunities
To take advantage of or miss. Why don't we both revisit them,
Not to try to bring about the past, which was Gatsby's fallacy, but as part
Of what the future holds in store, where there might even be room
For that dog (although I can't imagine where)? Even Gene's,
Where all of this began, keeps pleading with us to appear once more
In the window over the bar and amble down the stairs. There's so much
Left to do, and redo, before it's time for me to show up on that blog—
The question is if we should make it new, or try to get it right,
Or put the question to one side and stroll once more into the night,
Or onto crazyJet and fly to Paris from Berlin, and check into
That terrible hotel, La Louisiane, the one you nicknamed
Hotel Claustrophobia, and make our way along the rue de Seine
To the Metro out to La Défense, then back to the hotel and to a night of
Quiet bickering over dinner at Allard. We could go there again
And stay in a better hotel, or just be less fastidious this time around;
Or we could visit someplace new. I've always wanted to go
To Mexico, though perhaps this isn't a propitious time. Anyway,
At least it sounds like a kind of plan, however vague. Shit,
We could go to Vegas.
                                               C'mon Diane!

John Koethe

The Kenyon Review

Spring 2012

To view this poem online, visit the Poetry Daily archive at http://www.poems.com/archive.php
View a large-print version of this poem