Prospects from the Palisades
We’re always other people, whoever they are.
I’m grateful to poets’ biographies—a genre nearly as
Obsolete as its subjects—for helping me make myself up,
Though with this last one of Wallace Stevens, that
Owl of the Imagination, I hardly have to try,
Just check off the anomalies as the chapters go by:
Pennsylvania, echt deutsch; a minor jock in high school;
Harvard, New York, confusions of the heart; parents estranged
By a marriage; a boisterous temperament; an ovoid shape.I’m supposed to sound like him, though I don’t hear it.
What I hear is an elevated tone, tinctured with death:
The cheerfulness of disillusionment, the exhilaration of No,
The power of the words when you don’t believe them anymore
And you’re left with them. I like to think I’m clearer,
That I have ideas beyond their sounds, but it doesn’t matter.
What matters is the brute presence of the world, the mute response.
Poets come and go and what they see are redoubtable forms of nothing,
Whether from a secluded refuge on the Palisades or an SUV:
An inert blue sky, themselves, these shelves on shelves of clouds.
Copyright © 2018 by John Koethe
All rights reserved.
Reproduced by Poetry Daily with permission
John Koethe has published eleven books of poetry 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. (Author photo by Kevin J. Miyazaki)
John Koethe’s poems—always dynamic and in process, never static or complete—luxuriate in the questions that punctuate the most humdrum of routines, rendering a robust portrait of an individual: complicated, quotidian, and resounding with truth. Gathering for the first time his impressive and award-winning body of work, published between 1966 and 2016, Walking Backwards introduces this gifted poet to a new, wider readership.
Praise for John Koethe:
“Few poets write more accurately and painfully [than John Koethe] about that uncanny estranged place that never finds its way out of us; the present, or idea of the present, as mere projection, and yet a projection so poignantly, materially, tenderly touched it gleams with all its claustrophobic distances … This is poetry of magnificent undertow.”
“[John Koethe] is a beautiful writer, one whose subtle inventiveness can give new life to persistent images, nail a complex feeling in just a few words, or make the basic tools of the poetic trade into sources of pleasure and persuasion.”
“These poems won’t shatter the universe, but that’s precisely their point, the tragedy they lament: that as individuals we are small and the universe pays our seemingly vast inner lives no mind. Koethe seeks to ease his mounting fear by talking—by writing—himself through it, and listening in is a perverse pleasure, and a palpable comfort.”
—Craig Morgan Teicher