Two Poems

John Koethe

Walking BackwardsYou notice them on campuses in early April, the maître d’sOf the future showing customers to their tables. It looks so hopeful:Come join me, realize your dreams here in this library, this gym,These classrooms where you can study Shakespeare or Peter DruckerAnd above all Begin. And then of course it peters out: Is thisWhat you wanted to do, how you wanted to live, who you wanted to be?I’m a sucker for regrets and retrospective disappointments, as inMerrily We Roll Along, which begins with a tell-it-like-it-is cynicismAnd works backwards to an optimism so naïve it makes you cry.Sometimes I think I overdo it. If the point of disenchantmentIs to make clear how literal life is, and how contingentEven moments of transcendence are, there should be nothing to fearFrom the future, even as years go by and nothing happensAnd one wish supplants another with a dying fall. And there isn’t:Business used to be as dubious a major as history or English,People muddled through to law school or advertising or Wall StreetAnd then wondered what had happened. There’s somethingComforting about rituals renewed, even adolescents’ pipe dreams:They’ll find out soon enough, and meanwhile find their placesIn the eternal scenery, less auguries or cautionary talesThan parts of an unchanging whole, as ripe for contemplationAs a planisphere or the clouds: the vexed destinies, the shared life,The sempiternal spectacle of someone preaching to a choirWhile walking backwards in the moment on a warm spring afternoon.Thinking about DeathI am not thinking of Death, but Death is thinking of me.—Mark StrandIn memoriamLucretius has an unconvincing argumentFor why death doesn’t matter, since I won’t existWhen it occurs. No, goes the rejoinder, it does,For it deprives me of a life I would have hadAnd probably would have loved—a rejoinderI find hard to comprehend. It looks at lifeAs though it’s there to lose, like a sense of humorOr a book, instead of something that eventually has to end,Although its ending, from the inside, makes no sense.I am my world. (The microcosm.)—Wittgenstein.I’m not sure I understand that either, yet it resonates with me:What ceases to exist isn’t the private singularity—A single consciousness detached from its surroundings—But a whole milieu with which it coincides, that dies with it.I remember lying on a couch one Sunday thirty years agoWhen this way of thinking about death took hold of me.I’m a realist philosophically: the world of all that is the caseIs no one’s, while the world of my experience is my own.I can’t pretend to find the right emotion: bewilderment or terror,Fear, a sense of wonderment, regret—they all seem credibleAnd insufficient, meant for things that happen in a life,Though not its end. Most thoughts of death feel fake:They focus on the I, instead of what that individual seesFrom its miraculous and commonplace perspective—Ordinary days that gradually become an open-ended storyIn the present, important for the sake of whose it is.I used to think that all those stories were alikeIn everything but their details, and not worth telling.Now I think they differ in their tone, and tone is everything:Tone makes their unavoidable conclusions human,And their narratives without a moral seem to have one.The thoughts of death that move me aren’t articulate—they’reMoments when the self looks in the mirror of its worldAnd senses that it’s going to disappear, in all of its particularity.I find it hard to get upset about that loss—it’s simply stuff,Albeit my stuff: breakfast and the morning newspaper, the mail,The random sounds that find their order as the day goes on,The faces lingering in a certain light. What’s harderIs the thought that it will all be gone. I’m in the countryClosing up my house. An early snowfall lies upon the deckAnd meadow where the elm tree used to be—a merelyTemporary loss that time can overcome with other trees that,Forestalling the inevitable, I’ll get to see next spring.That other loss is permanent, but never comesWithin the lifetime of experience it ends: a totalityThat won’t be anyone’s anymore, unless a perfect wordMight stay the time of its demise . . . which it won’t:No matter how much you cajole it to remain,It vanishes, along with what perceived it—all thoseMinutes, all the shapes that filled them, all thoseNuances of tone, this afternoon’s NovemberSun that filters through the branchesAnd the cows and buildings frozen on a hillIn the urine-colored light. They’ll be gone too.

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John Koethe’s most recent book is The Swimmer (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016). His new book, Walking Backwards: Poems 1966-2016, will be published this year by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Kenyon Review

March / April 2018

Gambier, Ohio

Kenyon College

David H. Lynn

Managing Editor
Abigail Wadsworth Serfass

Associate Editor
Sergei Lobanov-Rostovsky

Poetry Editor
David Baker

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