John Koethe, Walking Backwards: Poems 1966–2016

Why does one end up being a poet? It is one thing to start out writing poems, because nearly everyone dabbles in it. But to keep at it until writing poetry becomes all you’ve really done is another matter. This is the mysterious impenetrable planet that John Koethe has orbited for many years.

During these yearly orbits, as his future diminishes with each rotation, he often returns to this question: what does it mean to end up as a bunch of books on a shelf, especially a shelf that few people stand in front of, much less return to?

This is only one of the subjects Koethe has patiently examined for more than a half-century, an intensity of focus documented in the collection Walking Backwards: Poems 1966–2016 (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018).

As the title suggests, Koethe’s theme is memory and time. Scattered throughout the collection are poems that originate with a Proustian moment, a brief, intense memory that keeps leading to other memories:

I didn’t start out to write a poem about my mother,
But unchecked memories carry you away, like the shoes
In The Red Shoes. I’m sure I loved her then:
She was smart and funny and more down to earth
Than my father, who, when he wasn’t somewhere with the Navy,
Affected these aesthetic airs and sang too loud in church.

These lines are from the poem “Red Shoes, which appeared in his book ROTC Kills (2012). The poem is around 70 lines long and begins:

When I was eleven I’d accompany my mother
To San Diego State College, where she was taking courses
For some degree or other (she taught reading to kids).
It was summer. Maybe she didn’t want to leave me at home,
Or maybe I wanted to come along–I don’t remember.
I was into microscopes and blood: I had a compound model
With three lenses I bought at an optical store on the second floor
Of a Chandleresque building with exposed ironwork,
Like the building in Double Indemnity.

One of the marvels of “Red Shoes” — indeed of many of Koethe’s poems — is how much ground he covers, how effortlessly he pivots from one thought (memory/perception) to another, how precisely he is able to register the drift of one’s thinking in pursuit of something intangible.

                                 […] They’re both dead now,
And all I have to wrestle with are words, and yet these
Syllables bring back the feeling of those summer afternoons,
The red tile roofs, the blood and the ballet, as I sit here in the future
I couldn’t imagine then, waiting for one I can’t imagine now.

A funny thing just happened. I stopped to check a review I had written about Koethe in 2012 and realized that I discussed this very poem, “Red Shoes,” though not in the way I am now — my reading of “Red Shoes” has changed since I first read it. Isn’t this why we return to certain poems, paintings, and films? Koethe’s poems are not frozen descriptions of a revelatory moment – a field we stop by on a snowy night. They change, because we do. As he writes in his poem, “The Great Gatsby”: “I have read it dozens of times, starting in high school.”

What Koethe does in “Red Shoes” is use the movie — which he first saw when he was eleven, and which, years later, he sees again in New York — to bring different periods of time together: his childhood; his parents’ old age and death; and the “future” he now inhabits, marked by what led up to this moment. His ability to time-travel and bring moments back is powered by his “syllables.”

For all of his discursiveness, Koethe is a musical poet. He has written poems in rhyme as well as long, meandering disquisitions on the nature of time passing. His poem “The Secret Amplitude,” consists of nine sections of three-line stanzas bound by interlocking rhyme. In this poem, which appeared in Falling Water (1997), Koethe ponders “the experience of memory”:

For over time, the personal details
Came to mean less to me than the feeling

Of simply having lived them, revealing
Another way of being in the world,
With all the inwardness it still sustains

And the promise of happiness it brought.

This is the contradiction that animates Koethe’s poems: the “promise of happiness” that courses through the work mixed with his awareness of a future “one can’t imagine now.” How do you live in time with no expectation of transcendence, or sanctuary from its passing? In Koethe’s case, you become a poet who spends years teaching in the philosophy department at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, while making trips to New York to see your friends, who happen to be poets and artists, some of whom you met when you were still in college.

As he writes in his masterful poem “Ninety-Fifth Street:”

For that’s what poetry is–a way to live through time
And sometimes, just for a while, to bring it back.

While a poem may be instrumental in making a private, erotic connection, as when he writes, “the blond light/Of a summer afternoon that made me think again of Sally’s hair,” it can also do something very different.

The poem “Tulsa,” which appeared in The Swimmer (2016), opens with an observation about the Civil War:

It wasn’t just the slaughter–though proportionally it
Exceeded all our other wars combined–but what prefigured it
And what it brought about.

From this recognition that the “slaughter” had a history that preceded it, Koethe instantly pivots to:

                           […] There was the cotton gin
That gave the South a one-commodity economy
It needed slaves to run.

A few lines later we read:

It’s sickening to read the rationales, because they cut so close.

By now, it should be clear that Koethe excavates a given subject in pursuit of understanding something about its time and history.

After stating that he has read the rationales, he goes on to cite some of them. This is from Mississippi’s justification for slavery:

None but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun.
These products have become necessities of the world,
And a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization.

“Tulsa” is like a sequence of camera angles, beginning with an abstract and distanced wide angle shot: ‘It wasn’t just the slaughter […]” No matter what he is writing about, Koethe’s lines are each driven by a penchant for detail, which pulls us closer to the subject of the poem.

Fifty lines into “Tulsa,” after reading Koethe’s detailing of the Civil War and the Reconstruction, particularly “the Compromise of 1877 — the ‘corrupt bargain” when the “South [became] a separate nation after all,” he changes the focus without notice: “In 1999 I flew to Tulsa for a literary festival.” During his time there, he learns something of the history of Tulsa from his hosts, including “the riots that occurred in 1921,” which he relates in precise and tormenting detail:

There was a vibrant black community in a part of town called Greenwood
(One of those thriving middle classes, I suppose), so prosperous with its
Banks and businesses and homes that it was called “the Negro Wall
On Memorial Day there was an incident in an elevator in a downtown
That involved a young white woman and a young black man, who was
On suspicion of assault. A white crowd gathered, incited by an editorial
In the Tulsa Tribune egging on a lynching. Skirmishes ensued,
And then at last a huge white mob stormed into Greenwood, shooting
Indiscriminately, burning stores and businesses and houses, while
From an airfield near town, left overfrom WWI, dropped firebombs
And fired at people on the ground, until the Negro Wall Street lay in ruins.
No one really knows how many died–hundreds probably, and thousands

Starting with one “slaughter,” Koethe brings us to another that occurred more than 50 years after the Civil War ended. It is a slaughter that America has largely erased from its history books.

Didn’t the use of biplanes to drop firebombs on a civilian populace precede the aerial bombing at Guernica (April 26, 1937) by more than a decade? Didn’t Americans bomb women and children — noncombatants, as they say — long before the Germans did?

Poet John Koethe in his Milwaukee, Wisconsin, home in 2018 (photo © Kevin Miyazaki)

Koethe does not stop with this horrific event. He keeps digging after detailing it, and writing about how “the Tulsa Race Riots simply disappeared from history.” He tells us the name of “the young black man” (Dick Rowland) who was used as a scapegoat, as well as the “real cause” of the riots: “the black community’s continually accumulating wealth.”

And then, having reached this point, he steps back once again and writes: “In metaphysics and philosophy of language there’s a view that holds/that if you want to know what something is, ignore what people say about it–/Look instead at where it came from.” This desire to see where things came from, to understand the origin of our ongoing Civil War, for example, is just one of the many reasons why I think Koethe is a necessary and great poet.

Living in time, he writes poems that weave together different genres: essay, history, memoir, philosophical inquiry, and pedagogy. He can effortlessly change tones and registers, swiftly move from abstract language to detailed representations of a painting, a movie, a popular song, or a story by John Cheever. He cites poets as different from each other as John Ashbery, Theodore Roethke, Robert Duncan, Elizabeth Bishop, Marianne Moore, Adrienne Rich, Wallace Stevens, Robert Frost, and Mark Strand. He dedicates poems to Susan Stewart, Harold Bloom, and Robert Dash — a poet, literary critic, and painter. He loves jazz and writes beautifully about Ornette Coleman. He is unafraid of declaring his enthusiasms or entering territory that could easily devolve into the sentimental but never does. His mood changes, often in the same poem. He can be mordant, bleak, anguished, humorous, tender, and even sweet. He has no axe to grind, a rarity in this day and age.

Koethe’s best poems — and there are many more than I can list — convey a pressure to get to the core of understanding time. Where does it go? What have we done with it? How does it persist?

Even at his most grim, he refuses to ask for sympathy and, to my mind, there is a dignity and beauty in that: “I’m sixty-two. That’s all I am.” He can begin his poem, “La Durée,” with “Proust read Bergson, then he wrote his poem.” More than 150 lines later, after bringing in the philosophers Ludwig Wittgenstein and David Hume, the writer F. Scott Fitzgerald, and the memory of standing in a “Kmart/Parking lot [in] Milwaukee,” he can end with: “I’m hungry. I think I will get a hamburger at Dr. Dawg.”

This is what Koethe does so well: he seems to be driven not by an agenda but the desire to discover who and what he is, how he came to be the person he is — a retired professor of philosophy, a man who for a long time lived alone.

For all of the movies, stories and books, philosophers and paintings, places and foods mentioned in his poems, I don’t feel that what he offers are revelatory descriptions and anecdotes. The feelings he plumbs are a nuanced cris de coeur of “what is difficult to say.”

Walking Backwards: Poems 1966–2016 (2018) by John Koethe is published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux and is available on Amazon and other online retailers.

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