We know that the equation between word and thing can no longer be taken for granted, and that words are made up of both syllables and sounds. Does this mean a poet — one who uses transparent language and writes in an autobiographical mode — is incapable of exploring the conditions of meaning? By transparent, I mean a plain language that can be used to reach the largest audience possible without losing any relevant information. Or must the language the poet uses be opaque and resistant, like reality itself?
In ROTC Kills (2012), his ninth book of poetry, John Koethe directly and indirectly addresses these questions in twenty-five poems and prose meditations in which the “immediate data of consciousness,” as the philosopher Henri Bergson defined it — that is to say one’s past (memories) and present (direct experience) — merge in surprising and unexpected ways. The point is not to use a larger narrative, such as religion or self-glorification, to guide the poem towards one of those familiar epiphanic states that have become a cliché, but to succumb to the train of thought, however wayward it might be. Over the course of his career, which began with the publication of Blue Vents (1968), Koethe has proven himself to be a poet of vulnerability, someone who is open to whatever unlikely thoughts rise up, often unbidden, particularly when brooding about the past and/or reflecting upon mortality.
Midway through his poem “The Red Shoes,” Koethe writes:
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.
I didn’t really mind the trips to the North Park health food store,
Where I’d have a carrot shake, or the pile of pills each morning
by my millet,
Though they prefigured the manias to come: the single-minded
Ferocity tinged with sweetness, the obsessions with nutrition
And religion, the body and the soul, which led from one fad to
Until her heart gave out, and the doctrines dropped away
And she could fill that vacuum with herself.
Instead of starting the poem with the line (“I didn’t start out to write a poem about my mother”), Koethe writes the line in the middle of the poem, provoking the reader to both look back to what was already written, as well as forward to what has not yet been read. Central to the poem is the fact that Koethe saw the Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger film The Red Shoes (1948) two times, once when he was “a boy of eleven” and the other time more recent (“yesterday at the Film Forum in New York”).
In two ways the poem looks back, both to the poet’s childhood and to the film he had seen yesterday. Recognizing that he is stuck in time, which is bearing him towards chaos, Koethe weaves together what he remembers and what seeing the film many years later prompt him to remember and imagine:
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 the one I can’t imagine now.
In contrast to those poets who use transparent language to suggest the existence of an elsewhere (heaven, transcendence, or sanctuary), and are in that regard Platonists who believe in the preexistence of an ideal world, Koethe is a materialist. Words are all he has “to wrestle with”, to help him face his temporariness as well as construct a provisional view of reality.
In the book’s opening poem “The End of the Line” Koethe writes:
I make my way across the page on which I find myself
Confined, a cipher at the end of the story,
Tracing out the outlines of these never-ending
Sentences that define my life, always haunted
By the inkling of that world beyond the mind,
Beyond the poem of the mind, the poem of my mind,
Where I don’t exist, and life goes on without me;
The impossible world from which I’m absent,
Waiting there in the blank space at the end of the line.
Koethe is a philosophical skeptic who has turned the Romantic tradition of Wordsworth and the lyric “I” inside out. In contrast to Wordsworth, who recalled that, as a child, he experienced the world “[a]pparell’d in celestial light,” Koethe writes:
Some days I wake up in a room suffused with sunlight
“Like a yellow jelly bean,” as Jimmy Schuyler put it
In his great poem “Hymm to Life,” but it’s not that kind of day.
Recognizing his deep connection to Schuyler—their interest in the ordinary everyday world, the impact of memory and time passing — Koethe alludes to the poet’s well-known poem “Salute” as well as demarcates the difference between them.
Past is past, and if one
remembers what one meant
to do and never did, is
not to have thought to do
enough? Like that gather-
ing of one of each I
planned, to gather one
of each kind of clover,
daisy, paintbrush that
grew in that field
the cabin stood in and
study them one afternoon
before they wilted. Past
is past. I salute that various field.
This is Koethe’s poem “Analogies and Metaphors,” which is about twice as long as Schuyler’s poem.
I want to get out of myself and what I’ve written,
Yet I wear each moment like a hat. The brim,
The feather stuck in the hatband—what do they mean?
What kind of metaphor is that? What kind of hat?
I remember an essay I wrote in Luther League
About the soul’s journey towards salvation: like a rocket,
I said (it was just after Sputnik), a three-stage rocket
Fueled by discipline and faith (the hydrogen and oxygen)
That roars inexorably aloft until the third stage fires
And the satellite separates and the soul settles into its orbit
Around God, emitting little beeps of praise. “Analogies,”
Said Pastor Paul, “are fine, but never take one to its logical
Who needs an MFA when you have Pastor Paul?
I was raised Catholic, then my mother restaged the
And we all became Lutherans, but I’m indifferent to that now.
What passes for religion in my life is whatever these syllables
As your eye moves down the page, following a train of memory
To its nonconclusion in a momentary state of mind. All
Life pursues the uneventful course that physics sets.
While I navigate another Easter Sunday time and entropy
Are already starting to dissolve–like someone become so
To disappointment that it doesn’t hurt, for whom salvation lies
In a resistance to reality, to analogies and metaphors that give
Because the truth is inert. I sometimes used to feel
There was something missing, but I think I’m over that.
The day is wide and meaningless. I doff my hat.
In “Salute,” Schuyler doesn’t look forward and his memories are meaningful, while Koethe is “following a train of memory and thought/To its nonconclusion in a momentary state of mind.” The difference between Schuyler’s poem and Koethe’s — and it is a very important one — is that Schuyler is able to sequester the past from the present, in “Salute” at least, and to seem to exist outside of time. In contrast, Koethe knows that this something he can’t do, not even in a poem (“I want to get out of myself and what I’ve written”).
Koethe is an autobiographical poet who never succumbs to self-glorification. This is what separates him from other poets working in a romantic, confessional or autobiographical mode. Rather than suggesting that everything that ever happened to him is important, he is modest and even self-effacing.
There are four movies that I saw
Between the ages of ten and fourteen that became
Parts of my life, for what that’s worth:
In this regard, Koethe is also quite different from the first generation of New York School poets, many of whom he knew quite well and is often associated with, particularly John Ashbery. In the title poem of his last book, Ninety-Fifth Street (2009), where his friend Ashbery lived in the 1960s, Koethe writes about an evening he spent in “John’s new apartment” with John, Kenneth Koch and Frank O’Hara (“And I was one with my immortals.”). And yet, even though he knew these poets and spent time with his “immortals,” Koethe recognizes that “the stories you believe add up to you … never do.”
This is the challenge the poems in ROTC Kills repeatedly present to the reader — things don’t add up. And yet at no time does the poet claim to be a victim or try to gain our sympathy. There is nothing special about him and nothing special about his life; that is as blunt and direct as you can get in a world where people incessantly Twitter their slightest thoughts and post pictures of their pets and meals on Facebook. Koethe’s modesty — he makes no claims to having changed poetry or even to have made a difference to anyone — challenges the idea that a poet must make major statements to be a major poet. Koethe knows that he can neither step outside of his life nor can he step back from the everyday world to gain a panoramic view. Writing in an age that has declared the death of the author and the masterpiece, he offers the reader “a sense of life as something fragile/And ordinary.”
For those interested in reading ROTC Kills, it can be ordered from here.