When Time is Running Out: John Koethe’s ROTC Kills

Joelle Biele

New York, NY: HarperPerennial, 2012. 96 pages. $14.99.
(Click on cover image to purchase)

If I could ask any poet to make me a drink, it would have to be John Koethe. Like the gods he describes in ROTC Kills, he “knows the ratio of vermouth to gin in someone’s first martini at Larre’s.” He mixes casual conversation and dry wit. He balances disillusionment with desire. A distinguished professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Koethe embraces contradiction.

Koethe continues to write about the complex intersection of the self, time, and language. His foremost concern is mortality: what happens to the self when time is running out. Influenced by romanticism, Koethe is in line with Wallace Stevens and John Ashbery, two poets he has written a great deal about, and also Elizabeth Bishop. As he does with the former two, he quotes several of her poems and riffs off one of her titles (“In the Emergency Room”). Koethe is an associative writer, and one of the delights of reading him is to follow him down the page as he thinks about the act of writing and the mind while making connections between multiple writers, philosophers, and films.

What matters in Koethe’s poems is where he goes with what he reads. By linking related texts he can approach a larger, ultimately impossible, truth. In the title poem, he quotes the same line from Wordsworth that Bishop does in “Crusoe in England”: “They flash upon that inward eye,” from “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.” But instead of lying on his couch and remembering dancing daffodils or considering a knife that “reeked of meaning,” he’s looking at posters saved from the 1969 Harvard student strike, wondering what his contractor and plumber think about the mementos now hanging on his walls. For Koethe they are slippery metaphors for the passage of time.

                                    It’s forty years ago,
It’s yesterday, and when I try to think of what those posters represent
I realize they’re footnotes, surface irritants that left the underlying
Language undisturbed. Their meaning is the interval between the times
Of then and now, the times of looking forward and of drifting back.

When he sees them, his heart does not fill with pleasure like Wordsworth’s—nor does he grieve like Crusoe. Like Crusoe’s knife, the posters are far removed from their original purpose. Their meaning has changed and may never have been fully known; so much was happening when they were on campus and so much has happened since. It’s what’s between now and then that he wants to explore. But now is always moving forward and then is receding. What an individual life means is constantly in flux.

Like Bishop, there’s a clarity and humility to Koethe’s work when writing about the self. With tightly controlled lines, his poems are intimate but not confessional. The speaker has the Sisyphean task of following his thought to its logical conclusion, no matter how bleak. Here’s a passage from “The Specious Present”:

I have to fill each moment with my self, whatever that is,
Living in what someone called “the specious present”
And slowly approaching the end of what I think of as my life,
Though it’s really no one’s life, I try to see it as a sign
Of the soul at the center of a story taking place
Almost entirely in my own imagination,
But it’s all fake.

This sentence is pure Koethe: make an assertion and then qualify it with a clause. Line breaks and punctuation, usually a dash or parentheses, announce a tonal shift. Koethe is fully aware of this tendency. In another poem he jokes, in parentheses, that “but it isn’t true” should be his motto, or his fortune cookie. Koethe reaches for the heights and then reminds us they are illusory. No Wordsworthian view or Proustian madeleines for him. As he says, it’s a “pre-fab home” in suburbia with dinner from Piggly Wiggly.

With a deadpan humor, Koethe candidly mines that uncomfortable space, consciousness, and its meaning or lack thereof. One moment he’s asking a serious question about how language connects to being—and the next, as in “Analogies and Metaphors,” he’s rhyming a mean rhyme, questioning his own questions, eyebrow slightly raised:

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?

It’s Aristotelian and makes me wonder what he was like with his students in class—I imagine he could be maddening, kind, and a lot of fun. Koethe favors giving his tones a good shake, and he does it here at the dash, when he switches from a rough iambic hexameter to a ver-y bounc-y one, heightening an already hard rhyme with questions and italics. When Koethe rhymes, he broadcasts it for everyone to hear. His poem “Alfred Hitchcock,” which is both an essay on the iconic director and a meditation on death, is packed with end-rhyme. Koethe starts off easy with “in the lurch” / “out in search” before moving on to “North by Northwest” / “probably the best” and the olive in the martini: “yet still impeccable” / “presidential nostril.” Koethe has a terrific sense of play—(he’s not above the pun)—and like Bishop, makes complex ideas approachable for the uninitiated while satisfying those who like a little Wittgenstein with their coffee.

The final poem in ROTC Kills, “Watchful Waiting,” is a knockout. Another of his long, meandering poems that’s one extended thought, Koethe is thinking about the time he has left as he sits in his study and walks through New York. He visits the Morgan Library and stops at the Shake Shack; he talks about cancer and the deaths of his friends. He wants to grab onto those final, meaningless moments before his epitaph winds up on “a blog where poets seem to go to die.” He invites a woman friend to join him, telling her they can go back to Paris or Mexico, even Las Vegas. They can stay in a nicer hotel or adjust their expectations. Urgency swells in the poem’s final lists. You can’t help cheering with him when he exclaims at the book’s end—“C’mon, Diane!”  Koethe wants more time with the beloved. The closing gesture of ROTC Kills is not inward. It’s reaching out.

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