Nothing There: The Late Poetry of John Koethe

Robert Hahn

This review appears in the July/Aug 2017 issue of the Kenyon Review

The Swimmer. John Koethe. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016. 96 pp. $23.00.

John Koethe’s tenth book, The Swimmer, is the sum of its author’s contradictions. Koethe’s view of the human condition is as mordant and bleak as Samuel Beckett’s, but he can be urbane, wry, and witty, treating lightweight topics with a light touch—there are poems here about his cat, his clothes, his car, and a Frank O’Hara–like stroll through Manhattan (“A Coupla Yeggs”). For all his gloominess, he writes poems that are highly pleasurable and, by contemporary standards, surprisingly straightforward and accessible, at least on their surfaces. He also writes beautifully and composes passages which, like the saxophone solos he emulates, are hauntingly soulful. Yet this is a dark and depressed book, burdened by disappointment with life, troubled by Koethe’s dissatisfaction with what he has achieved (“Sometimes I don’t believe a word I say”)—the little, in his view, that any poet can achieve—and by phantoms of what he once believed. If only it all had been true, if the visions of sublimity had not turned out to be delusions: apparitions of meaning that were replaced—by what? This is the question the book raises repeatedly and exasperatedly. Is there something else? Or is there—as the book’s last words have it—nothing there?

“We Poets in our youth begin in gladness; / But thereof come in the end despondency and madness.” Although sane, Koethe otherwise fits the pattern that Wordsworth lamented. He is often despondent and at times as nihilistic as Macbeth in his bitterest soliloquy (“full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”), which Koethe references in his opening poem, “The Arrogance of Physics”:

And now look at where I am, what I’ve become: a marginal observer
Of a universe of my own devising, waiting on a denouement that never comes,
But that continues through an afternoon that’s wider than the sky, whose
Mild, unearthly blue conceals an emptiness resounding like a gong
Tolling for no one, while I sit here in the safety of my song. Like the hedgehog,
I still know what I know, although it matters not at all: I labor over it
And yet it’s written in a different idiom, full of sound and fury,
Signifying—what? It can’t be nothing, though it might as well be
If it can’t be rendered in the language of the stars. I want to
Speak to something far away, beyond the confines of the page,
But it won’t listen, and to everything I say it answers No.

The more we look into things, Koethe argues, the farther out and the deeper in—whether the looking is done by poetry, philosophy, or science (notably by astrophysics and quantum mechanics, whose latest discoveries haunt these poems like ghosts of comprehension)—the less we see that makes sense from a human perspective. The farther we go on the journey of discovery—Koethe’s entire body of work can be seen as a single expansive journey—the more the wandering leads back to where we began, although here the circularity lacks the affirmation of Eliot’s “Little Gidding” (“to arrive where we started and know the place for the time”). Koethe returns us to a place that seemed to be home but may never have been—may never have been what we believed it was, what we wanted it to be, what we imagined.

If science has failed to fulfill its promise—to produce understanding and generate meaning—so has poetry. In “The Uninvolved Narrator,” Koethe samples two “greatest quotes” from modern poetry (from Rilke and James Wright) and casts doubt on their premises:

                            . . . The sole reality is breath
Inflating the narrative of a life, wending its way
Across the decades page by repetitive page
Until it comes at last to nothing. There should be
More I guess, though I really don’t believe it.
I love my moments in the sun as much as anyone,
And then I’m on my way, rowing gently down
The stream of consciousness like someone in a dream
Of a common language, adequate to its purposes
Or lack of them, until it suddenly hits a snag,
Or a random sentence breaks the spell:
James Wright: “I have wasted my life.”
Rilke: “You must change your life.”
But why? It feels convincing, but in the end
It’s just more language, and it disappears.
Sometimes it touches on the truth, now and then
It sings, but for the most part it meanders on
Like a country road, leading not to some horror
But to the stupefying banality at the heart of things.

That passage is a showcase of Koethe’s stylistic strategies and the range of his voice. While his dominant register is a mandarin elegance (in which we hear Stevens), it shifts easily to casual conversation and descends naturally (with no sense of slumming) to regular-guy demotic and to slang. Koethe may be a scholar and an esthete (even a bit of a dandy: see his poem on men’s clothing), but he goes to the same multiplexes and sees the same movies (with the same explosions) that we do, dotes on the same pop singers, and loves the same old songs. He is equally at home in high and low culture.

The passage begins in Koethe’s most familiar manner—semiformal, a bit abstract, almost prosy—but that manner is a jumping-off point for quick tonal downshifts, beginning with a side-of-the-mouth aside—“there should be / More I guess, though I really don’t believe it”—and sliding down to a cliché from which he teases multiple senses (“moments in the sun” evokes both the recognition he has received for his poetry and the golden August afternoons that have the same resonance for Koethe they did for Stevens), and still farther down, to the echo of a nursery round (merrily merrily merrily, gently down the stream), before “stream” delivers us back to his expository voice, and to literature, as “stream of consciousness” carries us back to Woolf and Joyce and Proust (Proust is a crucial and predictable reference point for Koethe although Adrienne Rich, whose 1978 collection titled The Dream of a Common Language, is less predictable).

The lines from Wright and Rilke may seem divergent, but they converge in the belief that you can create meaning in your life, whether you have already wasted your opportunity or whether the chance is still within your grasp. In challenging this assumption, Koethe awakens the brooding specter—of meaninglessness—that hovers over The Swimmer:

                 It feels convincing, but in the end
It’s just more language and it disappears.

Disappears is a trademark Koethe maneuver, a quick pivot, a second thought stated so briefly you could almost gloss over it. In what senses does language disappear? One is that “posterity isn’t interested”—the language vanishes when it has no more readers. Another is that language disappears when the meaning readers attach to it seems untenable (as experience chastens us, as bad luck catches up with us). The promise of the language (you can change your life, you can make it significant) may be no more than a delusion induced by rhetoric. The apparition of meaning rises before us, gleams, and disappears.

The passage ends on Koethe’s familiar, detached, and deliberative note, and with a signature stylistic device: a long, leisurely sentence unfolding over several lines, leading here to another cliché—a meandering country road—although this is a cliché on a mission, since it takes us to Conrad’s heart of darkness, to horror, and Koethe’s variation on horror—“stupefying banality.” Banality is a portmanteau word, mixing Hannah Arendt’s concept of the banality of evil with Koethe’s contention that to be honest with ourselves, we need to acknowledge the humdrum tedium of ordinary life.

Koethe has often made a point of presenting himself as ordinary (unlike some of his colleagues—Frederick Seidel, say, or Jorie Graham—whose personas, on the page, seem calculated to be extraordinary), as if to say, take me as a case study, a microcosm of the human condition. Strip away the name-dropping and the dramatizing, and we are all like this.

Yet Koethe’s ordinary days can be points of departure for far-reaching and harrowing voyages, some interior and some quite literal. Consider the two long poems that anchor the center of the book, “Tulsa” and “Chappaquiddick.”

“Tulsa” employs the journal-like mode Koethe has often used to frame his long poems (such as the great “Falling Water”): “In 1999 I flew to Tulsa for a literary festival. There was the small city’s / Usual downtown whose best days were behind it.” An ordinary trip, an ordinary tourist’s observations, but they set the stage for a wrenching meditation on the American Civil War and the little-known story of the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921—a nightmarish catastrophe related in horrific detail.

“Chappaquiddick” also evolves from an account of routine outings: “This week I came to see my granddaughter in Nashville / . . . On Saturday we went to Carnton Plantation, the site / Of the Battle of Franklin, the bloodiest encounter of the Civil War.” And then: “. . . Last month / Diane and I were on Martha’s Vineyard, ground zero for the benign rich / I used to love, and in a way still do.” Martha’s Vineyard takes him back to Ted Kennedy and the death of Mary Jo Kopechne, back to the sixties and Thomas Pynchon: “. . . I remember reading V. in college, a novel / About a search for something to explain a century, or simply someone’s life.”

There may have been a time when Koethe read Pynchon in the hope that V., a manic epic with visionary aspirations, could be revelatory, but that time, along with the promise, the thrill, and the menace of the sixties and the seventies, is long past, leaving Koethe stranded in the present, conceding that “Explanations like that don’t exist: we harbor them because they’re easy, / And because reality is numb.”

The definition of reality is Koethe’s great subject, and for a hardened Proustian, to interrogate reality is to probe the nature of consciousness and time—the permeable self as it passes through “real time” (chronological, actuarial) and the imagination’s boundless time (which also turns out to be real, elastic wormholes and all, out in the endless universe).

The twentieth century was the century of physics:
The physical world came close to being tamed
By understanding, making it harder to understand
Or even imagine, on the scale of the cosmos
And on the order of the very small: time passes
As your twin ages, while you remain perpetually young—
Though a lot of good it does you. . . .

Physics also informs “A Private Singularity,” an odd little poem where objective science and subjective consciousness briefly come together:

I used to like being young, and I still do,
Because I think I still am. There are physical
Objections to that thought . . .

. . . and “The Physical Eternal,” which trains its Cortez-like gaze on the universe and concludes

                                    What seems incredible
Is that anything so magnificent should remain
So meaningless. . . .

Koethe is also tantalized by mathematics, and he makes it sound almost enchanting. “From out of nowhere number theory gets reflected / In the properties of automorphic forms, the distribution / Of the primes seems like the distribution of the stars / In their indifference us.” And yet:

The dream of mathematics is of an underlying order
We invented without knowing it, waiting there
Just out of reach, waiting to manifest itself
And for its truths to intrude upon a consciousness
Asleep in its dream, asleep in no one’s dream.

Such disappointments are recurrent in The Swimmer. One of its most deflating antiepiphanies awaits us in “La Durée” (which first appeared in these pages), a protracted inquiry into Henri Bergson. If you queried readers on their interest in an abstract, prolix poem about Bergson, Proust, and theories of time, running to more than one hundred long lines, filling seven dense pages, you might find few takers. And yet, believe it or not, there is rarely a dull moment in this sprawling production; it shows Koethe at his ruminative best, making cerebral music out of material more suitable for an essay (the genre-bending comes naturally to a disciple of Proust, who asked himself if À la recherche du temps perdu should be called a novel or an essay—Koethe, for his part, calls it a poem).

With its stops and starts, its changes of mood and direction and tempo, “La Durée” works like a late Beethoven quartet; intense, anguished, and gloomy, but shot through with outbursts of passion, with flashes of exasperation and humor. The poem begins with Proust’s reading of Bergson, offers chapter summaries of La Durée, name-checks Wittgenstein, Hume, Bizet, and Fitzgerald, tosses in a story about Koethe’s life—at a time when he was struggling with depression—and concludes by doubting if Proust ever really understood Bergson:

Each moment represents a whole—a whole of what? It’s
There I start to lose him, as he wonders off into peculiar notions
Of succession space and time—I want to throw his book against the
Wall as Wittgenstein did whenever he read Hume. The whole
Has got to be a life, an ordinary, individual life, a singular
Existence rounded with a sleep, contained in its entirety in every moment.

“La Durée” is a brilliant and engaging tour de force, but the true masterpiece in The Swimmer, its most through-composed and original creation (the one that most completely fuses the genres of poetry, essay, and story)—is its concluding and title poem, “The Swimmer.” A collage assembled from three narratives, it begins with a scene from Koethe’s early life, when he was young, married, just setting out on his ambitious poetic career, and spending summers on a lake, where he recalls

                            reading John Cheever
Then rowing out in a boat after dinner to fish.
The light would turn golden, then start to fade
As I headed home, past a new log dream house
I could see from our porch, and wished I could own.
I was married then and lived in my imagination,
Writing the poems I was sure would make my name. . . .

The personal story takes us to the midpoint of “The Swimmer” and then yields the floor briefly to a second narrative, in a transitional stanza summarizing W. W. Jacobs’s cautionary parable, “The Monkey’s Paw.” The remainder of the poem develops the third narrative, based on Cheever’s story “The Swimmer,” an allegory about a suburbanite who decides, one beautiful summer afternoon, to return to his home by way of the swimming pools attached to the elegant houses of his exurban neighborhood. Going from pool to pool, from house to house, having odd encounters and unexpected adventures along the way, he finally arrives back home, only to find that it has become autumn, that he has grown old, and that his house is empty.

Koethe appropriates Cheever’s story and reads it “another way,” although his way entails only a slight tilting of the axis, to align it more closely with Koethe in the real, present moment, sitting in his house in the country, where “there isn’t much to do / But stare at the trees through the patio doors open to the deck.”

Here is the last stanza of “The Swimmer”:

It’s not the dream house I remember, but at least it’s mine,
And at least I’m happy, though I’ve lately come to recognize
That happiness is not what it’s cracked up to be. As for poetry,
Poetry turned out fine, though nobody actually cares about it
In the old sense anymore. That’s the trouble with stories—
They need to come to a conclusion and to have a point,
Whereas the point of growing old is that it doesn’t have one:
Someone sets out on an afternoon, following his predetermined
Course as all around him summer darkens and the leaves turn sere,
And finally arrives at home, and finds there’s nothing there.

Whatever was there before—home? what we imagined home could be?—there is now nothing, an emptiness that echoes Stevens’s “The Snow Man” (“Nothing that is not there, and the nothing that is”) and Koethe’s hollow gong reverberating from the empty blue sky.

Some readers will ask if a trip with such a doleful ending was worth the effort. If you return with such depressing news, why bother going? The answer offered by The Swimmer is the answer vouchsafed by Beckett’s Endgame and Chekov’s Uncle Vanya: art that confronts the truth, in the hands of a committed master, is not depressing but reassuring and exhilarating.

And that is why artists keep trying—to speak to something beyond the confines of the page, to move the stars to pity. We do what we can, as Henry James wrote, we give what we have, and the rest is the madness of art (the shadowy irrationality of imagination, distinguishable from the lucid sanity of science). Koethe may no longer hope for transcendence or transfiguration, but he has not ceased to try, has not ceased from exploration, and I think his effort is heroic (which he might be pleased to hear, since one of his favorite poems from high school was Tennyson’s “Ulysses” with its ringing injunction, “To strive, to seek, to find”).

In The Swimmer’s harshest poem, “Idiot Wind” (the title of one of Bob Dylan’s most snarling songs), Koethe says:

We try and try, and try and try again to get it right
Along the road to hell, but it never works; something
Off to one side derails it, or it loses focus, or the better angels
Of our nature wake, and then go back to sleep.

But he is wrong. Sometimes it does work. Koethe does not offer escape or delusion or dream (not even dreams of the kind he has so long himself pursued—dreams of an ideal order, of a common language, of an overarching truth, of a single proliferating lifework that comprehends it all). But he can make us feel, in the presence of his art and for the duration of his tune, more complete, more human, more soulful. The way we feel in front of Vermeer’s painting of a woman reading a letter—reading by the creamy light that slides down the wall and falls on her cheek, in a glow that comes from technique but seems mysterious.

The mystery of art can reveal something about the mystery of life. It is hard to explain how this happens, but when it does, we know we are lucky to have the experience, lucky to be alive. Lucky that we have the chance to follow Koethe, one more time, on his meandering, meditative journey, although he has warned us it may lead to nothing. A long, strange trip, but well worth it.

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