after all :: john koethe

“After all,” that too might be possible . . .
—John Ashbery

It isn’t too late, but for what I’m not sure.
Though I live for possibility, I loathe unbridled
Speculation, let alone those vague attempts
At self-exploration that become days wasted
Trying out the various modes of being:
The ecstatic mode, which celebrates the world, a high
That fades into an old idea; the contemplative,
Which says, So what? and leaves it there;
The skeptical, a way of being in the world
Without accepting it (whatever that might mean).
They’re all poses, adequate to different ends
And certain ages, none of them conclusive
Or sufficient to the day. I find myself surprised
By my indifference to what happens next:
You’d think that after almost seventy years of waiting
For the figure in the carpet to emerge I’d feel a sense of
Urgency about the future, rather than dismissing it
As another pretext for more idle speculation.
I’m happy, but I have a pessimistic cast of mind.
I like to generalize, but realize it’s pointless,
Since everything is there to see. I love remembering
For its own sake and the feel of passing time
It generates, which lends it meaning and endows it
With a private sense of purpose—as though every life
Were a long effort to salvage something of its past,
An effort bound to fail in the long run, though it comes
With a self-defeating guarantee: the evaporating
Air of recognition that lingers around a name
Or rises from a page from time to time; or the nothing
Waiting at the end of age; whichever comes last.

skinny poem :: john koethe

write some skinny poems—
James Schuyler

Life is rough, as
Rough as you make it.
Is it better to be the
Best at something, or is a
Gentleman’s C enough,
At least occasionally?
I used to think it was—
I used to think whatever
Felt like thought was sheer
Pleasure, but I’m old now:
It’s all edges, edges and
Scraps, like a collage.
I thought that continuity
Was everything, and now I
Think it’s a mirage, like a
Sound-effect or an echo,
A reflection of what flows
Inexorably beneath. “Man
Is the measure of all things”:
Protagoras. Plato refuted
Him, to no avail—you can’t
Argue with a blank stare:
“Here I stand.” I hate poems
Of affirmation, poems too
Unaware, too smooth
To be true. Life is rough.

a private singularity :: john koethe

I used to like being young, and I still do,
Because I think I still am. There are physical
Objections to that thought, and yet what
Fascinates me now is how obsessed I was at thirty-five
With feeling older than I was: it seemed so smart
And worldly, so fastidiously knowing to dwell so much
On time — on what it gives, what it destroys, on how it feels.
And now it’s here and doesn’t feel like anything at all:
A little warm perhaps, a little cool, but mostly waiting on my
Life to fill it up, and meanwhile living in the light and listening
To the music floating through my living room each night.
It’s something you can only recognize in retrospect, long after
Everything that used to fill those years has disappeared
And they’ve become regrets and images, leaving you alone
In a perpetual present, in a nondescript small room where it began.
You find it in yourself: the ways that led inexorably from
Home to here are simply stories now, leading nowhere anymore;
The wilderness they led through is the space behind a door
Through which a sentence flows, following a map in the heart.
Along the way the self that you were born with turns into
The self that you created, but they come together at the end,
United in the memory where time began: the tinkling of a bell
On a garden gate in Combray, or the clang of a driven nail
In a Los Angeles backyard, or a pure, angelic clang in Nova Scotia — 
Whatever age restores. It isn’t the generalizations that I loved
At thirty-five that move me now, but particular moments
When my life comes into focus, and the feeling of the years
Between them comes alive. Time stops, and then resumes its story,
Like a train to Balbec or a steamer to Brazil. We moved to San Diego,
Then I headed east, then settled in the middle of the country
Where I’ve waited now for almost forty years, going through the
Motions of the moments as they pass from now to nothing,
Reading by their light. I don’t know why I’m reading them again — 
Elizabeth Bishop, Proust. The stories you remember feel like mirrors,
And rereading them like leafing through your life at a certain age,
As though the years were pages. I keep living in the light
Under the door, waiting on those vague sensations floating in
And out of consciousness like odors, like the smell of sperm and lilacs.
In the afternoon I bicycle to a park that overlooks Lake Michigan,
Linger on a bench and read Contre Sainte-Beuve and Time Reborn,
A physics book that argues time is real. And that’s my life — 
It isn’t much, and yet it hangs together: its obsessions dovetail
With each other, as the private world of my experience takes its place
Within a natural order that absorbs it, but for a while lets it live.
It feels like such a miracle, this life: it promises everything,
And even keeps its promise when you’ve grown too old to care.
It seems unremarkable at first, and then as time goes by it
Starts to seem unreal, a figment of the years inside a universe
That flows around them and dissolves them in the end,
But meanwhile lets you linger in a universe of one — 
A village on a summer afternoon, a garden after dark,
A small backyard beneath a boring California sky.
I said I still felt young, and so I am, yet what that means
Eludes me. Maybe it’s the feeling of the presence
Of the past, or of its disappearance, or both of them at once — 
A long estrangement and a private singularity, intact
Within a tinkling bell, an iron nail, a pure, angelic clang — 
The echo of a clear, metallic sound from childhood,
Where time began: “Oh, beautiful sound, strike again!”